Ray Kurzweil predicts that by 2029 scientists will have created conscious computers. Rubbishby Raymond Tallis / March 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
Creating a mind: we are on our way to building artificial “superbrains,” claims Kurzweil © Scott Fensome/Age Fotostocks/Superstock
Readers of How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed must be able to handle disappointment, although after running the gauntlet of a jacket plastered with plaudits for the author—“world-renowned inventor, thinker and futurist” and a “restless genius”—they may be inclined to blame themselves. But they shouldn’t. The recipe for minds is withheld and human thought can rest in the knowledge that its secret is safe. Safer, I would venture, than it was before Ray Kurzweil started writing this book.
Conceptual confusion runs through its 300 pages like “BRIGHTON ROCK” through Brighton rock, in part because of Kurzweil’s lackadaisical engagement with the sophisticated, if inconclusive, literature on the philosophy of mind of the last 50 years. He seems only dimly aware, for example, that the computational theory of the mind—central to his thinking—has been exposed to pretty savage criticism. One can’t help wondering whether, if Kurzweil had not established his reputation as an electronic engineer and as the progenitor of the much discussed notion of “the Singularity,” this book would have got past the slush pile.
There is no doubt about his engineering credentials. In the 1980s and 1990s, Kurzweil led a team which developed techniques—“hierarchical hidden Markov models”—that enabled machine recognition of voices and natural language processing, and are now exploited in all sorts of devices such as car navigation systems you can talk to and Google Voice Search, where you can speak your queries instead of typing them. His success in this area inspired him to turn an electronic engineer’s gaze on his own species and the future it seemed to be making for itself. Most famously, in The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, he joined a long line of prophets, including distinguished thinkers such as Samuel Butler, who have predicted a time when machines would be so powerful they would leave our current intellectual capacities for dead. For Kurzweil, the combination of ever more powerful computing techniques, robotics, genetics, neuroscience and nanotechnology will enable us to build superbrains that are non-biological in origin and no longer subject to the constraints the flesh is heir to. Immortality could be on the cards, not only through re-programming our bodies and reversing ageing but by “uploading”…