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The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence

Author: Ray Kurzweil
Publisher: New York: Viking, 1999
Review Published: September 1999

 REVIEW 1: Collin Gifford Brooke
 REVIEW 2: Marco Diani

The most compelling, pop cultural vision of intelligent machines, circa summer 1999, comes to us from the movie The Matrix, a dystopia where humans exist only as "coppertops," living batteries for the machines who have taken over the world. The Matrix celebrates the uniquely human ability to think, quite literally, "outside the box," and the story itself is peppered with names and concepts taken from a range of mythical and spiritual traditions. While the special effects are state-of-the-art, The Matrix tells the familiar story of humanity battling against coldly rational technology. As we give over more and more of our lives to technology, stories like this express a deep-seated anxiety, the conviction that we won't know that we've gone too far until it's too late to turn back. Is it any wonder, then, that I turned to Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines expecting some sort of rebuttal, an utopian alternative?

In some sense, those expectations were fulfilled. Kurzweil is no stranger to the computer industry [1], and there is little question that he has few reservations about the accelerating rate of development. He argues that computer intelligence will surpass our own by the year 2020, but at the same time, he refuses to pass judgment on this likelihood. According to what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns, the eventual ability of computers to surpass us is less a prediction than it is the logical and inevitable extension of a trend begun at the beginning of the century. More significant for Kurzweil's purposes in this book are the opportunities that these intelligent machines will present to us. The spirituality that Kurzweil refers to in his title is not contrasted with secularity or even rationality; instead the spiritual is contrasted with the material: "It's the material, not the spiritual gains, that are seducing society down this path" (185). And while the material development of technology is inevitable, it is the spiritual that provides us with "the opportunity to expand our minds, to extend our learning, and to advance our ability to create and understand knowledge . . . [the] opportunity to shape technology, and to channel its direction" (186).

However, ASM is not a book about good, knowledge-loving machines and their evil, dehumanizing cousins. In this sense, the question of whether our intelligent machines of the near future will more resemble HAL or R2D2 is an irrelevant one to Kurzweil. Although he rarely deals with this issue in an explicit fashion, it quickly becomes clear that, for Kurzweil, computers are not Other. At the same time that our computers will improve in their ability to simulate, approximate, and eventually surpass the human brain, many of the same technologies will replace the organic substrate that accompanies our brains. Although the author notes "we don't always need real bodies" (143), Kurzweil seems to agree with Hubert Dreyfus (1979) that bodies play an important role in the achievement of intelligence, suggesting that we will replace rather than abandon them. Indeed, "there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided" (147).

As a result, the intelligent machines that Kurzweil predicts will not emerge to serve us like Asimov's robots or enslave us as they do in The Matrix. Instead, they will be us; we are the spiritual machines of Kurzweil's title. By the end of the next century, we will have taken "the next inevitable step, a merger of the technology-inventing species with the computational technology it initiated the creation of" (255). He claims that we have already passed the point of no return, and that nothing short of "destruction of the entire evolutionary process" would be sufficient to arrest it. It is no longer a question of whether we can become our machines or even if we should. Instead, Kurzweil's book asks and tentatively answers the question of when we will.

One of the distinctive features of this book is this emphasis on the future. We are fond of criticizing science for acting upon whether or not we can do something (such as cloning) before thinking about whether or not we should do it. However, high tech industry has superceded such a question, by acting upon what they will be able to do. One popular example of this kind of "predictive research" is the Human Genome Project. Based upon the technology of 1991, when a 14-year deadline was set, the work would have taken literally thousands of years. However, that deadline incorporated "the (correct) assumption that the speed of our methods for sequencing DNA codes would greatly accelerate over time" (54), and it now looks like their deadline was realistic. Paradoxically, it may have been the Project itself, and the attention it's received, that fueled the improvement of the technology, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such a paradox is less important than its implications for those of us who study and critique science and technology, though. Participating in these kinds of discussions will soon require us to know more than the current status of research. It will be at least as important to understand the direction in which that research is headed. One of the lessons of ASM is that it is not too early to start thinking in terms of the future anterior, the what-will-have-been.

Such a lesson also suggests a different relationship between free will and determinism, one that is implied by Kurzweil's title. While Kurzweil explicitly discusses spirituality in places, the tension between these traditional opposites plays itself out in the structure of the entire book. Its organization is basically chronological, and each chapter of description/prediction is accompanied by a closing dialogue between Kurzweil and Molly, a fictional interlocutor who ages according to thepace of the book. Within the discursive portion of the chapters, Kurzweil sets out his case for the Law of Accelerating Returns, examines our present stages of technological development, and predicts where we will find ourselves in 10, 20, 30 and 100 years. As the book progresses, the dialogue part of the chapter takes a progressively larger role, comprising 18 of 19 pages in the next-to-last chapter. While part of the reason for this may lie in the difficulty of saying much that is specific about the year 2099, I think that this is also an expression of Kurzweil's optimism. Even as the material development of technology progresses apart from any individual's ability to control it, his book argues that there will always be a place (and perhaps an increasingly important one) for expression, dialogue, interaction, and thought. Free will in this book is not the disproof of determinism, but the exploration of spiritual possibilities in the face of technological inevitability.

For an investigation of today's problems and issues related to technology (the computer as educational panacea, the technological expansion of the rich/poor gap both within our own country and between ourselves and other nations, the threat to privacy, et al.), this is probably not the book to turn to. While Kurzweil surveys the cutting edge of today's technology (quantum and molecular computing, nanotechnology, etc.), he is more interested in adequately grounding his predictions than in attempting to characterize the present. Kurzweil's track record at predicting such development is a strong one (see pp. 170-178), and this book is primarily an attempt to tell us where we will be in the near future. If, as Gregory Benford (1998) writes, the experience of science lies at the heart of good science fiction, I would argue that the opposite is at least equally true, that good science fiction is important to our accounts of science. In this sense, then, I would describe ASM as good science fiction, but not in an attempt to dismiss or belittle it. Rather, I would place Ray Kurzweil among those visionaries who understand that, in our attempts to shape and create the future, it is often equally important to be able to imagine it.

1. Kurzweil's Age of Intelligent Machines, won the Association of American Publishers' Award for the Most Outstanding Computer Science Book of 1990. He was awarded the Dickson Prize, Carnegie Mellon's top science prize, in 1994. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology named him the Inventor of the Year in 1988.

Benford, Gregory. Foundation's Fear (Second Foundation Trilogy, No. 1). New York: Harper, 1998.

Dreyfus, Herbert. What Computers Can't Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Collin Gifford Brooke:
Collin Gifford Brooke is an Assistant Professor of English at Old Dominion University, where he teaches courses in rhetoric, writing, and technology. He is working on his first book, Lingua Fracta: Rhetoric and Identity in the Late Age of Print, pieces of which have recently appeared in JAC and PreText Electra (Lite). 

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