Thursday, November 18, 2004

'The Spike' Wins a 'Mitchy'

Every once in a while a book comes along that causes me as a reader to feel a profound sense of gratitude to the author: a book of concentrated insight representing the apex of a massive aggregation of scientific and scholarly study—the layman’s payoff for the esoteric labors of thousands. Two examples of in this category would be 'Guns, Germs and Steel' by Jared Diamond, and 'The Moral Animal' by Robert Wright, explaining the more interesting and useful conclusions of anthropology and evolutionary psychology, respectively, along with a host of related subjects.

'The Spike', by Damien Broderick, is the latest tome crossing my desk to earn the prestigious Mitchell Howe Gratitude Award for Explanatory Excellence in Service to Humanity. This book is perhaps best described as an arena in which the top competing concepts in futurism are carefully introduced and pitted against each other in brief vivisectional combat. The most consistent champion is Broderick’s scarcely disputable thesis: for better or worse, our world as we know it will disappear during the first half of this century—the inevitable result of accelerating technological advancement. We find ourselves at the elbow of a slope that ‘spikes’ ahead of us with staggering steepness, whether we are graphing the trends in biotechnology, automated manufacturing, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, or some combination of the above.

Unlike the better known (at least in America) future studies of Ray Kurzweil ('The Age of Spiritual Machines', 'The Singularity is Near'), 'The Spike' never comes across as sensational, dumbed-down, or one-sided, and should therefore find a much more receptive audience among the highly educated and highly skeptical. As an unavoidable consequence, however, 'The Spike' may make difficult reading for those who do not meet a moderate threshold of general and scientific literacy. I recommend 'The Spike' to anyone who has graduated from Kurzweil, or who could expect to test out of it, given the chance.

Broderick is nothing if not thorough. He confidently marches the reader through canonical transhuman topics like uploading, immortality, and the Fermi Paradox, and continues straight into Shock Level Four territory, with discussion that includes Jupiter Brains and Matrioshka Brains, until he’s reached the intersection of the singularity and cosmology with Tipler’s Omega Point concept. Given the patent unpredictability of anything past the creation of greater-than-human intelligence, we might call this last stretch of Broderick’s journey a well-grounded study of wild-speculations, if such a thing is possible. Whatever it is, it’s fascinating.

But he’s not finished there. He concludes with no fewer than twelve scenarios in which the Singularity/Spike is reached, or not reached, as a result of roadblocks and opportunities along the way. The reader is then free to wade through the plentiful endnotes backing up various points of the text.

Authors like Broderick are the reason I’m so happy to live near a decent library again. In fact, this reminds me: I have another two year old wish to fulfill. Let’s see…

Yes. 'Transcension' is checked in…So, if you’ll excuse me…


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