Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ

Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ

by Richard Dooling

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Will the Geeks inherit the earth?

If computers become twice as fast and twice as capable every two years, how long is it before they’re as intelligent as humans? More intelligent? And then in two more years, twice as intelligent? How long before you won’t be able to tell if you are texting a person or an especially ingenious chatterbot program


Will the Geeks inherit the earth?

If computers become twice as fast and twice as capable every two years, how long is it before they’re as intelligent as humans? More intelligent? And then in two more years, twice as intelligent? How long before you won’t be able to tell if you are texting a person or an especially ingenious chatterbot program designed to simulate intelligent human conversation?

According to Richard Dooling in Rapture for the Geeks—maybe not that long. It took humans millions of years to develop opposable thumbs (which we now use to build computers), but computers go from megabytes to gigabytes in five years; from the invention of the PC to the Internet in less than fifteen. At the accelerating rate of technological development, AI should surpass IQ in the next seven to thirty-seven years (depending on who you ask). We are sluggish biological sorcerers, but we’ve managed to create whiz-bang machines that are evolving much faster than we are.

In this fascinating, entertaining, and illuminating book, Dooling looks at what some of the greatest minds have to say about our role in a future in which technology rapidly leaves us in the dust. As Dooling writes, comparing human evolution to technological evolution is “worse than apples and oranges: It’s appliances versus orangutans.” Is the era of Singularity, when machines outthink humans, almost upon us? Will we be enslaved by our supercomputer overlords, as many a sci-fi writer has wondered? Or will humans live lives of leisure with computers doing all the heavy lifting?

With antic wit, fearless prescience, and common sense, Dooling provocatively examines nothing less than what it means to be human in what he playfully calls the age of b.s. (before Singularity)—and what life will be like when we are no longer alone with Mother Nature at Darwin’s card table. Are computers thinking and feeling if they can mimic human speech and emotions? Does processing capability equal consciousness? What happens to our quaint beliefs about God when we’re all worshipping technology? What if the human compulsion to create ever more capable machines ultimately leads to our own extinction? Will human ingenuity and faith ultimately prevail over our technological obsessions? Dooling hopes so, and his cautionary glimpses into the future are the best medicine to restore our humanity.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Techno-wizard Ray Kurzweil and Lotus founder Mitchell Kapor have a bet. Kurzweil is convinced that by 2029, a computer will be able to pass the Turing Test; that is, be able to imitate humans so convincingly that no interrogator will be able to know if he's conversing with a person or a machine. Kapor isn't so sure, but reading Richard Dooling's Rapture for the Geeks, one receives a distinct inkling that Kurzweil's wager might be the smart bet. Dooling's dizzying tour through digital history makes human evolution look hopelessly slow. "It's worse than apples and oranges," he admits. "It's appliances and orangutans." A humbling, hip look at human intelligence and its competitors.
Publishers Weekly

Novelist and screenwriter Dooling (White Man's Grave) contemplates the "Era of Singularity," the coming day when computers will be able to outthink humans, in this uneven take on the future of machine intelligence. Dooling is at his best when he profiles technology's most captivating futurists: Ray Kurzweil, inventor of scanning and text-to-speech technologies, beguiles with his vision of human minds embedded in silicon chips; physicist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge portrays a bleaker future where humanity serves its hyperintelligent computer overlords. Dooling veers back and forth between celebrating the speed with which technology is evolving and ruing its hidden perils ("our fatal flaw... is Promethean fire-stealing, the instinct to always and everywhere overreach"), along the way touching upon the computer research, various philosophies of mind and intelligence, and the historical tensions between man and machine. While an engaging writer, Dooling tends to indulge in sarcasm and snarky humor, which trivializes the deeper import of his message: that whether machines ever become self-aware, "living" minds, we are losing something of what makes us human when we lose control of our own creations and their meaning. (Oct.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the Publisher
Praise for Richard Dooling:
Rapture for the Geeks

“Nimble and entertaining . . . A fascinating historical review of our longtime obsession with machines.”
—David Takami, Seattle Times

