The Age of Spiritual Machines

The Age of Spiritual Machines was published on January 1, 1999. It was written by Ray Kurzweil. He was known as a prominent inventor at the time but I was unfamiliar with him when I started this book. In the same weekend I read this book and another called Robot Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind by Hans Moravec.  I had heard that these two books had similar radical sounding predictions that were arrived at independently by authors who were well respected in their fields.

These books have had a profound impact on my thinking about the future. Technology is something we take for granted. It plays a supporting role in our lives. It is human nature I think to worry about relationships and our day to day lives of which technology plays a small part and not step back and look at the big picture. Louis CK has a funny bit about this embedded below.

The Age of Spiritual Machines isn’t difficult to understand. The argument the book makes is not highly technical. Instead it is based on historical trends.

The Age of Spiritual Machines is filled with graphs which show that the march of technological progress has been predictably exponential. The word exponential is very often misused as a general expression of great intensity. However, the word is used literally in The Age of Spiritual Machines.  The book uses metrics to quantify technological progress and shows that up until now information technology has grown exponentially rather than linearly.

Personally, prior to this book, I never really thought about the rate of technological growth. If I did I intuitively assumed, that it was linear, steady progress. After all is there any reason to assume that today’s Bill Gates is actually smarter than yesterday’s Henry Ford? They both solved the problems of their era and in doing so incrementally advanced technology. Our lives are short in the grand scheme of things. We expect our children to see about the same amount of change in their lives as we did growing up. That’s been the human experience up until now.

The difference between whether technology grows exponentially or linearly is not trivial. An exponential curve and a linear curve seem similar up to a point at which the exponential graph explodes. This is best shown visually.

In the early stages an exponential and linear trend can’t easily be differentiated. They look similar and have similar impacts at first. Since we are limited by our lifespans to a narrow slice of history and technology isn’t a big part of our lives we don’t see it.

Now we reach what Kurzweil calls a knee of the curve. The trend becomes obvious as we see the acceleration within our lifetimes.

Past a certain point if the trend is exponential the difference really explodes. Without getting into the specifics I’ll just say think about what you currently think will happen in 500 years and imagine it happening in 50 instead.

One intriguing point this book makes is that the brain transmits information roughly one million times slower than a computer. Humans make up for this and retain superior overall intelligence because we have so many trillions of connections in our billions neurons.  In a fascinating thought experiment this book imagines what would happen if each of the trillions of connections in the brain were replaced with the faster communication speed of a computer. Theoretically we would be the same person but think one million times faster. To our subjective experience this would seem as though time had slowed down one million fold.

This book’s title, the fervent followers Kurzweil has, and some of his personal quirks might cause people to be skeptical about this book. We’re all skeptical of radical sounding ideas especially when they are wildly optimistic.

Looking back at a book I read over a decade ago it is hard for me to know if I’m really doing this book justice. Many ideas seem earth shattering as you read them and are soon forgotten. The best praise I can give the book is that in this case for me that hasn’t happened. I consider myself to be extremely skeptical and this book continues to act as a roadmap for my view of the future to this day. No individual book has changed my view of the world so much.

Its easy to dismiss Kurzweil as just some guy who is scared to die caught up in wishful thinking. With all the crockpots out there we don’t have time to give everybody serious consideration. In this case I would encourage everyone to give this a read. Not only will the implications of what he says blow your mind. The argument for it is surprisingly simple and convincing.

One last thing that I really enjoyed about this book is worth mentioning; unlike in some later books on this subject in this book Kurzweil really sticks his neck out and makes some very specific predictions. Its much harder to make a specific prediction about how technology will unfold than to just argue that empirically it has been growing exponentially. However, I’d say it is more interesting. This book has decade by decade predictions which are interesting to look at 10 years later and will continue to be as more time passes.

Kurzweil published a report on how he thinks he has done so far. He did pretty well. The funny thing is when he is right I find myself taking technology for granted and thinking how obvious it was all along. But if Kurzweil is right technology is going to advance so much in the next few decades we will no longer be able to ignore it. My advice is to read this book and then brace yourself for some major changes in the next 20 years.