My Father, My Avatar

The day I realized I no longer missed my father was the day I discovered futurist Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, an exploration of artificial intelligence and the future of humanity. Ray foresees a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations. His Law of Accelerating Returns, the foundation of his prediction, reveals how the exponential increase in artificial intelligence will change the future at a rapid pace and more profoundly than ever before. Since computing power doubles every two years, rather than at the mere hundred years of progress in the 21st century, we’ll see a mind-boggling twenty thousand years of progress within the next hundred years!

I’m guessing my father would have read this with interest, based on some of the books he left behind after the divorce. One that piqued my curiosity was The Ocean of Theosophy, written in 1893 by William Quan Judge. Theosophy is an esoteric philosophy that explores the mysteries of being and nature while promoting the existence of highly developed men perfected from other periods of evolution, such as Apollonius, Moses, and Solomon. “The theosopher,” according to Judge, “seeks to understand the mysteries of the universe and the bonds that unite the universe, humanity, and the divine.” Similar to Kurzweil’s theory but theosophy relies upon spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition, or special individual relations. It lacks the vision of our evolution into the future, one that promotes the union of highly developed technology, humans, and the universe—minus the male-centric mystical stuff.

With twenty honorary doctorates and honors from three presidents, Ray is no slouch. He’s the recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the United States’ highest honor in technology, as well as the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the world’s largest for innovation. In 2002 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, established by the U.S. Patent Office. PBS included Kurzweil as one of sixteen “Revolutionaries Who Made America” over the past two centuries. Inc. magazine called him “Edison’s rightful heir” and ranked him #8 among the “most fascinating” entrepreneurs in the United States. Bill Gates calls him “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.”

In the late eighties he foresaw a computer that would beat a human in chess before the year 2000. In 1996 IBM’s Deep Blue defeated reigning world champion Garry Kasparov. In 1990 before it was a reality he also predicted that PCs would be capable of answering queries by accessing information wirelessly via the Internet by 2010—check. In 1999 he said people would be able to give their computers voice commands by 2009—Siri. He also proclaimed, in the mid-nineties, that self-driving cars, which are slated to be on the road between 2017 and 2020, would become our method of transportation.

Currently the director of engineering for Google, Kurzweil says his mission is to bring natural language understanding to computers. The computer understands the actual words, but he is working on having them understand the implication of those words. “It doesn’t understand that if John sold his red Volvo to Mary that involves a transaction or possession and ownership being transferred. It doesn’t understand that kind of information and so we are going to actually encode that, really try to teach it to understand the meaning of what these documents are saying.”

Like Kurzweil, my father’s expertise had far-reaching effects. He was an international management consultant hired by major corporations around the world—an intelligent, cultured man who spoke nine languages fluently, though, he wasn’t very good at communicating with his children.

Unlike me, Ray misses his father, who died at the age of 58. Really misses him. For over forty years he’s kept his dad’s writings and ephemera—photos, letters, even utility bills—in a storage locker with the intention of programing him back to life. He’ll use all this information to create an avatar that will know everything about Dad’s past, and will even think like him. My father also died young, 63, and it occurs to me that it could be fun to introduce him to my husband Lou who’s heard so much about him. They both love to cook, and both enjoy exploring everything from constellations to caves.

Actually, I’m way ahead of Ray K. I’d already built a virtual model of my father years ago, in my mind. I made him my protector, my admirer—a man generous with affection. But using the opposite of Ray’s accelerating returns, absence made the heart go wander. As time passed, my longing diminished. And even if I did entertain bringing my peripatetic papa back, it’s disappointing to realize I don’t have enough data about him to feed the computer. I know he was partial to green ink from postcards he sent to the gray sidewalks of Detroit. He loved the fashions in Paris, museums in Brussels, said you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten red snapper seaside in Algeria.

Wonder how Kurzweil would handle the element of rejection, the sadness brought on by human error, disconnect. A father who didn’t soothe his child when her dog died, who wasn’t around to high-five her for her hard-earned A in statistics, or to scrutinize some of her questionable boyfriends. The few short times I spent with him, later in life, Dad had no clue my cheerful countenance was self-programmed. He didn’t realize that turning a sad face upside down to make a happy face is not the same as an actual happy face.

Back when my father died, I never dreamed of a future where I’d have a personal computer or an email address. There were no cell phones or even fax machines. The word Skype didn’t exist. To communicate with Dad I’d have to write a letter and mail it overseas; that is, after I found him. And then I’d wait weeks, sometimes months for a reply. This was before search engines—something Kurzweil also predicted well before they existed.

I can’t help but wonder if and how that technology, had it been available, would have changed our relationship. I might have been able to enhance my existential probing with a Google search of Why does a girl need her father? And I would have found numerous answers all similar to one by Michael Austin, associate professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University: “A father’s influence in his daughter’s life shapes her self-esteem, self-image, confidence and opinions of men,” just for starters.

Now I simply press a button and ask Siri. It’s doubtful Dad would have imagined that he could have a personal assistant in his cell phone who responds to his voice, and in any of about sixteen languages. If he were here now to ask, what is the meaning of life? Siri would answer, “Try to be nice to people, read a good book now and then, get some walking in, and try to live in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.” A lot less complicated and far more inclusive than theosophy.

The more I consider the possibilities, the more I’m tempted to take better care of myself: lose weight, get more sleep, exercise—live long enough (I’ll be 94 in 2045) for the nanotechnology that would allow me to exist eternally. I’ll only be 79 in 2030—the year Ray predicts humans will become hybrids. In an interview with CNN Money, he says, “That means our brains will be able to connect directly to the cloud, where there will be thousands of computers, and those computers will augment our existing intelligence.” He goes on to say, “The brain will connect via nanobots — tiny robots made from DNA strands.”

Hello, Jeopardy! And sayonara senior moments. Kurzweil’s passion and track record are so compelling that it’s hard to resist getting on board the Singularity train. But I wonder, will I retain memories of despair? Will they accrue exponentially? Ideally, I should get busy and rewrite my past. Experts say if you do that, it will change your memories, and over time they will become your new truth. Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, the world’s premier memory doctor, says we can “…conveniently adjust what we think we remember in order to promote happiness or, at least, to avoid depression.”

New body, new mind, new memories? What the heck, I say forget the chiropractor, bring on the nanotechnology adjustments! My knees aren’t getting any younger. And my husband Lou and I have just begun globetrotting. I can almost see us with my avatar father, exploring the foods of Florence, the ruins in Athens.

I wonder if Ray has ever asked Siri, “Who’s your daddy?” If so, he would have heard her say, “You are. Can we get back to work now?”

-Published in the penmen review, Southern Hampshire University