The Age Of Spiritual MachinesOrder this bookStory: In his controversial follow-up to The Age Of Intelligent Machines, Ray Kurzweil – inventor of not only numerous music synthesizers but pioneering speech recognition, speech synthesis and optical character recognition technologies – postulates how artificial intelligences might come to possess a soul, and as it turns out in his theoretical projections, the computer might just merge with humanity and borrow our souls.

Review: I’d had this book for quite a while before realizing how controversial it was in some circles (indeed, a whole other book has been published to refute Kurzweil’s futuristic projections). After reading it, though, I think I can understand at least where the naysayers are coming from – in this book, which is part forward-looking-statement about technology and society, part speculative fiction, Kurzweil makes an awful lot of broad assumptions. Not necessarily on the scientific/technological front, either. Kurzweil definitely knows of what he speaks there (that the book carries a back cover endorsement from Stevie Wonder is no coincidence – the author has paid special attention to the needs of the blind with his inventions). Where the author raises my eyebrows a little bit is with the notion that technologies which merge man with machine will be so readily adopted. Sure, there will always be early adopters of any technology, whether or not that innovation catches on with the general populace. But I’m not buying that we’ll all be machine-enhanced virtual intelligences who manifest bodies at will when needed from swarms of nanobots within the next century.

Stylistically, “The Age Of Spiritual Machines” spends a lot of time in imagined dialogues between Kurzweil and a fictional future A.I. named Molly. These dialogues help to illustrate points that might be harder to swallow in a less narrative form, but after a while, as the reader, I found the dialogues a bit indulgent and found myself thinking “Come on, Ray, get to the point.” But I suppose that falls under a matter of taste.

Still, much of the material is plausible where the first half of the 21st century is concerned, though I believe the schedule has slipped somewhat due to humanity’s recent fixation on attempting genocide of one sort or another. But I have a problem with the projection that we’re going to be ready to machine-enhance our minds and bodies so extensively by the time my hundredth birthday rolls around. I’m not so much of a Luddite (a term which pops up repeatedly in this book) that I think that any man-machine merger will be along Borg or Matrix lines, but I question the assumption of widespread adoption of that evolution – and the underlying implication that it’ll be available to all. (Quick reality check: are computers readily available to all, across class and economic lines?)

A fascinating read, but one that requires a grain of salt or two. By his nature, Kurzweil is a technologist, and it goes without saying that his books display a technologist’s bias.

Year: 1999
Author: Ray Kurzweil
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 388 pages

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Earl Green ()

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