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Mapping the pace of artificial intelligence

Humans are well on the way to remaking a planetary environment that took billions of years to form and they are about to do the same with the nature within. The human body, its brain and its DNA, stand today like primeval forests that are just starting to feel the effects of human intervention.

No one is more eager to get on with this next phase of human conquest than inventor Ray Kurzweil. Recipient of nine honorary doctorates and numerous prizes, this modern Edison has now written - or rather dictated to his computer - a book about the many advantages that domestication of inner nature may bring. More than that, Kurzweil describes this conquest, and our construction of artificial humans, as inevitable.

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"Stopping computer technology, or any fruitful technology, would mean repealing basic realities of economic competition, not to mention our quest for knowledge. It's not going to happen. Furthermore, the road we're going down is a road paved with gold. It's full of benefits that we're never going to resist - continued growth in economic prosperity, better health, more intense communication, more effective education, more engaging entertainment."

Even spirituality will be better in Kurzweil's future. "When we can determine the neurological correlates of the variety of spiritual experiences that our species is capable of, we are likely to be able to enhance these experiences in the same way that we will enhance other human experiences.... Twenty-first-century machines - based on the design of human thinking - will do as their human progenitors have done - going to real and virtual houses of worship, meditating, praying, and transcending - to connect with their spiritual dimension."

But Kurzweil's ultimate promise to his reader is immortality itself, first in a modified human body and then in an artificial body with a superhuman intelligence. Popular fiction has pictured this kind of future so often that it may be startling to find a man of Kurzweil's accomplishments taking it so seriously. Even more startling, he expects some who are alive today to achieve all this in just another hundred years.

If Kurzweil is right, then the years ahead will overshadow all previous human history. For millennia, humans hid from predators and fought grimly for survival. More recently, we have used our toolmaking ability to destroy much of what has threatened us externally. Many see in this human conquest of nature a triumph of the human spirit, while others have tried to preserve the natural environment that has also nurtured us.

Total resistance to the march of technology, like that found in the so-called "Unabomber Manifesto," Kurzweil sees as futile. "Kaczynski is not talking about a contemplative visit to a nineteenth-century Walden Pond, but about the species dropping all of its technology and reverting to a simpler time. Although he makes a compelling case for the dangers and damages that have accompanied industrialization, his proposed vision is neither compelling nor feasible."

From the arrow head to the jack hammer, toolmakers like Kurzweil have changed the world we live in. Thanks to them we now have light bulbs, television, air travel, and weapons of mass destruction. Before we know it, we may also have modified and artificial humans. Kurzweil sees this as nature's plan and argues persuasively for the future he imagines. Whether or not you agree, this is a book for anyone who likes to think about where current trends are taking us.

*David K. Nartonis does historical research for The First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston.

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