I, Robot

May 16, 2009

Ray Kurzweil’s wildest dream is to be turned into a cyborg — a flesh-and-blood human enhanced with tiny embedded computers, a man-machine hybrid with billions of microscopic nanobots coursing through his bloodstream. And there’s a moment, halfway through a conversation in his office in Wellesley, Mass., when I start to think that Kurzweil’s transformation has already begun. It’s the way he talks — in a flat, robotic monotone. Maybe it’s just because he’s been giving the same spiel, over and over, for years now. He does 70 speeches annually at $30,000 a pop, and draws crowds of adoring fans who worship him as a kind of prophet. Kurzweil is a legend in the world of computer geeks, an inventor, author and computer scientist who bills himself as a futurist. The ideas he’s espousing are as radical as anything you’ve ever heard. But the strangest thing about Ray Kurzweil is that when you sit down for a one-on-one chat with him, he’s absolutely boring.

Listen closely, though, and you may be slightly terrified. Kurzweil believes computer intelligence is advancing so rapidly that in a couple of decades, machines will be as intelligent as humans. Soon after that they will surpass humans and start creating even smarter technology. By the middle of this century, the only way for us to keep up will be to merge with the machines so that their superior intelligence can boost our weak little brains and beef up our pitiful, illness-prone bodies. Some of Kurzweil’s fellow futurists believe these superhuman computers will want nothing to do with us — that we will become either their pets or, worse yet, their food. Always an optimist, Kurzweil takes a more upbeat view. He swears these superhuman computers will love us, and honor us, since we’ll be their ancestors. He also thinks we’ll be able to embed our consciousness into silicon, which means we can live on, inside machines, forever and ever, amen.

Kurzweil calls this moment “The Singularity,” and says it represents the next great leap in human evolution, when humans will transcend biology by merging with technology. Kurzweil truly believes this is going to happen—and he can’t wait to be part of it. All he has to do is stay alive until 2045, when he believes the necessary technologies will be available. So he lives on a strict diet, and every day he swallows 150 dietary supplements in order to “reprogram” his body’s biochemistry. Today he is 61 years old and in very good health. In 2045 he will be 97. In other words, it’s doable.

Over four decades, Kurzweil has amassed a set of high-tech bona fides that compel people to listen to his ideas, even if they are farfetched. He pioneered development of flatbed scanners, optical-character-recognition software, text-to-speech software and speech-recognition software. He’s launched and sold companies that make reading machines for the blind and electronic-music synthesizers. Four of his books have been national bestsellers. He’s won a string of awards, including the National Medal of Technology, and has been granted 15 honorary doctorates in science, engineering and even music. He’s been an adviser to the U.S. military and has testified before Congress about nanotechnology.

Still, a lot of people think Kurzweil is completely bonkers and/or full of a certain messy byproduct of ordinary biological functions. They include P. Z. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris, who has used his blog to poke fun at Kurzweil and other armchair futurists who, according to Myers, rely on junk science and don’t understand basic biology. “I am completely baffled by Kurzweil’s popularity, and in particular the respect he gets in some circles, since his claims simply do not hold up to even casually critical examination,” writes Myers. He says Kurzweil’s Singularity theories are closer to a deluded religious movement than they are to science. “It’s a New Age spiritualism—that’s all it is,” Myers says. “Even geeks want to find God somewhere, and Kurzweil provides it for them.”

