Book Reviews Conference Papers
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Ed. David Crystal The Unspeakable Act in the Miller's Tale
The Matter of Scotland, James Goldstein Medieval Child Marriage
Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray Fiddling in the Poconos: Survival or Revival
The Age of Spiritual Machines..., Ray Kurzweil  
The Religion of Technology.... David F. Noble  
Images of Salvation, CD-ROM, Gen. Ed. Dr. Dee Dyas

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human

Appearing in Kairos :An On-line Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments

Ray Kurzweil,
IntelligencePenguin Books, 1999
(ISBN 0-14-02.8202 - pbk - $14.95).

John McLaughlin, PhD

English Department, East Stroudsburg University
E. Stroudsburg, PA 18301
(Now Emeritus)

[Semi-Annotated Table of] Contents: A Note to the Reader [on ways one might read this book]; Acknowledgements [to family, colleagues, prepublication readers, and, "Finally, all the scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and artists who are busy creating the age of spiritual machines"]; Prologue: An Inexorable Emergence [of intelligence superseding "human" on the planet]; Part One: Probing the Past - Chapter One: The Law of Time and Chaos [What happens when Moore's Law on Integrated Circuits comes to its predictable close]; Chapter Two - The Intelligence of Evolution [Evolution as an intelligent process creating intelligent beings]; Chapter Three - Of Mind and Machines [On the evidence of mind in machines]; Chapter Four - A New Form of Intelligence on Earth [The formula for creating intelligence]; Chapter Five - Context & Knowledge [The problem of the slowness of carbon-based neural computing]; Part Two: Preparing the Present: Chapter Six - Building New Brains [Evolution's way around the problem of carbon-based neurons as a means to computational speed - see Chapter Two]; Chapter Seven - ...And Bodies [What kind of bodies will we -- and then our 21st century machines -- provide for them?]; Chapter Eight - 1999 [The state of computing as of the publication of this book]; Part Three: To Face the Future; Chapter Nine 2009 [An extrapolation of 1999 onwards 10 years] Chapter Ten - 2019 [20 years on, given the intervening chapter]; Chapter Eleven - 2029 [ 30 years from the publication of this book....]; Chapter Twelve - 2099 [A leap forward, to the end of the third millennium]; Epilogue: The Rest of the Universe Revisited ["Intelligent beings consider the fate of the universe"]; Time Line [of the physical -- non-spiritual -- universe and its technology, from 10-15 billion years ago, to 2099, and then "Some millenniums hence...."]; How to Build an Intelligent Machine in Three Easy Paradigms [A review of Chapter Four]; Glossary; Notes [including web-links as well as paper references]; Suggested Readings; Web Links; Index. 377 pages, with front matter, including extensively annotated table of contents, extending up to page X.

