Reviewed by: Josh Lax and Michael Kravshik.
In “The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence” (ASM), Kurzweil presents a history of computing technology followed by a forecast for the future. He explores the factual development and societal implications of this tectonic shift in human experience. The book sets out to prove that technology is evolving far faster than most realize, and attempts to illustrate his vision of what the future might be like. We’re not talking about hundreds or thousands of years, we’re talking decades.
He uses a plethora of historical statistics that illustrate not only an exponential rate of development in technology, but that the exponential rate itself is accelerating. For those of you who are not neuroscientists (like us), the first two-thirds of this book is some of the most difficult, yet rewarding reading we have experienced. To understand, at a fundamental level, the workings of the most sophisticated machine ever created (the human brain) has changed our lives and our perceptions of self. It is impressive that Kurzweil manages to describe infinitely complex concepts in a way that allows uneducated reader the ability to fully comprehend not only the concepts, but their implications.
Kurzweil compares the “software” and “hardware” capabilities of both the human brain and the best of our current technology (circa 1999), and what technology still needs to ‘catch up.’ The secret lies in the brain itself, whose pattern recognition “software” is leaps and bounds ahead of technology… for the mean time. The current technologies that Kurzweil relies on to further human development are: Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics. He views these three fields of technology as the back bones that will fuel our next great technological leap. Finally, he explains how humanity will reach the “Age of Spiritual Machines,” where the division between biological and technological intelligence has been blurred. His thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of the potential human and societal reactions to these massive changes makes the book more than just facts and predictions.
ASM was written as a follow-up and extension of the concepts of Kurzweil’s book “The Age of Intelligent Machines” written in 1990. In 2005, Ray took his vision even further in “The Singularity is Near” and wrote another masterpiece focused on what a potential endpoint to technological development might look like. A time he dubs “the Singularity”.
The author’s credentials speak louder than us. In 1963, at age 15, Kurzweil wrote his first computer program and two years later he appeared on CBS, where he performed a piano piece that was composed by a computer he built. His childhood and early life were filled with awards and even a personal congratulations from President Lyndon B. Johnson. During the 1970s. he lead the development of the first optical character recognition system and the first text-to-speech synthesiser. The most advanced Kurzweil machines are still being used by the deaf and blind worldwide to improves their quality of life. In the 1980s, becoming friends with Stevie Wonder, he created the first machine capable of imitating instruments (even a grand piano) that were indistinguishable to experienced musicians. After writing many books and developing many more technologies, he decided to parter with both Google and NASA in 2010 to found Singularity University. Kurzweil has been referred to by Forbes as “the ultimate thinking machine” and by Bill Gates as “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence”.
In 2000, Our Lady Peace wrote an entire album inspired by the concepts in ASM called Spiritual Machines. They even had Ray himself narrate some of the lines from the book on the album. It’s a fantastic album by the way.
The Age of Spiritual Machines changes one’s perception of what is possible and the speed at which its arriving. Your entire vision of the future will be permanently altered.
The “Kurzweil Curve” shows the exponential rate of the growth in computing technology in the past and projecting into the future.
“The year is 2029. There is a growing discussion about the legal rights of computers and what constitutes being human… The machines will convince us that they are conscious, that they have their own agenda worthy of our respect. They’ll embody human qualities and claim to be human, and we’ll believe them”