Yet Kurzweil’s ideas are catching on. What makes him especially convincing is that he’s not some wild man leaping around a stage. He is calm and pleasant and soft-spoken. He wears dark suits and ties. He’s married, and lives in the suburbs of Boston, and drives a Lexus. He and his wife, Sonya, a psychologist, have two grown children. Yes, Kurzweil has an ego. But he’s also happy to discuss his detractors, and is respectful toward them, like some kindhearted professor. He presents himself as a bright, sweet-natured computer nerd who happens to have the time and resources to pursue a somewhat eccentric passion. And his shtik is working. Transcendent Man, a new documentary about Kurzweil, debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. Another film, produced by Kurzweil himself, lays out the ideas contained in his book The Singularity Is Near; it will be in theaters later this year. Even the big brains at Google have been swept up in Kurzweil’s vision. Google cofounder Larry Page has worked with Kurzweil on a study about the future of solar power, and in February of this year launched Singularity University, a nine-week summer program that will bring together thinkers from nanotechnology, bioinformatics, robotics and artificial intelligence, with Kurzweil in charge. But even some of Kurzweil’s associates secretly think he’s a bit off his rocker, and that his ideas are driven more by fear of death than by solid science. “Ray is going through the single most public midlife crisis that any male has ever gone through,” says one scientist who will be teaching at Singularity University and who asked for anonymity because he didn’t want to criticize a colleague publicly.

Kurzweil knew at the age of 5 that he wanted to be an inventor. When he was 8 he built an elaborate mechanized puppet show featuring a character called Ramona—sort of a female alter ego for Ray. As a teenager he began tinkering with computers, and in high school Kurzweil wrote a computer program that could compose music. At 16 he found himself on national TV, showing it off. He zipped through MIT, acing his math and science courses without attending class, and graduating in 1970 with a double degree in computer science and creative writing.

While at MIT he developed a computer program that helped high-school kids choose the right college. He sold the program to a publisher for $100,000. Next he started a company that developed and integrated three technologies—optical-character-recognition software, a flatbed scanner and a text-to-speech synthesizer—to create a machine that could read documents to the blind. Stevie Wonder bought one, which led to a friendship with Kurzweil and to Kurzweil’s next product, a music synthesizer that could re-create the sound of real acoustic instruments. Kurzweil sold the reading-machine company to Xerox in 1980, and sold the music-synthesizer company to Young Chang, a musical-instrument company in Korea, in 1990. Since then, Kurzweil has dabbled in technology for education and medicine. He now runs a hedge fund called FatKat, which uses artificial intelligence and pattern-recognition software to pick stocks, as well as Kurzweil Technologies, a 20-person outfit that invests in early-stage tech companies and incubates ideas of its own, too.

But even as he was building his companies, Kurzweil harbored a passion for artificial intelligence. He was consumed by the idea that computers might someday enable us to extend our lives, or perhaps even make us immortal. The seeds for this thinking lay in the loss of his father, Fredric, a composer and conductor who died of heart disease in 1970, when Kurzweil was 22 years old. “I find death unacceptable,” Kurzweil says. Kurzweil idolized his father, and became obsessed with developing ways in which his father might be brought back to life. (He now believes it will be possible.) Two decades ago he began writing books, starting with The Age of Intelligent Machines in 1990, followed by The Age of Spiritual Machines in 1998 and The Singularity Is Near in 2005. He also has a new book out, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, which tells you how to stay healthy long enough to experience The Singularity and become immortal.

Kurzweil also likes to make predictions, and he claims he’s found a foolproof, data-driven methodology for predicting the future. In 1990 he predicted that a computer would defeat a world chess champion by 1998. In fact, it happened in 1997, when IBM’s supercomputer, Deep Blue, defeated Garry Kasparov. Kurzweil also predicted the rapid growth of the Internet and World Wide Web, and the ubiquity of wireless Internet access.

But hold on a minute. Who didn’t think the Internet was going to catch on? And when you go back and check Kurzweil’s previous books, you find that many of his predictions turned out to be wrong — not just a little bit wrong, but wildly, laughably wrong. During the height of the dotcom boom in 1998, Kurzweil predicted that the economy would keep on booming right through 2009 (and on to 2019, for that matter) and that one U.S. company (he didn’t say which) would have a market capitalization of more than $1 trillion. Not even close. Kurzweil also predict-ed that by 2009 a top supercomputer would be capable of performing 20 quadrillion operations per second (20 petaflops in computer jargon), the same as the human brain. In fact, the top supercomputer just broke the one-petaflop mark—though Kurzweil says he considers all of Google to be a giant supercomputer and that it is, indeed, capable of performing 20 petaflops. Kurzweil also predicted that by now our cars would be able to drive themselves by communicating with intelligent sensors embedded in highways, and that speech recognition would be in widespread use. Neither has happened, but he insists they’re both right around the corner. (“I was off by a few years,” he says.)

