For Valentine's Day

Singularly Mistaken

Sunday Night Journal — February 13, 2011

It's probably an indication of just how deeply materialism has been adopted by educated and partly-educated people that the ideas of Ray Kurzweil are generally accepted as fundamentally plausible, even if not as close to becoming reality as Kurzweil and others insist. In a nutshell, Kurzweil believes that computers will very soon--within a few decades--become more intelligent than humans, and that their intelligence will then increase very, very rapidly as they use that intelligence to make themselves more intelligent. He also believes that we will figure out how to transfer our consciousness--our very selves, our "I"--into computers, and thereby live forever. 

He believes all kinds of wild stuff, actually, a lot more than I can quickly summarize. You can read all about it, as reported very excitedly by Time, in a piece titled, quite misleadlingly, "2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal." He is certainly a very intelligent man, with all sorts of technical achievements to his credit. But I think his ideas are taken more seriously than they deserve because most of us are so awed by scientific and technical expertise.

Science and engineering have been spectacularly successful in transforming the conditions of life in much of the world. Yet they are not at all well understood by most people, and so those who do understand them, and who discover the principles and craft the machines that make technological civilization what it is, take on some of the mystique that pre-technological cultures ascribe to practitioners of magic. And people tend to take them seriously when they're talking about things in which they really have no more expertise than anyone else. Those who might think that there is something fundamentally wrong in the expert's thinking are intimidated by the sheer power of intellect confronting them. If Einstein was smart enough to come up with the theory of relativity and all its abstruse mathematical justification (one thinks) while I can't even understand it, who am I to challenge him when he talks about religion? or politics? This is how the idea that "science" has somehow disproved "religion" gets its power.

In the case of Kurzweil, I'm both more and less intimidated than other people might be, and for the same reason: I know something about computers. I don't know anywhere near as much as he does; I'm just a sort of everyday journeyman programmer, and my ability in that line is to Kurzweil's as a beginning piano student's is to Yevgeny Sudbin's.  On the other hand, I do know how computers work, and I know that there is no reason at all to suppose that computers will ever come to life, which is essentially what Kurzweil says is going to happen. 

Like those who assume that "evolution" produces consciousness, Kurzweil erects his whole structure on the materialist assumption that the human mind (soul, the conscious self) is a purely material phenomenon, a sort of side effect of the brain. This seems obvious to the materialist. But it only seems obvious because he is a materialist. And it only seems persuasive to others who are not necessarily committed to materialism because the scientific rationalism of our time has disposed them to think this way. On the face of it, the idea that there are non-physical things which are just as real as physical ones is every bit as plausible. We experience them constantly, in the form of our own thoughts and ideas. What is, for instance, justice? It is very difficult and unpersuasive to try to define that word without appealing to some principle that is independent of the material. And we experience ourselves as somehow in our bodies, but not entirely identifiable with them. (I don't mean that the experience proves the immateriality of the soul, only that the idea should not seem strange to us.)

Let me describe, for those who don't know how computers work, a simple one, one that you use dozens of times a day without thinking much about it. You know it by the name "electric light." You walk into a room. The switch by the door is in the off position, and the light is off. You turn the switch to the on position, and the light comes on. You could say that the switch tells the light to turn on, and that when the switch is in one position the light knows that it should shine, and when it's in the other position the light knows it should stop shining. If you spoke of it this way, you would know you were speaking figuratively, and that the light doesn't "know" anything. 

Well, that doesn't change if you postulate 10 billion or 10 trillion switches instead of one. A computer is only an extremely elaborate configuration of a very large number of on-off switches, with even more elaborate mechanisms for controlling them so as to represent and manipulate information. If you log in to a system and it displays a message along the lines of "Hello, Dave. It's nice to see you," the computer has not recognized you in the way that a person would; it is only retrieving a pattern of ones and zeroes which result in the words "Hello, Dave etc." appearing on your screen. This is true whether you provided it with a username and password, a thumbprint, or a DNA sample: it doesn't "know" you except in the way that a lock "knows" the key that unlocks it.

