Posted on Sunday, Nov. 13, 2005

Can technology make us superhuman?

By Lynn Yarris
Special to the Mercury News

    Technology is getting smarter, as evidenced by the accuracy with which computer models predicted the impact of a Katrina-like hurricane. Humans are not, however, as evidenced by our response to the real Katrina's impact.
    What happens when our technology completely overtakes and supersedes us? The result is the Singularity, an event in which human life will be "irreversibly transformed," according to inventor Ray Kurzweil in his latest book, "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology."
    For inventions such as the first text-to-speech synthesizer and the first CCD flatbed scanner, among many others, Forbes magazine has called Kurzweil "the ultimate thinking machine," and Inc. magazine has hailed him as the "rightful heir to Thomas Edison." A member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, he is also the author of several popular books, including "The Age of Spiritual Machines," which has been translated into nine languages.
    In "The Singularity Is Near," Kurzweil covers almost the same terrain as Joel Garreau's book, "Radical Evolution," which I reviewed in July. Like Garreau, Kurzweil focuses on the GRN technologies -- genetic, robotic and nano (Garreau added "information" so he could spell GRIN) -- and like Garreau, Kurzweil bases his forecasts on the power of accelerating returns to result in exponential growth that is sudden and explosive. However, whereas Garreau sees a potential dark side to where these technologies are taking us, Kurzweil, for the most part, is a sunny optimist.
    "The Singularity will allow us to transcend the limitations of our biological bodies and brains," Kurzweil writes. "We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want. We will fully understand human thinking and will vastly extend and expand its reach. By the end of this century, the non-biological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence."
    In a superb display of technical and verbal acumen, Kurzweil takes us through the history and future of what he calls the Six Epochs of Evolution.
    In Epoch 1, information was processed within the basic structures of matter and energy; in Epoch 2, information-processing spread to molecules of DNA; Epoch 3 saw information-processing expand to the neural patterns of brains; and Epoch 4, the one we are in today, is witnessing the migration of information-processing into technology. Epochs 5 and 6 are where things will get really interesting.
    In Epoch 5, Kurzweil foresees a merger of technology with human intelligence that will enable us to exceed the information-processing limitations of the brain's 100 trillion extremely slow neural connections. We will then be able to transform our frail Version 1.0 human bodies into a far more capable Version 2.0. Nanobots will patrol the cardiovascular system in our bodies, destroying pathogens, correcting DNA errors and righting any other physiological wrong they come across. Meanwhile, more nanobots will interact with the biological neurons in our brain and central nervous system to make us super-intelligent.
    An added bonus of Version 2.0 is that you get to eat all you want without getting fat! But wait until you see human body Version 3.0, in which you get "foglets," nanobots that allow you to alter your appearance and personality.
    This will be the Singularity, and Kurzweil has even been so bold as to provide a date for its occurrence: 2045. It is in the aftermath of the Singularity that Epoch 6 will kick in. Kurzweil calls this final epoch "The Universe Wakes Up," and it envisions the expansion of our new, mostly non-biological intelligence throughout the rest of the universe.
    "Once a planet yields a technology-creating species and that species creates computation (as has happened here), it is only a matter of a few centuries before its intelligence saturates the matter and energy in its vicinity and it begins to expand outward at the speed of light (or faster)," Kurzweil writes. "Such a civilization will then overcome gravity and other cosmological forces -- or to be fully accurate, it will maneuver and control those forces -- and engineer the universe it wants. This is the goal of The Singularity."
    Reading Kurzweil is always a treat, because he knows a lot about the technologies he describes so well, and is never shy about expressing, or defending, opinions that are out there. However, some have called him "hyperbolic," and in "The Singularity Is Near," he fully justifies that tag.
    Given that polls consistently show half the adults in this country believe the sun revolves around the Earth, I could not help but wonder if Kurzweil is occupying a parallel universe to the one in which I live. In his fascinating riffs on what will be technologically possible over the next few decades, he does not adequately address whether the technologically possible will be politically feasible or economically practical.
    "Ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations," he proclaims. That sounds great, but, in looking around at the current political landscape in this country, I see a great deal of fear of science and technology, and a strong public movement to seek refuge behind ignorance. When the Supreme Court gears up to render a judgment on the scientific validity of biological evolution, it is hard for me to view the Singularity as anything more than fanciful.
    It goes back to Hurricane Katrina. The technology was there to prevent much of what happened to New Orleans, but for political and economic reasons it was ignored. Kurzweil is going to need an exponential growth in "singularitarians" before the Singularity threshold is crossed.

THE SINGULARITY IS NEAR: When Humans Transcend Biology
By Ray Kurzweil
Viking, 603 pp., $29.95
Lynn Yarris is a science writer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Write to him at
2005 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.