Want: Ray Kurzweil to proselytize about climate change

August 25, 2010

Greetings to my new readers from Pharyngula. I’m glad to have struck your fancy. I’ll try to keep it interesting for you.

Enough, please.

In my Kurzweil/geoengineering post, I made the definitive claim that Ray Kurzweil’s vision of uploading consciousness into computers would never happen. I also linked his dream to an allegedly oppressive over-emphasis on technological solutions to the serious global problem of climate change.

In general, my commenters challenged me to back up my talk. Ryan McGivern in particular questioned what Kurzweil has to do with marginalized groups or with fetishizing technology. McGivern seems like a fellow traveler, and I feel obliged to answer him, at least in part. So let’s see if I can clarify my position a little.

I don’t feel like dwelling on the probability of machine consciousness within any of our lifetimes. I don’t believe it’s the kind of thing one can predict with any accuracy. I’m also not terribly concerned with Kurzweil’s claim that within two decades we’ll be able to reverse-engineer the brain sufficiently to understand its basic principles of operation. The concepts of “reverse-engineering” and “basics principles of operation” strike me as fuzzy enough for his prediction to come true.

What concerns me, as always, is climate change, which I believe to be the most important problem of our time. If you don’t agree with me, then we’re not going to see eye to eye on much else. I believe that along with judicious technological choices, our best hope of cutting down our greenhouse emissions to sustainable levels is to radically level incomes and cut back on the false economic growth that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor and middle class. (More to come about all that.)

What that means is, anyone who doesn’t acknowledge climate change as a problem — and who doesn’t agree with me on income inequality 🙂 — is essentially operating on behalf of the powers that be marginalizing and oppressing urrbody.

Here’s what Kurzweil has to say about climate change:

Global warming — regardless of what you think of the models and whether or not it‘s been human-caused —it‘s only been one degree Fahrenheit in the last 100 years. There just isn‘t a dramatic global warming so far. I think there are lots of reasons we want to move away from fossil fuels, but I would not put greenhouse gasses at the top of the list.

This statement shows that Kurzweil has spent too much time around Silicon Valley climate denier types, or he wouldn’t feel the need to say “regardless of what you think of the models.” He claims global warming hasn’t been dramatic so far. Tell that to the thousands who died in the Russian heat wave and the flooding in Pakistan. He doesn’t seem to be aware that climate change lags greenhouse gas emissions, which means our actions today are locking in the climate of tomorrow.

Kurzweil bills himself as an expert in thinking nonlinearly. In his response to PZ Myers he states:

Linear thinking about the future is hardwired into our brains. … But exponential growth is the reality of information technology.

Climate is a nonlinear system. One additional unit of greenhouse gas does not necessarily cause one unit of temperature increase or soil moisture decrease. In the right range, it might cause two or three or ten units of change. Kurzweil should acknowledge that we are in danger of forcing the climate into a catastrophic new state — a state that may severely hamper scientists’ freedom to conduct the research necessary to achieve his dream of machine consciousness.

To the extent that Kurzweil does acknowledge climate change, he thinks it has — surprise! — a solution based on exponential technological growth:

The cost per watt of solar energy is coming down dramatically. As a result, the amount of solar energy is growing exponentially. It‘s doubling every two years, reliably, for the last 20 years. People ask, “Is there really enough solar energy to meet all of our energy needs?” It‘s actually 10,000 times more than we need. And yes you lose some with cloud cover and so forth, but we only have to capture one part in 10,000. If you put efficient solar collection panels on a small percentage of the deserts in the world, you would meet 100% of our energy needs. And there‘s also the same kind of progress being made on energy storage to deal with the intermittency of solar. There are only eight doublings to go before solar meets100% of our energy needs.

To put his prediction about solar cells in context, in 1990, Kurzweil forecast that by 2010 we would have telephones capable of translating between languages, “cybernetic chauffeurs” driving our cars and classrooms dominated by intelligent courseware. In 2005, he ventured that we would by now have fully immersive audio-visual virtual reality. A more complete list of his predictions is here.

Because he fetishizes technology, Kurzweil is blind to the fact that political choices will drive the adoption of technological solutions such as solar energy. If he could make that connection, he might direct his followers to, say, help vote down California’s Prop 23.

But I don’t think he’ll connect those dots anytime soon. He’s too focused on cheating death.

Update [8/25/10]: I’ve changed the Prop 23 link to go directly to No on 23‘s home page instead of their donations page, which has been giving me and some other people a verification error message. A representative from the group has assured me that the site is secure.

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One Response to “Want: Ray Kurzweil to proselytize about climate change”


  1. Well said. Thank you for taking the time to do a follow up! I think you put Kurzweil to task here and I would like to hear more from him (and other futurists) about real-world impacts and proffered solutions to protect lives and environments.
    And I agree with you that the hinge is mass political will–putting educated values to action. As a Californian myself “no on 23” is a much needed momentum.
    Kurzweil and others with a wide view of history should see that stagnation and ‘doubling down’ on lost causes are dead ends and technologies are opening doors to turn the page on industry-as-usual.
    I will also add that along with folks putting compassion and civic virtue to action now (politically, daily life, within their faith communities, etc.) we also need to step up ‘carbon neutral’ to ‘carbon negative’ thinking and development. This will involve some heavy lifting in engineering and lifestyle change, but we can do it.
    We will do it with help from good hearts and minds like yours JR. Cheers for the post, Ry


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