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The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
by Ray Kurzweil, New York: Viking, 2005, xvii + 652pp.

Adam Ellwanger University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208, USA
Affect, Distance Education, and the Future of the University
Reservations and Critiques


          Ray Kurzweil is a dreamer - so it follows that his vision of human existence in the middle of this century would seem like a dream. However, some dreams feel hyperreal, and hyperreality will indeed be the central experience of the future that Kurzweil describes in his latest book entitled The Singularity is Near. He insists that by the year 2050 (likely earlier) you will be able to choose whether you want to live forever. You will be able upload your memories and personality to a mainframe that will effectively produce the spaces you desire to inhabit. World hunger will be completely eliminated by our machines' abilities to literally and cheaply assemble meats and (any) other products atom by atom. You will be able to manifest your lover in whatever body you choose for him or her. Of course, sexual activity will likely be strictly recreational given that the most sublimely intimate encounter will be the simulated cohabitation of two otherwise discreet intellects. Kurzweil's dream will initially be a nightmare to most people working in the humanities, but this is likely because the key characteristics of the future he awaits seem so utterly foreign - it is this radical difference from life as we know (and have known) it that makes Kurzweil's term for the transitional event (The Singularity) so apt.
          In an effort to avoid the doubts that have dominated responses to his previous work, in this book he painstaking explicates the advances in computer technology that will precipitate these changes. An occurrence with such vast ramifications as the Singularity demands detailed description, but loosely it might be said to be the moment at which the capacity of non-biological intelligence (the enhanced computation, memory, and pattern-recognition of our computers) overcomes that of our biological intelligence, enabling humans to transcend the physical and temporal limitations of our minds. As we approach this event, it will become more plausible and advantageous for us to merge our minds and bodies with our technologies. One claim in the middle of the book implies that the major philosophical task after the Singularity will be nothing short of a radical rethinking of the essence of humanity: "The whole point of my thesis, of the coming Singularity revolution, is that this notion of a machine - of non-biological intelligence - will fundamentally change" (p. 311). Here I take Kurzweil to mean that because the vast majority of humans will be a synthesis of biological matter and nano-technological machinery, our cozy definition of humanity as counter-posed to our creations in the physical world will have become impossible. The projected year of the Singularity is set at 2045.
          The unlikelihood of such an extreme paradigmatic shift in fewer than 40 years is offset by Kurzweil's attention to the Law of Accelerating Returns, a concept central to the feasibility of his prognoses. Drawn from the lexicon of economic discourse, in this context this idea connotes a phenomenon guiding technological innovation: it states not merely that the rate of innovation is increasing, but that the rate of the rate of increase itself is exponentially accelerating "To express this another way, we won't experience one hundred years of technological advance in the twenty-first century; we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress (again, when measured by today's rate of progress)" (p. 11). One achievement that is critical to the accomplishment of the Singularity is the construction of a computer that has the memory and computational capacities of the human brain. That machine will have the potential to invent technologies to enhance itself, with each new generation of computers more capable than the last to develop quickly a machine that exceeds what were thought to be finite technological limitations. The development of computers of this magnitude is being furthered by continual breakthroughs in the fields of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics.

Affect, Distance Education, and the Future of the University:

          Scattered throughout the book are brief passages on thought, language, and learning. Although the book is predominantly scientific in tone and content and focuses on the innovations that will enable the Singularity, this text is of value to people thinking about the implications of computer technology on pedagogy and composition because it can easily be read metaphorically as a treatise on the nature of invention, futurity, and change. Particularly compelling are the implications that Kurzweil's predictions have for the growing interest in affective pedagogies and the debates on distance learning.
          The project to produce a computer with powers comparable to those of the human brain will be achieved when we have made significant progress in the development of "strong" artificial intelligence (AI), which Kurzweil defines as "aptitude resembling the broad, deep, and subtle features of human intelligence, particularly its powers of pattern recognition and command of language" (p. 92). Indeed, language mastery is given a privileged position in his formulations - a computer must be able to engage in a dialogue with a human interlocutor in a completely convincing manner (which is to say it must be able to pass a Turing Test) to engage in strong AI operations. This feat is to be achieved by reverse-engineering the computer in accordance with the knowledge we have regarding the brain. Perhaps the most challenging hurdle is building a machine that has emotions. Part of the reason that such diverse theories on the impact of affect on learning abound in the scholarship on language and education is that some mysteries as to how the brain manifests certain emotions at specific moments (and how those feelings are remembered) remain unsolved by philosophy and cognitive science. Perhaps our conceptions of human affect might be augmented by incorporating some knowledge of our successes and failures in the projects of distilling emotions in machines.
          The relevance of Kurzweil's insights on the conversations regarding distance education is even more profound. As software is becoming more amenable to the needs of students and a more economically viable solution for the problems facing administrators, it has been increasingly implemented as a primary vehicle for teaching and learning. The number of diverse online courses offered by universities continues to multiply rapidly. Amid the discussions of what losses and gains this might encompass and how expansive the coming changes might be, this book helps us anticipate the nature of the university of the future and formulate some potential ways in which to inhabit that reordered space. I regret to report that Kurzweil's model (which holds that we will soon be able to upload and download huge bodies of information directly to an individual's memory) hints that perhaps we're barking up the wrong tree: the debate over the quality, experience, and viability of distance education is irrelevant--we rather need a comprehensive overhaul of the very concepts of teacher and student. Kurzweil's predictions indicate that a disciplined space for educating bodies will become obsolete along with the body of the instructor because presence in a classroom will unnecessarily belabor a mastery of knowledge that could be obtained virtually anywhere in much less time. The book suggests that in the second half of this century we will likely have abandoned our biological bodies altogether, embracing the powers afforded by existing strictly in cyberspace. (According to Kurzweil this existence will be indistinguishable experientially from the way we inhabit space today because full immersion virtual reality will simulate the bodily dimension of consciousness). We are already discussing the ways in which bodies are evacuating our classrooms - his theories suggest we need to think about how to respond to the liquidation of the generalized body as we know it. We need to articulate a strategy by which to reaffirm, revise, and justify the existence of institutionalized education.
          Of course, Kurzweil might be wrong. Perhaps he underestimates the impact governmental restrictions will have on the emergence of these technologies. Perhaps the resistance mounted from the humanist fundamentalists and luddites he discusses will be more palpable than he imagines. Maybe it is physically impossible to create the sort of computers he envisions. Some readers of The Singularity is Near will be tempted to think that the book's value is contingent on the accuracy of his predictions. I argue that the fidelity of Kurzweil's forecasts is relatively unimportant. Many agree that in this period of rapid change it is of most benefit for us to consider responses to an array of possible outcomes because we know of no Cassandras (and even if we did, we'd be doomed to write them off as tragic wackjobs).

