The Age Of Spiritual Machines (subtitled When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, published by Viking Press in 1999) was written by Raymond Kurzweil. Kurzweil has been doing the "build a tech company and sell it" thing since the 70's. He developed the CCD flat bed scanners in 1975, invented the first text to speech synthesizer for the blind in 1976, released the first orchestral instrument replicating synthesizer in 1984 (the latest is the Kurzweil K2000), and the first large vocabulary speech recognition software in 1989. He wrote The Age Of Spiritual Machines using (more modern) speech recognition software without touching a keyboard.

The basic thesis of the book is that Moore's Law is not just a feature of a specific industrial process. Kurzweil argues that, just as population growth is exponential due to the product of people being something that will speed up the process (more breeding people), the development of information technology is also fundamentally exponential because its product enables faster development of more information technology. Using a "thousand dollars worth of computer" metric, he places Charles Babbage's analytic engine and ENIAC on a Moore's Law curve as evidence from the past for this contention. He supports the extension of this process past the limits of silicon chip lithography with arguments regarding future chip design strategies. Because the process is exponential it gains speed very slowly and then starts to take off like a rocket. Kurzweil thinks that we are "in the curve" right now and things are going to get crazy, fast.

Raymond also discusses the miserable track record of most futurologists, noting that they tend to overestimate what will happen in the near future and underestimate what will happen in the far future. Kurzweil makes the meta-prediction that underestimates of the future will be made for closer and closer dates because most people don't realize how fast things are getting on the technology front. Before launching into his own batch of specific predictions he notes his accurate to conservative track record in his earlier book, The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT Press, 1990), where he got most of his predictions about right, including being within a year's accuracy for a computer beating a chess master and how the commodities market would react to information technology.

The "gosh" part of his book stems from the application of Moore's Law and (he admits, outright) guesses as to what this will mean:

  • By 2020 (plus or minus a few years) a $1000 computer will be doing as many operations per second as a human brain. If you want details of what he thinks this will do to how we live then just go read the book.

  • By 2040 (plus or minus a few years) a $1000 computer will be able to do as many operations per second as all human brains everywhere on the planet. Kurzweil guesses that by this point a human without neuro-mechanical augmentation will not be able to productively interface with the economy. How old will you be? Get ready for bodmods!

  • Basically, Kurzweil thinks that our programming abilities will become the limiting factor and between this limitation and the desire not to be left behind by our tools, we will pattern our programs on the human mind and merge with the computers... hence "the machines" will, like people now, "be spiritual"... in fact, if you think our spirituality rises from our ability to recognize and think about the numinous in the world around us, the machines, having a greater capacity for recognition and thinking, will be more "spiritual" than present humans.

    This book gave me hope for the future! After reading it and thinking for a while it seems more likely that we will be laughing at it in the same way we laugh Bill Gates' "who needs more than 640k?" line rather than laughing at the extravagance of the claims.

  • A book that is full of interesting ideas and predictions about the next 50 years, particularly those about why we should expect Moore's law to hold true for a while longer, and where it will take us.

    However it contains a lot of padding. Mr. Kurzweil has wonderful ideas, but he is not much of a writer.

    He also suggests that "things are going to get crazy, fast". This syndrome has been part of predictions of the future for several thousand years (For e.g., the early Christians believed that the world was going to end soon).

    The best wisdom on this subject is still this: we overestimate change in the short term, and underestimate it in the long term.

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