Wake-Up Call for Europe Tech

By Frank Schirrmacher

With the blessings of the U.S. public, the American theoretician and computer expert Ray Kurzweil prophesies that within our lifetime, computers will exceed human brain power. In Germany, hardly anyone knows his name. This may be partly because his bestseller The Age of Spiritual Machines appeared in German last year under what could pass for the parody of an outdated title: "Homo [email protected]"

The European intelligentsia is entering the 21st century in silence, stubbornly or clumsily avoiding the issue. It is easy to imagine one of these intellectuals, fumbling over a new word-processing package: the infuriation at this "not coping", the alleged lack of "technical know-how," the antipathy (often justified) which sets in at the slightest whiff of leads and sockets. All this also characterizes prevailing attitudes to the revolutionary paradigm shift itself. The new age didn't come to us Europeans in a flash of inspiration, it came as a "retraining program": from typewriter to computer, from computer to Internet.

This may be why many European intellectuals equate current developments with previous technological adaptations made after the invention of the automobile or the refrigerator. In this they are certainly mistaken. Ray Kurzweil may be wrong when he predicts that over the next 20 years, bio-, nano- and computer technology will bring greater changes to the way we live than the entire 20th century. But it is definitely worth talking about, especially in these times of tech-conscious, "green" government. But we just keep on fumbling with our leads and plugs and sockets, while people elsewhere are busy programming our future.

"Europe has stopped thinking," proclaims Jaron Lanier, "but it has supplied the software." In his view, it will not be long before all the questions Western philosophers asked themselves, all the questions of being, illusion and consciousness, begin to be asked by computers. "And when they do, they can use the software written by Kant and Heidegger."

Jaron Lanier is one of America's cyber-gurus, a player in the new intellectual scene which Europe has still barely discovered. Yet this discovery will be essential if Europe is to wake up to the new century. Years ago, Lanier invented the term "virtual reality" and built a reputation on spectacular software programs. Now, he is reconstructing ancient Egyptian music. "We will make something audible as it was once heard by the Pharaohs — a classical case of reverse engineering."

Lanier is convinced that technical evolution is in the process of creating artificial intelligence. But such an intelligence will never stop despairing over programming errors. Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche are no more than bug-infested versions of human consciousness. "Philosophers," he says, "have subjected humankind to constant beta-testing of their software."

It is amazing to what extent the new century's technological elite reaches back into the distant past. Bill Gates collects Leonardo da Vinci and copyrighted art, telling us something about how he sees himself. J. Craig Venter, who cracked the genome, imitates Christopher Columbus' voyage of discovery in a one-man yacht. Ray Kurzweil, the technological revolution's influential commentator (and owner of countless patents) lets his computer invent new Shakespeare poems for him. Daniel Hillis, who created the super computers, is constructing a mechanical watch designed to run for 10,000 years, which he refers to as "my own little Stonehenge." And finally, there is Nathan Myhrvold, "the brain of Gates," who coordinates comprehensive expeditions on the life of the dinosaurs.

"Since 1970," Myhrvold explains, "computers have increased their performance by a factor of one million," a development he expects to continue at the same speed for another 20 years. To make that quite clear: a factor of one million means the difference between a year and 30 seconds. In other words, today's new computer requires 30 seconds for a task which would have taken a year with an older model. In the year 2010, computers will require 30 seconds for a task which would take a 1970s computer one million years. Maybe this explains his journeys to the land of the dinosaurs.

According to Myhrvold: "We're going through a second evolution." He believes future generations will have as little understanding for our concepts of time and space as we have for those of the Middle Ages. As an assistant to Stephen Hawking, Myhrvold witnessed the birth of A Brief History of Time and a new cosmology. "In the past," he says, "astronomers built tools, and now the bio-computer experts are at last building their new tools."

In Myhrvold's view, the combination of genetic engineering and computer science will trigger a tremendous revolution. Based on the AOL/Time-Warner model, he predicts that small biotech companies will buy out huge pharmaceuticals groups. "Their dimensions will certainly go beyond what I am capable of imagining." At this point, it's worth reminding ourselves of Myhrvold's dimensions: the former assistant to Stephen Hawking became a billionaire as Microsoft's key research strategist.

In the 1950s, many who traveled to Paris did so to see Jean-Paul Sartre holding court in a cafe or arguing with Albert Camus. Anyone entering the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria on May 19 would have seen only a 40-year-old and a 30-year-old. "Does it know what it is?" asks the 40-year-old. "It's still a baby;" the younger man replies.

The 30-year-old is Ben Goertzel, who has attracted talented people his own age from around the globe to his company to create artificial intelligence for the Internet. The 40-year-old is Nathan Myhrvold, and he gives Goertzel exactly 15 minutes to shape his destiny: "When we raise our baby, we won't talk to it about trees and flowers and teeth, as these are things it will never know. We will talk to it about files and MIDI sequences and shapes, as these are things in which we ourselves and the baby have gathered experience."

This encounter is like the meeting between two artists, the elder celebrity and the rambunctious youngster. The finishing touch would be if Myhrvold were to ask Goertzel what he was working on, as Goethe once asked Heinrich Heine, and Goertzel were to reply: "a version of Faust."

According to Myrvhold, genetic engineering and the development of artificial intelligence are the two main obsessions of America's scientific elite. In a text available on the Internet, he illustrates the limits to this project. One example he gives is the number of permutations possible with 59 objects — only slightly more than a deck of cards. Calculating the complete set of permutations for 59 objects would require 10 to the power of 20 permutations, roughly equivalent to the entire number of protons and neutrons in the universe.

"Europe has stopped thinking," says Lanier without a trace of malice. Later he adds: "Maybe we'll all go mad over here." 

These are young men reciting the development of artificial intelligence to young billionaires like a poem. Scientists such as Daniel Hillis, who first built the world's most powerful computer and now a mechanical watch which might still be ticking away in a world without humans. Hillis, whom Marvin Minsky lists among the most important scientists of our time, built parallel computers which simulate evolution. His machines were so powerful that the U.S. government banned the sale of his company Thinking Machines to a Japanese group in the interests of national security. And where did the theoretician of "artificial life" end up? "Until recently I was at Disney, but I resigned," he says. "It was a great experience. But it was just a transitional phase on the way to creating artificial life."

Ray Kurzweil speaks of an age of "spiritual machines." And indeed, at technology's cutting edge, a movement has grown up that is as spiritual as it is materialistic. Like every movement, it has its profane sides. Asked how this profanity manifests itself, all the representatives of the movement without exception name Bill Gates. As if he was an ideological traitor, the Stalin of the computer age. But these are minor battles. "We are all part of it when Microsoft is broken up," says Lanier: "Broken up into its component parts."

The way he says this, it sounds like: "Reduced to its skin and bones." The new reality just over the horizon will have as much in common with Windows as a monitor does with a windowpane. What then? "To grasp the scale of this revolution, think of the everyday things," recommends Hillis. Unlike Myhrvold, he is not yet a billionaire and is founding a new company: "Think of visits to administrative offices, schools, universities, libraries or doctors. In a few decades, all these things will no longer be as we now know them."

Over the next few months, to ensure we are informed slightly in advance, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung will be running a series of articles by the theoreticians of what John Brockman has dubbed the "third culture." Europe should be more than just a source for the software of ego crisis, loss of identity, despair, and Western melancholy. We should be helping write the code for tomorrow.

May 23 ©Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 2000 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part is prohibited.