[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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On Ray Kurzweil's
The Age Of Spiritual Machines

a dialog between

Robert J. Sawyer


A. K. Dewdney

First published in The Ottawa Citizen, Sunday, April 4, 1999.

The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil (Viking, 1999) extrapolates the ever-more-intimate relationship between humans and computers through the end of the next century. Kurzweil believes that humans will soon willingly accept computer implants in their brains that will allow us instantaneous access to information. He suspects that computers that think and feel as humans do are just around the corner. And he also believes that within a few decades we will have the technology to scan our minds and upload copies of ourselves into computers, freeing us from the limitations imposed by our biological bodies.

Kurzweil is an entrepreneur who developed several computer technologies, including optical-character recognition (by which printed matter can be scanned into computers) and voice-recognition (which allows computers to be controlled by spoken commands).

The Ottawa Citizen invited Toronto science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer and computer scientist A. K. ("Kee") Dewdney to have a dialog about the ideas in Kurzweil's book.

Sawyer won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for his 1995 novel The Terminal Experiment (HarperPrism). His work is rigorously researched, and often explores the ethics of new technologies. Sawyer's latest novel, Factoring Humanity (Tor), deals with the quantum nature of human consciousness and the development of computers with emotions. His eleventh novel, FlashForward (Tor), will be out in late May.

Dewdney is professor emeritus of Computer Science and adjunct professor of Zoology at the University of Western Ontario, and a former columnist for Scientific American. Among his areas of study are vision systems for autonomous robots and developing computer models of ecosystems. His latest books are Hungry Hollow: The Story of a Natural Place (Copernicus Springer) and Mathematical Mystery Tour: Discovering the Truth and Beauty of the Cosmos (Wiley).

Our two experts have quite different takes on Kurzweil's book.

A. K. Dewdney: In the virtual reality of Kurzweil's own imagination, his book has already had its closest encounter with reality. His vast compendium of bits and pieces of mostly imaginary technology, nurtured by a media that prefers to ignore the real work in artificial intelligence [AI], cobbled into a masturbatory engine of adolescent adventurism, is destined for a place in history beside the helicopter-in-every-garage and the paperless society. Kurzweil's book, which may also be read as a brilliant (if unconscious) satire on the spiritual vacuum of late Twentieth Century western society, also makes an attractive paperweight.

Robert J. Sawyer: Well, we're off to a good start, Kee — we already strongly disagree. I think The Age of Spiritual Machines is quite a brilliant book, actually. It certainly should be read critically, and of course almost all the technologies of a hundred years from now exist today only in the imagination at this point, just as those of 1999 were at best dreams a hundred years ago. If I have a quibble with the book, it's that Kurzweil is too Pollyannish for my tastes.

For instance, he talks repeatedly about how the ecological niche for intelligent life seems only able to support one species. Rather than Neandertals, who were our genetic cousins, and Cro-Magnons, our direct ancestors, both surviving, one — the less physically robust one, as it happened — outcompeted and completely supplanted the other. Yet Kurzweil seems to think that intelligent humans and intelligent machines will live side by side without conflict. I think that's a real blind spot in his thinking. If it is possible to create machines that can outthink us, I suspect we will end up in conflict with them, and that flesh-and-blood humanity will be the losers. What's your take, Kee?

Dewdney: I don't think a technology as pervasive as computers are today should be underestimated. And tomorrow we may have to take "intelligent" computers even more seriously. Without examining an issue that no one really understands more closely, I'd tend to agree with you. On the other hand, Rob, aren't you and Kurzweil both taking something for granted?

Sawyer: Well, if you mean Kurzweil's implicit assumption that artificial intelligence is something easily within our grasp — that creating machines that think and feel as humans do is something we're very close to accomplishing — I agree that he's probably vastly underestimating the difficulty; it's almost 2001, and HAL 9000 still seems awfully far away. I'm personally in Oxford mathematician Roger Penrose's camp in believing that there is something inherently noncomputational about human thought [Penrose expands this idea in his books The Emperor's New Mind (1989) and Shadows of the Mind (1994); he believes that human consciousness arises not from conventional physical processes, but rather from the bizarre realm of quantum physics, in which entities can exist in multiple states simultaneously].

Dewdney: The centre of gravity of Kurzweil's whole book lies with the notion of a conscious machine, it seems to me. With no prospect of conscious machines in the future, there would be no fabulous book sales. The AI types you see on TV maintain that consciousness will be an emergent property, an "epiphenomenon," without saying just how it will emerge from the circuitry. Most AI experts do not make such claims (nor are they trying to emulate human intelligence). Others, as you are aware, say that consciousness may be something entirely different, perhaps forever beyond the reach of computers.