“Surprisingly engrossing, quick-witted.”
New York Observer

“One doesn’t expect a nonfiction book to be fascinating, chilling, thoughtful, and funny in equal measure. This one is. My question: When computers become smarter than humans, and especially if they take over, will they regard Rick Dooling as dangerous, prescient, sympathetic . . . or irrelevant?”
—Kurt Andersen

“Dooling really is onto something here.”–Ars Technica

Bet Your Life
“Manages to invoke Double Indemnity, the Old Testament, and Fountains of Wayne with equal vehemence and thriller wit. . . . If you’re not hooked, you’re one dead mackerel.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Fascinating . . . A socially relevant satire [that’s] midway between John Grisham and Carl Hiaasen.”
The New Yorker

Brainstorm is simply brilliant—hilarious, thought-provoking, and masterfully crafted. The characters are fantastic and irresistible but completely believable, and their banter is so witty and natural that a reader can forget they are debating ideas at the cutting edge of brain science and philosophy.”
—Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works

“Exuberant . . . deeply pleasurable . . . Here is a whodunit that achieves a comic fugue-state mastery of the language of our sexually charged, violent, technocratic society.”
—Colin Harrison, New York Times Book Review

Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech and Sexual Harassment
“A charmingly impudent essay on language and sexual politics . . . an extremely clever and creative sort of literary acting out.”
—Richard Bernstein, New York Times

White Man’s Grave
“A bravura display of satire . . . Dooling evokes the humane checks and balances of a deep world: the logic, you might say, of its magic.”
—Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times Book Review

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Read an Excerpt


Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.
--Joseph Campbell

1.1 About

In late February 2008, I went to meet my first supercomputer at the Peter Kiewit Institute of Technology (PKI) here in Omaha, Nebraska. PKI is Omaha's local version of MIT or Caltech, built in 1996 to offer a top-flight education to students headed for careers in information science, technology, and engineering. On the first floor, to the right of the main entrance and down a glass-and-steel corridor, is the Holland Computing Center, a secure, glass-enclosed bay that is home to Firefly, at the time of my visit the forty-third-most-powerful supercomputer in the world.
I met John Callahan, director of Technological Infrastructure, responsible for the care and feeding of Firefly. Callahan gave me a tour, a spec sheet, and a summary of Firefly's components and capabilities. In its February 2008 configuration, Firefly's brain consisted of 1,151 Dell PowerEdge servers stacked in four sleek black climate-controlled walk-in bays (donated by American Power Conversion). As we browsed up and down the rows of humming servers with blinking blue lights, Callahan described how companies, businesses, and other universities were sending him programs that took weeks or months to run on their older, lesser hardware configurations and were delighted and amazed when Firefly ran the same programs in minutes.

Supercomputers grow up even faster than kids, it seems. Firefly, still less than a year old at the time of my tour, and running on newish AMD Opteron dual-core chips, was already due for an upgrade. Callahan said that in April 2008 Firefly would receive all new AMD Opteron quad-core chips, which would make it more than twice as fast, more than twice as powerful--so fast and powerful that it would vault into the top twenty of the world's fastest supercomputers. Sometime in 2009 or 2010, it will be time for another upgrade. Firefly was built to accommodate just such scenarios; more bays, more racks, more and better chips can be easily added.

I went to see Firefly because I'm anxious about just when supercomputers like it will be programmed to write better books than I do. I wanted to see if Firefly felt like just a big marvelous tool or something more. Was it a whole new species of machine intelligence that might one day think for itself? And even if Firefly can't yet think for itself, what about ten or twenty Firefly supercomputers networked together? What about a billion or so computers--our computers--harnessed by a company like Google? Would those be capable of mimicking human intelligence, assuming someone, or some supercomputer, came along and wrote the proper software?

Other questions soon follow: If a supercomputer ever does "think" the way human brains do, how will we know it? Will it be "conscious" in the same way we are? Do these questions make sense given the trouble we've had over the centuries describing human or animal consciousness?

What is the true nature of our relationship to information technologies? Are computers and supercomputers just the latest tool, the latest bone in the hand of the hominid apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or are we, like the apes, worshipping something, be it a black monolith or some other technological force beyond our understanding? What are we creating when we log on each day and contribute to Google's vast repository of information?

