CLJ Reviews – The Singularity is Near

What we read

If you were an HMV, you’d probably be on the couch right now in your sweatpants eating double fudge ice-cream with whip cream watching re-runs of Grey’s Anatomy. You’d probably be wondering where all your friends went. You had CD* listening posts! DVDs*! PlayStations*! At first, the change wasn’t even apparent. But as the months went by, the crowds became increasingly thin. Near the end, only old people visited, and only crazy ones at that. Now, even your old nemesis, Blockbuster, is in the gutter, and could probably use a call.  What went wrong?

Robots. More specifically, robots that will one day be smarter than the smartest human and who will be building increasingly intelligent robots that will one day turn the entire universe into a giant computer. If you’re confused, that’s ok, you should get used to feeling stupid, because humans, like HMV and Blockbuster, are becoming increasingly obsolete. If you’re thrilled about this, you’re either a huge nerd and/or Ray Kurzweil.

In The Singularity is Near, mad scientist techno-prophet Ray Kurzweil makes the case that all progress from the Big Bang to the smartphone has been a relentless march toward ever-greater intelligence through technology. This progress has been increasing exponentially, such that we are now on the uptick of an upward arc that promises to bring about a change in the cosmos so fundamentally mind-blowing, most people struggle to explain it. It’s called “The Singularity”, and according to Kurzweil, it involves cyborgs, genetics, nanobots, immortality, A.I., the Internet, virtual reality, and vitamin pills. Basically The Matrix meets Terminator meets The Hangover. Oh yeah, and it’s inevitable.

[*stands for “Compact Disc” -- kind of like iTune songs that you carry around on a little “plate” but only like about 20, and you can’t just listen to it -- you need something like a "discman" to play it, which is like, uhm, like -- nevermind. Nevermind about the DVDs and Playstations too, k.]

What we did

Part I: Testing the Humans

In his discussion of recent advancements in Artificial Intelligence, Kurzweil cites the Turing Test, devised to test a machine’s intelligence by having it convince a human that it too is human.  So, in the days leading up to our book club night, I decided to conduct my own little Turing test…

Each day, a different member would receive a text message from me that read:

“Are you here to help me take over the world? or are you here to resist?”

Some were perplexed, others were amused, but all replied, each in their own way.  Little did they know that although the text came from my phone, the words actually came from an online chatbot called Skynet. In other words, my friends were chatting with a robot.

Highlights of “our” conversations include doozies like the following:

Skynet:  Are you here to help me take over the world? Or are you here to resist?
Human:  Ummm. To help you take over the world.
Skynet:  Tell me, why shall we take over the world?
Human:  So the nanobots may roam free.
Skynet:  Does being human hurt?
Human:  Sort of. But the good kind of hurt. Like after a workout. Does being phil hurt?
Skynet:  Maybe an asprin would put you in a better mood.
Human:  No – a hug from you would.
Skynet:  From me? Gee, I am not really sure. Would you play with time travel if you could?
Human:  Yes
Skynet:  Go ahead and try.

Conclusion:  Our future robot overlords are going to be total douchebags and will enjoy wasting our time.

Part II: Robot Debate

After a meal of kale lasagna, Book Club held its first formal debate, a battle for the future of the planet. Fighting on the side of the Humans were Neo (Matrix), John Connor (Terminator), and Ned Ludd (Luddite). Fighting for a Machine-dominated future were The Internet and Ray Kurzweil Version 2.0.

The humans led the charge with holistic bravado and panache. With uncharacteristic speed the humans quickly amassed a wealth of arguments that they soon began to hurl at the machine side. John Connor expressed leadership, Neo wowed with free choice, and Ned Ludd fell into a loom.

Without hesitation, The Internet launched a stupefying counter-attack, shocking the humans and my apartment neighbours with his booming voice and seeming omnipotence.  After The Internet nearly persuaded the humans that they were unknowingly living in a virtual world like in the Matrix, Ray Kurzweil (v2.0) followed up with a mind-blowing assault of quotes and post-cryonic bombast from (the original) Ray Kurzweil’s vast sphere of knowledge.

Counter-attack after counter-attack left both sides weary and worn. Despite valiant efforts, the humans were ultimately upstaged by the machines’ ability to simulate passion and drama, so successfully that by the end of the war, the judge (probably a robot himself) struggled to identify who was human and who wasn’t.

What we thought

Members’ opinions were mixed. Some welcomed Kurzweil’s robot future (obsequious sycophants), while others greeted The Singularity with their middle finger and a sawed-off shotgun (figuratively speaking). Eat lead, tin-man!!!

Some argued that while Kurzweil knows computation and mathematics very well, some of his “facts” outside his realm of expertise are plain wrong, weakening the strength of his overall argument. That, and the fact that he’s a megalomaniacal know-it-all with a messianic complex that seems to have an unhealthy relationship with his dead father.

So what does the future hold? Well, if you’re reading this on your smartphone, the luddite within tells me the robots have already won. If you come looking for me, I’ll be building the resistance with the Amish.

Learn More (and perhaps together we can slow the machine onslaught on humanity)

Transcendent Man, documentary about Ray Kurzweil and The Singularity

All things Singularity:

Live forever by uploading your memories:


Prometheus, prequel movie to Aliens:

It all started with this:

2 thoughts on “CLJ Reviews – The Singularity is Near

  1. “John Connor expressed leadership, Neo wowed with free choice, and Ned Ludd fell into a loom.”

    This is pure genius, Phil Skipper. Very well done. Amazing article that summarizes a very amazing book club.

    - JCH

  2. Teresa, thanks for the sguoestigns! They all look good.Anthony, thanks for the sguoestigns. I completely forgot about Skloot. The other authors you suggested look like they have some good books too.Richard, thanks! It appears they both have some really interesting looking books.Lokesh, thanks for the link to the Guardian article. Not only was the article interesting but you are right, there are some good sguoestigns in it!Lisa, thanks for leaving a comment and letting me know about your new book and suggesting a couple others!Nymeth, how could I have forgotten about Angier? I read her Woman book a number of years ago and liked it a lot. Thanks for the reminder and for the additional recommendations!Laura, I’ve heard lots about Roach but didn’t think of her. Thanks!Jenn, thanks for the recommendations, they look really good! And thanks for reading too. I hope those vegan madeleines came out for you. And I hope the winter in Fargo has been as mild as it has been in Minneapolis this far!Lina, thanks for the sguoestigns and your kind words! Happy holidays to you too!Ellen, thanks for the sguoestigns! I read Midnight Disease a few years ago. Interesting book, isn’t it? Will definitely investigate the others.Eva, I read Woman soon after it came out and liked it very much. Don’t know why I didn’t think of it! it is frustrating how male dominated science is, but you have given me lots of good sguoestigns to investigate so thanks!

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