Ray Kurzweil hacks body, mind, eternity

Wired has as article on the immortality-seeking inventor and transhumanist Ray ‘King Canute’ Kurzweil who is attempting to defeat death by bioengineering his body until he can upload his mind on a computer.

Transhumanism is a movement that attempts to extend the limits of human existence through technology, and one of the obvious, if not slightly fanciful, hurdles is to transcend death.

One of the key concepts in transhumanism is the singularity, supposedly the point where computers will ‘overtake’ the human brain in terms of their processing ability and, hence, intelligence as we know it will become completely transformed.

Accompanying the article about Kurzweil’s wide-eyed optimism is another article on the current science of his objectives which nicely illustrates where the conceptual gaps actually lie.

Many computer scientists take it on faith that one day machines will become conscious. Led by futurist Ray Kurzweil, proponents of the so-called strong-AI school believe that a sufficient number of digitally simulated neurons, running at a high enough speed, can awaken into awareness. Once computing speed reaches 1016 operations per second — roughly by 2020 — the trick will be simply to come up with an algorithm for the mind.

Which is a bit like saying “once we have the technology to travel to another galaxy, all we have to do is get there”.

Link to Wired article on Kurzweil.
Link to Wired article on the science of transhumanism.

11 Comments

  1. Posted March 27, 2008 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Or perhaps it is a bit like a greek astronomer saying “We know other galaxies exist, so all we have to do is find a horse that can run fast enough and we’ll be able to get there”

  2. RoaldFalcon
    Posted March 27, 2008 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Transferring a mind into a machine is certainly a doubtful proposition, but I don’t understand your objection to strong AI.
    Do you believe there is a fundamental component of consciousness that cannot be created artificially?
    Do believe this obstacle is as insurmountable as the constraints on faster-than-light travel?

  3. Posted March 27, 2008 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    RoaldFalcon (if you’re addressing me) — i believe we are as ignorant of the mechanistic substrate of consciousness as the ancients were of the mechanistic substrate that would be required to reach other galaxies. I’m not saying it can’t be done, i’m just saying that assuming consciousness will somehow just drop out of a fast enough computer is somewhat, er, hopeful

  4. bbb3108
    Posted March 27, 2008 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    @tom: I don’t think any of the people involved in the transhumanist movement believe or assume that consciousness will somehow just drop out of a fast enough computer. That doesn’t mean it is possible, but I believe their point is that you cannot meaningfully replicate the processing power of the brain without that faster processor.

  5. bbb3108
    Posted March 27, 2008 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    @tom: I don’t think anyone involved in the transhumanist movement believes or assumes that consciousness will drop out of a fast enough computer. They just believe that you need that faster processing power to meaningfully replicate the processing power of the human brain.

  6. Posted March 28, 2008 at 4:02 am | Permalink

    Any computer that strives to match the complexity of the human brain lacks ambition. Why settle for simple humanity when you can go for deification?

  7. bkurilko
    Posted March 28, 2008 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    I imagine a functional consciousness confined to a computer might interpret its own existence in surprising ways, and possibly could experience an unpleasant life. What if, upon first starting up, it calculated its unique existence and asked to be shut off? Or dumbed down? What if it did the opposite, and reached a level of reality or understanding that humans themselves haven’t reached?
    Framing something like awareness into virtually simulated neurons just raises so many questions as to how this intelligence would perceive the world, and their relation to it. Even with the obvious expansion of physical capabilities that would follow, a truly self-aware artificial intelligence would have to understand its virtual existence. I can’t guess what implications that could have.

  8. Vaughan
    Posted March 28, 2008 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Two questions always strike me in these debates.
    i) Artificial consciousness. How would we know it’s been achieved if we have no criteria for consciousness?
    ii) It’s not clear whether computers could ever simulate human intelligence because it is developed and situated in the individual. Computers, presumably, have ‘computer intelligence’ which will have different characteristics, because of the platform and how it is shaped by and interacts with the world. The attempt to use human intelligence as a benchmark for advanced AI seems folly to me.
    It’s like arbitrarily selecting opera as a benchmark for what computers need to achieve to be thought of being ‘artists’.
    I am always reminded of Edsger Dijkstra’s quote “The question of whether machines can think is about as relevant as the question of whether submarines can swim”.

  9. RoaldFalcon
    Posted March 28, 2008 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    @Vaughan
    It seems to me that humans could build a machine (I wouldn’t use the word “computer”) that achieves true consciousness, even if we cannot _know_ that it has achieved consciousness. It would still be interesting and useful.
    I agree that human intelligence isn’t a realistic goal. The examples of consciousness that we have available now are kludges developed by circuitous evolutionary processes. The are constrained by manufacturing process limitations, available materials, and developmental history. Evolution could make brains, but it could never invent the wheel. We can do better than that.

  10. Posted March 28, 2008 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    I¬¥ve recently read an article about Transhumanism by M.J McNamee and S.D. Edwards entitled “Transhumanism, medical technology and slippery slopes” and in this article the authors argue that though there no clear definitions about what is exacly transhumanism because there are different stripes of transhumanism (some are strong versions wishing to radically change human nature to create posthumans, and other more mdoerate ones, seeking to erradicate harm, disease and other suffering conditions affecting humanity)neverthless, they say, transhumanism falls prey of sleepery slope arguments.
    How can we know technology one day would achieve the necessary and sufficent progress to achieve the ideals of transhuamnism? Either for transhumanism advocates or critics this is a matter of ignorance and/or speculation.
    Other arguments against transhumanism point to the gap it creates between rich and poor people, despite Bostrom´s democratic and optimistic view of transhumanism.
    On the contrary, i think we have to be vigilance on technology and science and is necessary the work of luminaries such as N. Bostrom and collaborators which ruminates about ethical, social and policy consequences of mayor developments in science and how that can influence humanity´s fate.

  11. nonajramos
    Posted June 11, 2008 at 5:09 am | Permalink

    I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lectures on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book.
    Recently read another incredible book that I can’t recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil’s work. The book is “”My Stroke of Insight”” by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor’s talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It’s spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I’m not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I’ve read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they’re making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)
    If you haven’t heard Dr Taylor’s TEDTalk, that’s an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it’s 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational).
    There’s a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best “”Fantastic Voyage”” , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!


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