Imagine a world where the difference between man and machines blurs, where the line between humanity and technology fades, and where the soul and the silicon chip unite. This is not science fiction. This is the 21st century according to Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the most innovative and compelling technology of our era. In this audiobook, the brain behind the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the Kurzweil synthesizer, advanced speech recognition, and other technologies devises a framework for envisioning the next century. Kurzweil guides us through the inexorable advances that will result in computers exceeding the memory capacity and computational ability of the human brain. The Age of Spiritual Machines is no mere list of predictions, but a prophetic blueprint for the future.
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In this short, readable book, Kurzweil pitches the idea of the Singularity to mainstream readers. As a software developer with a strong interest in artificial intelligence, evolution, and neuroscience, I think that his claims and their stunning implications are right. At least, in a broad sense. We are not far from a world in which machines will begin to exhibit intelligence approaching -- and, in some areas, surpassing -- the minds of human beings. Though, at first, such systems will require much direct guidance and management from us, they will become ever more autonomous. They will thrive as members of vast, interconnected, evolving software ecosystem, supported by an immense, powerful, and exponentially growing base of computing hardware.
With the rise artificial intelligence, new physical technology will become possible, enabling machines to begin to become part of us. In a few decades (maybe a century), our brains and bodies will probably have the ability to interface directly with computer systems and nanobots that augment them; in a few decades more, our physical human bodies might no longer be necessary, and we will be able to exist solely as software entities, life forms in a reality that can’t be imagined right now.
It’s mind-blowing, paradigm-imploding stuff, but I’ve thought about the same ideas at great length, and I think that Kurzweil’s reasoning is quite clear and sound. Given what we know about the workings of “intelligence” as represented by the human brain, there’s no obvious reason that science won’t be able to map out its essential processes or computer hardware and software to realize something equivalent to them.
If you need proof of the man’s credibility, note that this book was written in 1999, then check out chapter 3, where he makes predictions of how technology will look in 2009 and years beyond. Granted, many of his forecasts are a little too optimistic -- for example, a suit that provides an enjoyable simulation of sex isn’t going to happen by 2020 -- but his mind was definitely headed in the right direction. The coolest bits of "2009" future-gazing describe technologies that, if not here already (iPhone, anyone?), are getting close. Both in terms of physical realization and rapid public embrace.
However, I would criticize Kurzweil for being so breathless in his excitement, he doesn’t give much attention to the dark side of what he foresees. Certain areas of technology may follow an exponential growth track, but human understanding and social systems are another story. What will happen to the people who are left out of the leap forward, or don’t understand it, or are afraid of it? The ones who have no saleable skills in a world of robots? (Note that one of the few predictions for 2009 that Kurzweil gets drastically wrong is his rosy forecast for the global economy.)
Still, this is a very important book for the mainstream and I can tell you that technology and the concepts around it are developing just as Kurzweil said. The decades to come will be some of the most interesting in human history, and quite possibly the next step beyond human history.
- Ryan "Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good."
Would you listen to The Age of Spiritual Machines again? Why?
This is one book worth multiple listens due to the theories laid out by Ray Kurzweil. There are many barriers to achieving the path he foresees for the human race and the path may meander. However, I can see the potential and each of the steps provide a set of ethics to chew over.