Notes for Ray Kurzweil The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence

Key concepts: law of accelerating returns, law of time and chaos.

Related theorists: Friedrich Kittler, Jonathan Sterne.




Identity questions will dominate politics and philosophy in the next century.

(2) The primary political and philosophical issue of the next century will be the definition of who we are.


Predictions that machines will read on their own by current decade, then into the physical world, reinforcing literacy as primary component of human intelligence; also slides from information sharing to knowledge sharing among machines, which many would contest.

(3) Computers will be able to read on their own, understanding and modeling what they have read, by the second decade of the twenty-first century. We can then have our computers read all of the world's literature—books, magazines, scientific journals, and other available material. Ultimately, the machines will gather knowledge on their own by venturing into the physical world, drawing from the full spectrum of media and information services, and sharing knowledge with each other (which machines can do far more easily than their human creators).

Asserts formidable combination of human level intelligence and speed, accuracy, and sharing ability of machines will challenge human mastery in many domains beyond chess.

(4) The combination of human-level intelligence in a machine with a computer's inherent superiority in the speed, accuracy, and sharing ability of its memory will be formidable.
(5) But as computers continue to gain in capacity at an exponential rate, we will have the same experience in these other areas as Kasparov had in chess.

Goal of book is to enhance predictions focusing on demographic, economic and political trends with emerging machine capabilities as intelligent agents.



From the Big Bang to evolution of life on Earth, time moves in exponential fashion, seeming linear only when nothing much happens.

(10) The nature of time is that it inherently moves in an exponential fashion—either geometrically gaining in speed, or, as in the history of our Universe, geometrically slowing down. Time only seems to be linear during those eons in which not much happens.
(11) But it is of great significance when you find yourself in the “knee of the curve,” those periods in which the exponential nature of the curve of time explodes either inwardly or outwardly.

The Speed of Time
(11) we will see that the acceleration in the passage of time for evolution is moving in a different direction than that for the Universe from which it emerges.

We are again in the knee of the curve when exciting things happen.

(11) It is in the nature of exponential growth that events develop extremely slowly for extremely long periods of time, but as one glides through the knee of the curve, events erupt at an increasingly furious pace. And that is what we will experience as we enter the twenty-first century.


Emergence of intelligent life does not affect overall measure of increasing entropy.

(12) How do we reconcile the emergence of intelligent life with the Law of Increasing Entropy?
(12) The order of life takes place amid great chaos, and the existence of life-forms does not appreciably affect the measure of entropy in the larger systems in which life has evolved.

The Exponentially Quickening Pace of Evolution

Written record of achievement key requirement for evolutionary process such as DNA encoding.

(13) A key requirement for an evolutionary process is a “written” record of achievement, for otherwise the process would be doomed to repeat finding solutions to problems already solved. For the earliest organisms, the record was written (embodied) in their bodies, coded directly into the chemistry of their primitive cellular structures. With the invention of DNA-based genetics, evolution had designed a digital computer to record its handiwork.


Technology includes written record of tool making, which is essential for evolutionary processes.

(14) Technology goes beyond the mere fashioning and use of tools. It involves a record of tool making and a progression in the sophistication of tools. . . . Just as the genetic code of the early life forms was simply the chemical composition of the organisms themselves, the written record of early tools consisted of the tools themselves.
(15) Like the evolution of life-forms, the pace of technology has greatly accelerated over time.

Definitions of technology: study of crafting as shaping resourced for practical purposes, human application of knowledge to fashioning tools, transcendence of materials comprising them as in art and language.

(16) Thus one interpretation of technology is the study of crafting, in which crafting refers to the shaping of resources for a practical purpose. I use the term resources rather than materials because technology extends to the shaping of nonmaterial resources such as information.
(16) What is uniquely human is the application of knowledge—recorded knowledge—to the fashioning of tools. The knowledge base represents the genetic code for the evolving technology.
(16) Technology also implies a transcendence of the materials used to comprise it. When the elements of an invention are assembled in just the right way, they produce an enchanting effect that goes beyond the mere parts.
(16-17) The same phenomenon of transcendence occurs in art, which may properly be regarded as another form of human technology. . . . The Greek meaning of
tekhnē logia includes art as a key manifestation of technology.
(17) Language is another form of human-created technology. . . . Along with the evolving forms of language itself, technology has provided ever-improving means for recording and distributing human language.
Homo sapiens are unique in their use and fostering of all forms of what I regard as technology: art, language, and machines, all representing evolution by other means.

The Inevitability of Technology

Requirements of intelligence and physical ability to manipulate the environment, from which von Neumann intuited self-replicating automata in virtual environments.

(18) Technology requires two attributes of its creator: intelligence and the physical ability to manipulate the environment.


Computation defined as ability solve problems, implying ability to remember.

(18) The ability to remember and to solve problems—computation--has constituted the cutting edge in the evolution of multicellular organisms.
(18) The same value of computation holds true in the evolution of human-created technology. Products are more useful if they can maintain internal states and respond differentially to varying conditions and situations.

