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.

  • Gary Chapin

    Only one quibble — “convince that they are human.” There have been plenty of times in history when treating people as though they are people has been accomplished by convincing other people that they are people … if you get my meaning. Not to say it shouldn’t be self evident, but rhetoric (Frederick Douglass, for example) has played a part in making reality out of the ideal that all humans should be treated as if they are human. In fact, I would argue that this is what YOU are doing.

  • Ben

    I read some Postman a while back in an ethics class (but I was 19, and wasn’t really paying attention). Guess it’s time to read him again.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Right, but those people actually WERE people. Not to drag Plato into this (oh, who am I kidding: I eventually drag Plato into everything), but the form we think of as “human” exists independent of an observer. The ideal form called “computer capable of human thought and emotion” cannot exist, and therefore cannot be observed.

    But, yes, your point is well-taken: convincing people of the self-evident fact of another’s humanity is an ongoing quest that did not end with Frederick Douglass. See also: previous post on eugenics and abortion.

  • victor

    Even allowing that Kurzweil did make some really good pianos, years ago, I found this take-down to be completely hilarious. I think “former” and “latter” may possibly be switched in paragraph six, but the way it reads is funnier as it is.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Thanks, Victor! I can see where the former/latter joke might read that way, so I added the word “guys” to make it clearer. Thanks for the catch.

  • Brian Green

    This is a topic of interest to me since transhumanists are all about changing human nature (and I like natural law). Kurzweil obviously thinks tech is part of human nature, and I think you disagree, but I’m not sure exactly in what way. Humans need technology like clothing and shelters, etc. So are humans properly defined as only biological (and spiritual) and tech has no relationship to humanness? I tend to think of humans – naturalistically speaking – as composites of biology and culture, with tech as one component of culture. And if that is the case, then changing tech can (sorta, maybe) change human nature.

    Feral children show how important culture is for human functioning – if we don’t get cultural exposure we are messed up. But is tech part of our culture (internalized to us) or part of our “environment” (external to us), I guess that is the question I want your perspective on. And if transhumanists get their way and start implanting weird stuff, or even just wearing contacts with internet access, etc., will that change? I’m also thinking pacemakers, artificial joints, Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair, etc.

  • Phil

    In regards to Kurzweil’s comments on being ‘enhanced’ I do think he does mean carrying around iPhones and Internet connected devices. 20 years ago if you needed information on a topic you had to go to a library. 120 years ago you were out of luck. Today the information is available within seconds – that is precisely what he means by enhanced.

    Going back thousands of years humans were enhanced by technology when they developed tools to support agriculture and to build shelters. Technology is not just silicone and lithium.

    “..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.”

    Technology can make us better, by helping us learn through educational tools, it can make us “better” by helping treat illness and suffering. It can “help us love” by allowing people to communicate with others they normally would not. It can certainly lift people out of misery when we describe people with miserable illnesses and pain that technology helps alleviate.

  • Tim

    Depends if you believe in evolution or not. If you do we are biological machines who can be enhanced through tech, if not less so. Several people have been known to believe in evolution without needing and reality distortion fields.

  • Brian Green

    Tim, your comment is a cheap shot and not even correct. Catholicism accepts evolution, first of all. And “biological machine” is a metaphor, not a literal truth. It is an interpretation of reality, nature filtered through contemporary culture.

  • Evan

    Well, it’s fair to say that Ray Kurzweil exaggerates a bit when he imagines how quickly we’ll have these incredible technologies and capabilities (i.e immortality, a completely digitalized world). However, your point of view really doesn’t do much to prove him wrong. When Ray talks about an ‘African kid’ he’s just trying to say that anyone on the globe with internet access has more information than any individual or collective body in previous history. More or less, all human knowledge is at the fingertips of everyday citizens of predominately the advanced industrialized world (one day internet access will be a human right). This change has and will continue to shape the singularity. Think about how long ago it was before you were using the Internet the way we use it today (downloading, sharing, searching, communicating, etc). It wasn’t really that long ago, but life before that time seems very distant. Psychology plays into the singularity because once the world changes (and it changes often), people are adaptable and quickly forget about how different life was like before.

  • Adam

    You don’t need to have Internet access for your life to have been enhanced by computer technology. So he’s right; besides the .001% of civilization who lives in complete seclusion from the rest of the worlds population, computer technology has enhanced everybody’s life. Some more than others, depending on accessibility, but what Kurzweil said is spot on.

    And the the reason he uses Africa, is because Africa is ranked the lowest in health and GDP, making his point stronger.

    Your blog post is too critical