Ray Kurzweil’s Dubious New Theory of Mind
Ray Kurzweil is, by all accounts, a genius. He holds nineteen honorary doctorates, has founded a half-dozen successful companies, and was a major contributor to the field of artificial intelligence. He built some of the first practical systems for recognizing speech and scanning text. Time magazine recently featured Kurzweil on its cover, and Fortune described him as “a legendary inventor with a history of mind-blowing ideas.” And now he has a new book, with a subtitle that suggests he has found another such idea: “How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed.”
In the preface to the book Kurzweil argues, with good reason, that “reverse-engineering the human brain may be regarded as the most important project in the universe.” He then presents a theory he calls “the pattern recognition theory of mind (PRTM)” which he claims “describes the basic algorithm of the neocortex (the region of the brain responsible for perception, memory, and critical thinking).” Kurzweil suggests that his conclusions are “inescapable” and that the principles he espouses can be used “to vastly extend the power of our own intelligence.”
That would be big news. But does the book deliver? Kurzweil’s critics have not always been kind; the biologist PZ Myers once wrote, “Ray Kurzweil is a genius. One of the greatest hucksters of the age.” Doug Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Gödel, Escher, Bach” has been even harsher, saying once in an interview that “if you read Ray Kurzweil’s books … what I find is that it’s a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy. It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad.”
Which Kurzweil shows up to explain the mind? The brilliant inventor and autodidact or the man who has written one book on diets and another on immortality?