Mar 03 2011

Transcendent Man: Thoughts on the New Documentary about Kurzweil

Thoughts on new documentary on Kurzweil  Transcendent Man

I watched the Transcendent Man documentary today.  While I enjoyed it, I tried to also think from the view of someone very new to the concepts around the Singularity.   (just keep in mind I am no professional movie critic).

Here are my thoughts;

  • The movie presents the gist of most of the themes of Kurzweil’s book  The Singularity Is Near in an entertaining way, along with some interesting commentary by supporters and detractors.
  • Interwoven throughout is a lot of footage concerning Kurzweil’s relationship with his father.  So the movie is both about his ideas, and also delves into the man’s personal life – as I suppose a documentary should.
  • While interesting, the details of Kurzweil’s piano playing and nostalgia for his father etc.  pales to the implications of the Singularity thesis itself.  I think a newcomer could get easily distracted by some of Kurzweil’s quirky personality traits and miss the life-changing implications of his research and  ideas.

Critics of Kurzweil’s version of the Singularity took one or more of these positions:

  1. The idea that we will be able to download our brain/mind is flawed – he (RK) does not understand the complexities of human biology.
  2. While some of the predictions may come true, his timing is way off i.e. by perhaps hundreds of years.  Kurzweil is biased in his thinking and the “Immortal by the Year 2045” prediction is a function of his fear of death and a personal ‘need’ for a solution in his lifetime. i.e. wishful thinking.
  3. The optimistic view that super-human technology will ease us into a utopia is off.  There does not seem to be any way to assure that such future artificial intelligence will be friendly to humanity (the Terminator theme)
  4. There is a good chance mankind won’t make it another 20 years.
  5. Given the radical changes ahead, we just can’t conceive of the implications.

Several of the objections or alternative views are credible, but not thoroughly developed.  For those interested, there is a big section in  The Singularity is Near that outlines and responds to the most common criticisms/objections.  There have also been other point-counter point critiques in the media where, in my opinion, Kurzweil’s ideas hold up strongly.

My take is that Kurweil is very smart and has spent decades studying and projecting the exponential changes we are now seeing.  Few others have delved so deeply.  Changes in genetics/biotechnology/technology/artificial intelligence/nanotechnology are coming fast and heavy. Kurzweil,  for the most part, has seen his predictions come to be.  His views seem very credible to me and need to be taken seriously.

At the same time, given the extreme nature of the changes we are now starting to see, alternative outcomes are likely too.   Imagine driving at a very low speed, and dropping your coffee on your lap.  Then imagine the same scenario if you are travelling at over 110 kmh.  At a slow speed, a little reaction may be unnoticable to the direction of the car, while at high speeds, a little shift of the wheel can have dramatic impact. My point is, in a world of ever expanding radical changes, making accurate predictions will get trickier.

One thing we can count on is that much more change is coming soon.  Much more creative destruction is coming soon. Many more challenges to our accepted notions are coming soon.

Thanks for reading. Would love to hear your views and thoughts.




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  1. I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lertuces on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book. Recently read another incredible book that I can’t recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil’s work. The book is My Stroke of Insight ” by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor’s talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It’s spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I’m not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I’ve read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they’re making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)If you haven’t heard Dr Taylor’s TEDTalk, that’s an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it’s 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational). There’s a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best Fantastic Voyage ” , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!

  2. Hi Brazy:
    Yes, I enjoyed Dr. T’s TED talk video, and based on your comments, I will look into the book. Thanks!

    The issue you bring up in your post about “balance” is I think very important. It, I feel, has to do with what it is to be human. As we approach the capability of “reprogramming our biology” there are profound implications to what it means to delete or add to our makeup via genetic or other interventions.

    I am a long term meditation student and feel uncomfortable with a ‘reductionist’ approach to defining all that we all as just biological programming. To me, the idea of ‘balance’ involves respecting other approaches of understanding – you might say ‘right-brain’ approaches – but this depiction is in the language of biology. I think we go beyond this and the ‘balance’ is in exploring what we are beyond material. It’s a big topic methinks!

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