52 Books a Year: #52 - The Age of Spiritual Machines

Posted by Brian Fri, 08 Jan 2010 01:50:49 GMT

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence
By Ray Kurzweil


My 52nd book of the year was Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spirtual Machines. Ray Kurzweil is an inventor and futurist who is best known for his ideas on the technological singularity. Despite the fact that theory states that after a certain point it is possible to predict the future that is precisely what Spiritual Machines attempts to do. The crux of Kurzweil’s argument is the Law of Accelerating Returns, which states that the pace of technological innovation is increasing at an exponential rate. By projecting these advances out for a hundred years he draws some startling conclusions about what life will be like by 2099. Overall, this book was very good. It was published in 1999 and Kurzweil makes many predictions for 2009. Instead of writing a coherent review I will instead list some of these and see how he did. There are a ton more in this book, but I am going only going to hit on some of them. Remember, these are all predictions made in 1999 for 2009.

Supercomputers will reach human brain speed.

The human brain can perform 20 million billion calculations/second. Supercomputers hit broke the petaflop barrier this past year. That means that the human brain still performs 20x more calculations/second. We are not there yet, but the goal is within reach. Kurzweil was probably a few years off with this prediction.

10-micron MRI

This one was blown away. In 2007 MRI resolution of 90 nanometers was achieved and resolutions of 3 microns are standard.

Virtual sex with a real person with full visual and auditory realism.

Not. Even. Close. Virtual reality is routinely predicted by futurists, but nothing ever comes of it.

Implementation of self-driving cars feasible

Progress has actually been pretty good with this. The DARPA Grand Challenge provided some high visibility to the technology and got good media exposure. Kurzweil only predicted that it would be feasible, which is the case. He probably realized the massive hurdles in infrastructure costs and liability for injury that will delay deployment for many years to come.

Most people have at least a dozen computers on them at all times networked into a “body LAN”

Nope. There are some small sub-cultures that promote living constantly hooked into several computers, but they are far from mainstream.

Most memory in portable devices will be electronic.

Right on with this one. Electronic memory is ubiquitous in portable devices. I haven’t heard of a new portable device with a hard drive in several years.

Most portable devices won’t have keyboards

It is difficult to tell if Kurzweil meant that the concept of the keyboard would be gone or just physical keyboards. If he meant physical keyboards, he is well on his way to being correct. If he meant the whole concept of a keyboard he is very wrong. Judging from his other predictions on voice recognition I am betting he meant the latter.

Privacy concerns will prevent people from storing data in the cloud.

This one is a mixed-bag. Privacy concerns definitely loom, but most people are oblivious to them. It will take a large security breach at a company like Google or Facebook to change this.

Cables are disappearing in favor of short-distance wireless for components, such as monitors, printers, keyboard, etc.

They are disappearing for those who want them too. Cables are still cheaper though and most do not care. With that being said, wireless connections for components are very common. This one was pretty easy though as the trend was beginning back in 1999.

Most text is created with continuous speech recognition, which is more accurate than human transcriptionists.

Very wrong. Most text is still typed into a keyboard as I am doing now. Some new services are coming online though, such as Google Voice’s voice transcription. Quality is still spotty at best, but should continue to improve. Far from being as accurate as a human transcriptionist though.

Advances in displays will bring higher resolution, higher contrast, larger viewing angle, and no flicker.

Advances here have been constant, with all of the above coming true. The picture quality of a modern HDTV far exceeds that of what was available for a reasonable price in 1999. He also predicted a rise of what we now call e-readers to take advantage of these advances.

Computer displays in eyeglasses.

These are an active area of research and prototyping, but I know of nothing that has made it to the consumer market yet. There seem to be some high end products out there (here for example) though.

Three-dimensional chips will be commonly used.

3-D chips are still in early research stages, with most estimates placing them at least a decade out. The most recent story I have seen is here.

Trillion calculations/second for $1000 PC

Not there yet. Wikipedia gives a speed of 76 billion calculations/second for an Intel Core i7 Extreme 965EE, which costs about $1000 currently. That doesn’t include the rest of the computer to go around it either.


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