Tag Archives: Kurzweil

On France Culture, Transhumanism is Science Fiction

Occasionally, I write a short post that has nothing to do with the start-up. Well maybe it has… I was listening this morning France Culture which invited the philosopher André Comte-Sponville. At time 8:13 of the video below starts a sequence about transhumanism that the philosopher then comments. I also put it in writing below. I already had the opportunity to discuss the topic thanks to another edition of the same excellent program, on May 9, 2014: Ray Kurzweil has mostly wrong predictions.

Les Matins / Philosopher contre les fanatismes par franceculture

To the question “André Comte-Sponville, will you take the bus to immortality”, he answers:
“No thanks! This is obviously excluded. Well more seriously some people predict, I think of Laurent Alexandre, that we will soon live 1’000 years. And his book is called The Death of Death. This is obviously a nonsense. Because, whether you die in 90 years or a thousand years, you would still die. We would live more but we would still die. As for the crazy idea, I would say, of suppressing death, again, it is an impossibility. No body, no living body can resist combustion, can resist drowning. If you spend 15 days under water, I swear that transhumanism or not, you’re dead. No human being survives a bullet in the forehead. In other words, even it happened, and God knows tomorrow is not the day, it is science fiction, but even if it happened that we win over every disease and aging, in other words we would only die by accident, well, sooner or later, because with infinite time, everything possible necessarily happens, we would have an accident and we would end up dying anyway. Simply, what would happen, as we would only die by accident, we would indeed perpetually be scared to death. What allows me to take my car today is that I know anyway that I will die and therefore dying of cancer or of a car accident, basically the difference is not essential. If I can die only by accident or murder, I’ll be perpetually scared to death. In short it will make a society of old human beings who will not have children as it would be terrible overcrowding, a society of old and coward human beings. Well that is not my ideal of a civilization or of humanity.
– So, does transhumanism scare you?
– No, again this is science fiction. That science and technology are becoming more and more present in our lives, that they may one day change human nature, that’s true. It is not there yet, but it can come and so it is legitimate to think about it. I want to say that urgent problems are elsewhere. We will be nine billion and a half, maybe ten billion in 2050, nobody knows how we will feed ten billion people. The issue of freshwater and arable land, the issue of global warming are far more pressing issues that the issue of transhumanism.


I change (slightly) the topic again. Here are books of another French philosopher whose clarity of thought and vision are exceptional. A must read. The world of start-up also needs courage, ethics and moral philosophy. Cynthia Fleury explains beautifully why any individual and any aociety also needs them… The lies of transhumanism and of societies and of individuals too must be fought!

Google in the Plex – Part 1 : a technology…

In the Plex is an(other) amazing book about my favorite company. Google is the reason why I wrote a book about start-ups: When I did a PowerPoint presentation in 2006 gathering what I knew about the Mountain View start-up, some friends told me to write a more general book about start-ups. Which I did in 2007. Hence this blog !

I have read already three books about Google and this one is as good as the previous ones. Maybe better. So I should thank here Michele Catasta, who advised me to read it when I did last June my updated presentation of the 2006 one. And I should certainly have read before this book published in 2011… I have also posted many articles about the company, just check with the tag Google. But I learnt many things In the Plex, and it is what I want to focus with this post(s). And first with Chapter 1 which is about its technology.


Google was not the only one with the technology

Larry Page was not the only person in 1996 who realized that exploiting the link structure of the web would lead to a dramatically more powerful way to find information. In the summer of that year, a young computer scientist named Jon Kleinberg arrived in California to spend a yearlong postdoctoral fellowship at IBM’s research center in Almaden, on the southern edge of San Jose. With a new PhD from MIT, he had already accepted a tenure-track job in the CS department at Cornell University. […] Kleinberg began to play around with ways to analyze links. Since he didn’t have the assistance, the resources, the time, or the inclination, he didn’t attempt to index the entire web for his link analysis. […] all sorts of IBM vice presidents were trooping through Almaden to look at demos of this thing and trying to think about what they could do with it. ”Ultimately, the answer was … not much”. […] Kleinberg kept up with Google. He turned down job feelers in 1999 and again in 2000. He was happy at Cornell. He’d win teaching awards and a MacArthur fellowship. He led the life in academia he’d set out to lead, and not becoming a billionaire didn’t seem to bother him. [Pages 24-26]

