October 25 2008 / by John Heylin
Category: Other Year: 2008 Rating: 1 Hot
In a futurist battle-royal, John Horgan (author of The Undiscovered Mind) and Ray Kurzweil (CEO of Kurzweil Technologies, author of The Singularity is Near) held a debate over the Singularity in front of the assembled audience. What I thought was going to be rather scientific actually turned out to be a very interesting conversation.
John Horgan started off the debate on the attack. “I’m the skunk at Kurzweil’s garden party” he began, warming the audience to his stance. (To be fair, he was going up against the central figure in the Singularity movement in front of a lot of Singularity proponents – tough by any standards.)
He announced that he himself had once believed in the notion of a Singularity. Jovially, he kidded that once he had in fact experienced the Singularity as he tripped on drugs. “I became the Singularity.” What came next was a traditional thorough assault on the Singularity movement.
For example, he cited how back in the 60s people believed nuclear fusion would soon produce energy so cheaply that you couldn’t measure it in pennies. Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971 but even though we spend about five billion on cancer research each year we still have cancer. In 1980 there was the statement that all infectious diseases would be eliminated. Gene therapy is no longer discussed because it is close to impossible to achieve. We claim to map the brain and be close to doing it, and yet we haven’t made any advancements in mental health.
Kurzweil fired back that reverse engineering can accomplish mapping the brain, critical to achieving the Singularity. He predicted through the World Wide Web and people today are closer to understanding how the brain works.
He added that motor functions and reflexes such as catching a ball are only performed by a few genes in the human body.
“The brain isn’t as complex as it appears,” was the fundamental assertion.
Kurzweil summed up with his traditional argement that there are just 800 million bytes of the genome describe the brain, and that, eventually, we’ll be able to map it out in entirety.
Horgan was on his game, you could tell he was excited about chatting with Kurzweil about the Singularity in front of everyone. Kurzweil himself seemed a little uninterested, probably because ever since he became the Singularity figurehead he has had to provide countless rebuttals in similar situations.
All in all, a great debate for the rapt futures audience.