Katalyst vs. Singularity: a radical exploration into a subject of our times

April 15, 2012

Interview with Ray Kurzweil

Vernor Vinge describes [technological] “Singularity” as having the technological means to create a superhuman intelligence where the human era will be ended.

There’s an inherent fear in hearing “the human era will be ended.” How do you think people today can cope with this possible future?

I don’t describe it that way, at all, at least not with that terminology. In my view, the technology we are creating is part of the human civilization. Life expectancy was 20 [years] one-thousand years ago, and we’re ultimately literally physically merging with these machines, we’re going to put them inside our bodies and brains as I just said, and I think that’s an arbitrary distinction because we’re very intimate with our computers.

We’re going to multiply the overall intellectual capability in our civilization a billion fold by 2045. That date, what I call “the Singularity” and that’s where, borrowing a metaphor from physics, it’s hard to see beyond the event horizon. It’s not a point of infinity it’s a point of profound transformation.

I think the term “post-humanism” or “trans-humanist” is unfortunate because we’re going to transcend our biology, [and] we’re going to enhance our humanity. We will be human even if most of the action is with the non-biological portion of our civilization. That’s part of who we are as well. I see all these terms as unfortunate, artificial intelligence implies that it’s not real intelligence, but it is real.

“Virtual reality” implies that it’s not real reality, but you and I right now are in a virtual environment – it’s called the telephone. So, virtual reality is real reality, artificial intelligence is real intelligence and our future is not going to be post-humanist or trans-humanist, we’re going to be trans-biological.

Are you implying that what we see with wars and the crude nature of man improving in the era of Singularity?

It’s a separate issue. Overall, yes I do. With the rise of the web in the 1990s we saw a great wave of democratization we’re seeing continued today. The rise of social networks – it’s a very powerful democratizing force and not just politically – it harnesses the wisdom of crowds. My vision is not a utopian one. Fire cooked our food and kept us warm but it also burned down our villages, so these technologies are double-edged swords. You could certainly see bullying and lynch-mob behavior on the internet, but I believe the wisdom of crowds.

The democratization and sharing of knowledge and wisdom is ultimately a more powerful force. The world is actually less violent today. Now someone incredulously might take issue with that because all we see is suffering, violence and war but that reflects the fact that we have much better information today about what’s wrong with the world.

If there’s a battle in Fallujah or a police station blows up in Kabul, we’re there. It’s not that the problems didn’t exist, in fact they were much worse in the past, if you read Thomas Hobbes or Charles Dickens you can see how disaster prone, short, brutish, disease filled, poverty filled human life was.

Do you see us becoming more civilized?

Life expectancy was 37 [years] in the 17-1800s, so we’re making progress. I have a graph actually showing a continual decline in casualties of war. We get upset, rightly so, about wars that cause thousands of casualties today, [when] we used to have wars that caused tens of millions of casualties. Sixty million people died in WWII. So I do think we have greater wisdom, which does lead to a cacophony of voices, the free exchange of information is messy and doesn’t go in a straight line, but I do think we’re gradually becoming wiser. I’ve actually been working with the army and my mission there is to help them develop rapid responses so that they can respond to new biological viruses to the way we successfully deal with new software viruses.

If we just sat back and said no one would ever put out a dangerous software virus, the internet wouldn’t last more than a day. We have developed a technological immune system which is constantly obsolete so we have to constantly re-do it but nobody’s taken down the internet for even a second over the last ten years because we have this rapid response system which detects the software virus and deactivates them. So, there’s a complex issue. I’m not a utopian, there are dangers. It’s not a pat answer, but we do need to put a higher social priority on dealing with the dangers, but the world actually is getting better. People think the world is getting worse, what’s actually happening is we get better and better information about what’s wrong with the world.

If the world is getting better and I were to essentially double my life span, how would this affect our resources?

In short, the same technologies that are going to extend human life are also going to expand resources. Just to give you one example [Google CEO] Larry Page and I did a study for the National Academy of Engineering of Energy and we discussed extensively solar energy, which is on an exponential rise. The total amount of solar energy is doubling every two years and it’s only 8 doublings from meeting 100% of the worlds energy needs. So, we could talk a long time about that, but the overall observation is we’re awash in energy.

We are awash in water, it’s just most of it is unusable but we have the technology to transform it into a usable form. There are new food technologies based on artificial intelligence and other biological technologies that can make very inexpensive high quality food in very high volumes. So the resource question is basically the same technologies that are going to extend life are also going to extend resources.

How would longer lifespans affect entertainment for humans?

So then the challenge is “okay, if I live hundreds of years isn’t that going to get boring?” and I think that alludes to your entertainment question, and yes, I think if we lived hundreds of years and nothing else changed it would get boring. But that’s not what’s going to happen. Along with radical life extension, there’s going to come radical life expansion. Just to give you one example, virtual reality which today is a form of entertainment (e.g. massive multi-player games, Second Life) is ultimately going to be full immersion as realistic as real reality including the tactile sense, which will ultimately go inside the nervous system in the 2030s. This is when going to a website will actually mean going into a virtual reality environment that will be as real as real reality and it will be induced from within the nervous system.

