Ray Kurzweil with a portrait of his father.
“It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad. It’s an intimate mixture of rubbish and good ideas, and it’s very hard to disentangle the two, because these are smart people; they’re not stupid.”
– Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, on the books of Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec. [See Ross, Greg. "An interview with Douglas R. Hofstadter." American Scientist. Retrieved 2011-08-10.]
It is not very often that I see something that simultaneously evokes sympathy, anger and pity. I am a regular viewer of ABC’s “Nightline” program which airs beginning at 2330 in most of the US. It’s part of my ‘wind-down ritual’ at the end of the day. Often, I’m reading, or otherwise engaged while the bits and bytes comprising the program make their way from geosynchronous orbit and chatter out of the television. The introduction to the 09 August program caught my attention, because it was to feature Ray Kurzweil, talking about practical immortality. Of course, I know who Kurzweil is – both of them. There is the maverick Edisonian inventor who brought us the Kurzweil Reader (and thus the CCD flatbed scanner and the text-to-speech synthesizer) and the Kurzweil who transformed digital musical instrumentation with his Kurzweil K250 music synthesizer. And then, well then there is the Ray Kurzweil who brought us the idea of the Singularity, and three books that expound scientifically bankrupt ideas for ‘do it yourself’ interventive gerontology: The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, TRANSCEND: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever.
And last, but by no means least, there is the Ray Kurzweil who made one of the creepiest movies I’ve ever seen, “The Singularity is Near,” which I viewed as a rough cut in a private screening in Europe. That film was the near perfect combination of suggested transgendered autoerotic pedophilia with narcissism of cosmic proportions. I watched it, immobilized as one is when witnessing a public beheading, or the torture of small animals in an Egyptian souk. I was immobilized in a way that only disbelief and shock immobilize you. An extended trailer of his latest documentary, Transcendent Man is available here: http://transcendentman.com/
The “Nightline” segment on Kurzweil opened as follows:
“Ray Kurzweil, a prominent inventor and “futurist” who has long predicted that mind and machine will one day merge, has been making arrangements to talk to his dead father through the help of a computer.
“I will be able to talk to this re-creation,” he explained. “Ultimately, it will be so realistic it will be like talking to my father.”
Kurzweil’s father, an orchestra conductor, has been gone for more than 40 years.
However, the 63-year-old inventor has been gathering boxes of letters, documents and photos in his Newton, Mass., home with the hopes of one day being able to create an avatar, or a virtual computer replica, of his late father. The avatar will be programmed to know everything about Kurzweil’s father’s past, and will think like his father used to, if all goes according to plan.
“You can certainly argue that, philosophically, that is not your father,” Kurzweil said. “That is a replica, but I can actually make a strong case that it would be more like my father than my father would be, were he to live.”
Said to look and sound like Woody Allen’s nerdier younger brother, Kurzweil has been working on predicting the future for decades. At age 17, he was invited to appear on the CBS show “I’ve Got a Secret” to demonstrate how a computer program he invented could compose music.
Kurzweil went on to invent optical scanners, machines that read for the blind and synthesizers. Still inventing today, Kurzweil has developed a reputation for himself from just making predictions, mostly about how fast our technology is advancing.”
The program continued to document Kurzweil’s plan to recreate his father, and he argues that this can be done by using documents, photographs and his own memory of the man. At one point, he even asserts that such an emulation would be “more like my father than my father, had he lived.”
Sympathy? Yes, I felt a great deal of sympathy because I too have lost those I have loved to death, and also suffered, and suffer still, because I lack the power to bring them back to life.
Anger? Yes, a fair bit of anger because what Kurzweil is proposing insults the intelligence of anyone who has even the sketchiest conception of what it is to be human. The idea that a person can be inferred from boxes of paper documents and photographs with technology, extant or foreseeable, let alone in Kurzweil’s possession now, is ludicrous. That Kurzweil’s insight into the nature of personhood, including his own, is so shallow and uni-dimensional goes a long way towards explaining the cluelessness with which he is pursuing his social engineering campaign to make radical life extension, cryonics and uploading socially acceptable.
The “Nightline” program was surprisingly respectful and matter of fact. Kurzwel has superb public relations people and the “Nightline” editors were amply stocked with photos, film clips and in short, a very impressive visual montage to accompany Kurzweil’s modest proposal for resurrection of the dead from letters, news clippings, old photos and presumably rent receipts and cancelled checks documenting visits to the dentist or the haberdasher.
But as even most of the most unreflective and superficial dullards understand, if only emotionally, a person is not and cannot be reconstructed from the empty wrappers of a life long ended. A few bars of melody, a scent, a fragment of a recorded voice, the taste of something long forgotten, all of these can, and do from time to time evoke in reflective and self aware people, streams of memories, and with those memories countless connections, relationships, thoughts sounds, sensations and yes, and very importantly, feelings. One of the things I found so appalling and so narcissistically selfish about the Kurzweil interview is that he is not really interested in having his father live again, rather he is only interested in having his personal experience of his father available for his self-gratification again. It doesn’t matter what his father thinks or feels, it only matters that the Avatar Father makes Kurzweil think and feel that he has been returned to life. The equation of an avatar of the person with the person himself is an utterly repellant thing, because at its root it is the penultimate in dehumanization; and I think that on some level Kurzweil must know this, since he is trying to persuade the rubes that it really is resurrection.
