Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near is worth reading. It’s a great introduction to the “emerging technologies” meme. If you’ve already begun wandering down the diabolical path of contemplating the obsolescence of biology and the societal transformation that will result, Singularity doesn’t reveal much. However it’s an easy read and a cultural milestone, so pushing through it is still probably a good idea.

That said, I had a few gripes with the book. Firstly, the author’s tone doesn’t sound like the cool scientific theorist he claims to be. Virtually every discussion of progress in biotechnology lends particular weight to the synthesizing of artificial pancreas cells, which Kurzweil readily acknowledges he needs to reverse the course of his diabetes. He repeats over and over that people (like him) who take full advantage of today’s knowledge about longevity will live to see the Singularity (and by corollary, live indefinitely), and that those who do not will needlessly pay the price of annihilation. I don’t remember even one acknowledgment that his own efforts may fail (or be misguided!) despite his dogged adherence to health guidelines derived from cutting edge research. This doesn’t seem to reflect the attitude of a detached intellectual.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. It’s pretty clear that Kurzweil tries to make his subject singularly exciting, and the book seems to be written at least partially for the journalists who might like to capitalize on the author’s theory by writing articles to the effect of, “This man says you’ll socialize with robots one day. Isn’t that insane plus totally interesting?”

Still, I found his discussions of sociology and morality hugely lacking. Kurzweil falls far short in his brief examination of the coming collisions between the Singularity and virtually every modern social structure. He might counter that his goal for the book was to cultivate optimism and open minds to the grand potential of the coming transcendence. But with its foreboding title, one would expect the book to not only open minds but also put them on guard against perversions of his grand vision. And for his slight allowance that catastrophe may wipe us all out before (or after) the Singularity, he does not explicitly acknowledge that our place in the universe is so absurdly minute that, for instance, even after our entire solar system becomes a giant computer the collision of two unknown (or even known) neutron stars halfway across our galaxy could fry it all, and human technology might be powerless to stop it.

I extracted some passages that were relevant to haptics:

The current disadvantages of Web-based commerce (for example, limitations in the ability to directly interact with products and the frequent frustrations of interacting with inflexible menus and forms instead of human personnel) will gradually dissolve as the trends move robustly in favor of the electronic world. By the end of this decade, computers will disappear as distinct physical objects, with displays built in our eyeglasses and electronics woven in our clothing, providing full-immersion visual virtual reality. Thus, “going to a Web site” will mean entering a virtual-reality environment—at least for the visual and auditory senses—where we can directly interact with products and people, both real and simulated… Haptic (tactile) interfaces will enable us to touch products and people. It is difficult to identify any lasting advantage of the old brick-and-mortar world that will not ultimately be overcome by the rich interactive interfaces that are soon to come. (104–105)

I don’t like “haptic (tactile)” (they’re not equivalent), but the point is clear. There were also some references to musical interaction research:

Edward Taub at the University of Alabama studied the region of the cortex responsible for evaluating the tactile input from the fingers. Comparing non-musicians to experienced players of stringed instruments, he found no difference in the brain regions devoted to the fingers of the right hand but a huge difference for the fingers of the left hand. (174)

Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone at Harvard University scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they practiced a simple piano exercise. The brain motor cortex of the volunteers changed as a direct result of their practice. He then had a second group just think about doing the piano exercise but without actually moving any muscles. This produced an equally pronounced change in the motor-cortex network. (175)

Finally, I think the use of the word “mastering” here brings up an important point:

Machines have exacting memories. Contemporary computers can master billions of facts accurately, a capability that its doubling every year. (261)

Haptic metaphors like this are used generously throughout the book, no doubt to underscore Kurzweil’s intense belief that humanity is ingrained in nonbiological intelligent technology. However, as a terminology freak I would argue that computers memorize facts, but don’t master them. Mastery comes with an ability to manipulate freely. For mastery, you need a body.

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