Why Ray Kurzweil is Wrong

The brilliant and entertaining Ray Kurzweil is in the media a lot of late, talking about his new book, which I’m currently enjoying: How to Create a Mind. As well as promoting his book, he’s also promoting his core idea, a concept with which he’s become synonymous. And that’s that by around 2040 the rate of technological change in the world will have become so great that we will have reached a ‘singularity‘.

In other words, we will have machine intelligence, and/or augmented human intelligence, and/or something else we haven’t even built yet, such that we will ascend toward a kind of godhood. Problems like finite lifespans won’t bother us any more because we’ll be uploaded into machines. Issues like the climate or world poverty will become irrelevant, as our ability to engineer solutions will become so powerful that that they’re irrelevant.

To support his argument, he provides a wealth of data that shows that human development follows an exponential growth curve. Whether you’re looking at the pace of change, or the amount of computation a single person can do, or the speed with which human beings can communicate, it all pretty much follows the same pattern. And he’s right. We are on an exponential curve and crazy things are going to happen in our lifetime. However, the kind of things he’s predicting are all wrong, and, though I’ve touched on this topic before on this blog, I’m going to have another crack at explaining why.

First though, a little on why you should take Ray’s arguments seriously. Ask most people why they doubt that we’ll ascend to godhood within the next 30 years, and they’ll tell you that it sounds like science fiction–that the change is much too fast. But as Ray points out, people are terrible about anticipating exponential growth curves. If you had told a person in 1975 that by 2012 you’d have access to just about all the knowledge on Earth via a device you could hold in your hand, they’d probably have doubted you. Or take climate change. The world is still full of people who doubt that it’s happening, while at the same time, the rate of change is outstripping all our predictions. When it comes to exponential growth curves, I think Ray has the answer dead right.

So if Ray’s predictions have so much weight, why should we doubt him?

Because of game theory. Because of the Tragedy of the Commons. And because the mind is a commons in which tragedies can happen, just like everything else.

To explain what I mean, consider this: intelligence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in brains, and brains have the shape they do for a reason. Specifically, brains are packed with mechanisms to make it really hard for you to quit bad habits. And the reason why those mechanisms are there is because these are the same parts that make it hard for someone, or something, to take control over your behavior.

Go to the business section of your local bookshop, and you will find the shelves packed with books on negotiation, sales, leadership, etc. All ways to try to get other people to do things. Ask anyone in sales and marketing how hard it can be to gain new customers, and they’ll tell you. It’s bloody hard.

Your brain is packed with checks and balances to make your behavior almost impossible to change simply because, if it weren’t, you’d probably be dead by now. People who are easy to coerce get coerced. That’s why we have brains in the first place. To get people, or things, or animals, to do the things we want by outsmarting them. That’s why a third of the world’s biodiversity has disappeared since 1970. Because we’ve outsmarted all the other species on the planet, to their cost.

We don’t notice this part of our brains because it’s broadly counter-productive to believe that your every attempt at personal change is hamstrung right out of the gate. Similarly, believing that your new business venture is probably doomed because it’s going to be horribly hard to get people to notice what you’re doing doesn’t select for winners. There is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that people are designed to be optimistic, just like they’re designed to be stubborn.

But just because we don’t see that part of our minds doesn’t mean it’s not there. And because intelligence needs stuff to run on, just like a computer program, you take a risk every time you start fiddling around with that stuff. Muck around with the operating system on your laptop and sooner or later something bad happens, even if you gain an advantage over the usefulness of your machine in the short term. When the stuff that people run on becomes an operating system that people can muck with, everyone takes a risk.

Which is not to say that we’re all going to die, or that we’ll all become lobotomized zombie robots in the thrall of a mad professor somewhere. Rather, it’s just that once you reach the point where it’s at least as easy to muck with the stuff that you’re made of as it is to leave it alone, you’re in trouble.

Not necessarily fatal trouble. After all, you can take a reformed heroin addict who’s short-circuited his brain and recovered, put a big pile of heroin in front of him, and likely as not, he won’t take it. He’ll refuse it with pride. But it’ll be work. Once you have found the way to game a system, not gaming that system becomes an effort, and that’s true regardless of how smart you get, because the problem scales with your intelligence.

Let me say that again, to make sure that it’s clear. There is no level of intelligence at which it suddenly becomes easy to cooperate or avoid making mistakes. Sure, the risks to gaming the system become easier to see, but so do the number of ways to game the system. And the more sophisticated your technology is, the more ways there are for it to screw up.

There is a proof in computer science that you cannot build a computer program that can tell how all possible computer programs will behave. This proof applies just as well to people, and essentially tells us that no matter how smart you get, you won’t be able to outguess or predict someone, or something, as complicated as you are.

This rule is stable no matter what path to techno-trouble you want to pick. You can choose genetic modification, brain enhancements, intelligent machines, nanobots, or any other nifty technology you like. Once the technology table is covered with loaded weapons, sooner or later, someone is going to pick one up and have an accident. Whether it’s someone trying to convince everyone to buy their shampoo by making it addictive, or asking people to receive a minor genetic change before they join a company, or trawling for cat photos on the internet with a program that adapts itself, it’s going to happen sooner or later. It’s not one slippery slope. It’s a slippery slope in every direction that you look.

My guess is that we’ll recover from whatever accident we have. However, we’ll then nudge back towards the table of trouble, and then have another accident. And then another. And that this continues until we basically run out of planet to mess about with. To my mind, this is why we don’t see signs of intelligent life out in space. It’s because nobody gets past this point–the Tinker Point. It’s like an information-theoretic glass ceiling.

So is there anything we can do about this?

Yes. Of course. The best technological bets are space travel and suspended animation. The more people are spread out in time and space, the less likely it is that any one accident will be devastating. We’ll be able to keep playing the same game for a long, long time.

However, the fact that there’s no evidence that anyone else in the universe has summoned up the gumption to pull off this trick isn’t exactly comforting. As a species, we should get our skates on. By Ray’s estimate, we have about thirty years.


I have a new Android app in the Google Play store. It’s called Kinetica, and it looks like this:


It’s basically an interactive art mobile that enables you to create designs that then come to life under your fingers. Is it useful, I hear you ask? Conceivably, though it wasn’t built with that in mind. I’ve already used it make logos. One might also use it for invitation cards, phone backgrounds, or other such things.

The main reason I built it, though, was out of a desire to experiment and play. It was fun to write, and it’s fun to muck about with. Kids seem to love it. It also doubles as a short lesson in abstract art.

You can find it here. It’s free.