Robots in your veins | Book

Robots in your veins | Book

Robots in your veins | Book

The Singularity Is Nearer: When We Merge With AI


Author: Ray Kurzweil

Publisher: Viking

Pages: 422

Price:  $35

By Nathaniel Rich

A central conviction held by artificial intelligence (AI) boosters, but largely ignored in public discussions of the technology, is that the ultimate fulfillment of the AI revolution will require the deployment of microscopic robots into our veins.

In the short term, AI may help us print clothing on demand, help prevent cancer and liberate half of the workforce. But to achieve its greatest aims — immortality, superhuman intelligence, the elimination of all our social ills — we must infuse our blood with millions of self-replicating diamondoid robots.


Why don’t we hear more about the blood robots? Their arrival is only a few years away — at least according to Ray Kurzweil, a godfather of AI, our foremost technological prophet and a “principal researcher and AI visionary” at Google.


The Singularity Is Nearer  follows Kurzweil’s 2005 The Singularity Is Near, and several other heraldic works of tech futurism that have become sacred texts to the current generation of AI utopians. In his latest, Kurzweil boasts of his greatest hits: His prediction, in the late 1980s, that a global information network would be universally accessible by the late 1990s, and that mobile devices linked to this network would appear by the turn of the century; his 2018 prediction that, within two years, a neural net would be able to analyse radiology images as well as human doctors, a feat accomplished by Stanford researchers two weeks later; and his 1999 prediction that an AI capable of convincingly impersonating a human being would appear by 2029 — which now may seem conservative.


In The Singularity Is Nearer, Kurzweil promises that, by 2029, AI will be “better than all humans” in “every skill possessed by any human.” During the 2030s, solar power, enhanced by AI-driven advances in 3D printing, will come to dominate the global energy supply, most consumer goods will be free, and the “dramatic reduction of physical scarcity” will “finally allow us to easily provide for the needs of everyone.” Sounds rad! Enter the blood robots. Have no doubt: “The long-term goal is nanorobots.” One day next decade, Kurzweil believes, you and I will feed nanobots through our capillaries. The little busybodies will swim to our brains, where they will connect our neocortex to the cloud, allowing us to expand our intelligence “millions-fold.” This is “the singularity.”

Nanobots will connect us directly to virtual worlds, so that we will be able to scale Mount Everest, attend an opera or take “a sensory-rich virtual beach vacation for the whole family” in our minds. Why bother with damp bathing suits and sunscreen when you can enjoy abundant “natural beauty” from your own bed — or cryo-capsule?


By 2040, nanobots will cure most disease and arrest the aging process. (Kurzweil believes that the first person to live 1,000 years has been born.) By the early 2040s, you will be able to upload your entire brain to the cloud — or into the skull of a “Blade Runner”-style replicant. You might elect to clone yourself, or recreate a dead person.


Nanotechnology will enable us to modify our bodies at will, allowing us to “run much faster and longer, swim and breathe under the ocean like fish, and even give ourselves working wings.”


Might things not go according to plan? Kurzweil tends to bracket dour speculations with conditional assurances too broad to satisfy any non-optimised brain. “If we can meet the scientific, ethical, social and political challenges posed by these advances,” he writes, “we will transform life on earth profoundly for the better.”


That “if” contains libraries of unwritten ethics volumes, revolutionary manifestoes, Supreme Court opinions. Helpfully, Kurzweil offers a distillation of his general view of risk: “As this technology becomes more prevalent, society will adapt.” Pushed to its most unbridled excesses, optimism becomes fatalism.


Kurzweil’s predictions may be of use to investors and science fiction novelists (at least until they are replaced by AI in five years), but the greatest value of the book is to articulate, with bracing candour, the technocrat’s view of humanity.


This miserly view of human nature extends to our culture. Kurzweil thinks AI-generated art will be “vastly richer” because it will be able to put “a character’s raw, disorganised, nonverbal” thoughts “directly into our brains,” not realising that artistic skill moves in the opposite direction: Toward specificity, clarity, idiosyncrasy.


To Kurzweil, visual art is wall decoration and novels are successful to the extent that they’re “heart-rending.” Kurzweil believes that poetry lovers are equivocating when they refuse to quantify merit: If only enough readers could be persuaded to “give 0-100 assessments of how beautiful a poem seemed to them”, the truth would out.


At 76, Kurzweil has one thing in common with the authors of those poems and novels he hasn’t read: a panicky fear of death. He laments being sentenced to a body “biologically programmed to eventually destroy the information pattern that is Ray Kurzweil,” and plans to create a replicant of himself ASAP.


The purest expression of his ambition, however, can be found in a conversation he has with a chatbot trained in the writings of his father, the Viennese composer Frederic Kurzweil, who died in 1970. The author has often spoken of his desire to reincarnate Frederic; he calls this chatbot “the first step in bringing my father back.”

Here, finally, is the apotheosis of Kurzweil’s AI dream: not super-intelligence or optimised blood, but the chance to sit down with his father, and discuss music.

The reviewer is the author, most recently, of Second Nature: Scenes From a World Remade ©2024 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Jul 01 2024 | 12:21 AM IST

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