Science

Ren Descartes
Ren Descartes (From "Descartes' Secret Notebook")

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Sunday, November 20, 2005

In The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking, $29.95), Ray Kurzweil projects us to a moment in the not-too-distant future when our bodies merge with our technology, resulting in a world where there is "no distinction . . . between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality."

Kurzweil sets the date for the Singularity -- a moment of profound and disruptive transformation in human capability -- as 2045. "The nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today," he writes. By that time, his theory goes, information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, ultimately including the emotional and moral intelligence of the brain itself.

He gets us from here to there via what he calls the law of accelerating returns, as applied to biological and technological evolution. To oversimplify, he's talking about the difference between the length of time it took Homo sapiens to rise from the primordial muck and the time it took the World Wide Web to rise from the invention of the PC. This ever-quickening evolution, he argues, will ultimately enable the machines we create to recreate us.

But a purely theoretical line of argument of this sort is only as persuasive as the reader is receptive. It might be nice to live to see an epoch in which we transcend the limits of "our version 1.0 biological bodies," live as long as we want and practice Harry Potter-style "magic" with the help of nanoscale devices, but the skeptic is left unsatisfied.

Kurzweil compares critics of his vision to those who challenged Galileo's argument that the Earth is not at the center of the universe or Darwin's contention that humans evolved from other primates. Presumptuous as the comparison is, it's a fair point. But when he devotes an entire chapter to addressing objections from critics on grounds ranging from quantum mechanics to theism, he does little more than restate the points that raise the criticism in the first place.

-- Gregory Mott

Extraterrestrial Contacts

Harvard psychiatrist John Mack wagered his professional reputation in 1994 on people who said they had been snatched by aliens. In his book Abduction , he didn't completely buy their stories, but he didn't completely dismiss them either. Mack drew far more ridicule for being fatuous than applause for being open-minded.

Like Mack, Susan A. Clancy finds captivity tales captivating. But she doesn't want to squander her Harvard PhD by arguing that they are true. Indeed, she notes in Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens (Harvard Univ., $22.95) that "the whole idea . . . is downright silly." Agreed. Now what?

Clancy, a fellow in psychology at Harvard, tries to move beyond the silliness of these claims to a serious exploration of the people who make them. But her effort to reveal why people come to think they were snatched by aliens doesn't add up to much of a book. Part of the problem is her raw material. Clancy interviewed about 50 people who replied to an ad ("Have you been abducted by aliens?") that she posted around Boston. She also spent a weekend with a small group of purported abductees who get together annually. That's about it -- and that's not nearly enough.

Yes, Clancy notes, many believers may be victims of sleep paralysis -- a disorder where one's body feels locked down while one's mind leaps into fearful fantasy to explain this temporary immobility. And, yes, she ably debunks hypnosis, which is often used to dredge up supposedly repressed tales of abduction. She shows that the technique, rather than being a window into hidden trauma, can create "memories" of events that never happened. "Most people," she writes, "don't understand just how fallible memory is."

But Clancy makes the notion of intergalactic invaders trifling and renders the people who believe they've encountered them as dull. Clancy doesn't need a book -- even a brief one like this -- to deliver her basic point: People believe they have had close encounters because this is the best way they've figured out to explain their fears, their fuzzy perceptions, their feelings of being different. She also concludes that, even in the face of evidence that their "memories" mimic TV and movie scripts all too closely, these people are no crazier than the rest of us. That's a truly scary thought.

-- Tom Graham


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