It is easy to criticize Ray. Too easy, as all that is required to dismiss him is to assume more of the same. i.e. linear development. While everyone knows that more of the same is not a correct – or even interesting – assumption, people like Ray provoke people that for different reasons defend marginal thinking. Two aspects are interesting with his assumptions/focus:
1. First of all he looks at exponential growth areas. How fast things changes in such areas are often hard to imagine, and Ray himself has identified the lack of capacity to understand/accept such developments as a major reasons for criticism. Everyone should do thought experiments regarding exponential change and see what happens under different assumptions. Personally I think it is a major reason why society tends to overestimate change in the short term while underestimating it in the long-term. The fact that exponential development result in very small changes at first, but then reach a threshold when its impact in society becomes know, and right after that have totally transformed society, is difficult to grasp. We like to focus on the changes that are noticeable, but possible to estimate using linear models, so exponential changes are ignored.
2. Second, he focus on thresholds/tipping points that are of interest. The fact that system can change dramatically once they reach certain points is well known, but most people shy away from this fact and prefer the simple linear tools and models. Ray’s focus on a singularity is interesting and I wonder if it would not be interesting to explore if there are historical parallels. Obviously the singularity deals with our human intelligence in relation to AI, so it is a special case, but I wonder how different changes in society have affected the way society operate and that way we think. How far back would you have to go to meet people that would not understand the challenges and opportunities in our society. Another aspect, discussed by many, is if we already have reached a situation where technologies are evolving so fast that no one understand where we are heading. The dream of the universal genius is a myth, but it is safe to say that Leonardo da Vinci was in an situation where he did not have to worry about so many breakthroughs in so many areas that can change the future. Today very few people even try to understand what is happening in fields like AI, robotics, (atomic precise) nanotechnology, biotechnology, brain/cognitive science, energy storage, material science, epidemiology, demographic development, animal right, etc. let alone trying to understand how these interact and those who try to influence the direction of the development are almost non existing.
The theme of the book itself “how to create a mind” is very interesting. I 100% disagrees with Ray regarding the way the mind operates. What he describes in the book is a rough outline for homo economicus, that I think could work scaringly well. But that says more about how simplistic view on humans that we tend to accept today, and what aspects we focus on, rather on humans. As many writers have discussed, the area that we should focus most on is not what kind of AI we can create, but what kind of mind we create in ourselves by interacting with different kind of tools/machines.
If we ever create a super intelligence that is similar to us the world will be a very dangerous place. The impulses and underlying visions we have, as well as our ethical inconsistences (that Ray wants to get rid of) is something that I think define us. The struggle to balance the difference ideas, impulses, drivers, we have is not just a source of frustration, it is part of what makes art possible (both to create and enjoy). The fact that all reflective people (not homo economicus) balance from time to time on the verge of insanity makes the idea of a super intelligence in computers a lot more questionable then I think Ray wants to admit.
What I think would be interesting to read is how Ray would see an ethical expansion, a global mind/body where we get increasingly connected, both to each other, but also to other living beings and even the plant/universe. The urge to understand, to feel and connect combined with an ethical expansion that remove the absolute boundaries between people, nations, species, non-living, is fascinating.
It is hard not to smile at the last sentence of the book that for my capture so much of why books by Ray is a joy to read. Without irony he states that: “waking up the universe, and then intelligently deciding its fate by infusing it with our human intelligence in its nonbiological form, is our destiny.”
If hubris ever needed a poster boy, Ray would be the perfect face. But likewise, if we ever need someone to push us to think and aim beyond the ordinary, Ray is still among us.