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October/November 1999
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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by Robert K. J. Killheffer

The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil, Viking, 1999, 388 pages, $25.95

Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind by Hans Moravec, Oxford, 1999, 227 pages, $25.00

Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! by Arthur C. Clarke, St. Martin's Press, 1999, 549 pages, $35.00

Every now and then I indulge myself in a depressing little calculation: How many books will I be able to read during my lifetime? Even at a book every single day---over an adult reading life of, say, 60 years---I'd only cover about 22,000 volumes. Not so bad, I guess---if I could really keep up such a pace. Most of the time I'm hard put to read an entire book every two or three days, particularly if it's something more than fluff. At an average pace of one book every three days, I'd read about 7,000 books in all. But sometimes I get so busy that I don't finish a whole book in a week. . . . So, in the four or five decades which, if I'm lucky, remain to me, I'm not likely to cover more than another 4,000 or 5,000 books---total.

Viewed from that perspective, the future---my personal future, anyway---looks disturbingly short. It's rather unsettling. And I got a very similar feeling from reading Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines and Hans Moravec's Robot.

I didn't expect to have this response. These are two books I thought would invigorate and inspire me. They're like nonfiction sf, futuristic speculations by two of the leading lights of the artificial intelligence community. Kurzweil is the inventor of a variety of amazing devices, most notably the OCR (optical character recognition) software that scans typed, printed, and handwritten text. If you've ever used a flatbed scanner, you've encountered Kurzweil's handiwork. Moravec, meanwhile, has been involved in some of the most intriguing efforts in robotics over the past thirty years, particularly a series of attempts---remarkably successful, as he describes them in Robot---to give mechanical devices the ability to see and navigate through the world by themselves. (Most recently, these projects resulted in an AI-guided van that drove from coast to coast, in direct command more than 98% of the time.)

I've been a champion of AI as long as I can remember. I cheered Deep Blue on when it defeated chess master Gary Kasparov. I've vigorously debated anyone who denied the basic feasibility of machine minds, and I've been exhilarated by the advancements in the field which have come with the explosion in computing power and memory over the past decade. So I opened The Age of Spiritual Machines, a follow-up to Kurzweil's 1990 book The Age of Intelligent Machines, with nothing but eager anticipation.

I was not disappointed---at least not in the sense I might have feared. Kurzweil is anything but conservative in his predictions for AI over the next 100 years. First, he assures us, a computer with the full computing capacity of the human brain will be available for a mere $1,000 as soon as 2019. With that power, and continuing improvements in brain scanning techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging, Kurzweil says a machine with the full mental capacities of human beings---the first full AI---will appear by 2029. And that's just the beginning. All this computer power and complete knowledge of the brain's architecture and functions will allow individual humans to upload their minds into the growing global network, to live essentially forever among the amazing machine minds that will have evolved there. Nanotechnology (you've all heard of that, I trust) will provide these minds---human and machine---with clouds of microscopic nanobots they can assemble into whatever sorts of mobile bodies they desire. By 2099, Kurzweil says, the majority of people will have made the leap into virtual immortality, and even the few holdouts will probably be heavily modified with neural implants and other add-ons.

No one can hope to be very specific about the technologies of a hundred years from now, and Kurzweil's predictions beyond the next couple of decades remain consequently vague. What will the world look like if his suggestions are anywhere near the truth? What will these future minds be like, given the huge additions of speed and memory they'll have to work with? Kurzweil offers only the barest of hints. Most of these come in sections of imaginary dialogue at the end of each chapter. In these, he questions a citizen of this future world (dubbed Molly) at its various stages of development. She tells him about her first reactions to AI, her doubts about leaving her familiar flesh for the virtual world of the net, and her subsequent evolution into something only vaguely resembling what we think of as a human mind. (Indeed, in the final chapter, it's clear that she's holding converse with Kurzweil using a tiny fraction of her larger self, and severely modifying her expressions and assumptions in order to make herself comprehensible. She can simulate an old-style human personality, but she is one no longer.)

Much of Kurzweil's material---nanotechnology, uploaded minds, virtual reality---will be familiar to sf readers. But there are some ideas that haven't been much treated in fiction yet (quantum computing, evolutionary algorithms, etc.), and Kurzweil's discussion of these concepts offers just the kind of sfnal kick I had expected. (Reading about quantum-computing researchers using a cup of hot coffee as their computing medium, I couldn't help but think of wizards scrying the future in a bowl of water. Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictum concerning advanced technology and magic strikes again.)

The Age of Spiritual Machines claims a closer relationship to reality than most sf, however. Kurzweil works like a draft horse during the opening chapters to convince us that this is not a work of wild imagination, rooted only loosely in the trends and concerns of today, but a plausible (perhaps even inevitable) extrapolation from processes going on right now. And he gives us some good reasons to believe him. His record of prediction over a 10-year period (based on speculations from The Age of Intelligent Machines) is remarkable, particularly compared to the success rates of other futurists. Simple math backs up his earliest assertions--- unless something drastic and unlikely happens, I'll bet we do have $1,000 computers with the processing and memory capacity of the human brain within twenty years. Kurzweil admits that his speculations further down the line may well be off in the details---perhaps the first full AI will arrive in 2032 instead of 2029---but on the larger points, he's absolutely sure, and it's hard to argue with him.

