Altered Carbon

Altered carbon is a science fiction book that takes place years in the future. It is well written, exciting and realistic. It may soon be made into a feature film according to Wikipedia. The science fiction parts of the book blend well into an intricate detective story. The most noteworthy technology the book explores is one in which a person’s entire mind is able to be downloaded into a new body.  This same technology also allows for immortality because if a person is killed their mind can then simply be downloaded to a new body. This is only possible if the “stack” – the device that records a person’s memories and personality- is recovered so you can also be “really dead.” A very similar technology was employed in the series “dollhouse.” However, Altered Carbon focuses more on the consequences of very long lifespans than did dollhouse.

The possibility that technology might allow people to live indefinitely is a major theme in books about the singularity. Kurzweil and others argue that we will reach a point within a few decades where technology is able to cure virtually any aliment including aging itself. Altered Carbon deals extensively with the potential psychological implications of living a life that spans centuries.

Altered Carbon also explores in fiction another idea that was discussed in books about the singularity by dealing with the implications of being able to change your physical body. Kurzweil has written that today our physical form is a major part of how we define ourselves. Even today people can explore different embodiments through primitive technology like second life. In the future of Altered Carbon one could experience this much more authentically.

One area in which some futurists might disagree with the future vision displayed in Altered Carbon is its focus on scarcity. In this future where technology has reached a near magical level poverty somehow remains a major problem. This may be a plot device or a function of the author’s dystopian views on the future.  But, in a genre which frequently forces the reader to overlook things this is a small detail. Overall it is an excellent book.

I don’t know that the author of this book is familiar with the concept of the singularity. Maybe he just imagines the same technology a futurist would but on a longer time horizon, the book does take place 500 years in the future. Either way, I would recommend Altered Carbon as an enjoyable and interesting read.

Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind

Written by Hans Moravec and published around the same time as the Age of Spiritual Machines this is the other book I credit with introducing me to the concept of the singularity. Moravec’s background is in robotics and his Phd work at Stanford was on one of the first self-driving cars.

This book has some similarities to The Age of Spiritual Machines. Both use extrapolations based on Moore’s law to predict the rise of artificial intelligence around the same time. However there are some unique contributions of this book that you would miss if you only read the Age of Spiritual Machines.

This book encourages you to pull back and look at the whole history of the human race. We spent most of our time, approximately 90% as hunter gatherers. Our genes are adapted to this era as we haven’t had time to evolve much in the short time since we have had agriculture.  In the approximately 10% of our history since agriculture we have only very recently emerged from a society in which almost everyone was a farmer and progress was negligible in a generation. In the last 500 years we’ve seen an industrial revolution, a scientific revolution and entered the information age. This is a mere blip on the approximately 100,000 years it is believed humans have existed.

One of the most eye opening charts in this book was one that shows how computers stack up to different organisms in terms of their raw processing power. When this book was published and even today most computers aren’t even close to being as smart as humans. However, since computers are improving on an exponential path it won’t be long before this fact changes, unless the trend breaks.

Some of the interesting specific ideas I recall from this book are the possibility of an elevator to space and the idea of “fractal branching ultra-dexterous bush robots” which are capable of building almost anything.

Moravec is less famous than Kurzweil but he explains the concept of the singularity just as well. His style is less utopian than Kurzweil and to my knowledge he isn’t as associated with taking massive amounts of supplements to extend his life so he may be easier for some to take seriously. I wholeheartedly recommend anyone interested in the future to read this book.