AI or BS??
August 20, 2010 4:30 AM   Subscribe

So what's the deal with Ray Kurzweil?

Is he the real deal or a loon?

I'm in the middle of reading his book The Singularity is Near, which, while entertaining in the way that good science fiction is entertaining, is obviously extremely optimistic about man's potential.

How realistic are his claims?

I'm looking for critiques of his work, either pro or con, preferably in extended (i.e., book) form.

I've found this on the web; I'm sure there is more such stuff out there.
posted by dfriedman to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The article you linked was discussed here, I'm pretty sure the conversation has a few choice words about Kurzweil.
posted by Think_Long at 4:38 AM on August 20, 2010

If the criticism leveled at Kurzweil's book also becomes about him personally ("loon"? come on...), then a personal evaluation of his life's work is also in order. Among other impressive accomplishments, no other living person has created as many technologies to enable blind people to read.

The wiki page I linked also points out the most common criticisms of his writings.
posted by fake at 5:33 AM on August 20, 2010

It's entirely possible to have been both incredibly groundbreaking and influential, and also a total loon. Kurzweil is one of those people who are best read 3rd hand.
posted by public at 6:07 AM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Specifically, Kurzweil has had a great deal of success in his field, but his field is not artificial or computational intelligence and his claims of miraculous future advancement are not well-founded.

More generally, I always fall back on this quote from Warren Ellis whenever the subject of the Singularity comes up:
The Singularity is the last trench of the religious impulse in the technocratic community. The Singularity has been denigrated as "The Rapture For Nerds," and not without cause. It’s pretty much indivisible from the religious faith in describing the desire to be saved by something that isn’t there (or even the desire to be destroyed by something that isn’t there) and throws off no evidence of its ever intending to exist. It’s a new faith for people who think they’re otherwise much too evolved to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or any other idiot back-brain cult you care to suggest.

Vernor Vinge, the originator of the term, is a scientist and novelist, and occupies an almost unique space. After all, the only other sf writer I can think of who invented a religion that is also a science-fiction fantasy is L Ron Hubbard.
posted by mhoye at 6:24 AM on August 20, 2010 [7 favorites]

Basically, Kurzweil is afraid of dying, like most of us, and he deals with this by fantasizing about ways itechnology might provide him with some form of immortality in his natural lifespan. This is really not all that different from people who believe that a part of them is incorporeal and immortal and will live on after their physical body dies, except for being slightly more plausible.
posted by kindall at 7:04 AM on August 20, 2010

Kurzweil's a loon, albeit a visionary one. In a society rapidly approaching cultural nihilism, this might not be such a bad thing.
posted by schmod at 7:14 AM on August 20, 2010

It's entirely possible to have been both incredibly groundbreaking and influential, and also a total loon.

See also: Linus Pauling. Groundbreaking work on chemical bonding and protein structure, not to mention his peace and disarmament activism. One of only four people ever to win two Nobel prizes (Chemistry, 1954, and Peace, 1962), and the only one to win two unshared prizes. But it's pretty much agreed his ideas about vitamin C later in life were way off base. (OK, "total loon" might be going too far in Pauling's case, but he did have some loony ideas.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:28 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

schmod's "cultural nihilism" is an interesting way to put it. The spirit of the times is certainly pessimistic (or realistic), disappointed, and very skeptical. Kurzweil, on the other hand, feels like one of the last of the '50s futurists, promising a brighter and better tomorrow. I don't think I'd call him a loon, just someone whose worldview isn't quite in step with his contemporaries. He has some intriguing ideas; I've personally spent many hours ruminating on the Singularity thanks to his writing and it still seems as though it may one day be possible. But the thing about Kurzweil is, he seems quite happy to paint with broad strokes while glossing over the specifics with exaggerated handwaving.

Also, whenever someone makes a prediction about the future, he or she is inevitably painting a large target on him/herself. The prediction is bound to be inaccurate to a certain degree. The more often one does this, the more like that person is to be labeled a "loon," fairly or otherwise.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 8:59 AM on August 20, 2010

*more likely
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 9:00 AM on August 20, 2010

Kurzweil is not regarded as an authority of any kind within the various brain sciences. Loon is a bit personal, but captures the wishful-thinking aspect well enough. The view that "mind" is "software" is dated, though hard to shift. If you take it literally (whatever that means), then his ideas may seem credible.
posted by fcummins at 9:05 AM on August 20, 2010

PZMeyers has an (educated) opinion.
posted by klanawa at 9:49 AM on August 20, 2010

He's a loon, but a smart loon and is terrified of dying. Therefore, he essentially thinks of different ways of living forever via technology. He also doesn't stop there, apparently he takes like, 200 supplements a day or something crazy like that. His main goal is to see exactly how long he can keep himself alive via any means necessary. Loony? Yes. However, I think there is some merit in what he's doing. He is an interesting ground breaker.

Also, that book is amazing.
posted by floweredfish at 9:56 AM on August 20, 2010

Kurzweil's reply to Meyers.
posted by klanawa at 10:05 AM on August 20, 2010

Through a series of somewhat odd events this past year, I got to meet Kurzweil as a part of a technology demo for the always-upcoming Blio ereading software. In person he was gracious, thoughtful, and kind...was a bit distant, but only in the sort of way that very busy people sometimes are when forced to partake in business meetings.

I do think that his Singularity stuff is a little out there, but at least in person he didn't come across as a loon at all, FWIW.
posted by griffey at 10:14 AM on August 20, 2010

Personally I don't think that his singularity idea is that crazy. After all, what else would you expect from the future? For it not to be crazy? It's less crazy a concept than a lot of other things like transporters and aliens....
posted by figTree at 10:30 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's another scientist who's skeptical of Kurzweil.

Sorry I'm too stupid to figure out how to make links.
posted by Bruce H. at 10:51 AM on August 20, 2010

I've only read The Age of Spiritual Machines, but part of the problem I saw in that book was that he tied a lot of his predictions to specific timeframes, e.g. by 2010 X will happen, and by 2020 Y will have occurred, etc. So he was looking at least 10 years into the future (and some of his predictions went a century into the future, I believe), and that kind of thing is hard to do well.

IIRC, one of his predictions was that by 2009, store clerks (like at convenience stores) would be (not could be, but would be) replaced by machines which were intelligent enough to do the functions of the job. I don't know enough about AI to know whether that's possible, although I suppose it might be. The gaping hole in the prediction, of course, is the idea that a scant decade after his writing this that such technology would be affordable enough and socially acceptable enough to replace the friendly/cute/whatever flesh-based store clerk earning $7.25/hour.

I've only skimmed the P.Z. Myers link above, and Kurzweil's response, but I think it's notable that the first thing Kurzweil takes him to task for is having stated that Kurzweil made his predictions in a ten year timeframe rather than a twenty year timeframe. The point being that when dealing with a fast moving target like brain science, we can make educated guesses, but nobody really knows enough about where we'll be in ten (or especially twenty) years to make sweeping predictions about the state of the science in that timeframe.
posted by jingzuo at 11:00 AM on August 20, 2010

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