Kurzweil Responds to Critics of His Prediction

More specifically, he wrote a response to PZ Myers whose article I linked in my own criticism. I saw this via Hacker News and thought it would be fair to write it up as well, especially given the repeated comments on my own thoughts by a clear defender of Kurzweil’s work.

The part I will concede is that neither PZ nor I had the whole of Kurzweil’s argument to inform our reactions. I have already decided to borrow “The Singularity is Near” from the library on the suggestion of my own commenter, specifically to read through the more fleshed out hypothesis Kurzweil wrote in that book’s fourth chapter.

Despite clear need to inform it further, on reading his own defense my opinion remains that the man is profoundly naive. He suggests that forty years contemplating the problem of reverse engineering the human brain pushes his ideas above the sort of reproach expressed by Myers and myself. I would offer that the whole of the artificial intelligence field has been studying variations of the very same problem for that duration and has very little to show for it. Kind of suggests that the problem truly is that hard.  The vast majority of thought leaders in the field are much more humble in what they predict about its future as well as the time scales involved. Simple time spent on the problem is once again a poor metric to gauge any single researcher’s grasp on the overall complexity.

I also find his flogging of Moore’s law suspect. I’ve been tracking the state of current and future computing architectures, physical and logical.  Though I am not a computer scientist or researcher my own reading leaves me skeptical that progress will remain on a doubling curve.  That isn’t a certainty just my view as an enthusiast.

Moore’s second, lesser known observation about the stable or decreasing power consumption and thermal load on chips over time hasn’t panned out.  I suspect will inevitable exert a braking force on his more famous, first observation. We all get that exponential trends are hard to predict, more is different. I doubt anyone would gainsay that assertion.  I am just not so certain that the doubling of computing power every eighteen months will abide for the next two decades.

The two most likely alternative ways forward, partially or completely bypassing limits on transistor density, present considerable hurdles that make prediction of Moore’s Law, or something like it, holding true over the next two decades unlikely in my view. Increasingly parallel direct successors to today’s chips are taxing computer science and programming practice to continue to saturate all of the horsepower these chips have to offer. Maybe we’ll have effect some kind of Kuhnian paradigm shift like the past leaps to structured, procedural and object oriented programming. That is far from guaranteed let alone probable. At this point, no one knows.

The future of quantum computing is even less certain. We haven’t been able to scale experimental computers of this type to a point where we can build informed guesses about their capabilities, let alone gauge how they might or might not make short work of simulating a system as complex as the human brain.

Even if I agreed with Kurzweil’s estimation of the complexity of virtualizing a human brain, it just isn’t a certainty that at the end of the next two decades we’ll have the horse power to drive it. I’ll extend the benefit for now on his estimation until I’ve had a chance to read his explanation more thoroughly but I rather doubt it will change my opinion.  I will endeavor to keep an open mind.

Just so we are clear, I want to see machine intelligence in my lifetime. That achievement will herald unpredictable changes not only in our society but in what it means to be human. I just think that the progress towards that goal is better served by humility and nose-to-grindstone pragmatism than Kurzweil’s unquestioning faith in an unqualified outcome that seems far from certain. Embracing the questions more fully seems like a better way forward than blind devotion to a presupposed answer.

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