Ray Kurzweil: The Transcendent Man

10 March 2011

Some months ago I caught word that somebody had made a documentary about possibly the most high profile transhumanist in the history of the movement/subculture/distributed multicellular mass of hackers, geeks, and technologists, Ray Kurzweil. He was the first to not only speculate seriously but write at length about the possibility of what Verner Vinge dubbed the technological singularity, a hypothetical point in human history at which the rate of change goes asymptotic. Which, so the hypothesis goes, could either go weakly godlike or pear-shaped, the jury's still out on that particular point. I've kept a sensor array peeled on Kurzweil's work for quite a few years but, I must confess, while I am a transhumanist I am not a singulatarian. Like Terrence McKenna's Timewave Zero hypothesis, I don't think that there will be any point in history in which everything changes in the blink of an eye. While technology grows by building upon earlier innovations and iterations it takes time to reach a point in which it "comes into its own" or reaches a critical density of availability and operation. It costs money to stay on the bleeding edge, and having that kind of money isn't common. In other words, to quote William Gibson, "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed."

But, a wise person once said to me that the practice of skepticism has long since parted ways with the philosophy of skepticism, so I attended the showing of The Transcendent Man with an open mind.
It's been pouring all day today, so I got to DC just in time for the wind to completely wreck my umbrella as I hiked from the Synagogue at Sixth and I Streets NW in downtown DC. I arrived at Busboys and Poets just as I was well and truly soaked to the skin to meet up with Seele, Justin, Bokunenjin, Silicon Dragon, and Brian for a quick cup of coffee (having eaten earlier that afternon) and to talk a bit about how things are going lately. Because tickets were will-call for half of us, we ducked out early to head back to the Synagogue to wait in line yet again. There was a snafu of some kind when it came to pick up my ticket - I had a receipt accessible on my phone but for some reason I wasn't on any of the print-outs. It took about ten minutes of wrangling and trying to keep from getting swept up in a group of visiting dignitaries (boy, wouldn't that be trouble to get out of?) before the people at the desk and I figured out what had happened and I got my wristband to attend the VIP meet-and-greet on the lower level.

To say that I was underdressed was something of an understatement. I'd come more or less straight from work so I must have looked like a background character from Doktor Sleepless, with my backpack full of cryptic looking equipment, a grey sweatshirt reading "THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE THE FUTURE - WHERE IS MY JETPACK?", and a woolen trenchcoat covered with pins and badges. When everybody else is wearing suits, ties, and what looked like their level corporate best, it's not hard to stick out like a magnesium flare in the middle of a darkened football stadium. Still, I wandered around politely, exchanged business cards with a couple of out-of-towners, and wound up in a pleasant conversation about software engineering with a pair of instructors at local community colleges. I didn't have an opportunity to talk about any of the side projects I've been hacking on lately, just work stuff, I'm rather sad to say. I somehow managed to miss Kurzweil as he circulated among the attendees, probably because my memory for faces isn't particularly good. Soon, it was time to head upstairs into the sanctuary for the showing of the documentary.

I pretty much went in cold this evening, something I am wont to do these days. I like having no preconceived notions, and tonight was a bit of a challenge in that I have a few on the topic of transhumanism. I was very surprised at how even-handed the movie was about Kurzweil's life, from his early years building computers at the age of 17 to compose music and the significant amount of work he put into text recognition technology. While he sometimes comes across as a bit rabid in his writings about how life extension technologies and applied computer science will eventually explode in a takeoff of some kind around 2045, to hear him talk about it (recorded or live, which he did after the showing was over) he makes the concept sound plausible. Kurzweil is very well educated and incredibly well informed on a multitude of topics - just listening to the Q&A after the showing was evidence of that. He certainly does not dodge hard questions, and explains himself well in relatively short periods of time. Before certain publications last month I was inclined to downplay the possibility of neurological prosthetics extending our cognition to hitherto unheard of heights anytime soon, but I now must rethink... well... a lot of things.

I wonder if Kurzweil has given any thought to the effects that small groups of people can have on technology, in particular people who love to play with technology to see what it can do. Quite a few advances in technology that we're seeing these days didn't start life in a corporate lab but down at street level where someone saw them, packaged them, and started selling them. He also didn't mention any soft methods of augmentation, such as cognitive training, nor did he touch on invasive methods of augmentation outside of academia that are starting to climb from the underground. All in all I was very impressed with the documentary, with how Kurzweil's theories were articulated in a reasoned manner (with a goodly bit of evidence thrown in for good measure), and with how he handled questions from the audience at the end of the night. I stayed after the Q&A session was over because I'd brought an artifact from my collection of yestertech to get autographed, and was pleasantly surprised at how genial he was. I kept it to the basics because I didn't want to natter on like a maniac for six hours, got an autograph and my picture taken with him (both to come later) and then headed back to the TARDIS for a surprisingly short drive home.

The future isn't coming Real Soon Now, it's here. We don't recognize it for what it is because it's been here, all around us for years, just like water might be for a goldfish. However, the future is up to us to create. It's not going to come out of a shrinkwrapped package, nor will it come from sitting back and letting other people write code, tinker with equipment, or stand up and fight for us. It's our time now.