Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near

I've put off reading this book for awhile, since I find it so difficult to talk about. I find Kurzweil's work fascinating and dangerous, stimulating and irresponsible. I know he's coming to come up in my dissertation, opposite and alongside McLuhan and Landow as I discuss the impact of digital technologies on the perception of consciousness, status of knowledge, and appreciation of ethics. Below, you'll find some of Kurzweil's "greatest hits" and notes toward my reading and resistance of his neo-Platonic and Hegelian vision of our future.


I noticed, of course, many parallels among the world's religious traditions, but even the inconsistencies were illuminating. It became clear to me that the basic truths were profound enough to transcend apparent contradictions. (1)

It would be hard to start off any more Modern than that. Just strip the noise away from all these different Christian denominations, synthesize them, and you've discovered a profound truth. Hegel test: check.

I realized that most inventions fail not because the R&D department can't get them to work, but because the timing is wrong. Inventing is a lot like surfing: you have to anticipate and catch the wave at the right moment. (3)

Yay kairos (or is this "stupid kairos," if only people were smarter and could recognize the brilliance of "right" R&D?).

[This book] is predicated on the idea that we have the ability to understand our own intelligence--to access our own source code, if you will--and then revise and expand it. (4)

Did you just shutter a bit? Perhaps a little? I'll explain my fear below, but I want to stress that Kurzweil (and others) demonstrate that the technological ability to manipulate our "code" lies right before us, if it is not, in fact, here already.

Chapter One

Just as a black hole in space dramatically alters the patterns of matter and energy accelerating toward its event horizon, this impending Singularity (sic) in our future is increasingly transforming every institution and aspect of human life, from sexuality to spirituality. (7)

Yup, no argument from me.

This book will argue, however, that within several decades information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, ultimately including the pattern-recognition powes, problem-solving skills, and emotional and moral intelligence of the human brain itself. (8)

Its that final clause ("emotional and moral intelligence") that is such a dousy. Connecting above, this reeks of a Hegelanism most foul. Although it might sound trite or even wearisome this day and age, we must ask: whose morality will the machine encompass? Will the machine, so culturally and historically determined, provide us with the proper morality? The singular morality (and I know I am mis-using Kurzweil's definition of singular, which I'll detail below; but, as Burke would say, the jingle dog is strong hear...er...here)

The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. (9)

The material leading up to this quote stresses the ways in which the skin bag (thanks Mr. Clark) limits human cognition. There is a deep Platonic Idealism here--a transcendance beyond the mere material world. It goes nicely with this next quote, which I like to call "Welcome to the Hegelian Food Processor":

The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality. If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human in such a world, it's simply this: ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations. [...] Although the Singularity has many faces, its most important implication is this: our technology will match and then vastly exceed the refinement and suppleness of what we regard as the best human traits. (9)

Phew. Deep breath. So much for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Is such a search the true goal of Socrates (is this a 21st century call for the Good)? Is this a return to the master narrative of history? These are not facetious questions--they are very real. And, to me, very troubling. Troubling, because I recognize in our technological development a seed of Kurzweil's vision [which echoes Kant's vision for the Enlightenment]. Though I believe it is one that we have to resist.

Whether our civilization infuses the rest of the universe with its creativity and intelligence quickly or slowly depends on its immutability. In any event the "dumb" matter and mechanisms of the universe will be transformed into exquisitely sublime forms of intelligence, which will constitute the sixth epoch in the evolution of patterns of intelligence.

this is the ultimate destiny of the Singularity and of the universe. (21)

I already said it was Hegelian, right?

