Friday, November 11, 2022

The Age of Spiritual Machines

Ray Kurzweil loves intelligent machines. He has a vision beyond just intelligence, though, one of partnership that will take us to a new era of human gentleness, an era hallmarked by a positive and supportive integration with machines that are not only intelligent, but spiritual. 

In Kurzweil's vision, "life in the new millennium no longer seems daunting. Instead, Kurzweil’s twenty-
first century promises to be age in which the marriage of human sensitivity and artificial intelligence fundamentally alters and improves the way we live." 

In The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil predicts that machine memory and computational ability will surpass that of human in 2020, ushering in an era hallmarked by "relationships with automated personalities," wherein humans will interact with machines as their "teachers, companions, and lovers." By 2030, he tells us, "information will be fed straight into our brains along direct neural pathways; computers, for their part, will have read all the world's literature. The distinction between [humans] and computers will have become sufficiently blurred that when the machines claim to be conscious, we will believe them."
Bill Joy, of Sun Microsystems, met Kurzweil at a conference in 1999 and Ray shared a pre-publication partial reprint of Age. Bill was so affected by the conversations with Ray and others at the conference that he described it as a subject "haunts me to this day." He ended up writing a longform article (the .pdf is 18 pages), published in Wired, about a much less idyllic future than the one Kurzweil envisions, a future that is essentially already upon us, one that––due  to the self-replicating nature of early 21st century technological innovations of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR)––have the capacity to end human life on the planet. 
Joy's conclusion is curious: “The only realistic alternative I see is relinquishment: to limit development of the technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge.” It would be a head-scratcher on its own, given that Joy spends much of the article discussing his path from literate three-year-old to modern day guru of machine design, a path that is hallmarked at every turn by curiousity and the desire to answer questions and to seek solutions to problems. It is wholly unsurprising that Joy found Star Trek (the original series) to be inspiring: he came from a modest background was insatiably curious, and had a problem-solving mind; Joy spent a lot of time at the library and watching network television: this is exactly the audience for whom Rodenberry wrote his humanitarian tales. 
What makes Joy's conclusion even more baffling is that it is essentially Theodore Kaczynski's underlying argument in "Industrial Society and Its Future," the so-called manifesto printed by The Washington Post in 1995. Kaczynski believed that this particular knowledge and research was dangerous to the future of the human race, and he wrote many letters to those few academics and researchers who were propelling the science into new frontiers, pleading with them to stop.
Joy knew of Kaczynski, invokes him early on in his essay, and claims "I am no apologist for Kaczynski." One assumes that Joy is attempting to separate the man's violence from his ideas, here, and bully on Joy for that. But one wonders exactly what level of social and academic control is envisioned by someone who spent his whole life researching, exploring, and creating, all with only the goal of solving problems.
Yes, research is dangerous, and no, we don't know what we're doing ("that's why they call it research," as Einstein pointed out).  I don't agree with Kurzweil et al as to the utopian vision of intelligent machines, let alone this blissed-out harmonious interwoven reality granted to humans by blending with spiritual machines. I'm a Quaker; I like my machines few and far between, my reliance on them as light as possible, and (unlike the rest of my life)for them to be simple, long-lasting, and easily repaired. 
I also agree it would be the saddest state of human affairs to begin "limiting our pursuit of certain kinds of knowledge." If we cannot dream of the stars, what is the point?
Even robots dream of electric sheep.