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Review: The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil

After watching "Kara is Self Aware", I put my foot down and purchased "The Singularity is Near" by Ray Kurzweil. While the author would contend the book is anything but science fiction, I felt that, as a subject, the Singularity was woefully under-represented in my sci-fi reading. The Singularity describes an exponential growth in technological capability, but my own interest in Kurzweil's opinions varied with an exponential decay.

Visions of the Future

Kurzweil has much to say on possible futures of the human race, and his predictions range from highly speculative to relatively concrete. The more short-term estimates are clearly informed by current and ongoing research; a strong point of the book is its consistent reference to specific publications. The promises of the future are certainly exciting (who wouldn't want to fabricate any item for little-to-no cost?), even if some seem far-fetched. Other ideas are somewhat challenging, including Kurzweil's thoughts on how the concept of personal identity will be challenged when all conscious thought is interwoven.

Unfortunately, the allure of such notions seems to have distracted the author.

After a few hundred pages, the ever-present reliance on the promise of "progress" gets tiring. The same rhetoric that once felt exciting and full of promise begins to take on other qualities:

  1. Masturbatory. Kurzweil clearly has a fascination with the possible acheivements of future tech. While this fascination may be contagious in small doses, it feels incredibly self-serving when related at such length.
  2. Complacent. The importance of today's problems (poverty, oppression, etc.) does not go without notice. The author's eagerness to brush aside these ailments in favor of the supposed problems of the future is either disquieting or sickening, depending on how much compassion you have.
  3. Entitled. Technological advancement such as that described by Moore's Law is an acheivement of millions of hardworking people. When taking a bird's-eye view of progress, it is easy to dismiss take such acheivements for granted. This discredits and de-humanizes the work of real people.

Narration

Between sections, Kurzweil often adopts a narrative style. He draws from a small cast of characters which includes an anonymous young lady (both as she exists today and as she will exist hundres of years from now), Charles Darwin, Bill Gates, and the author himself. This certainly provides good variety to lengthy nuts-and-bolts discussion of tech. Maybe it is purely due to the subject matter, but these sections tend to feel more like science fiction writing, which I expect most people reading the book will be right at home with.

I feel the technique is somewhat self-serving, however. It is all too easy to debate with oneself, and Kurzweil comes off as smug whenever he turns aside the objections of his strawmen.

Moving On

While I've focused on my negative reactions in this review, I do feel that "The Singularity is Near" is worth your time. Like any good science fiction author, Kurzweil is challenging his readers to consider the implications of technology. In the best case, this makes us all better-prepared to respond to difficult questions, and in the worst, it amuses us for a bit.

My suggestion for anyone looking for another perspective on the promise of advancing technology: "You are not a Gadget" by Jaron Lanier.

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