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.

1.2 Help

Richard "Dick" Holland, native Omahan, original Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway investor, and philanthropist, provided most of the funds to build Firefly and the Holland Computer Center. At age eighty-six, Dick is a passionate reader and a polymath with a crackling, underhanded sense of humor. When I described this book to him, he told me about a 1954 sci-fi short story called "Answer," written by Fredric Brown.

In the story, set in the distant future, a computer engineer solders the final connection of a switch that will connect all of the monster computing machines on all of the populated planets in the universe, forming a super-circuit and a single super-calculator, "one cybernetic machine that would combine all the knowledge of all the galaxies."

The engineer plans to ask the new supercomputer "a question which no single cybernetics machine has been able to answer."

He flips the switch, turns and faces the machine: "Is there a God?"

The mighty voice answers without hesitation, "Yes, now there is a God."

Fear flashes on the face of the engineer, and he leaps to grab the switch, but a bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky strikes him down and fuses the switch shut.

1.3 Your User Profile

User, noun. The word computer professionals use when they mean "idiot."
--Dave Barry

There are only two industries that refer to their customers as "users."
--Edward Tufte

It's time to launch the Web browser of your imagination and surf the undiscovered future of technology, but first a few questions to assist you in formulating your user profile.

Are you addicted to your computer? To the Internet? To e-mail? To your Treo, iPhone, or CrackBerry? To computer gaming? Or maybe to computer programming? Perhaps you're not addicted (and you don't overeat or drink too much or take drugs); maybe you just like to configure and personalize your favorite software until it does just what you want it to do, just the way you want it done. Do you tweak the options and widgets and custom codes on your blogspot or your WordPress weblog for hours on end, until your little corner of the Internet is "clean" and well designed? Have you logged on to MySpace at 2 a.m. asking, "Help! I can't get my marquee scroll generator to work! How can I make my table backgrounds transparent, the border invisible, my photos appear to hover, and my hyperlinks underlined and 12-point Garamond?" Are you the type who customizes menus, macros, and toolbars for hours at a time, sometimes for more hours than you'll ever spend actually doing the task you had in mind when you started the program?

Here's the big question: Do you ever feel that you once used computers and computer programs as tools to get a specific job done, but lately you wonder if Dave Barry was on to something when he wrote: "I am not the only person who uses his computer mainly for the purpose of diddling with his computer"?

Then again, maybe you aren't addicted to your computer. Maybe instead you hate your computer. But somehow, even though you detest the *&^%$@!# thing, you spend more time messing with it than your tech-loving, over-clocking geek friend spends messing with his. Maybe you hate it even more when your tech-loving geek friend stops answering your user-in-distress e-mails, because then you wind up on the phone all evening with a woman in Bangalore, asking her how to make your spyware-hijacked Internet Explorer Web browser stop loading the Play-Strip-Poker-with-Hot-Young-CoEds website before your wife gets home and wants to check her e-mail.

Does your handheld sometimes feel like a prosthetic device containing your own personalized sixth sense? Is it a brain extension, with an extra, palm-held visual cortex for displaying YouTube videos? When it's gone, or broken, or not charging properly, are you bereft? Adrift? Are you a victim of what Harvard neuropyschiatrist Dr. John Ratey calls self-inflicted "acquired attention deficit disorder," because you compulsively reach for the thing, even when you don't want to? Were the editors of the New York Times talking about you and your gadgets when they observed (on iPhone day, June 29, 2007): "The real test of each new apparatus is how easily it is ingested and how quickly it becomes part of the user's metabolism. All you have to do is watch a 9-year-old teaching her mother how to text to understand the truth of this"?

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 in Berkeley, California, 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.

And while we're at it, how about an Undo button? Wouldn't that come in handy in the real world? Especially if you just totaled your car or contracted a venereal disease? Why can't you just hit Ctrl-Z or click on the swirly little Undo arrow icon and put everything back the way it was before? If only your mouth came with a backspace key. If you have one of those days where all of life seems corrupted, broken, full of error messages and warnings, and the kids are all out somewhere performing illegal operations, buffer overruns, segmentation faults, and destabilizing the system, what you need is Real Life System Restore. Restore Your Life to Last Known Good Configuration.
Do you ever feel that you have everything--your "life"--on your MacBook Pro or your laptop? Indeed, and doesn't that totally justify the vast amounts of time you spend configuring it into the well-tempered desktop? After all, it's not just a computer, it's a professional, customized tool, which you deploy each day to advance your career in the information age.

