SINGULARITY: The culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.
Ray Kurzweil made a name for himself predicting our technological future. He foresaw the World Wide Web and a time when a computer would beat a human at chess. Bill Gates calls him "the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence." In his new book, "The Singularity Is Near," Kurzweil dwells on the future for more than 600 pages. By contrast, the book of Revelation, the New Testament's futuristic forecast, is roughly a dozen pages, depending upon the size of type and number of footnotes.
According to the gospel of "The Singularity," biology and technology will become one, and superhuman artificial intelligence will create social change beyond imagination - except for the imagination of people like Kurzweil.
This computer scientist, inventor and visionary foresees, in just a few decades, a society that is infinitely smarter and resilient, courtesy of "nanobots," robots about the size of blood cells that will do everything from reverse aging to vastly extend intelligence. Nanotechnology already is here, providing coatings on clothing for stain-resistant fibers and helping to deliver drugs to targeted tissues.
For Kurzweil, who has been enamored with artificial intelligence for decades (and multiple books), the rest is just a matter of time. "We will gain power over our fates," he writes. "Our mortality will be in our hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever)."
What does this have to do with religion?
A lot, according to Kurzweil, whose parents were Jews who escaped Hitler but educated him in a Unitarian church because they wanted him to learn tolerance and be exposed to other faiths. "The theme was many paths to the truth," he says in a telephone interview. "We actually studied all the world's religions."
In his view, one of religion's primary roles is to provide a "deathist rationalization" - defending death or even making it a reward. And in a world where death will be an option, this role will not be necessary.
"It does end up affecting the kinds of issues that religion deals with, one of which, in my view, is to rationalize death as a good thing ... that we go on to heaven or we relive again or whatever," he says. That message, he argues, "actually contradicts common sense."
Kurzweil, who is 57, isn't thrilled with the prospect of death. He takes 250 nutritional supplements a day to help him live long enough to enjoy the Singularity.
"Death is a tragedy," he says, adding: "It's not clear to me why anyone would choose to die."
By now, you may have figured that his crystal ball isn't for everyone. And his writing isn't for those who'd rather be watching "Days of Our Lives" or "Survivor." Even in a telephone interview from his Boston-area home, his thoughts fly into warp speed in a burst of sentences and switching of topics that can best be described as Kurzweilian speak.
But even if you've decided he's a kook, he's a brilliant one.
Among his better-known inventions are the Kurzweil music synthesizer and machines that convert text to speech for the blind. He's the recipient of the National Medal of Technology, this country's highest honor in technology, and 12 honorary doctorates. He's also in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
So what does he foresee about the future of religion?
It won't be completely replaced - but it will be changed, he says. "The old paradigms don't go away, there still will be the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and so on. Just as there are today many ways of interpreting these traditions, some of which take account of the modern world, that also will take place."
Religions will still be useful for such guiding principles as the Golden Rule, he adds.
"People will use the stories that come from these religions as metaphors to draw wisdom from. So I think they will survive. But the interpretations will continue to be more and more diverse, and there will be many philosophies that are not necessarily rooted in humanity's ancient religions."
Is religion destined to take a back seat to science among Singularitarians?
"Science, technology, particularly information technologies, will ultimately encompass all the things we care about. ... I think it will necessitate a sort of revising our philosophies of life based on these new realities," he says.
Kurzweil believes this is already happening. "Religion used to be a much stronger force and still is for many people, but we do have a rise in the secular culture that respects science and culture."
The higher power for Singularitarians like himself is intelligence.
"In my mind, knowledge is of primary value," he says. "We don't need death to give life meaning. We can give life meaning by expanding knowledge."
Music is knowledge, he continues. So is art, and science, and awareness of each other and ourselves.
He is convinced that as humanity becomes wiser, we will become more loving.
"My vision's not a utopian one, but I do think we'll have better knowledge and means to overcome some of our more-primitive inclinations."
One of the few times he mentions God is when he's asked about what will happen if these humans decide it's time for them to die.
"We ultimately will saturate the universe with our intelligence ... becoming virtually God-like in our current limited understanding," Kurzweil says. It will be kind of like a giant mind meld of cosmic energy.
As we wander into the abyss of 2006, remember: Kurzweil expects the Singularity to arrive within the next 30 years.
Then will we be complete?
"We're always at the edge of knowledge," he says, harkening back to Kurzweilian speak. "The more we know, the more we don't know."