But if you leap over those facts and assume that when all these ones and zeroes and switches reach a certain level of complexity they will become conscious, you are free to invent anything and claim the authority of science for it. 

I'm almost certain that I remember a prediction from the late 1960s or '70s so that when computer memories reached a certain size and processors reached a certain speed, we would have true machine intelligence and consciousness. And I think the size and speed specified were achieved some years ago. I wish I could remember where I read it. At any rate, no one believes the PC on his desk is a sentient being (setting aside the occasional suspicion, apparently entertained by many people, that it is capable of hostility). The truly intelligent, to say nothing of conscious, computer, remains off in the future somewhere. 

As for the idea that a human soul can be converted into some electronic form that can be stored in a  computer: the Time article was noted at Inside Catholic, and I'll just reproduce a comment I made there, in response to someone asking if anyone could explain how this might work:

No, because nobody has any idea how it might be done beyond a far-fetched theoretical conception which is based on huge assumptions. The supposition that it's even theoretically possible rests on the leap-of-faith assumption that our selves consist only of data held in the brain, and moreover that the data is represented, or can be converted to, the same ones-and-zeroes system that computers use. Or if not, that we can invent some means of data storage that will do what the brain does. Really, it's hard to overstate just how far removed this stuff is from anything we actually know and can do. And, again, it's all 100% based on a materialist assumption, and if that's wrong the whole thing is not just far-fetched but nonsensical.

Kurzweil himself apparently hopes to keep himself alive long enough to save himself in this way, which is a pretty sad hope. Obviously what's at work here is a badly misdirected religious impulse, manifesting itself as a pseudo-scientific variation of the ancient Gnostic quest to escape from the body. He believes that we are heading toward something called the Singularity, when the arrival and immediate enormous expansion of conscious intelligent machines will fundamentally change the world, and then ourselves. You can read a long list of his predictions here.  Not all of them are over-the-top; some of the less dramatic and purely technological ones may well come true.

Here's a prediction of my own: in the year 2100, man will still be pretty much what he always has been: a somewhat faulty union of matter and spirit, still wishing he could be something better. And neither Ray Kurzweil nor I will be here.


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Yes, you're completely right about the whole switch thing. I've never understood how people could believe computers could come alive.

Some of the same people who would be quick to point out wishful thinking in other contexts.

setting aside the occasional suspicion, apparently entertained by many people, that it is capable of hostility

I tend to suspect mine of idiocy, rather than hostility.

I meant to say yesterday that the only reason Maclin is pretending that he doesn't think his computer is capable of hostility is because he doesn't want it to know that he knows that it is.


That diagnosis (idiocy) happens to be correct, Paul.

Janet, I truly don't think my computer is hostile, but it does appear to be. And the reason for that is not its fault. It's running the Kaspersky anti-virus software, which was written by RUSSIANS, and is clearly the vehicle of their hostile crypto-communist intentions.

This is spooky. No sooner had I posted the preceding comment than Kaspersky started one of its several-times-a-day "updates" which pretty much take over the machine. Now it's finished, but I wonder what it *really* did.

But what about Battlestar Galactica??

The creators of Battlestar Galactica, like so many others before them, failed to consult me before sketching out their story, and have thus left themselves open to my ridicule.

Yes -- this is a hobbyhorse of mine: that the big experience coming our way is exactly not some great transcendence of our humanness (we become immortal by uploading our consciousness into machines, we go to the stars and inherit the universe) but rather that we are going to bump up against one limitation after another. I'm doubtful, for example, about the dream of unlimited cheap energy. But I'm really doubtful about space travel:

And I think we may even find that more and more athletic records are not being beaten, especially if drug enhancements are truly prohibited:

In short, we may have to adjust to a more "medieval" universe of pretty well fixed limitations.

I've been a space-flight skeptic for a long time, because of the fundamental physical facts: the distances & the energy required to traverse them, the time involved--and if people can't reproduce in space, that pretty well closes the book, barring some breakthrough like the ever-popular warp or hyper drive, which as far as I know doesn't even have any serious theoretical support.

