SYSTEM ALERT: Don’t listen to Ray Kurzweil!
He is dead wrong … just not how you think he is. If anything, his seemingly crackpot notion of Singularity — namely, that man and machine will be indistinguishable no later than 2045 — is so prescient and precise, to borrow a term from Battlestar Galactica, it’s frakin’ scary.
Look around you; we’re awful close as it is. From insulin pumps to robotic limbs to the chips embedded in Parkinson’s patients, an albeit fledgling Singularity is already here. And with IBM’s Watson having bested both Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter at Jeopardy!, this inert, bipartisan Mr. Smith came to Washington earlier this month and quickly disposed of Reps. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Nan Hayworth (R-NY), Jared Polis (D-CO), former Rhodes Scholar Jim Himes (D-CT) and trained nuclear physicist Rush Holt (D-NJ). For heaven’s sake, we’ve got robots in Japan, right now, that can dance better than Bristol Palin and Thom Yorke put together.
Alas, however, heed him not. Ray Kurzweil is still wrong — at least ethically. But if you find yourself absolutely compelled to listen to him talk (trust me, I know, he can be quite engrossing), please, whatever you do, do not buy a “single” thing from him. For it’s as a businessman, as a huckster that Kurzweil is most dangerous — more so, even, than the most convincing of cyborgs. And when it comes to how much people will pay for his wares — honest, hard-working and intelligent people — Raymond Kurzweil is far scarier than anything lurking under your bed, or in your inbox, come 2045.
This might make me a hypocrite, but I still have my Kurzweil 2500 synthesizer. As a piano student more interested in Wendy Carlos than J.S. Bach, it was a gift for my 13th birthday in March of 1997. And as the middle son of two right-to-work state teachers, it was a lavish gift at that — the kind you only get once or twice as a kid. Boy, did I love that keyboard. While my peers in the small Southern town where I grew up were busy chasing loud girls and racing even louder trucks, I only had eyes, and ears, for this clunky, cumbersome synth. And at the risk of sounding too techie, suffice it to say that its 76 keys, 192 oscillators and 128 MB of RAM were more than enough club back then for a callow country boy. In fact, I studied the manual so religiously that had I not been Baptist, but Jewish like Kurzweil — my de facto העלד — I could have read it aloud amongst all the elders with nary a stutter or flub.
But like Apple products now, just a few months later, the K2500 was already obsolete. Stumbling upon the brand new K2600 at the mall (on a routine trip with Ma for dungarees, no less), I soon realized that I’d been had. Bookish, demure and, worse yet, teetering on the brink of pubescence, looking back, I guess I took it a bit too personal. Pushing thirty now, I’d like to think I’m a bit smarter. Regardless, the present me refuses to acknowledge that, according to Kurzweilian economics, this is the way the world ends.
Yet, therein lies the crux of his whole enterprise. Kurzweil uses the term “exponential growth” to explain that computers are getting smarter and faster at an ever-faster rate — machines, like kids, growing like weeds themselves. Of course, we’ve known this all along. Kids today learn about Moore’s Law well before they’re taught the atomic number of silicon. But even the slowest toddler knows it’s wrong to steal. And just because you ape a computational constant, li’l Raymond, that doesn’t mean you get to expense it.
At his best, Ray Kurzweil remains a brilliant pitch man who, like another personally flawed futurist — the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke — has gotten lucky barking at some of the more “singular” moments in man on machine violence since John Henry’s bout with the steam hammer. At his worst, however, he’s a self-righteous colporteur, peddling his sci-fi snake oil to Terminator fanboys too evolved for Dan Brown’s sanguine pulp.
After all, as everyone from Tiresias to Nostradamus to Dionne Warwick has proven time and again, try as we might, man simply cannot predict the future. In the end, the only purported soothsayer I ever half-way trusted anyways was that seer of Appalachia himself, Edgar Cayce. And you know why? Because unlike Raymond Kurzweil, Edgar Cayce never made a dime off any of his oracles.
And as for that ol’ K2500 synth, it’s patented fool-you-once technology couldn’t dupe a fly now. Even better than the real thing, my ass.