Seven life cycle stages for technologies: precursor, invention, development, maturity, pretenders, obsolescence, antiquity; example of phonograph record fitting connection to Sterne.
(19) Technologies fight for survival, and undergo their own characteristic life cycles. We can identify seven distinct stages.
(19) To illustrate this, consider the phonograph record.

The Emergence of Moore's Law

Exponential growth of computing discernible since beginning of twentieth century, not just since Moores Law.

(21) We first note that the exponential growth of computing did not start with Moore's Law on Integrated Circuits. In the accompanying figure, “The Exponential Growth of Computing, 1900-1998,” I plotted forty-nine notable computing machines spanning the twentieth century on an exponential chart, in which the vertical axis represents powers of ten in computer speed per unit cost (as measured in the number of “calculations per second” that can be purchased for $1,000).
(22) A careful examination of the trend shows that the curve is actually bending slightly upward, indicating a small exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.
(25) The speed and density of computation have been doubling every three years (at the beginning of the twentieth century) to one year (at the end of the twentieth century), regardless of the type of hardware used. . . . If the automobile industry had made as much progress in the past fifty years, a car today would cost a hundredth of a cent and go faster than the speed of light.


Time moves in relation to the amount of chaos.

(29) What determines whether time speeds up or slows down? The consistent answer is that time moves in relation to the amount of chaos.
(29) When there is a lot of chaos in a process, it takes more time for significant events to occur. Conversely, as order increases, the time periods between salient events decrease.
(29) If chaos is increasing, the Law of Time and Chaos implies the following sublaw:
The Law of Increasing Chaos: As chaos exponentially increases, time exponentially slows down (that is, the time interval between salient events grows larger as time passes).

Law of accelerating returns the opposite spiral of law of time and chaos, and applies specifically to evolutionary processes, where order increases and time speeds up.

(29-30) But it is the opposite spiral of the Law of Time and Chaos that is the most important and relevant for our purposes. Consider the inverse sublaw, which I call the Law of Accelerating Returns: The Law of Accelerating Returns: As order exponentially increases, time exponentially speeds up (that is, the time interval between salient events grows shorter as time passes).
(30) The Law of Accelerating Returns (to distinguish it from a better-known law in which returns diminish) applies specifically to evolutionary processes. In an evolutionary process, it is order—the opposite of chaos—that is increasing. And, as we have seen, time speeds up.


Measure of order tied to purpose of information; evolutionary trend towards greater order results in greater complexity.

(30) The measure of order is the measure of how well the information fits the purpose.
(31) Complexity is a reasonably close fit to the concept of order that I am describing. . . . Evolution has shown, however, that the general trend toward greater order does generally result in greater complexity.

The Law of Increasing Entropy Versus the Growth of Order

Evolution speeds up by building on its own increasing order, and computation is the essence of order, making computational technology the quintessential evolutionary process.

(32) A primary reason that evolution—of life-forms or of technology—speeds up is that it builds on its own increasing order.
(32) In the case of the evolution of technology, ever improving human methods of recording information have fostered further technology.
(32-33) We can thus conclude the following with regard to the evolution of life-forms and of technology: . . .
The returns (that is, the valuable products of the process) accelerate.
(33) Computation is the essence of order. It provides the ability for a technology to respond in a variable and appropriate manner to its environment to carry out its mission. Thus computational technology is also an evolutionary process, and also builds on its own progress.

So Where Does That Leave Moore's Law?

Most Exponential Trends Hit a Wall . . . but Not This One

Two resources of internal growing order and environmental chaos unbounded for computation, though machines will provide their own innovation (Kittler automatic programming); three dimensional chip design, nanotube, optical, crystalline, DNA, quantum computing technologies keep Law of Accelerating Returns going.

(35) The Law of Accelerating Returns applies equally to the evolutionary process of computation, which inherently will grow exponentially and essentially without limit. The two resources it needs—the growing order of the evolving technology itself and the chaos from which an evolutionary process draws its options for further diversity—are unbounded. Ultimately, the innovation needed for further turns of the screw will come from the machines themselves.
(35) How will the power of computing continue to accelerate after Moore's Law dies? We are just beginning to explore the third dimension in chip design. . . . And there are more than enough other new computing technologies waiting in the wings—nanotube, optical, crystalline, DNA, and quantum—to keep the Law of Accelerating Returns going in the world of computation for a very long time.

A Planetary Affair

Next evolutionary milestone will be autonomous technology creating its own next generation.

(36) The emergence of technology was a milestone in the evolution of intelligence on Earth because it represented a new means of evolution recording its designs. The next milestone will be technology creating its own next generation without human intervention.

The Inventor of Chess and the Emperor of China

First of many interludes putatively between Kurzweil and the reader, though the latter could also be an imagined machine interlocutor.



DNA as software, ROM controlling the machinery of life.

(46) Evolution is a master programmer. . . . The software programs have been all written down, recorded as digital data in the chemical structure of an ingenious molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. . . . This master “read only” memory controls the vast machinery of life.

Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Print.