Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My short review of the Age of Spiritual Machines

I came across this book (The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence) written in 1999 concerning the future of computing. Dr. Kurzweil has an interesting take on the future of computing and the human race. He sees things in a very positive light, and he is a very strong "strong AI" proponent. He had many specific predictions about the future of computing in 10 year increments. There are predictions for 2009, 2019, 2029 and 2099. Since it is now 2009, I thought I would look at his predictions for 2009 to see how accurate they are. The synopsis of his predictions come from pages 277-278, but chapter nine (pages 189-201) covers the year 2009 in more detail.

"A $1,000 personal computer can perform about a trillion calculations per second." This would be 1,000 Gigahertz computer. In looking at some Dell and Gateway desktop models that cost around $1,000, I see that they have processors such as a Quad-Core Intel® Xeon® Processor up to 3.33GHz or an Intel® Core™2 Quad Processor Q8200 at 2.33GHz. This isn't exactly 1,000 GHz, but with the dual and quad processors, they may be effectively operating at much greater than a 3.33 or a 2.33 GHz single Intel processor. Processing power isn't as important as it used to be. Memory is also very important, and that is not addressed at all in his book. Also, the speed of the computer can depend on the operating system that is used.

"Personal Computers with high-resolution visual displays come in a range of sizes, from those small enough to be embedded in clothing and jewelry up to the size of a thin book."
He kind of called this one, but wearable computers are not exactly in fashion these days, unless you consider an iPhone a wearable computer.

"Cables are disappearing. Communications between components use short-distance wireless technology. High-speed wireless communication provides access to the Web."
Plenty of cables are still around, but WIFI and G3 is taking care of the Web access.

"The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition. Also ubiquitous are language user interfaces." Ummmmmmmmmmm, no.

"Most routine business transactions (purchases, travel reservations) take place between a human and a virtual personality. Often, the virtual personality includes an animated visual presence that looks like a human face." Well, we do make purchases and reservations online, but it is not with an animated virtual presence.

"Although traditional classroom organization is still common, intelligent courseware has emerged as a common means of learning." We are not even close to being there. I think Dr. Kurzweil doesn't understand the political and social inertia that is in the public education system and in the college educational system. High quality educational software is pretty difficult to devise.

"Translating telephones (speech-to-speech language translation) are commonly used for many language pairs." Another no.

"Accelerating returns from the advance of computer technology have resulted in continued economic expansion. Price deflation, which had been a reality in the computer field during the 20th century, is now occurring outside the computer field. The reason for this is that virtually all economic sectors are deeply effective by the accelerating improvement in the price performance of computing."
Well, no. However, how could he possibly have predicted the 9/11 bombings. The Tech bubble bursting in the early 2000's, and the economic and housing market collapse of the fall of 2008. We are in a stage of abundant over consumption, and humans need to learn not to consume so much and to save more.

"Human musicians routinely jam with cybernetic musicians." Again no. But, I do find the word 'cybernetic' interesting. Haven't used that word in some time.

"Bioengineered treatments for cancer and heart disease have greatly reduced the mortality from these diseases." I wish. As humans have gotten heavier, our heart problems have gotten worse. The war on cancer is still being waged.

"The neo-Luddite movement is growing." Another no. I see more and more people sharing their thoughts, ideas, images and videos using Web2.0 technology. We are seeing solutions to our problems being solved with crowd-sourced open-access software platforms.

Some other good reviews are at:

Fogel, David B., A true visionary's truly fantastic vision. IEEE Spectrum, (July 1999), Vol. 36 Issue 7, p9-10.

Casti, John L., Exit Homo sapiens, stage left. Nature (2/25/1999), Vol. 397 Issue 6721, p663-664.

Proudfoot, Diane, How Human Can They Get? Science (04/30/1999), Vol. 284 Issue 5415, p745.

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