Charlie Rose talks to Ray Kurzweil

March 3, 2011

The author, inventor, and futurist says accelerating technology will soon bring us immortality — and all the energy the earth requires. Emmy Award-winning journalist Charlie Rose is the host of Charlie Rose, the nightly PBS program.

I’m interested in this notion of a coming singularity — computers surpassing humans — and your obsession with immortality. What led you there?

I really started with this exploration of where technology is headed and the tremendous power of exponential growth. So where radical life extension comes from is the observation that biology is a set of software processes. We have software running in our bodies. It’s out of date. It evolved thousands of years ago. Our approach so far to health and medicine has been hit-or-miss. We find treatments accidentally. Here’s something that lowers blood pressure. We don’t know why it works. Now we’re actually gaining access to that software, understanding how it works. These technologies will double in power every year. They’ll be 1,000 times more powerful in 10 years, a million times more powerful in 20 years. What I’m looking forward to is the tipping point where we’re adding more time than is going by in terms of life expectancy. The sands of time will start running in rather than running out within a couple decades.

What about this idea of humans merging with technology?

There are already people putting computers in their bodies and brains. Parkinson’s patients, deaf people with cochlear implants, computerized pancreases. Ultimately we’ll do it non-invasively because another exponential progression is that they’re getting smaller and smaller. You know, this [holding up a smartphone] was the size of a building when I was a student. And it will be the size of a blood cell one day—and much more powerful. We’ll be able to send very powerful devices into our bodies that will keep us healthy, extend our thinking. This might as well be in my body and brain because it’s part of who I am.

What do we really mean by artificial intelligence?

Well, it means machines performing functions that used to require human intelligence, and the list of those tasks is getting broader and broader. In the early ’80s, I predicted that a computer would take the world’s chess championship by ’98. In ’97, Deep Blue defeated Kasparov. People immediately said, “Well, chess isn’t really such a creative game.” And there’s something to that. I mean, chess is the kind of game you would expect a logical machine to be able to perform. People also said at that time that computers would never master the subtleties of language, metaphors, irony, puns, similes. [IBM’s (IBM) Jeopardy!-playing] Watson is a powerful demonstration, handling pretty subtle forms of language. Watson not only had to understand a little query, it had to understand the hundreds of thousands of pages of natural language documents that were dumped into it.

Some people fear AI. What do you say to them?

There’s a movement to ban these technologies, which is actually based on my writings. I don’t agree, because I don’t think it would work. There are things we can do about it, and we can have ethical standards to keep this technology safe. We can have rapid response systems like we have for software viruses. It’s far from perfect, but nobody’s taken the Internet down for even a second, so it’s a pretty robust system. Technology is a double-edged sword. It always has been. I mean, fire kept us warm but also was used as a weapon of destruction.

These are powerful tools. But it’s not like the conceptions that you see in science fiction movies where there’s the evil machines. I mean, look at it today. We have lots of humans empowered and enhanced by our machines. And we still have conflict between different groups of humans, all of whom have machines.

What’s the driving idea that excites you the most?

I think it’s the unification of all these different fields being powered by information technology. We’ve seen its impact on politics just in the last few weeks. Social networks started three revolutions.

It’s that exponential growth concept again. Where else does it take us?

Solar power actually is doubling every two years and has been for 20 years. Regardless of all the political debates, the actual output in watts has been doubling every two years. It’s eight doublings away from meeting 100 percent of our energy needs. So when I presented this to the Prime Minister of Israel, he said, “But do we have enough sunlight to do this with?” I said, “Actually, we have 10,000 times more than we need.” After we double eight more times and can meet all of our energy needs with solar, we’ll be using one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the earth. So, we’re actually awash in resources. If you look at how these exponentially growing technologies are being applied, there’s a lot more resources and opportunity to overcome these problems.