The Most Overrated & Underrated Books of the 20th and 21st Centuries  



Harry E. Blanchard





Ray Kurzweil - The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) & The Singularity is Near (2005) - the latter is somewhat of a revision of the former.

Why does anyone take Kurzweil's predictions seriously? Yes, I know, he's been a busy successful genius in speech and computer technology for the last half century - and he's smart. But these books are flat-out science fiction without characters and a plot. And, despite all the accolates you'll find in the press and the web about how accurate his predictions have been - I beg to differ. In his own field of voice technology - where are we now? Do computers really and truly understand speech as HAL 9000 did? Hardly. Yes, we have great simulations of speech understanding, which are largely imperfect - as anyone who's used a telephone-based response system can attest. Computer scientists have even given up the AI approach of trying to understand speech by trying to model human speech comprehension. It's turned out to be a hugely more complex problem than many thought in the 1960s, and continues to be intractible in the 2000s. Why? Well because part of understanding speech includes thinking, knowledge, personality, social understanding, and the whole context of cognition. It's a big job. But, just to humble us further, we've still got a way to go to being human-like even on the acoustic level. Now, given that - how much faith do you have in Kruzweil's predictions of downloading consciousness into machines anytime soon, or that machines will exceed human intelligence in the 2030s? Please, permit me to have a bemused expression on my face.

By the way, the intelligence prediction is a fluid one - it all depends upon what you consider intelligence. After all, right now machines can do addition problems faster and more accurately than any human - once considered intelligent behavior.

Copyright (c) 2007, Harry E. Blanchard

Last revised: April 16, 2007.