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    Here's Your Ray Kurzweil Grain of Salt

    Written by

    Michael Byrne


    Brief disclosure: I haven't read Ray Kurzweil's new book. I haven't even paid too much attention to "the restless genius" (The Wall Street Journal, via Ray Kurzweil's website, thanks) in general. I can say two things: when I mention that I write about science/tech to new age-y peers--cool kids way into triangles, in other words--Ray Kurzweil is frequently brought up above most any other topic. Second, when moderating a panel a couple years back at the Doomsday Film Festival about artificial intelligence in pop culture, I made the apparent misstep of broaching the "singularity" topic, causing panelist and AI pioneer Roger Schank to elicit the most withering scoff in the great history of thinking shit is dumb.

    A Science review of the new Kurzweil book, humbly titled How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, delivered a fairly withering scoff of its own a couple of weeks ago. It's well worth reading, particularly if you have any interest in what the scientific community (the neuroscience community, in particular) thinks about the prophecies of Google's director of engineering. (While acknowledging that it's hardly the designated mouthpiece of "the scientific community," Science is about as legit as it gets as far as scientific publications.)

    The review, written by neuroscience big name Christof Koch, plays it cool 'till about halfway through, and then we're given this gem: "His understanding of neuroanatomy is about as sophisticated as U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's understanding of international politics when he articulated his belief of a division of Europe into an Old and a New one during the run-up to the second Gulf War in 2003." Ka-boom. But that's sort of the gist: Kurzweil's singularity conclusion is false (or at least dubious non-science) because his premises (the non-computation ones) aren't grounded on any real or demonstrated understanding.

    Kurzweil is also, perhaps, not terribly honest about neuroscience, or at least is showing ignorance bordering on willful. "From the tens of thousands of studies published annually, he selectively cites a handful of papers that buttress his points, without giving any context. He mistakes the striatum for cortex and apical dendrites for axons, belies the cognitive contributions of the basal ganglia, and denies higher mental abilities to insects, cephalopods, and birds that don't have a neocortex. Yet he has the unerring belief of the prophet (or the fool): I maintain that the model I have presented is the only possible model that satisfies all of the constraints that the research and our thought experiments have established."

    There's more. Beyond the sketchiness above, the current state of artificial intelligence just doesn't match up to Kurzweil's projections. It's not even remotely close: "... even the lowly roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans, a creature no bigger than the letter l and with exactly 302 nerve cells, is for now beyond the ability of computational neuroscience to comprehend. Kurzweil's claim that we will soon figure out how the 100 billion neurons of the human brain function on the basis of designed HHMMs is complete bosh."

    One imagines Koch's annoyance with Kurzweil to be not terribly common among neuroscientists. The singularity makes biology a sideshow to computation and, as much as I heart math--and think that everything, including consciousness, is subject to computation--that's just not in line with real world science. At least not in Kurzweil's lifetime, or the one or two decades he imagines between us and the singularity.

    Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.