REVIEW: Kurzweil talk

Mike Linksvayer (
Fri, 22 Jan 1999 08:45:58 -0800

On Wednesday I saw Ray Kurzweil give a short talk promoting "The Age of Spiritual Machines" at Stacey's in downtown San Francisco. He spoke of the usual stuff (superintelligences, uploading, nanotech) and made a few interesting claims/points.

The audience was either already well informed or just took all of this in stride. The questions were very predictable, but not stupid, e.g.

(questions and answers completely from memory and very possibly inaccurate)

Q: What about physical barriers to making silicon wafer based technology

A: 3D chips, nanotech

Q: What about biotech?
A: We're entering a golden age of bioengineering, but long term computers

will have a far more profound effect.

Q: I work with technology every day and love it, but I love humans too. I

don't understand why anyone would want to upload. A: One wouldn't give up any humanity by uploading. One could experience

anything a human does now and much more, at higher fidelity.

Q: Aren't you forgetting that AI is considered a failure and there are

many fundamental philosophical issues to be resolved? A: Hardcoded rule based systems haven't lived up to early claims, though

they have proved incredibly useful in expert systems. Nueral net systems that can be trained and learn themselves are the way to go. We know machines can be intelligent -- the human brain is a machine.

Q: I understand that computers will be smart and can ape human artists,

but will they ever be creative? Will they ever create radical new movements and art, like Picasso and de Kooning? A: Much of human creativity involves drawing connections between

previously unconnected elements/ideas. Computers will be able to do this quite well. There are already some examples.

I forgot the examples. I think a much stronger argument can be made in response to the question of creativity. First, attributing the creativity of a few masters to humanity and vice versa gives both far too much credit. Second, if creativity involves making unforseen connections (I haven't read much about creativity) then computers will surely seem incredibly creative. Once computers have some basic creative abilities, they will be able to generate new and far more wildly unforseen connections than any human ever could. It's likely that mere human artists will be aping computer artists rather than the other way around, assuming there is an extended period of coexistence.

Overall I thought Kurzweil presented his ideas very reasonably. No hint of 'gee whiz'. I still haven't looked at "The Age of Spiritual Machines", and probably won't (my backlog is way too big), but based on the talk I saw I'd recommend the book to someone unfamiliar with but interested in the subject.

I heard one other point the other day that isn't worth posting in a
separate message, but may be useful or heartening to someone, so...
I'm taking a video class with some coworkers taught by John Searle.
Fortunately we've gotten past his Chinese Room blather, and he's
now talking about establishing a 'science of consciousness'.  His
claim: the human (physical) brain gives rise to consciousness.
Nothing amazing there.  The interesting thing is that he claimed
that a century ago there were intense debates about whether life
could have a purely biological foundation.  Many postulated that
for a thing to be alive it needed a mystical 'life force', which
the mechanics of biology would never suffice to produce.  Very
similar to current beliefs held by many that conciousness cannot
be explained by the purely physical and requires some kind of
spiritual component, if not in so many words.  Now it's pretty much
universally accepted that life has a biological basis.  Searle
contends that once we understand more about how the brain works,
it will become more or less universally accepted that conciousness
has a biological basis and arguments to the contrary will be just
as unknown and seem just as quaint as arguments about 'life force'
seem to us now.  There is hope.

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