Appendix L: Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity

In Chapter 1, I discuss three main problems with Kurzweil’s vision of the future, as laid out in his book, The Singularity is Near. Here are two more problem areas in Kurzweil’s thinking (which I excluded from the text for reasons of space).

1. Exponential growth is unsustainable in practice.

If we take Kurzweil literally, his reasoning quickly veers into the absurd. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that he is correct in asserting that the technological achievements of the entire twentieth century fit into a mere twenty years at the rate of progress of the year 2000. Let us further accept his contention that the process will double again in a mere fourteen years, then double again in a mere seven years after that, and so on. Where does this lead? If we continue the doubling for fifteen cycles, the sequence looks like this: 14, 7, 3.5, 1.75, .87, .43, .21, .1, .05, .027, .013, .006, .003, .001, .00084. This means that after the fifteenth cycle, reached approximately 27 years in the future, a doubling occurs in .00084 years, or roughly eight hours. All the technological change and scientific paradigm shifts of the twentieth century, crammed into one eight-hour period!
The palpable absurdity of this stems from the nature of exponential trends. They work admirably in the realm of mathematics, but they quickly yield strange paradoxes when they are applied uncritically to concrete historical events. It is certainly true that we can observe exponential patterns of change persisting for a while in certain isolated aspects of the course of history. No one can deny, for example, that Moore’s law – the doubling of integrated circuit densities on microchips every two years – has characterized the realm of informatics since the 1950s. But to project this exponential trend indefinitely into the future is to invite the sorts of paradoxes we just encountered above. The doubling effect is simply too potent, over a sufficient number of cycles, for our humble physical reality to bear.
Consider, for example, a nuclear chain reaction. This, too, is based on exponential doubling – and it works quite well in the real world, for many hundreds of cycles. We take a few kilos of fissile material, such as uranium or plutonium, and compress it rapidly so that its atoms are forced in quite close to each other. When this happens, an atom of uranium is hit by a neutron, and as a result of the impact, that atom splits and ejects two neutrons. Those two neutrons go out and strike two more uranium atoms nearby. Those two atoms in turn eject two more neutrons apiece, and those four neutrons go out and strike four more atoms. The doubling cycle is on: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, and so on. The cycle repeats extremely swiftly, in a matter of microseconds, and each time an atom splits, a small amount of energy is released in the form of heat. The released energy rapidly builds up, and the result is something that appears to an external observer as an explosion. A large one.
But there’s the rub. The chain reaction does not continue indefinitely. Instead, it invariably reaches a point at which it either consumes all its fissile material, or the explosive release of energy blows apart the fissile material and thereby halts the doubling cycle. In the real world, unlike the ethereal realm of mathematics, all exponential cycles ultimately exhaust themselves or disrupt themselves at some point, and come to a halt.

2. History is probably not moving toward a predetermined end, and the “destiny” of humankind actually appears to be frighteningly open-ended.

Implicit in Kurzweil’s vision of the past, present, and future lies a notion – shared with thinkers like Hegel and Teilhard de Chardin – that the history of our cosmos is an orderly and unified process headed toward a specific end-point or goal. According to this view, the universe is like an acorn growing into an oak: it is an entity gradually but inexorably following its own inner telos, the embedded purpose that guides development through many stages to its final culmination.
There is much to commend such a vision. It allows us to synthesize vast fields of disparate events scattered throughout time, arranging them in a clear and comprehensible story. Most importantly, the redemptive content of that grand narrative gives meaning to the otherwise bewildering complexity of the world that surrounds us. It anchors our past in a long process of upward struggle, and projects a comforting future whose arrival will make whole the seemingly senseless suffering that darkens so much of history. For Hegel, this final apotheosis consisted in the return of the divine Spirit to itself, after the long detour of self-alienation it had imposed on itself in creating the universe and humankind. For Teilhard and Kurzweil, this “coming home” took a more explicitly technocentric form: humankind, through civilization and science, became an agency of liberation for the entire universe, ultimately seeding all physical matter with the infinitude of pure mind. It is this backdrop of cosmic purposiveness that provides the larger context for Kurzweil’s vision of the acceleration of history and the coming Singularity.
Unfortunately, compelling though such visions may be, they are inescapably metaphysical in nature, grounded in faith rather than empirical observation. Like all such meta-historical narratives, they are neither verifiable nor falsifiable, for in order to confirm or disprove such a teleological vision, one would need to assume a position outside of history – a transcendent perspective from which one could see the whole shebang, acorn to oak, and grasp its entirety. But we finite mortals have no such luck. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who most forcefully articulated this point, arguing persuasively that all such visions could not help but reflect the inherent perspectival limitations that come from their being unavoidably grounded in a particular culture and a particular moment in time. In this sense, every grand narrative – no matter how brilliantly conceived, no matter how reassuring its insights – remains at a fundamental level partial, tendentious, limited, and ephemeral.
But even beyond these Nietzschean considerations, Kurzweil’s confident vision of teleological progress suffers from a second important flaw: it is missing a sense of the tragic. In the aftermath of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, human beings have been forced to confront the seemingly limitless depths of malice and destructiveness of which our species is capable. Since 1945, most thoughtful people have become understandably reluctant to make trenchant predictions about the glorious collective destiny that awaits us. When one knows how hair-raisingly close Kennedy and Khrushchev came to unleashing a thermonuclear holocaust in October 1962, brash Hegelian pronouncements about humanity’s ineluctable advance through ever-higher historical stages begin to seem rather silly. Thesis, antithesis – poof!
Humankind now possesses the power to alter the biosphere, perhaps fatally, through a growing variety of technological means. Far from inspiring confidence, this fact raises worrisome questions about the future. Will we have the wisdom required to steer the boat successfully? No one can know for sure. And that is precisely the point: in such an era, the concept itself of “destiny” becomes radically open-ended. It may be our destiny to fulfill Teilhard’s dream and light up the universe with the miraculous gift of intelligence. But it may equally plausibly be our destiny to light up the universe (or at least our neighborhood of it) with nuclear fire and radioactive waste. Under these circumstances, it seems more reasonable to conclude that we humans probably have no fixed destiny at all. What we seem to have, instead, are lots of hard choices and challenges: countless opportunities either to mess things up really badly, or to come out tolerably well on the other end.