How Kurzweil lost the Singularity

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Sat Jun 15 2002 - 10:39:49 MDT

Ben Goertzel wrote:
> Kurzweil, however, IS putting effort into helping people understand the
> Singularity.
> And I'm sure that part of his motivation for doing this, is a desire to
> nudge the Singularity in a better direction. A direction not too thoroughly
> polluted by peoples' fear and uncomprehension.

Ben, to the best of my ability to understand it, Kurzweil's entire *being*
is directed toward predicting the Singularity - *not* nudging the
Singularity in any direction. On every occasion in which I have spoken to
Kurzweil, the concept of influencing the Singularity in any way is met with
blank incomprehension. As far as Kurzweil is concerned, he wins the
argument when he convinces the audience that the Singularity will happen.

Any conceptual model of the Singularity that allows for individual actions
to accelerate or influence the Singularity is seen by Kurzweil as a weakness
in the argument, because it appears to argue that "the Singularity requires
individuals to do such-and-such." Kurzweil will always argue for the
creation of AI based on neuroanatomical modeling of all cortical areas, and
will never admit that a general understanding of intelligence is necessary
or even that it could speed up the process, because in the current
scientific environment it is easier for Kurzweil to defend the proposition
that neurocomputational modeling is possible than it is for Kurzweil to
defend the proposition that an understanding of intelligence is possible.
As for the idea that "We can do this using neurocomputational modeling, and
therefore the Singularity is provably possible, but an understanding of
intelligence may allow us to build AI earlier without reverse-engineering
the brain" - why, that's too complex for Kurzweil to explain on television.
   So it doesn't get said. It doesn't get defended. Ever. It's easier for
Kurzweil to present a model of the Singularity in which *only*
reverse-engineering plays a role, and so his thoughts appear to have
conformed to the worldview that will let him win arguments in the current
memetic environment.

Kurzweil has, deliberately or inadvertantly, accepted constraints upon his
thinking which prohibit his model from corresponding to reality, and which
prohibit him from accepting any role for individual action in the Singularity.

Kurzweil believes in the inevitability of his curves, not in activism.
Kurzweil wants to believe in the benevolence and inevitability of the
Singularity and any argument of the form "You can do X and it will improve
your chances of (a Singularity) / (a positive Singularity)" appears to him
to be a vulnerability in his argument: "The Singularity *could* (go wrong)
/ (not happen) if not-X." Kurzweil will therefore argue against it.
Kurzweil's entire worldview prohibits the possibility of Singularity activism.

In fact, having watched Kurzweil debate Vinge, I've come to the conclusion
that Kurzweil's worldview prohibits Kurzweil from arriving at any real
understanding of the basic nature of the Singularity. Over the course of my
personal interaction with Kurzweil, I've seen him say two really bizarre
things. One was during the recent chat with Vinge, when Kurzweil predicted
superhuman AI intelligence in 2029, followed shortly thereafter by the
statement that the Singularity "would not begin to tear the fabric of human
understanding until 2040". The second really bizarre thing I've heard
Kurzweil say was at his SIG at the recent Foresight Gathering, when I asked
why AIs thinking at million-to-one speeds wouldn't speed up the development
of technology, and he said "Well, that's another reason to expect Moore's
Law to remain on course."

These statements are so absolutely bizarre that, after pondering what
Kurzweil could have been thinking, I've come to the conclusion that what
Kurzweil calls the "Singularity" is what we would call "the ordinary
progress of technology." In Kurzweil's world, the Grinding Gears of
Industry churn out AI, superhuman AI, uploading, brain-computer interfaces
and so on, but these developments do not affect the nature of technological
progress except insofar as they help to maintain Kurzweil's curves *exactly
on track*. What we, and Vinge, call the "Singularity" are the events that
grow out of transhuman intelligence however and wherever it arises; industry
is of interest to us only insofar as it leads up to that point. What
Kurzweil calls the "Singularity" is the inevitable, inexorable, and entirely
ordinary progress of technology, which, in Kurzweil's world, *causes*
developments such as transhumanity, but is not *changed* by transhumanity
except in the same ways that industry has been changed by previous
technological developments.

What Kurzweil is selling, under the brand name of the "Singularity", is the
idea that technological progress will continue to go on exactly as it has
done over the last century, and that the inexorable grinding of the gears of
industry will eventually churn out luxuries such as superintelligent AIs,
brain-computer interfaces, inloading, uploading, transhuman servants, and so
on. The gears of industry will then continue grinding at exactly the same
pace, producing more and better superintelligent AIs, more and better
transhumans, and so on. Kurzweil's timeline for Moore's Law continues
unblinkingly from "Human-equivalent brainpower costs $1000" to "1000
brainpower costs $1000" a decade later. Kurzweil is not defending what we
would regard as the Singularity; he is defending the idea of ordinary
technological progress. As part of defending the inevitability and
desirability of the Turning Gears of Industry, Kurzweil also defends the
idea that the Gears of Industry will churn out transhuman technologies, and
the idea that the transhuman technologies churned out by the Gears of
Industry are safe, desirable luxuries. It so happens that one of the
branches of Kurzweil's worldview - the production of transhuman intelligence
- is known to us as the "Singularity". But Kurzweil's worldview does not
contain any of our beliefs about the consequences and nature of transhuman

On the whole, Kurzweil's actions are probably a net benefit to the
Singularity. Kurzweil is promoting a safe, sanitized, comparatively
unalarming, optimized-for-defensibility meme, under the brand name of
"Singularity", which bears a surface resemblance to the real concept of the
Singularity as created by Vernor Vinge and preserved here. People who
become interested in Kurzweil's pseudo-Singularity may go on to google on
"Singularity" and subsequently end up at the Singularity Institute. People
who learn to love transhumanity as a consequence of the Inexorable Gears of
Industry may choose to take on transhumanity as a personal goal. But:

1) Kurzweil's positive effects on the Singularity are an accident. Unless
he is being deliberately dishonest, the positive consequences of his actions
are unintended consequences.

2) Despite his much greater potential to make a difference, it currently
seems that Kurzweil will go on playing the role of a celebrity spokesperson,
nothing more. His outlook prohibits him from seeing the possibility of
influencing the Singularity in any way.

3) Kurzweil's model is wrong enough that I cannot ethically help spread it.
   Kurzweil is providing a safe, sanitized, easily digestible view of
something that is *not* ordinary. He is not being dishonest, but it would
be dishonest for *me* to help spread ideas that I know to be attractive but

At present Kurzweil is neither using his resources to accelerate the
Singularity (in his capacity as an entrepreneur), nor even urging others to
do so (in his capacity as an author). I therefore question whether we
should be lined up around the block to congratulate Kurzweil on his
altruism, until he either (a) calls in his next book for college students to
enter Singularity-related professions or (b) throws a few bucks the way of
neurocomputational modeling research. Right now Kurzweil appears to be a
man with an idea that he believes is true. So he writes books about it,
speaks publicly about it, uses his celebrity status to promote it, and in
turn gains greater prestige and celebrity status as the idea comes to be
associated with him. In this, Kurzweil is no different from anyone else
with an idea. This does not make Kurzweil a bad person, but it doesn't make
him Gandhi either. And it does not mean that Kurzweil is out to accelerate
or improve the Singularity, either directly or indirectly.

We are people with a cause, and our cause bears a vague resemblance to
Kurzweil's idea, but we would be in error to try and see Kurzweil as a man
with a cause. Currently, Kurzweil is a man with an idea. I wish I knew how
to nudge people with ideas into becoming people with causes.

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky                
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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