Digital Doomsday

reagan raptureforgeeks Digital DoomsdayRapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ
By Richard Dooling
Harmony, 272 pages, $25

You know the Evolution of Man chart? The drawing in biology textbooks illustrating our progress from knuckle-dragging monkey to upright, intelligent marvel? (Well, at least a few men turned out that way.) One of the most popular spoofs of the much-spoofed drawing includes a final picture of a man hunched over a computer, looking just as simple-minded as the furry fellow at the back of the line. Recently, I’ve been seeing this chart over and over again in daydreams and nightmares, only in this version, the geeky modern guy shrinks and gets swallowed by a MacBook, which morphs into a human-size robot, then some kind of nightmarish version of the Terminator, pointing a huge laser gun right at me. Zap!

The reason I’ve been losing sleep is Richard Dooling’s Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ. Futurists like Mr. Dooling (a New York Times contributor and National Book Award finalist for his 1995 novel White Man’s Grave) have stopped checking their e-mail and refreshing their RSS feeds and updating their Facebook status and Googling things; instead they’re taking a look at what’s happening around us: The computer is not only consuming our everyday lives, it’s actually poised to take over. Beware, Mr. Dooling writes, the Age of Singularity is nigh.

Some futurists describe technological singularity as a time when super-intelligent artificial life will arise, take over and accelerate its power and smarts exponentially. Hollywood envisions singularity taking place in dystopic landscapes. Think Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Matrix, even Wall-E, with the rest of us enslaved by seductive, and dangerous, computers.

In his surprisingly engrossing, quick-witted book, Mr. Dooling takes the fantasy down a notch and explains how these nightmares could actually become a reality. He joins 19th-century novelist Samuel Butler, who questioned Darwin’s theories of evolution. “Are humans the be-all and end-all of evolution? Or will Nature march on and select some other species as the next ‘favored race’?” And will that “race” include your seemingly harmless, humming little laptop?

Roughly speaking, Moore’s Law guarantees that computers will get twice as fast and twice as smart every two years. “Do you know any people who do twice as many things, twice as fast, twice as well, every two years?” Mr. Dooling asks. If the trend continues, won’t they eventually surpass us?

If futurist Ray Kurzweil is right, by 2020 a computer with the computational capacity of a human brain will cost $1,000 and be intellectually capable of doing almost anything a human can do. Mr. Dooling tells us it will be able to pitch funny jokes; exhibit emotions (by analyzing facial expressions, vocal stress patterns, retinal responses, facial thermography); do taxes; read and write poetry (using precision scanning and meter); flirt; lie; compose music. “Murder? I don’t want to think about it but it keeps coming up,” Mr. Dooling writes. Indeed, futurists have fretted about what else computers will be able to do. Start thinking for themselves? Come up with mind-controlling tricks? What other kinds of technological advances are possible? Will Harry Potter’s magical world come true?

According to Mr. Dooling, one of the smartest futurists was Theodore Kaczynski—and he had a much darker view of the future. “[I]n addition to being the barking mad Unabomber in an aluminum foil hat, [Kaczynski] was also a bloodhound when it came to scenting all of the future terrors of technology. Hence his mission to kill technologists before they commence what he believes are their inevitable reigns of terror.”

Of course, some folk refuse to worry. Jeff Hawkins, neuroscientist and godfather of the iPhone, dismisses the dark predictions of gloom-mongers: “They fear that intelligent machines will try to take over the world because intelligent people throughout history have tried to take over the world,” he writes. “But these fears rest on a false analogy. They are based on a conflation of intelligence—the neocortical algorithm—with the emotional drives of the old brain—things like fear, paranoia, and desire. But intelligent machines will not have these faculties … unless we painstakingly design them to.”

So there’s a chance we’ll have the power to stop these supercomputers. Phew!

Richard Dooling admits that Rapture for the Geeks was partially written in jest. But I wish he weren’t so convincing about our Singular future. He lives in Omaha, Neb., where the Robotic Age must seem distant and improbable. But this is New York City, were Hollywood sends all the monsters, alien space ships, tidal waves and plagues. Silicon Alley could be the supercomputers’ primary target. Dear robots, please consider Silicon Valley instead.

Gillian Reagan is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at greagan@observer.com.