Ever had a hard-drive crash? On your main machine? Had you made a recent backup? No, wait, let me guess--you thought you had a backup somewhere, but you didn't? How bad was it? Did you pay several thousand dollars to a hard-drive-recovery service, after which they were able to salvage a few unreadable WordStar archives and a complete set of last-century game maps from Duke Nukem 3D? Did you lose ten years' worth of photos, e-mails, tax returns, a Rolodex with four thousand contacts, your novel (the opus major) dating all the way back to college, your $1,500 music collection, your ancestry research, several dozen works-in-progress for clients, bosses, and colleagues, and your fantasy baseball league--all gone? Did your doctor recommend therapy from a professional "data crisis counselor"? Did you have to go on antidepressants because, in the twinkling of a screen, your life became a data-barren wasteland?

What if at that very moment a genie had appeared and had said that you could have your laptop back with all its data, but only if you would agree to stand back and watch your house burn down? What would you have done? (Hey, at least the house is insured, right?) Were you consumed with guilt and self-loathing because tech-savvy, computer-wise Dutch uncles had been telling you for ten or twenty years that the only way to protect the integrity of your data is to back up? It's like a seat belt, they said. You need it only once, but then it's absolutely critical. Did you keep saying, "Yeah, I know. I will. I think I have most of it backed up on an old laptop"? But here you are in information gray-out, because you in fact did not back up. Now, alas, it's too late. You may feel the same way at the end of your life, when you realize that you could have spent more time with your kids instead of your MacBook Pro. Now your "life" has been erased, leaving nothing but an epitaph in stark white letters on a black screen: "Hard Disk Controller Failure."

If you're like me, all of this has convinced you that it's time to log on to the Online 12-Step Forum for Online Addiction (where people are hard at work improving themselves and changing the world through chat). Time for you to type:

BartlebyScrivener: Hello, my name is Rick, and I am a computer addict.
1Byte@ATime: Hi, Rick!
NoMoMachineHead: Welcome, Rick!
I<3MamaBoards: Hey, Bartleby, don't I know you from the Linux.Debian.User Google Group? 4giveme but I got my SATA 300 Seagate hard drive talking to my ASUS Motherboard using the configs you recommended, but now I can't get RAID to work. Can you help me?

It'll be like holding an AA meeting at a TGIF happy hour.

If computers and programming and the Internet are all sins that divert me from my family and the rest of humanity, then for the last four or five years I've been doing technology the Gnostic way. The Gnostics believed that the only way to avoid a sin was to commit it and be rid of it. When I get done thoroughly sinning and overdosing on machine living, I can perhaps rid myself of it, retire to the Alaskan wilderness, and get all of my technology-news updates from the bush pilot who drops off my groceries once a month. When he shows up sporting a new fiber-optic skull port in the back of his head with a Cat-5 connection for seamless neuro-navigational and instrument panel data transfer, I'll know that the future of technology has arrived . . . in my absence.

1.4 Time to Quit?

But before I go native, I thought I'd write this book. Perhaps my own tech addiction and my disturbing apprehensions about what technology will do to us in the very near future will serve as a cautionary tale for the age. As if the age and I are capable of saying no to more and more and more technology (aka Moore's law). Addicts (like us) are sharks. We don't think; we move and feed. At the moment, the age and I are both mainlining computer technologies. The scary part is that addicts often go on moving and feeding, right up until they land in jail or on the table in the ER, where they don't wake up. Sometimes it's worse if they do wake up, because then they have to quit.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

RICHARD DOOLING is a novelist, screenwriter, and lawyer, a visiting professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He is the author of Critical Care, Brainstorm, Bet Your Life, and the novel White Man’s Grave, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska, with his wife, children, and computers.

From the Hardcover edition.

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