The ongoing discussion of Ray Kurzweil’s much publicized plans for a Singularity University prompted me to take another look at his book “The Singularity is Near”. It also prompted me to look up the full context of the somewhat derogatory quote from Douglas Hofstadter that the Guardian used and I reproduced in my earlier post. This can be found in this interview – “it’s a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy. It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad. It’s an intimate mixture of rubbish and good ideas, and it’s very hard to disentangle the two, because these are smart people; they’re not stupid.” Looking again at the book, it’s clear this is right on the mark. One difficulty is that Kurzweil makes many references to current developments in science and technology, and most readers are going to take it on trust that Kurzweil’s account of these developments is accurate. All too often, though, what one finds is that there’s a huge gulf between the conclusions Kurzweil draws from these papers and what they actually say – it’s the process I described in my article The Economy of Promises taken to extremes – “a transformation of vague possible future impacts into near-certain outcomes”. Here’s a fairly randomly chosen, but important, example.
In this prediction, we’re in the year 2030 (p313 in my edition). “Nanobot technology will provide fully immersive, totally convincing virtual reality”. What is the basis for this prediction? “We already have the technology for electronic devices to communicate with neurons in both directions, yet requiring no direct physical contact with the neurons. For example, scientists at the Max Planck Institute have developed “neuron transistors” that can detect the firing of a nearby neuron, or alternatively can cause a nearby neuron to fire or suppress it from firing. This amounts to two-way communication between neurons and the electronic-based neuron transistors. As mentioned above, quantum dots have also shown the ability to provide non-invasive communication between neurons and electronics.” The statements are supported by footnotes, with impressive looking references to the scientific literature. The only problem is, that if one goes to the trouble of looking up the references, one finds that they don’t say what he says they do.
The reference to “scientists at the MPI” refers to Peter Fromherz, who has been extremely active in developing ways of interfacing nerve cells with electronic devices – field effect transistors to be precise. I discussed this research in an earlier post – Brain chips – the paper cited by Kurzweil is Weis and Fromherz, PRE, 55 877 (1977) (abstract). Fromherz’s work does indeed demonstrate two-way communication between neurons and transistors. However, it emphatically does not do this in a way that needs no physical contact with neurons – the neurons need to be in direct contact with the gate of the FET, and this is achieved by culturing neurons in-situ. This restricts the method to specially grown, 2-dimensional arrays of neurons, not real brains. The method hasn’t been demonstrated to work in-vivo, and it’s actually rather difficult to see how this could be done. As Fromherz himself says, “Of course, visionary dreams of bioelectronic neurocomputers and microelectronic neuroprostheses are unavoidable and exciting. However, they should not obscure the numerous practical problems.”
What of the quantum dots, that “have also shown the ability to provide non-invasive communication between neurons and electronics”? The paper referred to here is Winter et al, Recognition Molecule Directed Interfacing Between Semiconductor Quantum Dots and Nerve Cells, Advanced Materials 13 1673 (2001) (“abstract). This demonstrates a way of attaching quantum dots to the surfaces of neurons. That’s it; there’s no demonstration of non-invasive communication, merely a suggestion that “future qdot-based devices could include prosthetics that control the neuron directly (e.g., through voltage inputs or electric fields)” – it’s that could word again. This paper has been reasonably widely cited since its publication in 2001, but none of this work, as far as I could see, makes any progress towards this suggested goal.
The difficulty, then, is not that there is no science underlying the claims Kurzweil makes, nor that this science isn’t very exciting on its own terms. It’s that this science can’t sustain the sweeping claims and (especially) the fast timescales that Kurzweil insists on.