Hard, but not impossible. For all his marshalling of trends, I think Kurzweil underestimates the difficulty of certain aspects of his scenario. Computing power may grow at the speed he suggests, but will the reverse-engineering of the brain keep pace? Will nanotechnology ever really produce the wonders that he foresees? Sf readers have been down Disappointment Road before. Weren't we supposed to be vacationing on the Moon by now? The study of the brain may prove as difficult as the construction of a grand unified theory in physics, and nanotechnology may be as impossible (at least in the short term) as interstellar travel. That would put a major crimp in Kurzweil's future.

Worse, perhaps, is Kurzweil's near-total avoidance of social and economic issues. How much will it cost to upload oneself into the virtual world, and who will be able to afford it? He devotes some attention to the inevitable antitechnological reactions these developments will occasion, but socioeconomic factors will likely have a lot more impact on the deployment of intelligent machines and virtual reality in the next century. There's already a huge gap between the technologies available to wealthy Americans and impoverished Ecuadorians, for example. It'll only get worse as computing power explodes exponentially.

But the most critical issue Kurzweil overlooks is the inevitable question "Why would we want to?" He relies rather too heavily on arguments of inevitability, and assumes too easily the appeal of his imagined technologies. It won't be just neo-Luddites balking at a virtual existence---lots of people will find that uploading prospect much too adventurous. (All the more so if the nanotech lags behind, and there are no mobile bodies for a machine mind to inhabit.) Kurzweil gives too little credit to the power of human choice in the face of technological developments. Some applications may be inevitable, given the insatiable curiosity of our species, but the widespread distribution of machine intelligences or uploaded communities can't be taken for granted. Perhaps they'll never be anything more than a footnote.

Some similar problems crop up in Hans Moravec's Robot, which takes off from assumptions much like Kurzweil's. Moravec puts off the arrival of machines with human-level intelligence until 2050, largely because he believes that intelligent machines will also need to reproduce the locomotive and manipulative abilities of human beings in the physical world. (Hence his title.) This may be due to his long-standing involvement in robotics research---in other words, it could be tunnel vision---but his arguments suggest that the abilities of robots to assist us in the physical environment will be a crucial factor in the economic and social acceptance of intelligent machines. He recognizes that for machine intelligence to become more than a laboratory curiosity it will have to be of some practical use.

Moravec's got a point. It's much easier to imagine the development of machine minds out of a series of intermediate steps. And so Robot updates some familiar predictions, such as robot house cleaners, robot cars, robot factories, etc. Moravec brings more hard experience to his speculations than Kurzweil---he never underestimates the challenges of creating machines with even marginally intelligent real-world functionality. Reading these predictions from someone who has dedicated his career to issues such as machine vision and robot navigation makes it much easier to accept at least the technical feasibility of Moravec's future.

Moravec's far-future speculations, however, are much more radical---and worrisome---than Kurzweil's. Once we've developed robots of sufficient ability, they'll begin to make improvements to themselves. (Even now, he points out, chip designers rely heavily on computer technology in designing the next generation of computer parts.) An explosion will ensue. Machines will become rapidly more intelligent and capable than humans. They'll be able to maintain civilization all on their own with a tiny fraction of their attentions, and they'll inevitably turn their super-minds in other directions. They'll venture out into the solar system, and later the larger cosmos, a giant "bubble" of Mind that will eventually consume the entire universe.

Obviously Moravec doesn't think this will happen by year's end. But once our machines reach that critical point, subsequent developments will occur quite rapidly. The question, of course, is what becomes of us? And that's where Robot presents its greatest challenge to the reader. As many sf writers have speculated over the years, Moravec thinks intelligent machines may well replace their human creators. And the idea seems not to bother him at all.

"Rather quickly, they could displace us from existence," Moravec writes. "I'm not as alarmed as many by the latter possibility . . ." His sanguinity derives in part from his belief that our superintelligent successors will treat their forebears gently, allowing us to live out our lives on a peaceful, depopulated, ecologically balanced Earth. And even if the machines' interests become "incompatible with old earth's continued existence," Moravec assures us that the machines will preserve us "in some form." Most of all, though, what spares Moravec any pangs of regret for humanity's passing is the belief that these machines are like our children, not genetically but culturally. What pain should there be in bequeathing the planet and the universe to our "mind children"?

To my own surprise, I found myself really struggling with the idea. The cool, rational part of me followed Moravec's arguments and agreed, in principle. But, just as specifying the number of books remaining to me brings on a surge of existential panic, so Moravec's future (and, to a lesser extent, Kurzweil's) aroused in me a powerful resistance. No moon colonies? No Mars bases? No warp drive and humanity spreading out into the galaxy? Though I know that I won't live to see that anyway, I find it hard to accept a future in which if anyone were to boldly go anywhere, it certainly wouldn't be us, feeble biological beings that we are.