My brain will be receiving signals from the virtual environment as if it were receiving them from the real environment and I can then be an actor in those virtual environments. It really feels like it’s me but it doesn’t have to be the same body that I have in real reality, I can be someone else. A couple could become each other, a student could become a virtual Ben Franklin and then the virtual constitutional Congress.

That’s not just a matter of dressing up in costume but actually becoming that person, so clearly the entertainment opportunities for these highly realistic virtual environments that can be either realistic recreations of earthly environments or fantastic environments, or environments that couldn’t exist on Earth because maybe they defy the laws of physics certainly have tremendous entertainment and educational value. It can change relationships, because you can experiment being different people. So, that’s one advantage to virtual reality and that’s where a lot of entertainment could take place but that’s where our relationship will take place and education.

It sounds like the role of the storyteller will actually be greatly expanded because he or she will be able to create an immersive environment to tell, perhaps even, historical stories.

Right, so you can just imagine a movie that’s three-dimensional but while the movie takes place you can walk through the Roman square where the actions taking place, sit down on the cobblestone fence and watch the action from where you want to see it.

On a practical level, would you see some sort of wi-fi device that’s literally plugged into us and is hooked up to some sort of network that we can then step into?

My vision is we’re going to have nano-bots, small computerized devices inside our bodies and brains in the blood stream. One function of them will be to keep us healthy, they’ll be augmenting our immune system and won’t be subject to the limitations of our immune system. For example, our immune system doesn’t recognize cancer, it thinks it’s you and our immune systems turn on us, those are auto-immune disorders.

There are many medical implications of this. One way we can achieve radical life extension, they’ll go into the brain, into the capillaries, interact with our biological neurons and they’ll be able to either augment or replace signals coming from our real senses. So if I wanted to completely go into a virtual reality environment, they’ll shut down the signals coming from the real senses — tactile sense, eyes and so on — and replace them with the signals your brain would be receiving if you were in the virtual environment.

Don’t you think it’s also going to be a bit taboo to integrate technology into our own nervous systems? If our iPhones were able to plug into our bodies, there would be a lot of fear and trepidation with it. How do you reconcile those two notions?

People don’t really wait for congress to pass a law to do body modification, there’s a whole body modification movement. It used to be a very fringe radical thing to do, and now it’s very mainstream to modify your body. And it’s going to happen as the technology becomes available and relatively safe and it is also going to be driven by medical application. It’s not one thing that I can check a box, I want to be augmented or I don’t want to be augmented, it’s going to be a million choices or more. You have a million choices today just for iPhone apps, and some people are very aggressive users of technology, very few people opt out completely. There will be conservative technologies that you would be crazy not to use because they protect you from most common diseases for example.

Other things will be more experimental, they’ll be infused bit by bit, just as we see other movements but very few people will opt out and price is not going to be a barrier. People say “only the wealthy are going to have these things” and I say “yeah, like cell phones” which in fact only the wealthy could have twenty years ago, when they didn’t work very well and did one thing which was make phone calls and it did that poorly.

Today, when they do a million things there are 5 billion of them in the world and 30% of Africans have them, the farmers in China have them and it’s going to be totally ubiquitous very soon and that will be the same thing with these technologies.

It’s going to start out non-invasively with eyeglasses that beam images into your retina that create a full immersion visual of virtual reality or augmented reality. You can have a screen that’s as big as you want including taking over your entire visual field of view, put you in a full immersion three-dimensional environment that responds to your movements or it can overlay real reality. We will be an augmented reality all the time and this will be non-invasive, this will be in your eyeglasses.

Do you think that we could be missing out on something by relying on technology [and] being confined to our limited sensory perception? Considering the infinite nature of things – fractals, inner and outer space, etc.

Technologies initially start out as compromises and are crude. People often point to DDT, but it didn’t wipe out malaria. Fossil fuels are a big compromise. Generally speaking it’s these first industrial revolution technologies which are crude in this way that technology is getting more and more refined. If you look at virtual reality it starts out being a compromise because it’s not realistic at first. The first virtual reality game was Pong which was virtual reality tennis and it couldn’t be more crude.

Ultimately, these technologies are getting more and more refined when we recognize things that are missing as the law of accelerating returns continues and we double the capability of these technologies every year. They ultimately can capture more and more reality and it does extend our reach. I mean, look at the situation today, we have the entire world of human knowledge in our pockets [and] can access it instantly.

It’s quite extraordinary and we take it for granted. I think it expands human potential and I think that’s what technology does, ever since we picked up a stick to reach a higher branch we’ve extended our reach with our tools and we’re the only species that does that. We’re very unique in that regard, but it’s part of who we are and there’s always compromise.