Monday, November 02, 2015

John von Neumann, I.J. Good, Vernor Vinge, and Ray Kurzweil

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology is a 2005 non-fiction book about artificial intelligence and the future of humanity by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil.
The book builds on the ideas introduced in Kurzweil's previous books, The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999). This time, however, Kurzweil embraces the term the Singularity, which was popularized by Vernor Vinge in his 1993 essay "The Coming Technological Singularity" more than a decade earlier.[1] The first known use of the term in this context was made in 1958 by the Hungarian born mathematician and physicist John von Neumann.
Kurzweil touches on the history of the Singularity concept, tracing it back to John von Neumann in the 1950s and I. J. Good in the 1960s.
Kurzweil says revolutions in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics will usher in the beginning of the Singularity.[22] Kurzweil feels with sufficient genetic technology it should be possible to maintain the body indefinitely, reversing aging while curing cancer, heart diseaseand other illnesses.[23] Much of this will be possible thanks to nanotechnology, the second revolution, which entails the molecule by molecule construction of tools which themselves can "rebuild the physical world".[24] Finally the revolution in robotics will really be the development on strong AI, machines which have human-level intelligence or greater.[25] This development will be the most important of the century, "comparable in importance to the development of biology itself".[26]

Kurzweil concedes that every technology carries with it the risk of misuse or abuse, from viruses and nanobots to out of control AIs. He believes the only countermeasure is to invest in defensive technologies, for example by allowing new genetics and medical treatments, monitoring for dangerous pathogens and creating limited moratoriums on certain technologies. As for artificial intelligence Kurzweil feels the best defense is to increase the "values of liberty, tolerance, and respect for knowledge and diversity" in society because "the nonbiological intelligence will be embedded in our society and will reflect our values".[27]
Paul Davies wrote in Nature that The Singularity is Near is a "breathless romp across the outer reaches of technological possibility" while warning that the "exhilarating speculation is great fun to read, but needs to be taken with a huge dose of salt".[41]
Anthony Doerr in The Boston Globe wrote "Kurzweil's book is surprisingly elaborate, smart, and persuasive. He writes clean methodical sentences, includes humorous dialogues with characters in the future and past, and uses graphs that are almost always accessible."[45]while his colleague Alex Beam points out that "Singularitarians have been greeted with hooting skepticism"[43] Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote "The Singularity is Near is startling in scope and bravado", but says "much of his thinking tends to be pie in the sky". She observes that he's more focused on optimistic outcomes rather than the risks.[47] ~Wikipedia

Accelerationism Without Accelerationism - Here is my review of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ INVENTING THE FUTURE. Cross-posted from The Disorder of Things. Steven Shaviro.
The term accelerationism was coined by Benjamin Noys in 2010, in order to designate a political position that he rejected. In Noys’ account, accelerationism is the idea that things have to get worse before they can get better. The only way out of capitalism is the way through. The more abstract, violent, inhuman, contradictory, and destructive capitalism becomes, the closer it gets to tearing itself apart. Such a vision derives, ultimately, from the famous account of capitalism’s inherent dynamism in the Communist Manifesto. For Marx and Engels, capitalism is characterized by “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Far from deploring such developments, Marx and Engels see them as necessary preconditions for the overthrow of capitalism itself. [...]

But it still remains that they — like nearly all “Western Marxists” over the course of the past century — are a bit too quick in making the leap from economic matters to political ones.
Still, I don’t want to end my comments on such a negative note. The greatest strength of Inventing the Future, to my mind, is that it does indeed turn our attention towards the future, instead of the past. A big problem for the left today is that we have too long been stuck in the backward-looking, defensive project of trying to rescue whatever might be left of the mid-twentieth-century welfare state. While it is perfectly reasonable to lament our loss of the safety net that was provided by mid-twentieth-century social democracy, the restoration of those benefits is not enough to fuel a radical economic and political program. Looking nostalgically towards the past is far too deeply ingrained in our habits of thought. We need to reclaim our sense of the future from Silicon Valley and Hollywood. 

Related books:
  • C. J. Townsend, The Singularity & Socialism: Marx, Mises, Complexity Theory, Techno-Optimism and the Way to the Age of Abundance (Rancho Cordova, CA: Createspace Independent Publishing, 2015).
  • Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Books, 2015).
  • Edward F. Kelly, Adam Crabtree and Paul Marshall, Beyond Physicalism: Toward Reconciliation of Science and Spirituality (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). 
  • David Harvey, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).

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