Reservations and Critiques:

          Throughout the text Kurzweil emphasizes his familiarity with the incredulity that is central to the objections of humanists, natural scientists, and technology theorists alike. His work has commonly met with two major critiques: he is consistently charged with an unwarranted optimism regarding the future of technology, and he is often thought to avoid responding to the worthy complications posed to his ideas by many scientists and theorists. In The Singularity is Near he escapes the second complaint by devoting almost 100 pages at the end of the book to an engagement of a variety of critiques that have been offered by a number of scholars. I found his response to the ontological challenges embedded in John Searle's Chinese Room to be especially significant. Kurzweil's trademark optimism persists, although it is checked by many acknowledgements of the dangers of the technologies he describes. Readers will come to understand that for Kurzweil, the Singularity represents the culmination of the human spirit - his faith in the beneficence of technology (and by extension, its human creators) is akin to religious emotion and is often conveyed in those terms. I found his optimism heartening as pessimism and fear are rather easy to come by in the discussion of ideas such as these.
          However, I was troubled by Kurzweil's enthusiasm for a kind of galactic colonialism that is evidenced throughout the text. The zenith of the human-machine civilization is the moment at which we harness the computational capacity of all the matter in the universe. "Ultimately," Kurzweil writes, "the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence. This is the destiny of the universe" (p. 29). If the Darth Vader theme from Star Wars had not yet been cued, that cacophony of horns blared when I read "the potential to engineer around this limit [the speed of light] has important implications for the speed with which we will be able to colonize the rest of the universe with our intelligence" (p. 353). By "our intelligence" Kurzweil means regiments of nanobots sent into deep space that will convert matter into forms that can aid in increasing the computation and memory of our civilization.
          A thread that runs through the text that I expect humanists will find only slightly less problematic is Kurzweil's confidence in the capacity of capitalism to bring about the benefits of the Singularity. The event will also represent the end of disease, hunger, pain, and essentially all forms of human longing. Capitalism has proven to be very effective in funding and enabling the development and refinement of innovative technologies, and Kurzweil is counting on the speedy perfection of these technologies to enable almost universal access and affordability. The thought that capitalism might culminate in the eradication of virtually all human suffering will be an uncomfortable one for many working in the contemporary university, although it seems to me to be a possibility worth entertaining.


          Kurzweil's book is best understood by academics with broad bodies of interdisciplinary knowledge, but even casual readers will find much of the text easily digestible. Even when Kurzweil delves most deeply into the findings of the many scientific studies he addresses, he quickly refreshes his audience with a sharp humor that I greatly enjoyed. The imagined dialogues between both historical and fictional characters of the past and future (including Kurzweil himself) were especially entertaining. To those unacquainted with the work of contemporary futurists, his ideas may seem ridiculous, but Kurzweil's academic background, the numerous prestigious awards he has been granted, and his advisory roles to the US government and Microsoft should at least delay some of the concerns of even the most skeptical readers. Despite the obvious volatility of some of the technologies Kurzweil investigates, I was comforted by his careful devotion to the ethical dimensions of the topics he addresses. The book is well-researched and I was impressed by the considerable strength of Kurzweil's insights in both scientific and philosophical milieus. The Singularity is Near will be a valuable read for anyone invested in thinking about how the unfolding computer revolution will impact our lives - even for those who hope that the Singularity is far.


Adam Ellwanger teaches composition at the University of South Carolina where he is a third year PhD candidate in Rhetoric. His interests include the rhetoric of science, the aesthetics of information, and critical theory. He also enjoys listening to music. He can be reached at

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