Sawyer: But passing the Turing test is something some AI researchers are still pursuing. [Named for computer pioneer Alan Turing, the Turing test posits a human being who can any questions he or she wishes of two entities, with the responses coming back as text on computer screen. One of the entities is another flesh-and-blood person, and the other is a computer. If the person asking the questions can't tell which is which, then you have to judge the computer to be as intelligent as the human being.]

To pass the Turing test, a computer would have to appear to be indignant, warm, witty, sad, and so on. And if it appears to have those feelings, who's to say it isn't really experiencing them? Indeed, Kurzweil says people will take such machines as their lovers. Still, if we both agree that he's too optimistic about creating new consciousness in silicon, what do you think about Kurzweil's other main idea, Kee? He believes we will soon abandon our flimsy bodies and upload our minds into computers, putting an end to aging, death, and most physical needs.

Dewdney: Kurzweil might as well make love to his weed-eater. The point is that there's a semantic difficulty here. "Intelligence" per se, is not the same thing as "consciousness." You can think unconsciously, for example. You can be unconsciously aware. But moods, feelings and perceptions are quite another thing. If such experiencings, called "qualia," are beyond computers by their very nature, it may well be the case that "intelligent" computers might pass the Turing test, but not for very long. Sooner or later, Kurzweil's computer (or human simulacrum) would seem, well, not quite all "there." As for uploading his mind, Kurzweil will probably not enjoy having eternal life as an unconscious entity. By the way, have you noticed there's a quasi-religious air about all this?

Sawyer: Oh, indeed, Kee. Kurzweil is an evangelist for us transcending into another plane of existence — the virtual world inside the computer. Still, I don't believe there is anything divinely endowed about consciousness. If it exists as a real-world phenomenon, then it can be duplicated artificially. Yes, we won't be able to reproduce it until we fully understand the process, quantum mechanical or otherwise, that makes us conscious, but once we do, artificial consciousness will be possible, and Kurzweil's uploading-the-mind-and-soul concept will become feasible (although, granted, it may require a completely different sort of computer than the linear, digital ones we use today). Whether uploading one's existence is desirable is anther question, though. An uploaded mind would experience a false, computer-generated reality that, although it might seem absolutely real, would in fact be bogus. To me, virtual reality is just air guitar writ large; it's not how I want to spend eternity.

Dewdney: Hold on there, Rob. There are some non-shabby scientists who think that consciousness is not just another physical phenomenon. They include not only our friend Penrose, but Sir Karl Popper (philosopher of science), Sir John Eccles (celebrated neurophysiologist), Eugene Wigner (Nobel physicist) and several others. The common ground seems to be that consciousness as a phenomenon is inextricably (and inexplicably) bound up with quantum phenomena: certain things just don't happen unless they are observed by a conscious entity. Quantum theory proposes that consciousness has a defining role in shaping reality: until a conscious being looks at certain quantum phenomena, they don't take on concrete form. This could mean that consciousness is bound up with events behind the "quantum curtain." We cannot penetrate this curtain by any conceivable experiment; all we can observe are seemingly random events. Which path will the photon choose? Nobody knows — and perhaps no one ever will! If this is where consciousness resides, forget computers ever exploiting or duplicating it in any way.

When I mentioned religion before, I meant that Kurzweil and friends seem to be aimed at eternal life, going to heaven (the virtual world you mentioned), preaching doctrine, and gathering the faithful to hear the high prophets of a new age. This may be a millennial thing, but I can't help but feel it's a (somewhat perverted) unconscious reflection of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Is that possible?

Sawyer: Ah, but to me, Kee, what those noble sirs you cite are proposing is actually the religious position: consciousness is beyond science. Besides, if the quantum-mechanical processes that perhaps give rise to consciousness have to be observed by a conscious observer, then how did the first consciousness arise? This position rapidly devolves into an argument for the existence of God — the intelligent observer who was there from the beginning. But rather than wandering too far into metaphysics, since we don't know for a fact that there is a black box surrounding consciousness, why don't we, for the sake of argument, assume that someday we will be able to upload everything that makes up individual human consciousness into a computer? Kurzweil thinks a golden age will ensue with the whole human race transcending to the new virtual realm. But most parts of the Third World don't have phones, let alone computers. It seems a Catch-22: by uploading into a computer realm, humanity will have universal prosperity — but without first having universal prosperity, most of us will never be able to upload into that realm. If Kurzweil's rosy vision is possible, do you see any other downsides to it, Kee?