Whew. So why can't I shake the feeling that this brilliantly-arranged hypertext-in-paper-form has a hole in the middle? Brilliant it certainly is, as is to be expected of the inventor of such enormously helpful wonders as viable speech-recognition technology and music synthesizers (MIT's Inventor of the Year in 1988); the Web-Links section opens with a long list of URL's to web-pages describing companies founded by Ray Kurzweil, and there is a side-bar (one of the many in the book) discussing his assembly of a personal music synthesizer for the blind popular musician Stevie Wonder (for readers not familiar with the US pop music scene). The foreword "Note to the Reader" suggests that, like a photon wending its path without clear explanation, so too the reader may choose his or her own path thro this work, either reading in the (author-intended) sequential order, or leapfrogging to the chapters on the 21st century (Nine thro Twelve) in Part Two of the book, and then making his or her way back to the earlier expository chapters; it is assumed, for whatever reason, that until the Epilogue, any remaining "ambiguity" will remain unresolved (when of course one could read the Epilogue first, or even turn first to the Index to see how often -- or seldom -- "Spiritual" is listed), and on we go, leapfrogging, selecting back and forth as we wish, through this tour de force of the future of computing and the human race, by one of the entrepreneurial leaders in the field. So: brilliant. Well worth the purchase, for a stimulating, even provocative discussion of what will, almost inevitably, be the future of this carbon-based creature, the human being, when, engrafted into or merged with photon-computing-based machines -- crossing to "the other side" -- he or she moves, to become one of the emergent species, the "spiritual machines" of the title (which of course contrasts so vividly with the title of his earlier work, The Age of Intelligent Machines, which complements this work). But what, indeed, is the evidence that "spirituality" (however defined) correlates with "intelligence" (with the same reservation)? Is it not possible that spirituality is IQ-independent, as much part of the human genetic inheritance -- its DNA -- as the completely intact range of human emotion displayed by mentally-retarded people? Mental retardation, interestingly, is a major disability not mentioned in the Index and not discussed anywhere in the text -- alongside, for example, blindness, deafness and paraplegia, which are in fact classified as the "major disabilities" to be conquered by our computers in the 21st century. in parallel discussions in the relevant chapters (Eight thro Twelve) to which one might turn in hypertextual riffling thro the book. "Spirituality," likewise, is weakly represented in the text, being referred to less than a dozen times (with an additional half-a-dozen that the Index did not pick up on), only one approaching anything like extended discussion (pp. 151-153), the rest little more than use of the word. This is the hole in the middle of the book. This is what produces a disappointed sense of emptiness in the discussion. Perhaps, of course, this is one of Ray Kurzweil's tantalizing IQ tests, like the confident discussions of quantum computing, artificial intelligence, augmented personalities and the like which do recur insistently throughout the text (how many readers actually know how a photon behaves?). Perhaps the mere handful of web-links devoted to the subject of "Computers and Consciousness/Spirituality" -- the slash- conjunction seems significant -- are intended somehow to lead the curious onwards and outwards to meet the author, ultimately, in meditation on the mystical state, beyond that sketched out in the mere pages of the book (he dares to suggest that it is spirituality which interests him, rather than the material benefits which lead other people -- "I see the opportunity to expand our minds, to extend our learning, and to advance our ability to create and understand knowledge as an essential spiritual quest" (p. 185) but, again, this is the briefest of mentions, in a dialogue with the book's hypothetical reader, Molly, as she moves towards becoming a computer/human emergent creature, apparently disavowed, good-humoredly, almost immediately: "[Molly]: SO WE RISK THE SURVIVAL OF THE HUMAN RACE FOR THIS SPIRITUAL QUEST? [Author}: Yeah, basically." So perhaps this is another of his IQ tests, as noted above: can we follow a hint? Or perhaps it's just that Ray Kurzweil, perhaps like most 20th century computerists, has had minimal contact with spirituality and, yes, mysticism. I hate to put those terms together; apart from the old adage, of which I was reminded by Anne Clark Bartlett as a side-note to the Internet Chaucer discussion list's "tangential" discussion of the subject recently, that "mysticism" begins in mist and ends in schism, I think you can be or have a spiritual experience without necessarily becoming one of "God's Athletes," and working towards the full-blown "Mystic Way"; see the anthological compilation on The Study of Spirituality, ed. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright and Edward Yarnold, SJ (Oxford University Press, 1986), or Nelson Pike's "Mystic Union: An Essay on the Phenomenology of Mysticism " (Cornell University Press, 1992). Indeed, if I am correct, "homo spiritualis" was born at the same time as "homo sapiens," and it is significant that one well-known example of his "spiritual technology," the Gothic cathedral, does not appear in the machine-technology Timeline of this book. But then neither does any other element of spirituality appear here, either; it is a Timeline devoted to non-spiritual tools and technology, a curious phenomenon in a book with this daring title. The problem may be that, unlike the 14th century, which saw a flowering of mystical/spiritual activity (Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle of Hampole, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, even Margery Kempe, that wonderfully mixed case of the active and the contemplative lives), the 20th century seems to be a century of great spiritual hunger and minimal spiritual guidance (I am indebted to George Simmons, another particpant in the Chaucer-list's discussion of spirituality and mysticism, for putting it in this way). We live in an age of unbelief, of mathematical explanation, which comes to the edge of the Great Sea of the mystic, and stops there, uncertain and basically helpless. Hence a book like this, with its challenging title, its richly-fascinating text, but yes, in the end, this hole in the middle. A book to be recommended for discussion and guidance in the fields of computing and machine-human intelligence, but, regrettably, of limited value for spiritual guidance. I wish it were otherwise.

John McLaughlin - PhD English Dept - ESU E Stroudsburg, PA 18301

Review written for appearance in Kairos: The Journal for Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments.

Buy The Age of Spiritual Machines...Now