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The Cult of Kurzweil: Will Robots Save Our Souls

The Cult of Kurzweil: Will Robots Save Our Souls

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Published by Jeffrey W. Danese

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Published by: Jeffrey W. Danese on Feb 01, 2012
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07/25/2014

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ESSAY 
 April 5, 2011
The Cult of Kurzweil: Will Robots SaveOur Souls?
 By
ROBERT M. GERACI
Last month a computer—IBM's famous "Watson"—trounced the greatest human Jeopardy players of alltime, and effectively inaugurated a new era in human-computer relations. After decades of difficulty—in which all of the problems that seemed easiest turned out to be the mostdifficult—artificial intelligence (AI) experts are now well (or at least better) positioned to tout thepotential of computers. Although robots still cannot walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time,enthusiasts hope they will soon equal our intelligence and, perhaps, even provide us with scientificalternatives to the traditional religious promises of salvation.
The AI Apocalypse
Scientists like roboticistHans Moravecand inventorRay Kurzweiladvocate uploading our minds into robots or virtual reality so that we can live forever. They believe that our minds can be replicatedoutside of our brains if we simply copy the pattern of neuro-chemical activity taking place in our bodies. That pattern, rather than the brains in which the pattern takes shape, “is” the personality. If itcan be transferred to a digital medium, it can be made immortal. Both Moravec and Kurzweil predictthat this technological transcendence is rapidly approaching. In the near future, our essential selves will be digital information, capable of infinite replication, rapid learning, and regular backup in case of an accident. Surpassingly intelligent robots—our Mind Children, according to Moravec—will populatethe universe, converting physical reality into a cosmic interweb of thinking machines.In the years since these claims were first made in the late 1970s and 1980s, their cultural credibility hasgrown at an astounding (some would say alarming) rate, and sightings of these Apocalyptic AI authorsand their religious ideas have become commonplace in the popular press. In particular, faith in what iscalled the "Singularity"—the moment when robots become transcendently intelligent and we, as aconsequence, upload our minds into machines—finds a home in the news, in science fiction, in filmfestivals, and in prime time television shows.Even theIEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the eminently professional Institute for Electricaland Electronics Engineers, devoted an entire special edition to discussing the Singularity in June of 2008 (a fact which one roboticist told me that he found “a little disturbing”).Perhaps because journalists think they’re throwing Kurzweil to the wolves when they profile him intheir pages or perhaps because they are, themselves, true believers, major news media online and inprint have rushed to interview Kurzweil and profile his ideas over the past few years. Most recently,
 
Time
magazinehas labeledthe Singularity a “serious hypothesis…an idea that rewards sober, carefulevaluation.” Where once Kurzweil was listed among the fringe and suspected of being just a bit off- balance, in the past few years (especially since founding his own for-profit school,Singularity University ) he has become a legitimate prophet.
Saint Kurzweil
Perhaps calling Kurzweil a prophet actually undersells his current popularity; if popular media canmake a man into a saint, then Kurzweil has been beatified.
Transcendent Man
, a biographicaldocumentary about Kurzweil, cruised into film festivals in 2009 and received wide accolades aroundthe time of its 2011 digital release.Like any good hagiography, the film revels in Kurzweil’s genius as well as his eccentricity: one moment we see blind people praising him for changing their lives with his reading machines and the nextmoment we hear Kurzweil promising that he will resurrect his father from the dead—or watch himswallow hundreds of vitamin supplements out of a hope that these will keep him alive until he canupload his mind. Perhaps it is because Kurzweil appeals as both genius inventor and spiritual saviorthat the film garnered considerable attention. Thanks to the film, Kurzweil and the director, Barry Ptolemy, were able to evangelize in print and in interviews, such as in their recentconversationwithPBS's Charlie Rose.The reviewer for the ever-hip
 Film School Rejects
 claimsthat “every moment of Transcendent Man isabout as compelling as it gets,” the Associate Editor of the International Documentary Association’s webpage lists the film as one of her top ten documentary film picks of 2009 and the film’s pressreleases cite a rave from Ain’t It Cool Newsthat says, “not only is Transcendent Man the must-see filmof 2011 but it just might change your life forever”. Whether or not the film accurately prophecies thefuture, it certainly looks likely to profit the filmmakers. Upon its initial iTunes release in Canada, thefilm shot into to the top ten in popularity, which was followed by immediate success in the UnitedStates.
One Singular Salvation?
It is, of course, totally unclear whether Moravec, Kurzweil, and their supporters are correct. Will robots become massively intelligent? Will human beings become highly intelligent cyborgs or upload ourminds fully into machines and thereby live forever? Whether they are correct is probably less importantthan the fact that the faithful who believe they are has a growing membership. Singularity University had more than 1200 applications for its first nine-week graduate class in 2009 (40 students wereaccepted). Public policy leaders and corporate officers have attended executive classes and funding hascome from major tech companies such as Google and Nokia. Press surrounding the university has beenpositive, including evenan encouraging review from the
Chronicle of Higher Education
, whichsuggests that traditional universities have much to learn from SU’s curriculum. What we see is the emergence of a genuine religious tradition. Is it new? Not exactly: faith intechnology to produce transcendent human conditions is centuries old. But this manifestation, whetherit be under the label of transhumanism, Singularitarianism, or (as I’ve called it) Apocalyptic AI, has a

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