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Previously in Digital Culture:

"Virtual Reality Bites Back," by Mark Dery (January 28, 1999)
"It's not that cyberspace fails to resolve the social contradictions of the 'real world,'" Julian Dibbell writes, "but rather that it doesn't even resolve its own." An e-mail exchange with the author of My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World.

"Use Technology to Raise Smarter, Happier Kids," by David Shenk (January 7, 1999)
We shape our toys, and our toys shape us. David Shenk reports on the new generation of "thinking" playthings and asks, What will the toys of tomorrow bring? What will they take away?

See the complete Digital Culture index.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

Related links:

"Hello, HAL," by Colin McGinn (The New York Times Book Review, January 3, 1999)
A review of Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines, Neil Gershenfeld's When Things Start to Think, and Hans Moravec's Robot.

"Have My Shoe Talk to Your Refrigerator," by Janelle Brown (Salon, January 26, 1999)
An interview with Neil Gershenfeld, the author of When Things Start to Think.

"The Book Club" (Slate, January 3, 1999)
David Bennahum and Jim Holt go around in circles discussing The Age of Spiritual Machines and When Things Start to Think.

The Weathermen
Forecasting what lies ahead for us in an ever more computerized world may be irresistible. But, as Yogi Berra put it, predictions are risky -- especially of the future

by Harvey Blume

February 24, 1999

Two recent books -- Neil Gershenfeld's When Things Start to Think and Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence -- describe a future in which computers attain new orders of functionality, affecting (the authors would say "enhancing") everything from our clothes to our genome. It's a technological magic-carpet ride the authors see us taking, with wearable computers as a starting point, neural implants a certainty, and computer-driven immortality a possibility. Both authors express doubts about a future so heavily dependent on technology, but in the end their misgivings subside before a greater enthusiasm -- not too surprising, perhaps, given that both are key players in designing the kinds of changes they describe.

In thinking about these books, however, it might be interesting to avoid, for once, the usual questions: Is an infinitely more computerized future feasible? Desirable? What will we lose? What will we gain? That sort of discussion has become reflexive by now, and most of us have grown as familiar with our ambivalence as we are with our faces in the morning mirror. (I, for one, honor ambivalence, and rely on my own to keep me clear of the twin evils, neo-Luddism and techno-utopianism.) So, rather than getting swept into the pro-and-con debate, let's consider what's omitted from relentlessly high-minded forecasts such as Kurzweil's and Gershenfeld's. You know there's something missing because there's nothing in the futures they describe that could offend a Jesse Helms. That doesn't sound possible -- or all that inviting, either. In the Kurzweil and Gershenfeld visions of the future, even though there are machines on all sides of us (including inside of us), we begin to resemble angels.

kurzwbok picture Ray Kurzweil is known for his pioneering work with digital synthesizers and natural language-recognition systems. He is also the editor of (and a contributor to) The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), an anthology that -- his new book notwithstanding -- remains the best point of entry into the machine-intelligence debate. In fact, readers familiar with both of Kurzweil's books may miss the variety of voices that his earlier anthology format allowed, and may wonder, too, if in the nine years since The Age of Intelligent Machines we have graduated from concern with mere "intelligent" machines and are ready to take on "spiritual" machines instead.

The Age of Spiritual Machines opens with the universe still seething after the Big Bang, but the focus shifts quickly to the coming century. Kurzweil is persuaded that by 2099 it will be routine to download human minds to digital media. Having outgrown the constraints of the human body (the hardware, as it were), consciousness (fully expressible as software) will be able to run on any number of platforms. One hundred years from now, even neo-Luddites, nostalgic for carbon-based bodies -- and perhaps for old-fashioned death as well -- will need neural implants just to communicate with the digital majority. And that majority will be a mixed multitude consisting of our descendants, the successors to our machines, and all manner of hybrids -- a mixed multitude incarnated as mixed media. The book ends with Kurzweil casting a glance well beyond 2099 to a time when "intelligent beings" preside over the very "fate of the universe." If Kurzweil has been unduly influenced by the television show Masters of the Universe, he's not letting on.

Gershenfeld, an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab and the leader of its Physics and Media Group, works closer to the contemporary bone. His book has less theoretical sweep but more practical detail than Kurzweil's, and his future is a near future, one that in many ways is already upon us. For Gershenfeld, the dichotomies between bits and atoms, logical space and physical space, machines and the world, represent the next great set of hurdles to be overcome in the evolution of computers. Wearables (computers embedded in shoes, keys, eyeglasses, clothes) are an example of how bits and atoms can converge. With wearables you don't have to go to your computer; your computers are always with you. Booting up is as simple as getting dressed. Wearables give a whole new meaning to local area network -- the local area is your body.