Is this just sentimentality, a nostalgia for a future that can never be? Or is there some better justification for opposing our own extinction? I've been pondering this question ever since I finished Robot, and I'm still not sure. But I lean toward the latter position. No species should accept extinction without a fight, and no more should we give up our dreams of the stars.

I'm hardly alone in this opinion. Sf has frequently confronted similar scenarios and almost invariably come down in favor of battling for survival rather than simply rolling over. Think of Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series, or (more recently) Linda Nagata's Vast. In film, there's The Terminator and The Matrix. Even sf novels that accept the notion of a future cosmos devoured by machine intelligence---in which we might live, if at all, as simulations running in some corner of the cosmic Mind---seek some measure of dignity and meaning for our future selves. (Robert Charles Wilson's Darwinia, which I reviewed here some months ago, attempts exactly this.) I don't think we'll give up hope quite so easily as Moravec expects.

Ultimately Moravec's book is vulnerable to the same question Kurzweil's was: Why would we ever choose a future like this? Perhaps we'll choose not to build these ever-so-helpful robots. (Perhaps Moravec's own book will plant the seeds of mistrust.) And, even if we do, perhaps we'll make sure that they don't get any funny ideas about shoving us out of the driver's seat . . .

*†††† *†††† *

Arthur C. Clarke's latest book, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!, a compilation of some of his best nonfiction pieces from the full span of his career, provides very interesting comparisons and contrasts in this context. From his earliest published writings---reviews of books on rocketry---through his most recent newspaper editorials and satellite-broadcast addresses, Clarke displays an optimistic humanism that's so notably missing from Kurzweil's and Moravec's books. "The spirit of curiosity and wonder is the driving force behind all of Man's achievements," he wrote in 1946. "If it ever fails, the story of our race will be coming to an end."

In all of his visions of the future, Clarke never strays far from the question "why?" "It is one thing to show how spaceflight may be achieved," he wrote in 1955; "it is quite another to show why." (The same could be said of thinking machines.) Though his essays are full of practical justifications for the various positions he defends---manned space flights, universal education, a planetary defense system against asteroids and comets---his ultimate reasons lie deeper, beyond material considerations. In 1962's "Rocket to the Renaissance," he wrote: "The creation of wealth is not to be despised, but in the long run the only human activities really worthwhile are the search for knowledge and the creation of beauty." And he is never shy about hoping for significant improvements in human life: "When a world economic system is functioning smoothly, when all standards of living are approaching the same level, when no national armaments are left . . ."

The utopian dreams of a načve young man? Perhaps (though Clarke was 29 at the time, and expresses similar aspirations in his writings up to the present day). But such idealism, such boundless hope, is one of the characteristics that brought me to sf in the first place. The resignation evident in Kurzweil and Moravec, their unexamined assumption that the ways and means of American capitalism will forever dominate our culture (even relations between Moravec's superintelligent machines are described in terms of contemporary corporate politics), strike me as a sad indication of the diminishment of our vision.

On the other hand, there are some instances of striking parallels between Clarke's essays and the views of Kurzweil and Moravec. In "The Obsolesence of Man" (1962), Clarke pursued a nearly identical argument: "To put it bluntly and brutally, the machine is going to take over." Given Clarke's unblinking rationalism, it's not tremendously surprising that he considered this possibility---would you expect less from the creator of HAL 9000? But what is strange is Clarke's attitude toward this fate: He's as accepting of it as Moravec. "No individual exists forever," he writes, "why should we expect our species to be immortal?"

This position seems to contradict Clarke's unflagging belief in the capabilities of human beings. An essay from some years later---"The Mind of the Machine" (1972)---reveals a slightly different take on the subject. Here Clarke, like Moravec, foresees a world of humans freed from the toil of industrial society by the services of intelligent machines, and instead of extinction, Clarke posits a distant coexistence, with humanity dwelling in on an edenic Earth while "the culture of the ultraintelligent machines" goes on its own "unfathomable way." This is something of a compromise; machines will outdo humans, but they won't necessarily extinguish us or crush our spirits.

Clarke revisits the issue again in the more recent essay "The Coming Cyberclasm" (1995). Here, in light of the "zombification" he sees in the slaves of the Sony Walkman, Clarke deplores the possibility of a human race grown inert and dependent upon its machines for support. In the end, he says, "The machines may unplug us," and that "would serve us right."

The essays in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds! offer a reminder that one of the best purposes of futuristic speculation, whether fictional or not, is the outlining of possible futures, that we may choose. Science and technology, Clarke tells us, "decide the kind of futures that are possible: human wisdom must decide which are desirable." This is the dimension that's missing from Kurzweil's and Moravec's books. It's a dimension that sf naturally brings to bear, and one can only hope that our visionary humanists---Robinson, Cadigan, Bear, et al.---will map out this territory while it's still fictional, and help us claim a more desirable future while we still can.

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