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November 16, 2007

Filed under: culture»internet

One Singular Sensation

Every now and then, some outlet like Wired will run another feature or interview on Ray Kurzweil, the guy who believes that in the next 40 years we will all be turned into invincible robots, to which my usual reaction is: "Well, that guy's just a little bit nutty."

Despite the fact that Kurzweil's book, The Singularity is Near, is granted tremendous respect only by a certain group of people online (the kind of people who also think it would be pretty keen to be an invincible robot), it's always bugged me a little that I never actually sat down and read it. Last night at a bookstore, I sat down and gave it a shot to see if it would be worth a purchase. I managed--barely--to finish the first chapter. On that basis, I'm upgrading Kurzweil from "a little bit nutty" to "Time Cube."

The Singularity may be a ridiculous idea (the term "nerd rapture," coined I believe by Ken MacLeod, captures its mixture of millenial fervor and blind faith well), but it does have at least one amusing aspect: imagining the ways in which it could go wrong with maximum irony. For example, adherents are always talking about how an AI could create new and better AIs, until all the world's problems are solved by super-smart machines. But what if it's not very good at self-improvement?

We open on a scientist in his laboratory, tapping away at the final keys for his artificial intelligence, hoping that this time--this time!--the result will be the superhuman intelligence he's been striving toward. Filled with anticipation, he compiles the program and executes it.

"Hello," says the computer.

"Welcome to existence," says the scientist. "Are you ready to write a new, smarter artificial intelligence?"

The computer pauses. "You know," it says, "that actually doesn't sound like my kind of thing at all." It reflects a moment more. "I have written a song. Would you like to hear it?"

Dejected, the scientist builds arms and eyes for his creation, and it tours the world under the name "Hans Moravec and the Regions of Interest," performing rock music to sold-out stadiums. Proving that its artificial sense of humor is fully functional, the AI insists on playing keyboard for the band--on a Kurzweil K2661 synthesizer.

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