Modern people ridicule the search for the mythical fountain of youth, a search that has preoccupied our forebears through many generations. Still, even today claims that human progress will accelerate so fast in the next few of decades that immortality will become a fact are taken seriously by people at the highest levels of society.
The latest version of the fountain of youth comes from a group who believe that a merger between humans and machines in the near future in ways that are not currently possible to foresee will enable a type of life everlasting. This belief comes out of a movement for which the most famous proponent is probably Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil, an entrepreneur, inventor, and writer, believes that no later than 2045, we will build machines that are smarter than humans. These machines will in turn build even smarter machines. Technological progress will proceed at a rate that represents the end of the human era and the beginning of one shared by humans and machines joined together and producing unimaginably rapid technological change. He and others refer to this point of transition as the technological singularity. This change, he believes, will enable humanity to overcome all of its most pressing problems: disease, hunger, climate change, resource scarcity, and, of course, death.
Part of the trouble with Kurzweil’s ideas is that they seem to ignore history. People who are heavily involved in the computer industry as Kurzweil is often believe that they are helping to create a new era, a complete break from the past. But in this case history would tell us one very important thing. Humans have long been joined to machines. Yes, the machines started out simple: a plow, a compass, a sail, a waterwheel, and a windmill are all examples. But even these simple machines vastly altered the relationship of humans with nature and each other.
With the advent of fossil fuels the power of machines increased greatly. And, the division of labor which this development allowed increased the rate of technological innovation. This cycle has repeated itself as more fuel was added to an ever finer division of labor. So great has the power of humans on planet Earth become that sociologist William Catton Jr. dubbed the new form of man “homo colossus,” a vigorous human-machine hybrid.
Kurzweil tells us that the human-machine hybrid he foresees is different. It will have powers that are many orders of magnitude beyond that of current humans. Again, he seems to ignore history. The introduction of fossil fuels, a concentrated, versatile, and (until recently) plentiful energy resource gave humans capabilities that are indeed orders of magnitude greater than those living in the pre-fossil fuel era. Think of the horsepower of a human, 1.2 horsepower for brief periods and 0.1 horsepower on a sustained basis. Compare that to the horsepower of a jet aircraft, for instance, the Airbus A380 with a cruising speed of 647 mph and four engines rated at 280,000 lbs. of total thrust. Where 550 ft-lbs/second equals one horsepower, this results in 1.72 hp/lb of thrust or 481,600 horsepower–in other words, several orders of magnitude greater than what a human can do with muscle power.
Of course, Kurzweil predicts that humans will perform this feat all over again in the area of intelligence giving humans access to intellectual abilities “trillions of times” greater than those we have today through a physical merger with intelligent machines. Here is a quote from the website for Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near:
We will be able to assume different bodies and take on a range of personae at will. In practical terms, human aging and illness will be reversed; pollution will be stopped; world hunger and poverty will be solved. Nanotechnology will make it possible to create virtually any physical product using inexpensive information processes and will ultimately turn even death into a soluble problem.
If you believe Kurzweil is correct about the vast expansion of human capabilities in the future, you must also believe that doing the same thing all over again–that is, increasing the power of humans by several orders of magnitude–will bring about different results than the previous fossil fuel driven increase. (I am reminded of the old joke that doing that same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.) The powers given to us by fossil fuels have put us on the path to ecological suicide due to climate change; soil depletion; fisheries depletion; deforestation; toxic pollution of the air, water and land; and ironically, depletion of fossil fuels which have enabled humans temporarily to overshoot by a wide margin the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth. But Kurzweil tells us that the results are sure to be better in the upcoming orders-of-magnitude ramp up in human power that he foresees.
The basic facts of biology and record of history already tell us that Kurzweil’s dream is a mere fantasy. While we should laud the man for his many important contributions to society–omnifont optical character recognition, text-to-speech and musical instrument synthesizers, and speech recognition software–we should also be wary of his bizarre vision of the future. It is not the content of that vision that should worry us so much as the meta-message it is sending to so many in our society: Sit back and let the technocratic elite solve all of our problems. After all, they’ve done such a good job so far!