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Apocalypse later

Ray Kurzweil predicts the not-so-near future in ‘post-biological’ visions of humanity

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / June 29, 2010

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NEW YORK — I have seen the future, and it is long-winded, narcissistic, and — thank heavens — still far off.

“Welcome to the future,’’ was how the emcee greeted me and about 400 guests attending the New York premiere of Ray Kurzweil’s forthcoming movie, “The Singularity Is Near.’’

Naturally, you wonder:

1. What is the Singularity?

2. Is it near?

3. Should I suspend my newspaper delivery and donate the proceeds to my school’s literacy program?

The answers:

1. The Singularity is an apocalyptic vision that Newton’s own Kurzweil, an MIT grad and successful inventor, has been proselytizing for about a decade. Kurzweil posits that ever-greater portions of human endeavor will be supplanted by nano-computers and handcrafted genes. For instance, a machine the size of a blood cell could pump oxygen into your veins, eliminating the need to breathe. Humans will become “post-biological,’’ with more body parts designed by Google than by God. It’s the Rapture of the Nerds.

2. Not really.

3. It’s a generous thing to do.

Kurzweil is enjoying a moment in the sun. Last year, he starred in a movie called “Transcendent Man,’’ hailing his genius. Digi-titans such as Google’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page have been praising his Singularity University, which thrashes out FutureThink in 10-week long classes that cost $25,000. “Some of Silicon Valley’s smartest and wealthiest people have embraced the Singularity,’’ The New York Times recently reported. Of course, these were the same people who poured millions into Webvan and Kozmo.com. So you might want to withhold your applause until the end of the show.

What about “The Singularity Is Near?’’ The movie is codirected, written, and coproduced by Kurzweil, and features Kurzweil interacting with the Great Minds of the 1980s, such as Sherry Turkle, Mitch Kapor, Bill Joy, and Marvin Minsky, the latter actually a Great Mind of the 1960s and 1970s. Have you been wondering where Alan Dershowitz has been hiding? He plays a defense lawyer in the movie’s inane fictional subplot.

The only celebrity thinker who acquits himself with dignity is eco-pamphleteer Bill McKibben, who looks as if he has wandered into the wrong green room. McKibben expresses a healthy skepticism about Kurzweil’s finger-painted future.

What is that future? Humans will become “more creative and more loving’’ by adding artificial intelligence to their brains. Society will run on solar energy. “It’s only eight more doublings away from providing all our energy needs’’ is a classic Kurzweil-ism. Digital technology will broadcast the image of a computer screen onto your retina, so “we will be online all the time.’’ Lucky us.

Kurzweil likes to predict that we “will reprogram our bodies the way we reprogram our computers,’’ and he has been doing just that. For many years he has been plugging the idea of radical life extension, “aggressively reprogramming’’ his biochemistry, pumping scads of pills into his 62-year-old “version 1.0 body.’’ More recently, he has been talking about bringing back his beloved and deceased father, which I find a bit macabre.

During a post-screening question-and-answer session, National Public Radio host Moira Gunn tried to pin Kurzweil down on his future plans:

Q. Are you going to live forever? Yes or no?

Kurzweil: [Hemming, hawing, attempting to redefine the question.]

Q. Yes or no?

Kurzweil: [Evading, bobbing, weaving.]

I guess we will just have to wait and see.

Free plug
There is a wicked, short YouTube clip making the rounds of publishing circles. In it, David Duchovny, who plays novelist and writing teacher Hank Moody in the Showtime series “Californication,’’ tells a young writer: “The world doesn’t need any more lame vampire fiction.’’

Fight the vampire power! Resist Justin Cronin’s “The Passage’’ and instead treat yourself to Michael Gruber’s “The Good Son,’’ my definition of a head-down, don’t-bother-me-I-am-reading, great summer book. Gruber’s three Jimmy Paz novels, set in southern Florida, are in your local library and likewise should not be missed.

“The Good Son’’ has the best final line in recent popular fiction. If you make it to the end, you’ll thank me later.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com

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