Book Review 68: Rapture of the Geeks

This book is about the future of technology and the evolution, coevolution, and possible merger of humans and computers. Some futurists and AI (artificial intelligence) experts argue that this merger is imminent, and that we'll be raising Borg children (augmented humans) by the year 2030. Others predict that supercomputers will equal and then quickly surpass human intelligence as early as 2015. We are accustomed to using computers as powerful tools, and we resist any invitation to think of them as sentient beings—and with good reason: Computers, even computers as powerful as Firefly, still just kind of sit there, patiently humming, waiting for instructions from programs written by humans.

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Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ by Richard Dooling is a disappointing book.  I had high hopes for a book about the singularity and the powerful role technology has for our future as a species. What I read was more of a rambling introduction of the singularity, punctuated by pointless and inaccurate Microsoft rants, and a narrative that appears designed to show us just how clever the author is. It’s the only book I’ve read in the last 10-years that I seriously considered abandoning half way through. I don’t recommend it.

There are some interesting observations in the book. It’s all focused around the idea of the Singularity, popularized by futurist Ray Kurzweil.  The Singularity is the point at which computer processing power surpasses cerebral processing power and what the means for the human race. If a desktop computer can process data as fast as the human mind, does that mean computers are finally smarter than people? Can we then download our selves into computers and live forever?  These questions are more than just philosophical; they are likely to be serious, practical ones in a few years due to the advances in the computing power and the decline in computing cost.

If futurist Ray Kurzweil is right, by 2020 a computer with the computational capacity of a human brain will cost $1,000 and will be sitting on your desk. "

Page 77

This will raise the question of when do we stop being human and become a machine. At what point does a person become a Cyborg? Is it when they wear a Bluetooth head set? Is it when the have a prosthetic limb? Is it when they can control that limb with their neurons? Is it when they stop remembering things and instead rely on Google or their smart phone? The border between human and robot narrows each day.

The ancient Greeks used to ask, "How many grains of sand make a heap?" Start with one. Add another. And another. Is it a heap yet? We'll soon be asking the same thing about brain components. We have no problem thinking that someone with a hearing aid, cochlear implant, or a pacemaker is still human, but Steven Pinker takes it to the next level with a hypothetical that poses questions we may face within ten years:

"Surgeons replace one of your neurons with a microchip that duplicates its input-output functions. You feel and behave exactly as before. Then they replace a second one, and a third one, and so on, until more and more of your brain becomes silicon. Since each microchip does exactly what the neuron did, your behavior and memory never change. Do you even notice the difference? Does it feel like like dying? Is some other conscious entity moving in with you?''

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There is also an interesting and brief discussion about whether or not AI even makes sense. There’s and advantage to using people instead of machines.  

IBM has the scratch to pursue silicon brain making, but most governments and corporations probably would not spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to duplicate a human brain. As roboticist Hans Moravec put it, "Why tie up a rare twenty-million-dollar asset to develop one ersatz human, when millions of inexpensive original model humans are available?"'' Or as rocket scientist Wernher von Braun put it in a different context: "Man is the best computer we can put aboard a spacecraft... and the only one that can be mass produced with unskilled labor."

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For all the interesting discussions that sneak into the text, there are other passages where the author starts to raise an interesting point and then squanders it in excessive snarkiness. Here’s one example about the nature of idleness.

Several hundred years before the first click on the first hyperlink, Pascal wrote: "All human evil comes from a single cause, man's inability to sit still in a room." Little did he know at the time, but he had already built a primitive fossil of a machine (his calculator), which would one day lead to the mighty PC, which in turn would make it possible for us to sit still in a room for weeks, playing Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, drinking Mountain Dew Game Fuel, and eating Snickers bars.

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The silly gamer commentary doesn’t do anything to further his point.

Some of those types of comments seem mildly entertaining, but there are so many of them, they lose impact.  Here’s another example where his point gets lost in the silliness.

When you're in a panic to make an appointment and you can't find your car keys or your billfold or purse, do you instinctively begin formulating search terms you might use if the real world came with Google Desktop Search or a command-line interface? Whoever created the infinite miracle we glibly call "the Universe" Is surely at least as smart as the guys at Bell Labs and U.C. Berkeley who made UNIX. The UNIX creators wisely included a program "called Find, which enables you to instantly find any file on your system, especially any file in your "home" directory. Another command-line utility, Grep, enables you to find any line of text in any file on your entire system.' Mac OS X uses Spotlight to do essentially the same thing with spiffy visuals, and even Microsoft finally included "Instant Search" in Vista. So why can't the creator of the universe come up with a decent search box? Why can't you summon a command line and search your real-world home for "Honda car keys," and specify rooms in your house to search instead of folders or paths in your computer's home directory? It's a crippling design flaw in the real-world interface.

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This passage is interesting in a few ways. First, the comment about the “crippling design flaw” is an interesting way to look at things, but it takes too long to get there, and in context, if feels too forced and clever.  The passage also takes the opportunity to snipe at Microsoft unnecessarily. And all that obscures the point he is making and the story he is telling about technology.

And that brings me to commentary on Microsoft.  

Roughly 88 percent of scanned consumer PCs are found to contain some form of unwanted program (Trojan, system monitor, cookie, or adware).
Funny too how these infection rates hover at near 90 percent, which matches the percentage of computers running the Windows operating system. One might safely conclude that virtually all computers running a Windows operating system are infected if they are also connected to the Internet; it's just a question of whether the spyware compromises performance to the point where the user notices and becomes annoyed. Often the only cure is to erase your entire hard drive and reinstall the operating system. The Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group also estimates that 80 to 85 percent of incoming e-mail is spam. An innocent Windows user might be tempted to inquire how Moore's law will soon produce computers that are smarter than people, while expensive, "intelligent" software programs running on today's latest, greatest hardware are still unable to stop spyware, or e-mails with the subject line "Visit the giant penis store',"

Page 122

It used to be all you needed was a computer and an Internet connection. Nowadays, an unprotected PC hooked to the Internet can be infected and hijacked within minutes, which means that now you need $200 worth of programs-firewall, antivirus, anti-spyware-before you can safely connect to the new, evolved, and improved Internet.

Page 123

The author loses credibility for a couple of reasons here. In addition to being full of cheap shots, there are a number of things that are just technically wrong.
  1. Cookies are not malware. Does your PC remember remember your password or user ID?  You’re enjoying cookies.
  2. System Monitor? Really?  A tool so you can see how your system is doing? Now, I know he describes these at “unwanted programs” and not malware, he does go on to describe them as infections.
  3. A few sentences later he refers to all these elements as “spyware” which simply isn’t true.
  4. He cites a survey showing 80-85% of incoming email is SPAM. while it may be true that 85% of the email on the ‘net is SPAM, the vast majority of that never gets to a user’s inbox. SPAM filters, even in 2008, were already quite effective and diverting it. Further, he buries this in a MSFT discussion. SPAM affects Linux and Apple users just as much.
  5. He goes on to say you need to spend $200 to keep a Windows machine safe. Even in 2008, when he wrote the book that wasn’t true. There were plenty of free, high-quality tools to protect users that didn’t require them to spend anything.

It’s hard to take him seriously after such a discussion.

It’s a shame because there are some interesting points he tries to make in the book. His overly clever writing and anger at Microsoft significantly diminishes the quality of the book. There are plenty of other books out there for those who want to learn more about the Singularity.  Check those out instead.

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