The Kurzweil Reality Distortion Field

According to Ray Kurzweil, this is TOTALLY going to happen.

Steve Jobs must have left his famous Reality Distortion Field to Ray Kurzweil, because nothing else can explain why intelligent people continue to listen to a man who says such utter nonsense.

Please note carefully: I didn’t say Kurzweil was stupid. His inventions, particularly his work on OCR and speech recognition, were pioneering. But once he moved from the role of “inventor” to that of “futurist” his work became nothing more than a farrago of quasi-religious junk posing as bold predictions. He’s not a scientist any more. He’s an evangelist for the Future Church of the Singularity–the Pope of Posthumanism–and his predictions are about as credible as Harold Camping‘s.

With so much utter rot packed into just the excerpts from Kurzweil’s live interview at SXSW, it makes one wonder what other howlers he unleashed.  Let’s take a few of the best:

“We are a human-machine civilization. Everybody has been enhanced with computer technology. They’re really part of who we are.”

I guess that probably seems like wisdom to an upper-class guy from America, but in fact only 32% of the world’s population even has access to the internet. So “everyone has been enhanced with computer technology”? Not so much, no. To paraphrase Tonto to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean by everyone, white boy?”

Now let’s turn to that word enhanced. Is that like the ads I get for “natural male enhancement”, or is it supposed to evoke some kind of cyborg-like tech integrated into our living tissue? Because if it’s the former, then Ray has some special tech and is holding out on the rest of us guys. If it’s the latter, he seems to be setting the “enhanced” bar mighty low.

See, I was a kid in the 70s. My idea of technological enhancement is Steve Austin, and I’m not seeing any tech on the horizon that can let me run 60 MPH or punch out Sasquatch. (Although the Japanese are making great strides in their seriously disturbing efforts to create a Fembot.)

Carrying around an iPhone is very cool. Very Star Trek. I like it! But that’s not what Kurzweil is talking about. He’s making it sound like we’re all on the cusp of being Six Million Dollar Men, who would now cost about $27,586,004.06 according to the CPI Inflation Calculator, and good luck getting Obamacare to cover that. (“Here, Steve: take this pill instead of having that operation.”)

Technology isn’t “part of who we are.” We are beings created in the image of a loving God, and while technology is nice, it doesn’t do a damn thing to make us better, help us love, lift us out of misery, or banish evil from the human heart. It’s not “part of us”: it’s a tool, nothing more, and the sensible among us know when to put the tool back in its box and return to being authentically human.

“If we can convince people that computers have complexity of thought and nuance … we’ll come to accept them as human.”

Interesting word choice: convince. We can’t actually make computers with a full range of human thought and emotion (we just can’t), but we can try to convince people that they do.

“A kid in Africa has access to more information than the president of the United States did 15 years ago.”

Is this a particular kid in Africa, Ray? Or just some kid in general? Will any sufficiently benighted, non-white third world analog do? Could he be a kid in Patagonia, or Cambodia? Because with IT penetration in Africa at 13.5%., there really aren’t THAT many kids there with more information than President Clinton.

While you’re at it, can you define “information”? Are we talking about Book 12 of Euclid’s Elements, or Paris Hilton’s sex tape? Help me out here.

And while we’re on the subject of the Healing Power of Information, let’s take a moment to heed the words of a man who actual did predict the future. On my first day of blogging, I wrote about Neil Postman, who noted that “insufficient information” is not really a problem for modern society. Postman went on to observe that “If a child is starving in Somalia, it’s not because of insufficient information.” (Hey, maybe that’s that kid with more information than Bill Clinton!) Everyone is pushing information, information, information as the panacea for all the ills of modern society, but as Postman observed: we basically solved the information problem a hundred years ago, and it’s hardly the cure-all people claim it to be.

Good God, how I wish Postman were still alive. I would have loved to see him take on these futurehype hucksters with that calm, methodical way he had of dismantling rhetorical softsoap artists like Kurzweil.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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