John Rennie points me to the most eye rollingest article of the week, in which we’re told that brilliant inventor-turned-futurist Ray Kurzweil claims we are perhaps two decades from “reverse-engineering the human brain so we can simulate it using computers.”
I say eye-rollingest. In fact, I had a more visceral reaction to this non-story.
If you haven’t heard of Kurzweil, let me give you some context: He pops 200 vitamin pills a day. He goes to a longevity clinic once a week to be pumped full of untested life-extending drugs. Why? Because he believes mankind is destined to achieve immortality by uploading itself into ultra-powerful computers, and he doesn’t want to miss his shot. He has written a best-selling book arguing that computers will soon surpass human intelligence, an event he calls the “singularity.” He has also founded the Singularity University to advance that goal.
In short, he badly needs to accept his mortality, and people need to stop listening to him.
But instead he gets press for making incorrect statements like this…:
The design of the brain is in the genome. The human genome has three billion base pairs or six billion bits, which is about 800 million bytes before compression, he says. Eliminating redundancies and applying loss-less compression, that information can be compressed into about 50 million bytes, according to Kurzweil.
About half of that is the brain, which comes down to 25 million bytes, or a million lines of code
…and for coughing up techno-Utopian wank material like this:
[Reverse-engineering the brain] would be the first step toward creating machines that are more powerful than the human brain. These supercomputers could be networked into a cloud computing architecture to amplify their processing capabilities. Meanwhile, algorithms that power them could get more intelligent. Together these could create the ultimate machine that can help us handle the challenges of the future, says Kurzweil.
The challenges of the future? Really? As far as I’m aware, there is one primary challenge of the future, and it is the looming global catastrophe known as climate change. Kurzweil’s singularity will never happen. It’s a distraction, a fantasy for people who take their science and technology a little too seriously.
Not coincidentally, climate change has its own version of Kurzweil’s singularity. Called geoengineering, it’s the vague concept that we can somehow pump substances into the atmosphere or the oceans to counteract global warming. Of course, a) we have absolutely no idea how to do such a thing, and b) even if we did, we’d still have to find a place to stash all the CO2 in the atmosphere, because otherwise as soon as our geoengineering fix wore off the warming would kick right back in where it left off.
In other words, it’s as incoherent as the vision offered by Kurzweil, and it taps into the same twisted belief that we can engineer our way out of the constraints of the real world.
Indian activist and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva strums my pain with her fingers on Democracy Now!:
[I]t is the idea of being able to engineer our lives on this very fragile and complex and interrelated and interconnected planet that’s created the mess we are in. It’s an engineering paradigm that created the fossil fuel age, that gave us climate change. And Einstein warned us and said you can’t solve problems with the same mindset that created them. Geoengineering is trying to solve the problems with the same old mindset of controlling nature.
Or, in Audre Lorde’s famous line, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
And believe you me, Kurzweil and the rest of us are living in the master’s house, a house in which workers, women and minorities are too often treated as objects not fully real; in which objects are fetishized; and in which our ability to find solidarity and meaning in one another has been corrupted, leading some of us to cling to crazy ideas like the singularity.
Now, how do i convince Kurzweil of any of this?