This is a good week to be Ray Kurzweil. The noted inventor, author, and futurist turns 63 on Saturday, and there’s no better way to celebrate your birthday than to have two major media outlets praise you and your philosophies. Kurzweil was the subject of an article in TIME by Lev Grossman – a cautious look at The Technological Singularity and its major players. TIME’s coverage of Kurzweil came just a few days after USA Today interviewed him about the upcoming Jeopardy match between IBM’s supercomputer Watson and some of the game’s most famous champions. While the TIME article was cautious, and the USA Today questions brief, Kurzweil came out smelling like bioengineered roses. Watch Kurzweil’s on-tape interview with USA Today in the video below. Looks like the mainstream media is slowly considering giving Singularitarians some cautious respect. Good for Kurzweil and good for anyone who wants to examine the future with an open mind.
Watson is set to take on Ken Jennings and others this Valentine’s Day during a special taping of Jeopardy. The computer system already won a preliminary test we discussed earlier. The upcoming match has all the trappings of a repeat performance of Deep Blue’s historic chess win against Garry Kasporov in 1997. As Kurzweil was one of those who foretold computers defeating humans in chess well before it happened, it seems only fitting that USA Today would turn to Kurzweil to put the Watson Jeopardy match in perspective. For those familiar with Kurzweil’s theories on accelerating technology, there’s nothing that’ll surprise you in this brief interview. Still, it’s nice to see that when humanity faces a great technological moment in history, the media is willing to open its mind to the possibility that there may be more such moments arriving soon:
In the TIME article, the best part comes near the beginning where, in what I consider a very rare occurrence, a mainstream journalist comes straight out and encourages readers to take the Singularity seriously:
The difficult thing to keep sight of when you’re talking about the Singularity is that even though it sounds like science fiction, it isn’t, no more than a weather forecast is science fiction. It’s not a fringe idea; it’s a serious hypothesis about the future of life on Earth. There’s an intellectual gag reflex that kicks in anytime you try to swallow an idea that involves super-intelligent immortal cyborgs, but suppress it if you can, because while the Singularity appears to be, on the face of it, preposterous, it’s an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.
I’m kind of floored by that paragraph. Lev Grossman is pretty much telling his readers that they should give the Singularity a fair chance. Not as a fringe theory, not as a crackpot worry, but as a very real scientific possibility. Go Grossman.
As with the USA Today piece, the article in TIME doesn’t exactly cover new ground for most of us who follow Ray Kurzweil. Grossman does do a great job of weaving the five page narrative into something that will attract the interests of a wide range of readers. If you have a friend who’s completely out of the loop when it comes to technology, Grossman’s article is a gentle way to broach the topic of the Singularity.
In fact, even if you’re an old hand at the concept of exponential growth in technology, there are things to appreciate in the TIME article. Grossman gives the reader a taste of the range of thinkers who helped form the concept of the Singularity that Kurzweil has arguably made famous. The discussion in TIME gives a little focus to I.J. Good, Vernor Vinge, and Aubrey de Grey, and has this wonderful statement in regards to those who ponder accelerating technologies:
Not all of them are Kurzweilians, not by a long chalk. There’s room inside Singularitarianism for considerable diversity of opinion about what the Singularity means and when and how it will or won’t happen.
Grossman does fall into the trap of selling the story of Kurzweil’s life as much as he explains the basis of his philosophies. (One of the worries I have with Kurzweil being the frontman for the Singularity is that it opens a very broad field of scientific speculation to very narrow ad hominem attacks.) Yet with statements like the one above he balances his coverage to give the new reader a broader look at the field. That’s great.
In fact, disregard my opening statements. This isn’t just a good week to be Ray Kurzweil. It’s a fantastic time for anyone who looks at trends in technologies and wonders what might be coming on the horizon. The concept of accelerating technology is one that bears careful examination, not just by ‘fringe’ scientists, but by everyone with a stake in the future. Most mainstream media outlets, when they even manage to cover concepts like the Singularity, do so with the same tired old tropes of killer robots and murderous computers. There’s nothing wrong with making jokes about those things, I do so all the time. But when it’s the only note you hear, it gets very tiresome. That’s part of the reason why we write Singularity Hub – to give you more than the knee jerk reactions to the exciting technology that arrives everyday. What mainstream media just touches upon, we’ll round out and explore more deeply (give us a call TIME and USA Today when you really want to dive into this topic). It’s going to be a while before major news outlets have the guts to consider the long term future with real honesty. Thankfully both TIME and USA Today discussed Kurzweil and the Singularity with a minimum of hyperbole. A small victory? Perhaps. As anyone familiar with Ray’s work will tell you, though, those small gains can quickly compound into something much larger.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Kurzweil.