Kurzweil makes predictions based on a notion that he calls “the law of accelerating returns,” which holds that technology does not advance in a linear fashion but rather at an exponential rate. It’s the difference between 1-2-3-4-5 and 1-2-4-8-16. Go out 10 steps and the linear string has reached 10, while the exponential string is hitting 512. With an exponential progression, at first, when the numbers are small, the progress doesn’t look like much. But each new breakthrough enables the next breakthrough to occur more quickly, so the rate of change accelerates. Represented on a graph, the line of progress looks like a hockey stick—it’s flat for some years, and then there’s a sudden rise, which gets misinterpreted as a sudden breakthrough when really it’s just the continuation of an exponential progression, Kurzweil says.

He cites as an example the work of the Human Genome Project. In 1990 scientists had managed to transcribe only one ten-thousandth of the genome over an entire year. Yet their goal was to sequence the entire genome in 15 years. After seven years, only 1 percent had been sequenced. But, in fact, the project was on track. The rate of progress was doubling every year, which meant that when researchers finished 1 percent they were only seven steps away from reaching 100 percent. Indeed, the project was completed in 2003. “People thought it would take centuries,” Kurzweil says, because they foolishly believed that technology could advance only in a linear fashion. That same kind of linear thinking fuels the current hysteria about global warming. “People are assuming that nothing will change in the next few decades. They’re ignoring the progression in renewable energy,” Kurzweil says. After studying the subject, he and Google’s Page concluded that the nanotechnologies needed to collect the energy of the sun are advancing at such a pace that in 20 years, solar power will be able to provide 100 percent of the earth’s energy needs.

Apply that same kind of exponential progression to computer science, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology, and you arrive at The Singularity. Right now human brains are still much better than computers at doing things like pattern recognition. That’s because while the brain works at slower speeds than a computer, it has 100 trillion interneuronal connections, so it can perform 20 petaflops, while the fastest supercomputer can perform one or two petaflops. But computers are doubling in power every year, and learning to do more things in parallel. Meanwhile, scientists are figuring out how the human brain works. Within two decades, Kurzweil believes, scientists will be able to “reverse engineer” the human brain and re-create its functionality in souped-up silicon. By 2029 a computer will achieve intelligence equivalent to that of a human being, or so close that the two cannot be told apart.

After that, computers will start engineering their own replacements, and the hockey-stick curve will soar upward. By 2045, Kurzweil estimates, we will use computers to enhance our intelligence, and “nanobots” — microscopic machines — to roam our bloodstream, stomping out diseases before they can spread. Maybe this sounds nuts. But Kurzweil points out that today doctors can implant a computer the size of a pea into the brain of a person suffering with Parkinson’s disease. Why shouldn’t we believe that in 20 years such devices will be the size of a blood cell? “The computer in my cell phone today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful than the computer that we used at MIT when I was an undergraduate,” he says. “That’s a billionfold increase. And we’ll do that again in the next 25 years.”

