Last night I had the honor, along with another thousand people or so, to see technology giant Ray Kurzweil give a sold-out multimedia presentation on his new book The Singularity Is Near at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA. Friends, I was stoked. I’ve long been a fan of Special K thanks to his invention, the internet. Just kidding — Ray-bones didn’t invent the internet like he did the flatbed scanner, the first text-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first large-vocabulary speech recognition program, and one of the keyboards that allowed his pal Stevie Wonder to take a huge shit on his own musical significance back in 1984. He merely predicted the web’s arrival. But seriously, Famous Original Ray has invented a whole boatload of things, enough to make his bio read like the longest overachieving run-on sentence ever constructed. I imagine homeboy’s publicist needs to take a moment every day to go into the closet and silently weep from sheer joy: Which of his umpteen honorary degrees should I include in this press release? Should I mention the groundbreaking pattern-recognition software he created to analyze and compose classical music which he wrote WHEN HE WAS FIVE FUCKING YEARS OLD? Aw, but I kid, I kid. . . He wrote that in high school. In 1965. Before personal computers.
Anyway, apart from his godlike powers to create, Ray-Kay‘s other gig is predicting things which — shocker!! — he’s really really exceptionally good at. He’s a goddamn Nostradamus of technology except minus the beard and the catastrophe, plus as an added bonus his shit actually comes true (in polite circles, this is known as being a “Futurist.”) He does this — and do understand, this is being explained to you third-hand on the internet by a college dropout who is also a rock drummer — by grasping the concept of exponential growth. Let’s just type that again: exponential growth. This concept was hammered home time and time again throughout the evening’s presentation, such that afterward you had a pretty confident feeling you could leave the theater, go to a kegger, drink until you can’t feel your face and still be able to use the information to mack on an impressionable BU freshman coed (which let’s just go ahead and call iMack-ing.)
Exponential growth differs from linear growth, the way we typically understand things, in that linear growth increases by the same amount at each step where exponential growth is instead of series of doublings. Did you enjoy that last sentence? Yeah, me neither — it was a fucking chore to write. So instead, imagine this: say you really like this shampoo. How do you get the word out? Go door to door, making one fan at a time? Hell no. That’s for chumps — linear growth chumps. What the iMack does is tells two friends, and then they tell two friends, and so on. . . and so on. . . Not only are your numbers growing, but your rate of growth is growing. But what am I explaining this to you for? You read The Contrarian.
So while most jokers are expecting the linear growth of technology, time and time again Colonel Kurz has charted the exponential growth of technologies throughout history, figured out where the trend line is headed, and basically spoiled the future by telling everyone what’s gonna happen: Hey, listen everyone! There’s gonna be a worldwide “web” of computers allowing an unprecedented free flow of information between users, and it’s gonna happen by such and such a date. Check it out! Scientists will sequence the entire human genome by such and such a date. Oooh! And computers will eventually be pocket-size and a million times more powerful by the year AW, CUT IT OUT ALREADY! Honestly, Ray. We’re trying to enjoy our ignorance over here.
So now that it’s all been ruined, let’s say it together: at a foreseeable moment in the near future humanity will merge with machines, no really it will. There was actually a moment in the presentation where a thousand of us reverent NPR listeners watched an animation depicting the familiar series of stages of evolutionary man — from ape to knuckledragger to Dale Crover through to fully upright homo sapiens — which ended in an M. Night Shyamalan twist wherein the fully naked modern man sits down at a computer (which wasn’t explicitly displaying porn, but we all pretty much got the basic gist), puts his goddamn HEAD INSIDE IT, transforms into some kind of silvery robot fish and takes off into space AND NO ONE LAUGHED. That’s when I got scared.
This tech rapture which gives geeks the o-face is called The Singularity (not to be confused with the inevitable nü metal/goth/prog band of the same name, just to include my own little prediction). But be not misled by my irreverent tone readers, I am on board. I believe in the Singularity and I believe that it is near. I believe these things because I read the cover of Ray’s book, The Singularity Is Near.
However, what I am decidedly not down with is the movie adaptation of the same name which we were treated to 20 minutes of at the start of the lecture. I was unspeakably psyched, however, that on only my second day writing for a big thinky blog I was watching an exclusive sneak peak of an unreleased movie trailer, so this is for you, Harry Knowles:
Inspired by the twin aesthetic horsefucks of A.I. and What The Bleep Do We Know!?, The Singularity Is Near: A True Story Of The Future features some of humanity’s greatest thinkers discussing the most compelling ideas of our historical moment crossed with 100% total gayness. See, somehow in an attempt to make a science documentary actually watchable, the geniuses behind the movie (and I say that non-sarcastically because honestly, they are actually certifiable geniuses) decided to spice things up by adding a dramatic storyline. Can you smell it? Ohhh yeah. That’s The Kurz cooking up a big ol’ vat of mistake juice. Along with a wagonload of eye-burning cinematic wrongness, it features a twinkling Tinkerbell-like character, a hapless virtual hottie being counseled by a real-life Tony Robbins in a holodeck, and a horrific techno-metal theme song which growls “the sinnn-gu-lair-it-tayy” exactly as bombstically as you’re imagining it right now. It’s as if George Lucas, umm. . . anything. Best of all, it features the acting debut of Kurzweil himself who exudes all the combined charisma of a Michael Dukakis/Lorne Michaels hybrid.
Which brings me to the most surprisingly un-mindblowing part of the whole Ray Kurzweil experience, and that is Ray Kurzweil. For a man who is clearly a supergenius Goliath of invention and comes across on paper like a fabulous cream dream, the meatspace Ray Kurzweil seems to have a near-magical ability to make almost anything boring. The dawn of artificial intelligence? Snore. Self-replicating nanobots living in our bloodstream? Catchin’ Z’s. I mean, watch this piece of video of Kurzweil speaking and tell me you don’t wish the speed of time itself would start growing exponentially until the goddamn thing was over. For some reason, and call me a dreamer, I expected Kurzweil in person to have, I dunno. . . some zing. Something a little nacho cheesier. Like he knows the secrets of the future or something which, hang on — HE ACTUALLY DOES. Instead he speaks about the human race becoming cyborgs with all the passion of a kid reciting his lines at Seder dinner. It’s no wonder he fantasizes about merging with his own virtual reality avatar: the poor guy probably finds himself boring. As it is, Kurzweil’s vibe in person more accurately resembles grey goo, the stuff of nanotechnology’s apocalyptic scenario. Far from being inspired, I left the whole experience feeling like I’d been gooed. Which, come to think of it, may be Kurzweil’s own subtle warning. Thanks, Papa Ray.