Age of the Spiritual Machine – Ray Kurzweil

I am often find myself remembering a quote from C.S. Lewis: “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used…”

The two large umbrella categories by which almost all books are sorted (fiction and non-fiction) are our first step at this. I knew from just background knowledge Ray Kurzweil’s Age of the Spiritual Machine is meant to be considered non-fiction, but I had no idea how it justifies that label. The book, published twenty years ago, goes into how what is happening with technological industries and how it will impact our lives going into the future.

I think one can make a pretty interesting comparison between the final chapters of Kurzweil’s book and works of Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon, though now largely forgotten, wrote some of the most interesting science-fiction books ever, and I didn’t enjoy a single one of them. It is hard to call them anything but vaguely philosophical. His books outline the future of humanity from about the present moment to a future so far off that it almost unrecognizable as our future at all. They are pretty trippy books, which go into things like the third world war and Dyson spheres (Dyson spheres, despite the name, where actually an idea that Stapeldon came up with. The more you know…), and would be masterpieces if it wasn’t for the dull writing. They feel like boring, fictional textbooks. But largely they are understood to be fiction, although some people see a little bit of prophecy in them.

I don’t understand why Kurzweil gets special treatment. And for the most part I really did feel like I was reading Stapeldon-esque fiction every time he made a prediction. But ultimately I found myself completely indifferent to everything the author was saying in this book. By the time I got to the end of the book, I felt like everything in it could be dismissed by what Christopher Hitchens said – “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. It’s wonderful that you think this is the case, but if you aren’t going to provide any proof, it is about as valid as the prophet of doom talking about ‘Satan come in fleshly form’. The fact that you worked in tech does not compensate for this one jot. These the things talked about in this book may come to pass, but they may also not. Who knows, we may pretty soon find ourselves in a season of neo-luddites, and our focus on technology comes slowing down massively.

Some people would say that this book does bring evidence, and lots of it. But I don’t think that is exactly fair. It brings one bit of evidence, but ignores that absolutely nightmarish-complex web of intertwining threads that effect the future of humanity. In 1999, when this book was published, I too believed that at some point in the future it was likely that there would be some kind of massively available flying vehicle. Want to know what made me skeptical about this? September 11th, 2001. That’s something that isn’t really taken into account with these predictions, but will have a far reaching societal impact, particularly when it comes to things like the development of personal flying vehicles. We are already hearing more and more about problems with drones (Marc Goodman’s Future Crimes talk about how one person was already planning an act of terrorism with a drone, and there was also the recent story about Heathrow airport), and I can’t imagine this is going to let up.

Plenty of people online are compiling lists of Ray Kurzweil’s hit rate on his predictions. Whether you want to give him credit on an individual claim often boils down to semantic debates, particularly hinging on words like ‘most’ and ‘vast majority’. But some are definitely proven incorrect, while others seem on track.

But I am really uninterested in the mere game playing of putting predictions onto scorecards. At the end of the day, I am more interested in answering the question of ‘should people read this book’, and I lean heavily towards a strong ‘no’.

Perhaps the nicest thing I can say about this all is that any act of prophecy should be counted as a form of fiction (more specifically, science-fiction).

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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