What happens then? Once computers are a billion times more powerful than today — and we’re all a bunch of cyborgs with brains like supercomputers and bodies that can’t be killed by disease? For one thing, stuff starts progressing really, really fast. Imagine a thousand scientists, each a thousand times smarter than they are today, operating a thousand times faster. First thing these smarty-pants cyborgs will do, Kurzweil reckons, is make themselves even smarter, and then smarter still, until intelligence is sprouting all over the place like some kind of crazy out-of-control IQ kudzu. Eventually you’ve got scientists who are a million times smarter and a million times faster than they are today. Breakthroughs should be popping up all over. “An hour would result in a century of progress [in today’s terms],” Kurzweil claims in The Singularity Is Near. Eventually, we leap beyond the boundaries of our planet, and every bit of matter in the entire universe becomes intelligent. “This,” Kurzweil concludes, “is the destiny of the universe.”

These ideas have attracted some high-powered followers. Kurzweil’s partner at Singularity University is Peter Diamandis, best known for his work as the chairman and founder of the X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit in California that grants prizes for breakthroughs in space technology and other areas. In 1987 Diamandis founded the International Space University to teach courses about space. Three years ago Diamandis read The Singularity Is Near and was so taken by the work, he contacted Kurzweil and proposed creating a university to teach people about The Singularity. Diamandis takes 40 supplements a day and says he expects to live several centuries. “There are many life forms on the planet that live for hundreds of years,” he says, “and there’s no reason we can’t.” Diamandis says academics who scoff at The Singularity are just threatened because the established order will be disrupted. “These technologies can topple major companies, even governments,” he says. “All these ideas are about empowering the individual.”

The goal of living long enough to experience The Singularity has taken over Kurzweil’s life, turning him into a health nut. He’s trim and fit, thanks to exercise, a careful diet and loads of supplements. It’s also made him wealthier. He’s written three books on the subject. His latest, Transcend, released in April, is coauthored with a physician, Terry Grossman, and provides recipes — baked cod, cauliflower with Indian spices, fruit smoothies — and tells you what supplements you should be taking. Grossman and Kurzweil sell their own line of supplements, vitamins and nutrition shakes called Ray & Terry’s Longevity Products. Kurzweil has even crafted a contingency plan in case he dies before The Singularity arrives. He’ll be frozen in liquid nitrogen and put into storage, waiting for technology to rescue him from the grave. Kurzweil also hopes to bring his father back to life by getting DNA from his father’s grave site and using a swarm of nanobots to create a new body that is “indistinguishable from the original person.” He’ll dig up all of his father’s old letters and other materials, and download them along with his own memories into an artificial-intelligence program to create a “virtual person.”

The great thing about being a futurist, of course, is that you can’t really be proved wrong. You can predict away, secure in the knowledge that no one is going to time-travel into the future and come back to tell the world that you got it wrong. Or that you’re a complete loon. All we know is this: Kurzweil is very intelligent, very rich and very sincere. And very adamant. No matter what hurdle you throw at him, Kurzweil has already thought about it and has his answer ready. Won’t the Singularity tech-nologies be available only to people who can afford them? Won’t that create a situation where the rich become “enhanced,” and the rest of us become moronic muggles? Kurzweil says no, the price of technologies will come down so quickly that everyone will be able to afford them. OK, so what about natural selection? If we all stop dying, won’t we mess that up? “Natural selection isn’t significant anymore,” Kurzweil says. “Technological change is the cutting edge of evolution.” As for fears that computers will kill us, or keep us as slaves, Kurzweil insists the computers will want us around.

Kurzweil took some serious heat on this last point during a panel discussion after the premiere of Transcendent Man at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. Some leading artificial-intelligence experts were in the audience, and they think we are racing toward a dystopian future. But Kurzweil is having none of that — he thinks the “man-machine civilization” is going to be wonderful. He doesn’t argue. He just sits there, smiling. Ask him a pointed question and he just dodges it and launches into another monologue. He has no doubt. None. He is utterly, completely, 100 percent sure that he is going to live forever. He will be reunited with his beloved father, and they will become immortal and spend eternity together. He is absolutely certain about this. Nothing can talk him out of it. And that, at the end of the day, may be the scariest, or saddest, thing of all.

