Transgressive Man

April 4, 2012

Prophet, futurist, or catalyst of chaos? Ray Kurzweil believes that innovations in biogenetics and nanotechnology are creating a new future for humanity, but could they just as easily destroy us all?

There’s a scene near the opening of Transcendent Man, the 2009 documentary on futurist Ray Kurzweil, showing archive footage of the then-17-year-old’s appearance on panel show I’ve Got a Secret. Suited and smiling, exuding the awkward confidence of someone becoming slowly aware of a great gift, Kurzweil sits at a piano and rattles off an unusual piece of music. The panel is surprisingly quick to guess his secret: the composition was written by a computer – a computer, it transpires, that Kurzweil also built and programmed. The host, Steve Allen, congratulates young Raymond and predicts a bright future for him.

It’s an auspicious introduction to a man for whom computers are arguably as valuable as human life itself, a man for whom predicting the future is very much part of the present. Kurzweil made his name as an inventor in the ’70s and ’80s, patenting everything from the flatbed scanner and text-to-speech synthesizer (both pre-emptively created to enable the completion of the Kurzweil Reading Machine for the blind), to the Kurzweil K250, a piano synthesizer constructed following a conversation with Stevie Wonder.

Yet it wasn’t until 1990 that Kurzweil’s first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, put his decades of research and development into a wider context. His arbitrary inventions now seemed part of a wider effort to nudge humanity towards the age of electronic enlightenment described in those pages: an age in which man and machine coexisted, but in which machines were the superior being, blessed with artificial intelligence that allowed them to take on many of the tasks formerly falling to human hands.

Then in 1998, the year that Kurzweil had predicted would see a computer defeat a human at chess (he was 12 months out – IBM’s Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997), he released his follow up, The Age of Spiritual Machines. Kurzweil used the opportunity to extend his earlier predictions of a future in which man and machines coexisted to a point at which they would become, essentially, one and the same. […]