There was yet a third person with the idea, a Chinese engineer named Yanhong (Robin) Li. […] Li came to the United States in 1991 to get a master’s degree at SUNY Buffalo, and in 1994 took a job at IDD Information Services in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, a division of Dow Jones. […] He realized that the Science Citation Index phenomenon could be applied to the Internet. The hypertext link could be regarded as a citation! “When I returned home, I started to write this down and realized it was revolutionary,” he says. He devised a search approach that calculated relevance from both the frequency of links and the content of anchor text. He called his system RankDev. […]Robin Li quit and joined the West Coast search company called Info-seek. In 1999, Disney bought the company and soon thereafter Li returned to China. It was there in Beijing that he would later meet—and compete with—Larry Page and Sergey Brin. [Pages 26-27] (Robin Li is the founder of Baidu.)

The technology was ultimately the best but initially nobody saw the value

Excite would buy BackRub, and then Larry alone would go to work there. Excite’s adoption of BackRub technology, he claimed, would boost its traffic by 10 percent. Extrapolating that in terms of increased ad revenue, Excite would take in $130,000 more every day, for a total of $47 million in a year. Page envisioned his tenure at Excite lasting for seven months, long enough to help the company implement the search engine. Then he would leave, in time for the fall 1997 Stanford semester, resuming his progress toward a doctorate. Excite’s total outlay would be $1.6 million, including $300,000 to Stanford for the license, a $200,000 salary, a $400,000 bonus for implementing it within three months, and $700,000 in Excite stock […] “With my help,” wrote the not-quite-twenty-four-year-old student, “this technology will give Excite a substantial advantage and will propel it to a market leadership position.” Khosla made a tentative counteroffer of $750,000 total. But the deal never happened. [Page 29]

In barely a year since Brin and Page had formed their company, they had gathered a group of top scientists totally committed to the vision of their young founders. These early employees would be part of team efforts that led to innovation after innovation that would broaden Google’s lead over its competitors and establish it as synonymous with search. […] It was at least a ten-day process with one of Google’s first crawl engineers, Harry Cheung (everyone called him Spider-Man), at his machines, monitoring progress of spiders as they spread out through the net and then, after the crawl, breaking down the web pages for the index and calculating the page rank, using Sergey’s complicated system of variables with a mathematical process using something called eigenvectors, while everybody waited for the two processes to converge. (“Math professors love us because Google has made eigenvectors relevant to every matrix algebra student in America,” says Marissa Mayer.) [Page 41]

A technology but not a science… and maybe a dangerous one

In its first few years, Google had developed a number of specialized forms of search, known as verticals, for various corpuses—such as video, images, shopping catalogs, and locations (maps). Krishna Bharat had created one of those verticals called Google News, a virtual wire service with a front page determined not by editors but algorithms. Another vertical product, called Google Scholar, accessed academic journals. But to access those verticals, users had to choose the vertical. Page and Brin were pushing for a system where one search would find Everything. [Something called Universal Search]. [Page 58]

When the Universal Search team showed a prototype to Google’s top executives, everyone realized that taking on the project […] had been worth it. The results in that early attempt were all in the wrong order, but the reaction was visceral—you typed in a word, and all this stuff came out. It had just never happened before. “It definitely was one of the riskier things,” says Bailey. “It was hard, because it’s not just science—there are some judgment calls involved here. We are to some degree using our gut. I still get up in the morning and am astonished that this whole thing even works.” Google’s search now wasn’t just searching the web. It was searching everything. In his 1991 book, Mirror Worlds, Yale computer scientist David Gelernter sketched out a future where humans would interact, and transact, with modeled digital representations of the real world. […] But though Gelernter looked on the overall prospect of mirror worlds with enthusiasm, he worried as well. “I definitely feel ambivalent about mirror worlds. There are obvious risks of surveillance, but I think it poses deeper risks,” he said. His main concern was that mirror worlds would be steered by the geeky corporations who built them, as opposed to the public. “These risks should be confronted by society at large, not by techno-nerds,” he said. “I don’t trust them. They are not broad-minded and don’t know enough. They don’t know enough history, they don’t have enough. [Page 59-60]