On the definition of Singularity: "a unique event with, well, singular implications"; "the word was adopted by mathematicians to denote a value that transcends any finite limitation"; "an event capable of rupturing the fabric of human history" (22-23).

it represents the nearly vertical phase of exponential growth that occurs when the rate is so extreme that technology appears to be expanding at infinite speed. [...] But from our currently limited framework, this imminent event appears to be an acute and abrupt break in the continuity of progress. I emphasize the word "currently" because one of the salient implications of the Singularity will be a change in the nature of our ability to understand. We will become vastly smarter as we merge with out technology. (24)

Grounding technology philosophically upon a conceptualization of singularity is, in fact, the direct opposite of founding it upon Otherness. Rather than encouraging the tentativeness and unassurance I associate with Levinas and Derrida (and postmodernism in general), the Singularity encourages confidence and synthesis. Rather than pushing us to accept that there are considerations of consciousness (and thus, ethics, and thus, morality) beyond our capacity to know, the singularity suggests that consciousness, ethics, and morality will be revealed through the machine. Whether true (and this is no small condition!), I am disturbed by the underlying eugenical bend. Disturbed.

As I read the rest of the book, I will be focusing on the character of "smarter" as quoted in the final sentence above. I do believe that digital technologies increase our collective intelligence, allowing us to network our brainpower in ways previously unimaginable. And, like Kurzweil, I hope that these technologies will change the way we come to understand each other--but I particularly hope these technologies will suggest that it is impossible to ever truly understand anOther person (or even to have an absolute understanding of oneself--an I can never think enough to substantiate self-knowledge). In other words, I'm looking to foster a respect for difference through an appreciation of differance as a metaphysical first principle. Although its only a hunch, I have a feeling that the Platonic, Hegelian, and Kantian undertones of the passages cited above are moving Kurzweil in another direction.


Casey said...

I have read a bunch of Kurzweil, and most of your analysis seems right on to me, Santeezee... but I'd advise being more explicit, at least in the dissertation, about whether and to what degree you read Kurzweil as a scientist vs. reading him as a sci-fi writer. Either angle would be interesting, but I think distinguishing is necessary.

One other objection: this reminds me of all of the (over-) excited conversations about how Second Life is going to revolutionize everything because it poses philosophical questions never considered before. As if "avatar" isn't the Hindu word for "Marc Santos." In other words, once the question arises (as it must)--what kinds of simulated realities might the Singularity manifest--once we've asked that question, we will automatically find ourselves asking whether the singularity has already happened.

And once we ask this question--"Are we about to enter the matrix or did we enter it long ago?"--we break from the Cartesian dualism that seems to send your red flag up whenever you hear it.

There is (a) "The Body" and (b) "The Soul" or (a) "The World" and (b) "Ideality" or (a) "reality" and (b) "simulation"

But with Kurzweil (as with Plato!), as with Bach, as with Kurt Godel, as with Emerson -- with all profound thinkers, I might suggest -- there comes a moment where the dualism splits into an "infinitude," where levels of simulation are not countable. Where we are an image of god, and our computer-generated avatars are images of us, and they will created something that simulates them... all the way up, and all the way down into infinity.

Ultimately the question is: what happens when Platonism (or "neo-Platonism") or Hegelianism or idealism begin to coincide with science and what you have taken for "reality?"

What's most interesting about all this is: why would a being that knows itself to be a projection of a projection of a projection bother to create further, Kurzweilian projections?

Or, if mysticism and sci-fi make you feel weird: why have you recently decided to reproduce yourself and call the result "Rowan?"

If anything, the academy under-stresses the extent to which things like gender and race (and age and name) are constructed.

Sorry, I don't know how to make hyperlinks in html:


Also, sorry I got excited. This was a really good post idea. And your dissertation will be amazing when you pull it together.

Nathaniel said...


Yes, he stuff on the merger of the biological self and technology does remind one of Clark, but of course Clark is quick to remind us that this suggests not merger as singularity, but as negotiable. For instance, what if one inCORPorates competiting technologies - this should at least the suggest the possibility (contra Kurzweil, it seems) that these mergers are far more agonistic (as much of biology and physics is - Kurzweil seems to forget that light attempts to escape from black holes) than it is stasis driven (as you and I often rail against this much more offensive "s" word.