Consider this justifiably oft quoted sentence from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past:
“And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.”
That is the merest sampling of what a person is. And as beautiful and evocative of the complex tangle of memory, sensation, reaction and the recursion of all those things as that passage is, even a hundred million, or a billion like it would not describe the mind of the dullest human being who moves amongst us.
Actress Marilu Henner was featured on 60 Minutes because it’s a day she’ll never forget — just like every day in her life; pas, present and future.
If you still have any doubts about the staggering volume of information, not to mention the unique wetware on which it is processed, that comprises the human mind, consider the recent scientific verification that people exist who have “superior autobiographical memory,” or hyperthymesia.[1-3] These individuals have essentially complete audiovisual recall of almost every waking moment of their lives. They can “run the movie” of their life experience forward or backward in their head and extract information from what they “re-experience.” As actress Marilu Hennner, one of those identified with this trait remarked on the CBS documentary program “60 Minutes”:”It’s like putting in a DVD and it queues up to a certain place. I’m there again, so I’m looking out from my eyes and seeing things visually as I would have that day.” These are otherwise normal individuals who have no profound cuts in normal cognitive function which might be used to explain the extraordinary storage of such memory minutiae. The “60 Minutes” segment on hyperthymesia is compelling viewing, and it is available on line: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7166313n
Given the flashes of such recall most of us experience momentarily and erratically in our lives, this phenomenon begs the question: are all of us recording and storing such a broad bandwidth of information? Is it that we are not storing it, or that we cannot, and for good reason, access it with such fidelity at will? The individuals who possess this capability all describe it as burdensome and at times traumatic – memories come unbidden, constantly triggered by cues in the everyday world around them. And with some of those memories come searing emotions. If we need an evolutionary reason for the stoppering-up of such a prodigious memory in dark, amber bottles, to be dispensed only in needful draughts, these people are living examples.
Kurzweil seems to be suffering from an all too common syndrome in highly successful mavericks who have a history of repeatedly proving the experts (as well as their critics) wrong. This course through life is much the same as fame – especially if it brings fortune with it, and thus the ability to surround oneself with people who either share your worldview, or who will (or actually do) agree with any idea or obsession that takes charge. Removed from the tempering focus that reality affords most people, it becomes easy to slip into a world where the line between your dreams and desires, and what is really possible, becomes blurred and then disappears altogether. Kurzweil appears to be well on his way there, if he hasn’t reach that final destination already, and that, well, that is just pitiful.
Many of Kurzweil’s ideas are crazy – a mixture of wishful thinking, inappropriate application of animal data to humans, and in the case of his resurrection scheme, poisonous and dangerous to cryonics on at least two levels. First, it is wrong – people are not scraps of paper, or even whole heaps of them. That is a demeaning idea at best, and a dangerous one at worst, if it is taken seriously. Second, while Kurzweil still commands respect, at some point the men in the media with the butterfly nets will come calling. Kurzweil’s anti-aging program is much more likely to shorten his lifespan and deplete the pocketbook of the average person, upon whom he urges its use, than it is to provide any medical benefit.
This kind of disconnected, narcissistic spiral carried out privately is a thing that evokes pity, and even shame in seeing it. Those of us who have been involved in life extension for 20, 30, or 40 years have seen it before; increasingly desperate and delusion belief that barely suggestively beneficial molecules in animal studies will confer decades of added life, and finally, the decline into frailty and death. As I watched the “Nightline” program, I realized that there is yet another advantage to cryonics that I had not previously considered, and that is the extraordinary dignity and courage with which most cryonicists confront the end of this life cycle. While many were ridiculed for their lack of realism for a lifetime, most were men and women who did what they reasonably could to live as long as possible now, made no exaggerated or unreasonable claims about cryonics – and in fact, regarded it and represented it as what it currently is – a long shot experimental procedure that may well not work, but for them was infinitely better than the alternative.
The extraordinarily accurate, generally matter of fact, and with few exceptions dignified coverage of Bob Ettinger’s passing into cryopreservation is an example. It’s a worthy example and the way we should strive to be seen. Kurzweil reportedly has cryonics arrangements with Alcor. I’m glad to hear that, because I think he is a fundamentally a very good and very decent man who shares our core values. He has improved and enriched the lives of countless people through his scientific and technological innovations. However, as I can tell you from experience, while many disabilities are now tolerated in our society, crazy and creepy are not amongst them.
1. Cahill L, McGaugh JL: Modulation of memory storage. Curr Opin Neurobiol 1996, 6(2):237-242.
2. Cahill L, McGaugh JL: A novel demonstration of enhanced memory associated with emotional arousal. Conscious Cogn 1995, 4(4):410-421.
3. Parker ES, Cahill L, McGaugh JL: A case of unusual autobiographical remembering. Neurocase 2006, 12(1):35-49.