Google’s researchers would acknowledge that working with a learning system of this size put them into uncharted territory. The steady improvement of its learning system flirted with the consequences postulated by scientist and philosopher Raymond Kurzweil, who speculated about an impending “singularity” that would come when a massive computer system evolves its way to intelligence. Larry Page was an enthusiastic follower of Kurzweil and a key supporter of Kurzweil-inspired Singularity University, an educational enterprise that anticipates a day when humans will pass the consciousness baton to our inorganic progeny. [Page would hire Kurzweil in 2012 ]What does it mean to say that Google “knows” something? […] “That’s a very deep question,” says Spector. “Humans, really, are big bags of mostly water walking around with a lot of tubes and some neurons and all. But we’re knowledgeable. So now look at the Google cluster computing system. It’s a set of many heuristics, so it knows ‘vehicle’ is a synonym for ‘automobile,’ and it knows that in French it’s voiture, and it knows it in German and every language. It knows these things. And it knows many more things that it’s learned from what people type.” […] Spector promised that Google would learn much, much more in coming years. “Do these things rise to the level of knowledge?” he asks rhetorically. “My ten-year-olds believe it. They think Google knows a lot. If you asked anyone in their grade school class, I think the kids would say yes.” What did Spector, a scientist, think? “I’m afraid that it’s not a question that is amenable to a scientific answer,” he says. “I do think, however, loosely speaking, Google is knowledgeable. The question is, will we build a general-purpose intelligence which just sits there, looks around, then develops all those skills unto itself, no matter what they are, whether it’s medical diagnosis or …” Spector pauses. “That’s a long way off,” he says. “That will probably not be done within my career at Google.” (Spector was fifty-five at the time of the conversation in early 2010.) “I think Larry would very much like to see that happen,” he adds. [Page 66-67]

As a final comment read the book. You may also have a look at my slideshare presentation.

Peter Thiel – Zero to One (part 2)

I just finished Zero to One and here are a few more comments, less about entrepreneurship than about social issues. Whatever the reputation of Thiel in Silicon Valley as a possible Libertarian, there were a couple of topics he addresses very convincingly. He is not a pure Contrarian. He disagrees with mainstream fashion in a very serious manner. Here are a couple of examples:


– The machine will not replace humankind
Yes computers have made impressive progress in the recent decades, but not to the point of replacing mankind. He shows very convincingly through the cases of Paypal and Palantir [pages 144-148] that computers cannot solve automatically tough issues but are only (excellent and critical) complements to human beings. Even the Google experiment of recognizing cats “seems impressive – until you remember that an average four-year-old can do it flawlessly” [page 143]. He finishes his chapter about Man and Machine this way: “But even if strong AI is a real possibility rather than an imponderable mystery, it won’t happen anytime soon: replacement by computers is a worry for the 22nd century. Indefinite fears about the far future shouldn’t stop us from making definite plans today. Luddites claim that we shouldn’t build the computers that might replace people someday; crazed futurists argue that we should. These two positions are mutually exclusive but they are not exhaustive: there is room in between for sane people to build a vastly better world in the decades ahead. As we find new ways to use computers, they won’t just get better at the kinds of things people already do: they’ll help us to do what was previously unimaginable” [pages 150-151]. You will not be surprised I prefer this to Kurweil views.

– Greentech was a bubble and it was obvious from day 1.
I was always puzzled with greentech/cleantech. Why are people so excited about the promise to solve an important problem when we do not have any solution. Thiel is far tougher. First he shows the obvious: it was a bubble.


Then he analyzes this industry through his “zero to one” arguments.
“Most cleantech companies crashed because they neglected one or more of the seven questions that every business must answer:
– Engineering: can you create a breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
– Timing: is now the right time to start your particular business?
– Monopoly: are you starting with a big share of a small market?
– People: do you have the right team?
– Distribution: do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
– Durability: will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
– Secret: have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?
If you do not have answers to these questions, you’ll run into lots of “bad luck” and your business will fail. If you nail all seven, you’ll master fortune and succeed. Even getting five or six correct might work. But the striking thing about the cleantech bubble was that people were starting companies with zero good answers – and that meant hoping for a miracle”
[page 154]. What’s next? Fintech?

