The Inceptions and Processes of Technology: Evolution By Other Means: Ray Kurzweil: A Future Mind Special

As technology is the continuation of evolution by other means, it shares the phenomenon of an exponentially quickening pace. The word is derived from the Greek techne, which means ‘craft,’ or ‘art,’ and logia, which means ‘the study of.’ 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.

As technology is the continuation of evolution by other means, it shares the phenomenon of an exponentially quickening pace. The word is derived from the Greek techne, which means ‘craft,’ or ‘art,’ and logia, which means ‘the study of.’ 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.

Technology is often defined as the creation of tools to gain control over the environment. However, this definition is not entirely sufficient. Humans are not alone in their use or even creation of tools. Orangutans in Sumatra’s Suaq Balimbing swamp make tools out of long sticks to break open termite nests. Crows fashion tools from sticks and leaves. The leaf-cutter ant mixes dry leaves with its saliva to create a paste. Crocodiles use tree roots to anchor dead prey.

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. And as technology has evolved, the means for recording this knowledge base has also evolved, from the oral traditions of antiquity to the written design logs of nineteenth-century craftsmen to the computer-assisted design database of the 1990s.

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. When Alexander Graham Bell accidentally wire-connected two moving drums and solenoids (metal cores wrapped in wire) in 1875, the result transcended the materials he was working with. For the first time, a human voice was transported, magically it seemed, to a remote location. Most assemblages are just that: random assemblies. But when materials-and in this case of modern technology, information-are assembled in just the right way, transcendence occurs. The assembled object becomes far greater than the sum of its parts.

The same phenomenon of transcendence occurs in art, which may properly be regarded as another form of technology. When wood, varnishes, and strings are assembled in just the right way, the result is wondrous: a violin, a piono. When such a device is manipulated in just the right way, there is magic of another sort: music. Music goes beyond mere sound. It evokes a respone-cognitive, emotional, perhaps spiritual-in the listener, another form of transcendence. All of the arts share the same goal: of communicating from artist to audience. The communication is not of unadorned data, but of the more important items in the phenomenological garden: feelings, ideas, experiences, longings. The Greek meaning of techne logia includes art as a key manifestation of technology.

Language is another form of human-created technology. One of the primary applications of technology is communication, and language provides the foundation for Homo sapiens communication. Communication is a critical survival skill. It enabled human families and tribes to develop cooperative strategies to overcome obstacles and adversaries. Other animals communicate. Monkeys and apes use elaborate gestures and grunts to communicate a variety of messages. Bees perform intricate dances in a figure-eight pattern to communicate where caches of nectar may be found. Female tree frogs in Malaysia do tap dances to signal their availability. Crabs wave their claws in one way to warn adversaries but use a different rhythm for courtship. But these methods do not appear to evolve, other than through the usual DNA- based evolution. These species lack a way to record their means of communication, so the method remains static from one generation to the next. In contrast, human language does evolve, as do all forms of 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. In the 1960s through the 1990s, several well-publicized primates were said to have mastered at least childlike language skills. Chimpanzees Lana and Kanzi pressed sequences of buttons with symbols on them. Gorillas Wahoe and Koko were said to be using American Sign Language. Many linguists are skeptical, noting that many primate “sentences” were jumbles, such as “Nim eat, Nim eat, drink eat me Nim, me gum me gum, tickle me, Nim play, you me banana me banana you.” Even if we view this phenomenon more generously, it would be the exception that proves the rule. These primates did not evolve the languages they are credited with using, they do not appear to develop these skills spontaneously, and their use of these skills is very limited. They are at best participating peripherally in what is still a uniquely human invention-communicating using recursive (self-referencing), symbolic, evolving means called language.


– A Brief Bio –

Ray Kurzweil was the principal developer of the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large vocabulary speech recognition. Ray has successfully founded, developed, and sold four AI businesses in OCR, music synthesis, speech recognition, and reading technology. All of these technologies continue today as market leaders.

You can find out more about Ray Kurzweil’s work at the Kurzweil Technologies website

Author: Ray Kurzweil

News Service: Age of Spiritual Machines

URL: http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio?inkey=1-0140282025-0