It was about the turn of the century that I first took notice of the whole transhuman-posthuman-Singularity dialogue, reading the books of authors like Moravec and Kurzweil.
Their arguments did not make me a confirmed believer--but they did interest me. It seemed to me that if thought was indeed a physical process, then at least in theory that physical process could be replicated technologically--so that Searle's "Chinese Room" argument, or Penrose's suggestions about cognition did not seem to me persuasive counter-arguments on that level.
Penrose's argument, however, pointed to the possibility that even if there is no theoretical barrier to creating a strong artificial intelligence, the practical obstacles may be very high indeed, in ways that the optimists do not appreciate. (Indeed, those whose specialty was the human brain generally seemed much less bullish about the Singularity than the tech types.)
Still, I did find the arguments of Moravec and Kurzweil sufficiently intriguing to warrant serious consideration. And as it happened, each of them went beyond mere prediction to making forecasts--what the philosopher Nicholas Rescher in his book Predicting the Future called nontrivial, nonplatitudinous predictions, the kind where you get specific enough that you have to stick your neck out in the process. So I spent the years that followed watching the signs and the dates, and . . .
Well, not much seemed to be happening. Indeed, when 2009 rolled around I (like many, many others) looked at the list of predictions that Kurzweil made for that specific date. I (apparently, unlike many, many others) focused on the nontrivial, nonplatitudinous ones, and reviewed them comprehensively. And by and large, the disparity between what he predicted for fields like neural nets and pattern recognition, and their commercial, consumerist applications in areas like personal computing, translation software, virtual reality and personal transport (the real proof that something has been accomplished)--and what the state of the art really was in those things--convinced me that I was right to feel that he was way, way too bullish. In fact, I wrote a piece about that for the New York Review of Science Fiction back in 2011.
And for once, I didn't feel totally out of step with the times, many others seeming to be thinking along the same lines, the exuberance of the tech boom given way to much greater reserve, and I must admit, less interest in the issue on my part.
Today, however, I find myself looking at Amazon's Echo, and Google's Glass, and the Oculus Rift. Personal assistants, ubiquitous computing, virtual reality. Of course, what we are seeing 2015 is considerably less developed than what Kurzweil expected us to have six years ago. And there is no guarantee that these particular devices are not flashes in the pan; that they will really prove useful enough to proliferate, let alone that we will see significant improvement on them in the near term. Yet, for the moment it seems safe to regard them as real steps in the direction he envisaged. I also find myself looking at a news story from just this the past week--the digital reconstruction of a rat brain by the Blue Brain project, which may be an even more important step toward a world of "spiritual machines."
And so while I remember the exaggerated expectations of 1999 all too well, I think that I will be following these developments a bit more closely than I have in many years.
At least, for a while.
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