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Homo S@piens. Living in the 21st Century.

What remains of the humans?

Econ Ullstein List Verlag, München. 509 p., 3rd edition 2003

Reviewed by Chloé Lachauer, M..A.
Translated by Angelika Stieglbauer

11.03.2005 · Reviewed by Chloé Lachauer

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With his book ' Homo S@piens. Living in the 21st century. What remains of humans?' the renowned inventor and computer pioneer Ray Kurzweil presents a work that is pathbreaking. He presents fascinating new results of futurology and allows the reader to look at a world between robotics, nanotechnology and virtual realities. According to Kurzweil's analyses and prognoses humans and computers will compete with each other in a not far remote future. Finally humans and machines will melt together to one unit in a new evolutionary leap. In a breathtaking vision of life in the 21st century, Kurzweil brings up numerous socio-political, ethic and philosophical questions, which will determine the discourse in the next decade.

In the first section the book deals with the past. Kurzweil outlines the evolution of human intelligence in a first overview. In the end he addresses the issue of awareness and sensation of machines. Will this soon be possible? If the answer is yes, which effects will this have on humans? According to Kurzweil's thesis problems cannot be solved without computers. "In view of the challenges of tomorrow one should remember the insights of yesterday. It does not make sense to review every problem that arises again and again. This especially holds for humans, because their data processing systems work extremely slow. It is true, computers are better equipped than human brains to think about former insights, but it is also true that these electronic competitors in our ecological niche must keep the right balance between memory and processing activity" (p. 152).

In the second section Kurzweil focuses on developments of the present time. As central themes he picks out the increasing sophistication of data processing technology and the dependency of humans on the efficiency of computers, which became perceptible in 1999 shortly before the turn of the millennium.

Besides the new field of molecular data processing the second chapter deals especially with resource knowledge, the feasibility to scan the human brain, and if new medical chances through nanoimplants: "Actually there will be no mortality in the end of the 21st century. Not in the sense we know it at least" (p. 205). Also the possibilities of new technologies for fine arts are mentioned here. Today's machines are already an integral element of our culture and the sensorial and spiritual machines of the 21st century can be even less separated from our culture" (p. 208).

As Kurzweil argues the world could be composed anew with the aid of nanotechnolgy atom by atom in quite different areas. According to the author numerous examples from research laboratories and scientific examinations verify these possibilities. Besides the extension of solar energy technology the natural immune system could be strengthened by nanobots integrated into the human blood circulation in order to combat pathogenes or cancer cells. In addition, the interhuman-emotional area would increasingly range in virtual realities with artificially created surroundings and persons. "A typical 'website' then is a virtual environment percepted by the brain for which external hardware is no longer necessary. You "go there" by clicking mentally on the relevant website and by entering the chosen world" (p. 229).

In a final prognosis for the present time Kurzweil concisely compares predictions and the reality since the beginning of the nineties. Some of the astonishingly exact prognoses are for example: The emergence of the world wide web as far as to digital target acquisition in the first and second Gulf War; the breakdown of the Soviet Union as far as to the first tests of self-propelling cars in LA and Tokyo and for example as far as to high-performance voice recognition systems. Nearly all prognoses came true at the predicted time.

In a third chapter Kurzweil outlines a vision of the future over several periods of time and dares a glance at the evolution of humans and machines in the third millennium. In four sections he presents his ideas and prognoses for the years 2009, 2019, 2029 and 2099. He drafts the world of tomorrow with examples of sectors like education, health service, communication, economy, working and every-day-life, politics and society, fine art, military and war fighting, health, medicine and philosophy. With several projects, which are already realized and/or in a test stage Kurzweil proves the most remarkable innovations. His realizations range from computer aided intelligence via telemedicine to highly efficient weapons as small as insects, from virtual paintings on plasma displays via distance learning in the web to thinking cloths and incorporated computers in all kinds of commodities and jewellery and he draws the scenario of a world, where humans and machines are melting together with each other. Even faith and religion will be increasingly 'technologized'. "The machines of the 21st Century, whose thinking is a reproduction of the human thinking, will do the same what their human ancestors have done. They will visit real and virtual places of worship and they will meditate, pray and strive for transparency in order to master their spiritual dimensions" (p. 243).

Kurzweil believes that the future of the universe basically depends on how the resources knowledge and intelligence is used and developed further. "Intelligence cannot be cancelled by the laws of physics, but it can manipulate the physical forces according to its needs. But this requires that intelligence reaches a certain development level" (p. 394).

The appendix of the book contains a detailed chronology, which describes and predicts important events in the evolution of humans and machines from the formation of the universe up to the year 2099. Problematic surely is the fact that many of the younger prognoses are hardly based on science and rather seem to be a script of a new Hollywood production than a stimulus for a serious scientific and sociopolitical discourse about topics in ethics and philosophy. Nevertheless Kurzweil's predictions are fascinating to the end – although sometimes frightening.

The structured configuration of the chapters makes the book interesting not only for scientists, who work in this field, but also for laymen. The edition of the complex ethic and scientific themes is so successful that one can read the book like a thrilling novel. But the very last section, which deals with the end of the 21st century seems to be far-fetched and can hardly be or not be verified scientifically. It can be referred to as a merely personal, science fiction like vision of Kurzweil. But besides the question, whether Kurzweil is right with his occasionally improbable prognoses, the book supplies abundant material to think about and at the same time a fascinating and thrilling reading matter on the subject of artificially producible intelligence.

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