Book Review: “The Singularity is Near,” A Transhumanist Manifesto

Opinion   |   Rebecca Taylor   |   Jul 18, 2012   |   10:38AM   |   Washington, DC

So I finally did it. I sat down and read The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. And while many question Kurzweil’s calculations, and his unbounded optimism about the technology of the future, The Singularity is Near is possibly the closest thing to a transhumanist manifesto as you can find.

It was as enjoyable to read as eating sand, not only because of what it offered: endless pages of technical jargon, but also because of what it didn’t: any sense of anything other than “self.”

What is the Singularity? Well defining it is a bit like nailing Jello to the wall, but I will give it a try. The Singularity is the moment when human intelligence merges with non-biological technology to vastly enhance our capabilities. The word singularity is derived from the mathematical term referring to a value that does not have a finite limitation. So essentially, after the Singularity, human intelligence, with the help of machines, will no longer be limited to what can be accomplished in our finite brains. With technology, it has the chance to become infinite.

I will let Kurzweil explain the Singularity:

“The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever.)”

“The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but transcends our biological roots.”

Basically, we will merge with our technology, and Kurzweil predicts:

“There will be no distinction post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.”

And what will this technological utopia look like? The human body version 2.0 will be mostly “non-biological” with all of our major systems, nervous, circulatory, immune, digestive, and respiratory augmented or replaced by nanotechnology. Nanobots will allow us to perform Olympic pace sprints for 15 minutes without taking a breath, eat whatever we want without gaining weight, have super-fast, limitless cognitive skills, summon a virtual reality, including a virtual lover, at will, and have a “back-up” of our consciousness ready if needed. We will never get sick and, most importantly to Kurzweil, we will never have to die.

So when will this amazing human 2.0 come into existence? Because of the exponential growth of technology, Kurzweil predicts as soon as the 2030s. Yes that’s right. In the 2030s, I will hopefully, be getting ready to retire and take care of my grandkids. My children will be starting their families. In other words, not in the distant future, but in this lifetime. Kurzweil writes:

“Let’s consider where we are, circa early 2030s. We’ve eliminated the heart, lungs, red and white blood cells, platelets, pancreas, thyroid and all the hormone-producing organs, kidneys, bladder, liver, lower esophagus, stomach, small intestines, large intestines and bowel. What we have left at this point is the skeleton, skin, sex organs, sensory organs, mouth and upper esophagus and brain.”

He goes on to describe human body version 3.0 made a special material where we will be able to “rapidly alter our physical manifestations at will.” With a 3.0 body, not only could change ourselves to be our idea of physical perfection, but our lover could even change us to be what they would prefer.

Now many people will simply laugh at Kurzweil and dismiss him as some over-optimistic technophile. While his predictions may well be zealous, I would not ignore him or his wares. If even a small percentage of what he discusses in this book comes to pass, we are still in trouble.

Namely that as the elite enhance, the poor will be left behind. The enhanced will then not only have a monetary advantage, but a biological one as well. Kurzweil acknowledges the disparity that is inevitable. He is even kind of snarky about it. He says that the unenhanced human will be “unable think fast enough to keep up.” And when discussing the question of whether or not to enhance humanity, Kurzweil writes:

“And to the extent that there will be debate about the desirability of such augmentation, it’s easy to predict who will win, since those with enhanced intelligence will be far better debaters.”

He admits that the poor will be behind the rich in becoming enhanced, but in true transhumanist style he dismisses the problem by insisting that at by that time the pace of technological advance will be so fast that the poor will only have to wait a short time before they too can afford to enhanced. He is assuming of course that everyone in the world will have access to such technologies. In a human existence where dictators hoard money, food and medicine and keep them from the people, I don’t think it is a valid assumption.

What I found most disturbing about The Singularity is Near was not the physical description of the transhuman, but simply a lack of any of the virtues that make life worth living. The whole book is an homage to “self.” While others would find it lacking a sense of reality, I found it lacking in love, sacrifice, and selflessness. It is especially haunting in that the self-giving conjugal love of husband and wife and the gift of children that result are non-existent, an after thought, victims of virtual lovers and the selfish quest to live forever.

Like I said, it was like eating sand. Terrible taste, terrible texture with little or no nutritional value. Here’s hoping the Singularity is not near. Ever.