Friday, April 14, 2006

Some Comments on Ray Kurzweil's Recent Book

Recently I read a fabulous book called The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by someone called Ray Kurzweil.I would advise everyone to read this book. It is very good. It contains many good ideas, and the central idea is absolutely extraordinary.

I have discovered an example of Ray Kurzweil’s description of trends of technology. Kurzweil claims in his excellent book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, that there will be a period of immense and profound change in the early-to-mid twenty first century revolving around a series of revolutions in our understanding of genetics and biology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.

The overall thesis proposed in the book is fascinating, and is reinforced by a number of smaller theories and pieces of evidence. However I’ll leave the extraordinary idea of the technological singularity for another piece of text and concentrate on another idea suggested by Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near. This idea, as with many of Kurzweil’s notions, is based on observation of technological trends. Kurzweil claims that any technology will typical follow seven stages, which are all part of an overall trend. Following is a short summary of Kurzweil’s seven stages:

The Precursor Stage: The prerequisites of a technology exist and some individuals speculate that the technology may one day exist. Leonardo da Vinci drew pictures of aeroplanes and automobiles, but this cannot be said to be the same as “inventing” these devices any more than the ancient Greeks who wrote the myths of Icarus can be said to have invented the aeroplane.

Invention: An inventor blends curiosity, scientific skills, determination and other talents to create the first actual working example of a particular technology.

Development: This stage is often more essential to the success of a particular technology than the stage of invention. At this stage the technology will be restricted to a few careful guardians. The equivalent of this stage in the development of writing would have been the scribes of Ancient Egypt, and in powered heavier-than-air flight this would have been the period with a few pioneers like the Wright brothers and Louis Bleriot carrying the technology forward in the early twentieth century. Often the ultimate result of this period is something like mass-production, which allows the technology to progress to stage 4.

Maturity: Whilst continuing to develop the technology becomes established, accepted and “normal”. It is at this point that some people begin to assume the technology is A: perfect and B: will last forever.

The Stage of False Pretenders: This is an interesting period in the history of a technology. A new technology emerges which claims to completely replace the older technology, and the enthusiasts backing the new technology predict a quick victory. However, although the new technology has some benefits, it is deficient in other ways. An example from music-storage-format technologies is the audio cassette tape. This emerged as a “replacement” for older vinyl discs in the sixties and seventies, however when the weaknesses of the format became apparent it was itself rapidly superseded by digital compact disks (the spelling of “disc” with a k seems more appropriate in this context) As I mentioned before, these seven stages are an elaboration of an overall trend.

Technologies go from being expensive, not working very well and being limited to a small elite to being relatively cheap, working fairly well and being quite widely available to being almost free, working extremely well and being available to everyone (with exceptions, of course, see below). It is in the field of information technologies that these trends are most noticeable because of the ongoing very high rate of change in that area.

Here is the example of this trend: In 1981 the Osborne Computer Corporation released the world’s first “portable” micro-computer, which cost $1795. It had the following hardware features: Dual 5¼-inch floppy disk drives4 MHz Z80 CPU65 kilobytes main memoryFold-down keyboard doubling as the computer case’s lid5-inch, 52 character × 24 line monochrome CRT displayParallel printer portSerial port for use with external modems or serial printers And, as you can see from the image on this device's Wikipedia entry, can hardly be described as portable. It was heavy, ugly, and difficult to carry around. Now, in 2006 we have the wonderful $100 laptop being developed by the one laptop per child organisation.

This is a plan to distribute these extremely durable and low-cost laptops to children in third world countries to bring them the benefits of information technology and the resultant enhancements in education. The latest prototypes (with prospective prices a shade over $110 per unit) have the following hardware features: 366 MHz AMD CPU with 0.25 Watt power consumptionSVGA 7” LCD screen with colour and black and white modes (for ebooks)128 megabytes of DRAM512 megabytes of flash memoryWireless networking using an “extended range” 802.11b wireless chipset (2 Mbit/second to minimise power consumption. Alphanumeric keyboard, and a long touchpad for handwriting lessonsBuilt in stereo speakers and microphone3 external USB portsA hand crank generator!

To return to Kurzweil’s seven stages: here we can clearly see an example of technology simultaneously improving, becoming cheaper and becoming available to many more people. Critics of the $100 laptop scheme include Bill Gates, who I feel rather missed the point with his comments when questioned about the $100 laptop programme at the introduction of the Ultra Mobile PC in March:

"If you are going to go have people share the computer, get a broadband connection and have somebody there who can help support the user, geez, get a decent computer where you can actually read the text and you're not sitting there cranking the thing while you're trying to type."

This isn’t a consumer venture like the Ultra Mobile PC. This is a boot-strapping charity venture. I agree that delivering a top-of-the-line dual-core monstrosity running the (doubtless sublime and doubtless expensive) Windows Vista operating system (instead of the free and open source Linux-based Red Hat OS of the $100 laptop) with a wireless 10 Mbps connection covering the entire African continent and a personal guide for every single village in the region would be preferable to what is being suggested, but we don’t all have Mr Gates’ billions to spend. The idea is one sub-$100 laptop for every child.

Further to Mr Gates’ comments: charging $60+ for an operating system means any scheme to provide cheap computing facilities to the developing world is likely to grind to a halt if it intends to use Microsoft Windows™. Other slightly more pertinent criticisms of the project include the possibility of pollutants produced by the disposal of some of the components. This is a genuine worry, and not just one that applies to these laptops, but to all electronic goods. Other critics suggest slightly different approaches, a blogger writes:

Sell the $100 laptop in open market and use royalty to fund free laptops to poor children: I don't understand why OLPC doesn't want to sell in open markets, and why the manufacturing contract has to be exclusive to specific manufacturer(s). By doing this, OLPC is not unleashing the power of the markets. Such a sound concept as $100 laptop, when complemented by the market, will work exponentially well. I suggest a system where the design is made close to open source, and any manufacturer can use the design, and they can make improvements. However, the manufacturers should agree to submit any design or function improvements to the MediaLabs, in return for the original design. The MediaLabs should collect royalty as a percentage of sales, and use it to fund free or subsidized laptops for children of poor countries.” [sic]

This makes some interesting points. I suppose that something like this may well happen in the near future if the scheme is to be pursued (coming to a PC World near you…). The whole idea reminds me of the start of the excellent science fiction novel Singularity Sky by Charles Stross, when mobile telephones rain down on the inhabitants of a repressive regime. In this case it is poverty that is being combated.

This project, aimed at increasing the information processing and educational facilities in poor regions is one of many projects that will extend the reach of civilization and progress into developing countries. To read more about the One Laptop per Child organisation, visit their website at: To read more about the Ray Kurzweil’s seven stages of technology visit his website:

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