Dewdney: Rob, who can argue with a vision? Who can argue with the idea of heaven? But surely the crux of the book is how well he can persuade us that it's possible. (By the way, there's no way I'd want Kurzweil designing my heaven!) Despite the shakiness of the quantum connection, at least there's an iota (or perhaps a mega-iota) of evidence in favour of it. As for the possibility of a human mind residing somehow in a computer, we need a little reality check. Some members of the AI community (proper) simply scoff at Kurzweil's optimism. I used to work in AI, Rob. This happens to be my second (or is it my third?) cybernetic revolution. As any mainstream AI person will tell you, there hasn't been one iota of real progress in the area of mimicking human intelligence since Terry Winograd's SHRDLU in 1968. Since then, AI has been developing expert systems and various kinds of "smart" (not "intelligent") agents in software applications.

Radical AI proponents Marvin Minsky and Hans Moravec may be in universities and they may get on TV a lot, but I'm just amazed that the media doesn't realize (or unconsciously covers up the fact) that these guys represent about 2 percent of the whole AI community and outside their circle, they're simply not credible. I'll repeat that for anyone in the media looking in: There has been no scientific or technical breakthrough since the late 1960s that would justify the current (X-Files driven) intelligence-in-the-machine fad. There, that feels better!

Sawyer: Well, Kee, my job as a science-fiction writer is to ask "what if?" So, I do wonder what if human consciousness is nothing more than a pattern of information? You say that hasn't been proven, which is true, but it hasn't been disproven, either. I speculated about this in my 1995 novel The Terminal Experiment, which deals with uploaded personalities. What do you do with the original version of your mind — the one stored in your brain — once you've copied its contents into a computer? Kurzweil says we'll blithely destroy the flesh-and-blood version at that point — the ultimate in burning bridges. And how much of our psychology is based on the physical limitations our bodies impose? A profile of me last year in this very newspaper [5 July 1998] said I was driven to succeed. If that's true, it's because I know I only have a few decades left; would I — or anyone — really push to get things done if we were immortal living inside a computer? Also, how much of human psychology is based on the belief, somewhere deep in our thoughts, that we might indeed have a soul? Kurzweil's uploading would prove that such a spark really doesn't exist — you're still you, even after being separated from your body. I wonder how that would affect our behavior.

Dewdney: All right, Rob. Let me put aside my belief that Kurzweil is having a pipe dream. It's the year 2020 (say) and everything I want to happen simply happens. I'm having a thousand orgasms a minute, have a fire-hose feeding me endless banana splits, and I'm composing a sonata in the style of Mozart — but where's the challenge? Everything I want is at my (virtual) fingertips, and any danger I face is artificial. Gradually I forget about the world out there until, suddenly, I have the most creative idea of my life. I immediately download back into the real world. My suggestion is adopted by the ruling council of the remaining (non-uploaded) humans: we set to work, putting all the uploaded humans in vast buildings, their bodies safely frozen (or discarded, as they wish). Come to think of it, we upload all the criminals, as well. They'll be much happier in cyberheaven, anyway.

Suddenly, it's a new Earth and the humans that remain can begin to explore what it really means to be human, not by fulfilling every wish but to understand the growth that comes from self-denial and serving others. Our true potential has been available for thousands of years, but the vast majority of us simply ignore it. In any event, expect nothing "spiritual" from beings whose every wish is gratified!

Sawyer: Well, there's a fantasy, Kee — if we could just get rid of all those people who don't share my views, why, we could make a heaven on Earth! But, seriously, you and I do seem to be on the same wavelength: as I said, virtual reality is air guitar writ large — it can seem real, but fundamentally it's meaningless. But all this does make me think of the Fermi paradox, which asks: if all of our physics tells us that the universe should be teeming with life, where are all the aliens? My fear is that the appeal of a pain-free, wish-fulfillment virtual existence is so seductive that all the extraterrestrials civilizations whose radio signals our astronomers should be picking up have transcended en masse into a gratifying, but ultimately irrelevant cyberheaven. Those aliens may be happy, but it all makes me rather sad.

Dewdney: That's a touching thought, Rob, but somehow I don't think the aliens are having that particular problem. My theory to explain non-contact is that the aliens have intercepted enough episodes of The Three Stooges to put us in a state of permanent galactic quarantine. And from an alien point of view, I'm not sure that I, you, and (yes) Kurzweil haven't just put out another episode!

Sawyer: Maybe so, Kee — but Kurzweil's book takes his vision through to the year 2099, a century hence. Given that computers didn't exist at all a hundred years ago — Sherlock Holmes might have discoursed on the future of mechanical calculators in 1899, but he never could have predicted the World Wide Web — I suspect that if Kurzweil isn't right in the details, he's certainly right in the broad strokes: our relationship with the computers of the next century will completely transform the definition of what it means to be human.

More Good Reading

Other book reviews by Robert J. Sawyer
Other interviews with Robert J. Sawyer

Information about The Discovery Channel's 2020 Vision, which featured both Sawyer and Dewdney

Rob's thoughts on the future of artificial intelligence

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