Letters to the Editor

251 W. 57th St.
New York, NY 10019

Re: “I, Robot, One Man’s Quest to Become a Computer,” Newsweek, May 25, 2009

Dear Editor:

I appreciate your bringing my ideas to your readership. However, there are numerous inaccuracies and misrepresentations in Daniel Lyons’ story. For example, of the many accurate predictions for the year 2009 that I wrote in my book The Age of Spiritual Machines, written in the late 1990s, only three are listed in the sidebar “Kurzweil’s Crystal Ball” while a larger number are listed as “false.” Of these “false” predictions, a number are in fact true, and others are only a few years away. For example, “Computers will be commonly embedded in clothing and jewelry” is listed as false.

When I wrote this prediction, portable computers were large heavy devices carried under your arm. Today they are indeed embedded in shirt pockets, jacket pockets, and hung from belt loops. Colorful iPod nano models are worn on blouses as jewelry pins, health monitors are woven into undergarments, there are now computers in hearing aids, and there are  many other examples.

“Most portable computers will not have keyboards” is listed as “False.” When I wrote this, every portable computer had an (alphanumeric) keyboard. Today the majority of portable computers such as MP3 players, cameras, phones, game players and many other varieties do not have keyboards. The full quote of my prediction makes it clear that I am referring to computerized devices that “make phone calls, access the web, monitor body functions, provide directions, and provide a variety of other services.”

“The deaf will commonly use portable speech-to-text machines to ‘hear’ what others are saying” is not true today, but sophisticated voice-recognition software that works on anyone’s voice is in wide use (using my own technologies) and speech recognition suitable for use by the deaf  are technically feasible now and expected on the market in the near future.

Lyons cites my prediction that “by 2009 a top supercomputer would be capable of performing 20 petaflops (quadrillion operations per second)” and dismisses my contention that this and a couple of other predictions are “off by a few years” saying they are “not just a little bit wrong, but wildly, laughably wrong.”  Yet IBM’s 20 petaflop Sequoia supercomputer is already under construction and IBM has announced that it will begin operation in 2012.

Lyons dismisses my accurate prediction (written in the mid to late 1980s) of a world web of computing and communications ubiquitously tying together people with each other and with vast information resources. He writes “But hold on a minute. Who didn’t think the Internet was going to catch on?”  The answer is virtually everyone. I wrote this when the entire U.S. defense budget could only tie together a few thousand scientists with the ARPAnet. My prediction was considered very radical at the time that I made it just as many of my predictions are regarded today. It is typical that when my predictions become true, people write that they were always obvious.

Regarding the dangers of technology, Lyons writes, “But Kurzweil is having none of that — he thinks the ‘man-machine civilization’ is going to be wonderful. He doesn’t argue. He just sits there smiling.”  That’s a total misrepresentation. Extensive portions of my recent books and many of my speeches are devoted to what I describe as “the intertwined promise versus peril” of new technology. Bill Joy’s famous cover story in Wired on the dire dangers of new technologies was based, as he states at the beginning of his article, on my book The Age of Spiritual Machines. I’m not just sitting here smiling, but have worked extensively with the Army and other organizations on developing defenses against abuse of biotechnology and other advanced technologies.

Lyons writes “[Ray] has no doubt. None. He is utterly, completely 100 percent sure that he is going to live forever… He is absolutely certain about this. Nothing can talk him out of it.” This is also a complete misquote. He asked me that question and I responded that I felt I had a good chance of living long enough to get to the point where we have technologies that will radically extend human longevity, but that it was by no means certain, that I could get a disease tomorrow for which we have no answer. Lyons and I were together recently for one of the premiere screenings of Transcendent Man, the movie about my life and ideas, at the Tribeca Film Festival. I express this uncertainty very clearly in the concluding part of that movie.

As the article makes clear, I welcome critics and constructive debate, but all too often this dialogue is marred by extensive misquotes and misrepresentations of what I have actually said and written.

Ray Kurzweil