Language, [Ray Kurzweil] believes, is the key to everything. “And my project is ultimately to base search on really understanding what the language means. When you write an article you’re not creating an interesting collection of words. You have something to say and Google is devoted to intelligently organising and processing the world’s information. The message in your article is information, and the computers are not picking up on that. So we would like to actually have the computers read. We want them to read everything on the web and every page of every book, then be able to engage an intelligent dialogue with the user to be able to answer their questions.”
Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it, he says. It will have read every email you’ve ever written, every document, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself.
Nope, not the least bit creepy.
Or it would be if it weren’t horseshit.
Yeah, yeah— “Computers are on the threshold of reading and understanding the semantic content of a language, but not quite at human levels. But since they can read a million times more material than humans they can make up for that with quantity.”—but brute force isn’t always for the win. And a bit of code which allows a computer to understand the documents it scans doesn’t mean that computer will have attained human understanding.
It’s not that I doubt computers can learn in some sense of the word, that it can incorporate algorithms and heuristics which will allow it to attain some kind of understanding of what it learns; I don’t doubt that computer understanding is possible.
It’s just not clear that computer understanding is comparable to human understanding, not least because it’s unclear what human understanding is, and across time and space, becomes.
Human understanding may also incorporate algorithms and heuristics, but I don’t know that it can be reduced to that. It is fragile and unstable and prone to break down, and even when we think we understand, well, maybe we don’t.
And can I mention disagreement in understanding?
Ray Kurzweil is, as the Observer writer Carole Cadwalladr, notes, a “techno-optimist”, someone who believes tech can make turn us all into bionic women and six million dollar men (Better. Stronger. Faster.).
As someone who wears glasses, uses the elevator to trundle my overstuffed laundry bag down a couple of floors, and likes to sit back and watch Leverage on my computer, I ain’t anti-tech, far from it.
But I am a skeptic. Especially of the idea that tech will allow us to escape the human condition.
Maybe someday we will no longer be human, we will be immortal or transformed or perhaps we will truly have figured out some way to transcend the immanent. Perhaps someday we will escape being—we will no longer be.
Actually, we already can achieve that: it’s called dying. But I don’t think that’s what Kurzweil has in mind.