Ray Kurzweil has mostly wrong predictions

As often, Marc Voinchet had a remarkable broadcast this morning on France Culture. First a great guest, Cécile Lafontaine for her book The body market, the commodification of human life in the era of bioeconomy (in French only – my translation of the title) which goes beyond the adressed topic by asking questions about the tensions between the individual and society. It provides excellent answers to the debates opened by Thiel. But here I stop and let you discover the interview if the subject interests you.


In addtion Xavier de la Porte wrote an excellent chronicle that I copied directly from the website of France Culture on the French part of my blog (in order to be able to translate it here): The brain is not one million lines of code.

When we look at what the digital world has to say about the body and life, there is a high likeliness to find quickly intimidating predictions: “Soon we will all be cyborgs” and “In 2045, we will have completely merged with the machines.” A specialist in this kind of statements is a guy named Ray Kurzweil – which I mentioned here already. Pretty awesome inventor, wise businessman, Kurweil became in the last twenty years the promoter of a movement called transhumanism – which considers that humankind will soon merge with machines, thus giving rise to post-humanity – ideas that Kurzweil sold worldwide with books and conferences, ideas that he also sells to super-powerful companies: Google has hired him to run a program on teaching language to machines. The problem with Kurzweil – and many transhumanists – it is their strength of conviction that passes through a scientific-techno-philosophical discourse which we feel is not right, but without knowing exactly where. But recently , I came across evidence that Kurzweil says non-sense. I enjoyed my discovery and I want to share this joy with you.

It has to do with an important aspect of transhumanism: the belief always repeated that very soon we can duplicate our brains into computers. Kurzweil believes that this will be possible in 2020, and moreover, he has stored the brain of his deceased father in that perspective. And in order to support his thesis, here is the type of speech that Kurzweil gives: “The code of the brain is in the genome. The human genome is 3 billion base pairs, six billion bits, which is about 800 million bits after compression. After eliminating redundancies […] this information can be compressed into approximately 50 million bits. But the brain is about half of that, about 25 million bits, or one million lines of code.” And here, in a ruthless and intimidating demonstration, Kurzweil shows us a million lines of code suffice to duplicate the function of the human. (I say “sufficient” because it is just one million lines of code; for comparison, Microsoft Office 2013 is 45 million lines of code).

Except that for once, someone came forward to explain that Kurzweil told non-sense. This person is called Paul Zachary Myers. He is a recognized biologist at the University of Minnesota, specializing in developmental genetics and writes a blog called Pharyngula. And it is on his blog that Myers explains very calmly why what Kurzweil says is wrong. Here is his demonstration. The premise of the reasoning of Kurzweil is “The code of the brain is in the genome.” Totally wrong, says the researcher. The code of the brain is not encoded in the genome. What is in the genome is a collection of molecular tools which is the regulating portion of the genome, which makes cells sensitive to interactions with a complex environment. During its development, the brain unfolds through interactions between cells, interactions which we understand today a small part only. The final result is a brain that is much more complex than the sum of nucleotides that encode a few thousand proteins. One can not deduce a brain from the protein sequences of its genome. How will these sequences express is dependent on the environment and the history of hundreds of billions of cells, interdependent on each other. We have no way to calculate in principle all possible interactions and functions of a single protein with tens of thousands of others who are in the cell, which is the essential first step in the execution of the unlikely algorithm of Kurzweil. In support of his argument, the researcher takes a few examples of some proteins and shows how the interactions are numerous, complex and mostly still unknown.

What is very interesting is that Myers states that he is not hostile to the idea that the brain is a kind of computer, and we will be able to artificially reproduce one day its functions. But he says that he does not need to say stupide nonsense, as does Kurzweil and build hisreasoning on false premises. And here is for you, Kurzweil. If only more researchers could take more time to bring their expertise to question the transhumanist speech, it may save us to hear many absurdities and attend another commodification of human life, which is about seeling biotechnology dream.