September 25, 2005
Waiting for Nanobot
Ray Kurzweil’s most stunning observation is also his simplest:
When you’re dealing with a process that grows exponentially, everything happens at the last minute. Think about it: If things double with every step, then you can be just one step away from completion but still only half-done. So it’s misleading (perhaps even unnerving) when you’re stuck inside the process, racing through the eleventh hour, and it looks like you’re going to fall way short. But trust the exponent, Kurzweil says, because it rules everything.
And he has lots and lots of graphs to back it up.
All of Kurzweil’s exponential traceries have to do with information technology. But that’s okay, he says, because everything is just information technology — or if it’s not yet, it soon will be.
Going further: Kurzweil thinks the purpose of life is the expansion of knowledge. (It’s a very Googly outlook — and sure enough, Kurzweil has nothing but glowing things to say about the Goog.) So his story is actually pretty simple: Information technology grows at an exponential pace. It carries us with it into a future of omniscience and omnipotence. Done and done!
That’s pretty broad, but Kurzweil doesn’t shy away from specific predictions, either. By 2010, he says:
- Computers will disappear;
- images will be written directly to our retinas;
- we’ll have a high bandwidth connection to the internet at all times
- electronics will so tiny they’re embedded in the environment, our clothing, our eyeglasses;
- we’ll have full immersion visual-auditory virtual reality;
- and augmented real reality, too;
- we’ll use virtual personalities as a primary interface; and
- we’ll have effective language technologies.
Beyond that? The nanobot revolution. Artificial blood cells that make Olympians of us all. Radical life extension. The transcendence of biology. Expansion of human (or neo-human or whatever) civilization out into the cosmos. Then the omniscience/omnipotence thing.
Okay. That’s Kurzweil. Now it’s the snarkotron’s turn.
One: Nearly all of Kurzweil’s exponential graphs have an axis occupied by something like price vs. performance or speed or capacity, measured in millions of instructions per second or megabytes or whatever.
Is that really the best way to measure progress in technology? Computers are umpteen times more powerful today than they were ten years ago — but are they umpteen times more useful? Do they make us umpteen times more productive? From where I’m standing that’s a big “no.” They are definitely improving by those measures — but not exponentially.
Two: I think Kurzweil, for all his big-picture-ness, actually fails to see the really big picture. He falls prey to anthrocentrism, the kind of thinking that puts humans at the top of a ladder that starts with amoebas, goes up through fish and birds to mammals and monkeys, and finally, after millions of years of hard work, arrives at the opposable thumb.
But the ladder is not actually a good metaphor for evolution.
Every species still hanging around today is, in fact, just as “fit” in evolutionary terms as homo sapiens sapiens. That goes for everything from dandelions to hummingbirds to rhinos. It’s easy to get cocky about our big brains — admittedly they are pretty cool. But the whale has some pretty impressive evolutionary gifts as well; so does the banyan, and the cricket. And any biologist will tell you that the bacterium is an impressive specimen indeed.
I think Kurzweil would disagree and claim we are markedly different, with our tools and our language, our knowledge and our nanobots (coming soon). Now, okay: If humanity goes on to suffuse all the matter in the universe with its essence I guess I will concede the point. But the jury is still out, way out, and in the meantime we would be wise to give our fellow travelers in evolution a little respect. For now the big story is still this whole planet — not our lone species.
Three: Well, this is not actually an objection. In fact this is the part where I think I agree with Kurzweil and it makes me very scared.
It concerns one of his more prosaic predictions: full-on virtual reality, all five senses’ worth, piped straight into our brains. This strikes me as a pretty logical and straightforward extension of the kind of entertainment we’ve already got, and whether it happens in ten years or a hundred, I think it raises a huge question: What happens when a virtual world is way more appealing to way more people than the real world?
I mean come on: Today, millions of people are playing World of Warcraft, quite happily investing themselves in polygonal alter egos and fake epic pursuits. (By the way — did you hear about the plague that hit that game?? Crazy!) Give that number just a little bit of Kurzweil’s exponential love and it gets big fast.
Many critiques of the modern social order hinge on the recognition of a widespread malaise, agitation, and/or alienation. I believe it really does exist, and I think any honest observer would agree — whatever his or her feelings about technology or capitalism or power relationships or whatever else.
Now, what if after all this fuss, the balm for that angst turns out to be simple? What if it’s giving everybody a subscription to the awesome game-world of his or her choice — and an optional feeding tube?
That CREEPS me OUT. And it’s not the specter of a Matrix-like future where everybody is knocked out and jacked in that does it — because I don’t think that’s actually very likely. Rather, it’s the half-Matrix I’m afraid of, where it’s just the game-world underclass that gets consigned to virtual heroics (maybe surfacing once a month to earn enough cash to cover the subscription fee) while an elite class continues to enjoy the real world — as well as the rewarding challenges of developing and scripting the game-world, no doubt. Gahhh!
Anyway, back to Kurzweil, who I’m sure would find such concerns quaint — because of course, a mere decade after we have immersive virtual worlds, we will have nanobots able to re-form the real world however we like!
Ultimately I feel a little sorry for Ray Kurzweil. He’s phenomenally smart, and has made amazing contributions to the world. What does he think is waiting in the info-apotheosis that’s not available in our world, today?