50 bajillion sci-fi shows can't be wrong. Don't forget that Star Trek invented the cell phone. Plus, my "Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual" makes a pretty convincing theoretical case for warp drives. I don't understand all the details, but it was written by an engineer or a scientist or something so they must know what they're talking about.

Star Trek?

But Will, there is no dilithium on earth, and how are we going to get to Coridan, Elis, Rura Penthe, in order to get the dilithium required to get to those places in the first place? Personally I believe the Infinite Improbability Drive has more potential.

I suppose it could be said that Chester Gould (Dick Tracy author) invented the iPhone, as it is not only a communicator but has an app, i.e. a watch. Though really both the 2-Way Wrist Radio and the Star Trek communicator are species of walkie-talkie rather than telephones. The walkie-talkie has recently reappeared in the form of push-to-talk capabilities on phones.

I knew you were going to say that.

I agree with most of what you say here. I even think that the most die-hard materialist atheists or what-have-you should reject most of Kurweil's ideas as pure and wild speculation. I read an article on him in Wired a while back, and thought he sounded like a bonafide lunatic, albeit one with a lot of raw brain power.

A great book on the AI stuff, btw, is Roger Penrose's The Emperor's New Mind. There is certainly nothing like consensus among scientists about these issues.

On the other hand, haven't you ever known someone who seemed just SO MUCH like a robot that it made you wonder? Perhaps they're already walking among us...

Jesse Canterbury, I have suspected for years that John Edwards is actually an alien impostor. I would pick him out of any line-up of suspects to be the alien impostor.

But seriously, I think one after the other of the standard sf tropes should be questioned. Here's a story idea, anyone who wants it can use it: a story about Earth decades after the first indubitable radio transmissions from another planet were received, -- and there is no way that these can be translated. There's no Rosetta Stone and there is no way that the interstellar distance can be crossed in any span of time that makes sense. Now what would it be like to have the knowledge, year after year, decade after decade, that there were intelligent creatures on another planet who sent those signals into space centuries ago, but there is no way we will figure out what the signals mean?

I assume it would work that way from the point of view of our own radio broadcasts reaching another planet. It would be clear that they were produced by intelligent creatures. The sounds of music and of voices would make that indubitable. But how could they possibly tell what the language meant? I think sf grossly underestimates the difficulty (or impossibility) of such translation.

So how would that affect us, if we knew this? What, too, will it mean if, supposing civilization still exists on this planet in, say, 200 years, we are no closer to going even to Mars, let alone to some extrasolar planet, than we are now? But I think that could be the case.

When I saw that you (Jesse) had left a comment I thought maybe you were going to tell us that the warp drive is too theoretically possible. :-)

After I posted this, I browsed around some more, mostly on Wikipedia articles connected to the main on Kurzweil, and found a number of highly critical remarks by other computing experts. The only name I recall at the moment is Bill Joy, founder of Sun and one of the people most responsible for the spread of Unix. But they could say he's not an AI expert so what does he know.

I have considered parts of that scenario, Dale. I think pretty much ALL the difficulties have been underestimated. One thing that a few sf writers have tinkered with is the possibility of life that is so physically unlike us that we don't even have very similar sense media, e.g. sound. But obviously that presents problems for storytelling. I noticed in the ancillary stuff on the District 9 dvd that someone mentioned that movie audiences have a lot of trouble accepting friendly aliens that aren't basically man-shaped, although they can be bigger and imposing like Wookies or small and cute like Ewoks.

This is interesting.

Thanks for digging up that link, Mac. I remembered that the idea had been floated in physics journals, but I couldn't remember who had done it. It's a neat idea, but read the "difficulties" section of the page: those are some pretty big difficulties.

Personally I think people like Kurweil are not even interesting. He reminds me of those people I move away from on the subway.

Well, they certainly looked like pretty serious difficulties to me, but what do I know? I liked the "railroad" scenario, and the impossibility of building it without having already built it.

The stars are a long way away.

Yes, I think we are effectively quarantined. Perhaps for good reason.

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