In the Gershenfeld future, everything -- from sneakers to shirts, from smart pens to electronic paper -- is a networked computer. Gershenfeld calls such small devices "bit dribblers, things that send a small amount of useful data rather than a continuous multimedia stream." Though low in bandwidth, the data that will dribble out of sneakers and car keys is likely to become richly personalized, and Gershenfeld sees issues of privacy getting even more complicated than they are already. But the merger of bits and atoms brings with it so many benefits that, to Gershenfeld's mind, it is irresistible, if not already inevitable. In addition to being a fashion statement, for example, the circuitry sewn into your shirt will let you play your clothing like a synthesizer. Programmable eyeglasses let you see behind you or in the dark, and if you're interested, they will let you sample the weird world of bug vision. And they'll bring the Web to you on demand. You'll be able to browse, if you choose, while eating, drinking, or taking a walk.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"A Function Specific to Joy," by Harvey Blume (April 29, 1998)
"[Affective computing] is a field that opens the way to previously inconceivable kinds of computer applications at the same time as it threatens to disturb the time-honored language we've developed for addressing and expressing our emotions. Opening this border between human and machine can't help but unsettle things even as it creates conveniences."

gershbok picture Gershenfeld comes across as someone whose love for technology has to contend with his almost equal distaste for it. When he tells the story of a man who shot his hard disk four times and his monitor once before being led away by the police, he makes it plain that his sympathies are all with the shooter. Gershenfeld channels his own frustration with technology not into stalking the wild machine but into a passion for making more-pliable, less-obtrusive devices -- computers no one will feel like gunning down. He is irked by the way computers dictate the terms of interaction with them; he feels harassed by the mouse, trapped by the screen, resentful of the keyboard. His revenge is to dispense with the intermediaries and let "the world become our interface." The world in this case includes everything from paper to furniture to sound itself -- apropos of which he describes research into a way of managing a computer network that "maps the traffic into ambient sounds and visual cues." With acoustic networking, "a soothing breeze indicates that all is well," whereas thunderclaps signal "impending disaster." The Internet, then, as ambient opera -- vaguely melodic when calm, discordant when agitated -- translates the Net's innards into something intelligible to human ears. (It's tempting to ask what an olfactory update would be like.)

It's unlikely that Kurzweil and Gershenfeld would find much to disagree with in each other's books; the differences between them have more to do with scope and style than with substance. Just as the time span Kurzweil covers is broader than Gershenfeld's, so are the hypotheses he puts forward concerning time, change, and technology. "What is uniquely human," he writes, "is the application of knowledge -- recorded knowledge -- to the fashioning of tools. The knowledge base represents the genetic code for the evolving technology." DNA is one way of maintaining a knowledge base, and of recording, refining, and transmitting its information. In Kurzweil's future, computers will soon be doing these same things astronomically faster. "One penny's worth of computing circa 2099," he writes, "will have a billion times greater computing capacity than all humans on Earth." With that kind of computing muscle, it's only natural, Kurzweil thinks, that machines will seize "full control of their own progression."

From Atlantic Unbound:

"The Digital Philosopher," by Harvey Blume (December 9, 1998)
"As posed by Alan Turing, the question of machine intelligence has become a central theme of our time -- and here, as elsewhere, Daniel Dennett brings analytic rigor to bear. To the question of whether machines can attain high-order intelligence, Dennett makes this provocative answer: 'The best reason for believing that robots might some day become conscious is that we human beings are conscious, and we are a sort of robot ourselves.'"

It's hard to know if all the computing power in the world to come will qualify a machine as spiritual -- or, for that matter, if a spiritual machine is necessarily a friendly one. But Kurzweil is nothing if not provocative, as when he predicts that philosophy will become a popular pastime in the next century, when questions of what's human and what's machine have become urgent. "Are computers thinking," he asks, "or are they just calculating? Conversely, are human beings thinking, or are they just calculating?" If you want to know, tune into the philosophy channel (circa 2050) to be enlightened by one of the twenty-first century's premier philosophy hackers -- who, as it happens, is a spiritual machine.

Neither Kurzweil nor Gershenfeld can be faulted for arrogance -- any more arrogance, that is, than you need to take up forecasting in the first place. But both writers can and should be faulted for turning up their noses at the obvious. How can two such savvy time travelers omit sex (said to have had a real impact on human evolution) and advertising (said to have comparable influence on media evolution) from their calculations? Put it this way: It's 2049, give or take a couple of decades. You've got a chip in your head making you a math whiz, a master of many languages, and a walking encyclopedia. Most amazing, the neural implant is free! (Just as today Linux is free, and just possibly your PC, donated by a firm that, in exchange, gets access to as much of your personal information as it cares to cull.) The brain-chip consortium can give its product away because revenue happens downstream. In the future, so it seems, all revenue happens downstream.

You know you're in the great downstream when, after calling up the complete text of the epic of Gilgamesh, you get a right-brain image of hard bodies on a beach -- if you're straight, those bods will be opposite sex; if you're gay, same sex -- along with an airfare. At odd times during the day, the implant hijacks neural cycles: that's why you suddenly get dreamy images of cars running up and down steep slopes along with sticker prices and a cool graphic interface for selecting options. That's why your inner dialogue has given way to a pixillated dance of six packs, vacuum cleaners, and bathroom fixtures. That's why, in short, your stream of consciousness begins to resemble a road clotted with billboards.

As for sex -- well, what really has driven Internet growth? Not Amazon.com. That's part of the Internet's laudable literary superego. What really thrives online, carving out bandwidth, keeping news groups humming and innovation happening, is smut, the Internet's libido. But the future, as Kurzweil and Gershenfeld portray it, is somehow G-rated; you can bring your whole family. Kurzweil alludes to sex, it is true, but he makes it seem like communion among the cherubim. And Gershenfeld writes as if, with wearables in the offing, it will somehow never cross anybody's mind to construct and market devices for the gonads.

Why be obtuse about 2099?

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Harvey Blume, a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a frequent contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

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