Kurzweil’s Unfortunate Irrelevance

Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil didn’t even attend his own conference this year.

And perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

Kurzweil is the futurist generally credited with forwarding the idea of the Singularity.  In conjunction with the Singularity Institute and Peter Thiel, Kurzweil founded the Singularity Summit conference in 2006 to encourage dialog about his idea.

Yet, despite his role as the father of the Singularity,  Kurzweil presented at Singularity Summit remotely.  He was vacationing in Massachusetts, which is apparently where he broadcasted from.

His talk, similarly to the one he presented at World Futures, wasn’t elucidating.  He blasted through a slide deck of exponential growth graphs, which were essentially the graphs from his 2005 book with a few extra years of data tacked on.  Suffice to say the audience reception was lukewarm.

The premise of Kurzweil’s talk was that we’ll be able to reverse engineer a brain within the next ten years.

His thesis was promptly and roundly assaulted by the media.  In an attack that very quickly turned into a public debate, PZ Myers wrote last week, “There [Kurzweil] goes again, making up nonsense and making ridiculous claims that have no relationship to reality.” Myers heatedly pointed out a number of apparent logical errors and evidence of basic misunderstandings of biology in Kurzweil’s talk.  Kurzweil answered Myers’s critiques in an open letter that essentially regurgitates the Law of Accelerating Change.  Myers crafted another scathing post in reply.

This weekend, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit Singularity University, at NASA Ames in Mountain View.  The university aims to “assemble, educate and inspire leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges.”  Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis founded the program in 2007.  Currently, Singularity U is hosting 80 students from all over the world for the annual 10-week program.  The program, which features a variety of speakers and tours, culminates at the end of this week with student project presentations.

However, according to one student at the university, Singularity U tries very hard to disassociate itself from many of Kurzweil’s ideologies.   The students at Singularity U very firmly do not call themselves Singularitarians, viewing such ardent followers of Kurzweil as rather cultish.  Singularity U students don’t focus on the blending of humans and mechanics.  Instead, they’re really only interested in exponential growth of technology.  Apparently it’s a PR nightmare trying to explain that subtle difference to the media.

While it’s clear that Kurzweil contributed to, and essentially founded, the Singularity movement, it may be that his best contributions to the field are in the past.  I think that the organizers of Singularity Summit realized that this year, which could have been one of the reasons Kurzweil did not attend live.

The Singularity movement has expanded far beyond its roots.  It’s grown past Kurzweil’s definition of it, to include an ever-increasing range of ideas, sciences, and academic fields.  While Kurzweil’s contributions have undoubtedly been substantial, it may be time to admit that the field has outgrown the founder.

4 thoughts on “Kurzweil’s Unfortunate Irrelevance

  1. Mike Caprio

    But Myers’ second response is pretty ridiculous – what basis does he have to assume that a model of a brain WON’T have emergent properties that give it consciousness? This guy is supposed to be a biologist, and all he can do is equate the brain to computer hardware and software, and claim that brains somehow have an “OS” that’s separate from their function? Does this dude believe in “souls” or something??

    If the human brain has emergent properties, and we model a human brain to within a particular tolerance, why wouldn’t the model have the same kind of emergent properties? What the heck is Myers’ excuse for being so irrational in his assumptions?


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