Ray Kurzweil: the ultimate thinking machine

March 1, 2012

He is a visionary, an inventor (the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first music synthesizer that could recreate the keys of a grand piano), an entrepreneur, and has been described as a “restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal. He is also a New York Times best-selling author.

Ray has been credited with predicting the fall of the Soviet Union, the year when a computer would beat a human being at chess, and the explosive growth of the Internet. He now predicts that artificial intelligence will outpace the human brain by the year 2045.

He was awarded the $500,000 MIT-Lemelson Prize for innovation, is recipient of the National Medal of Technology, has received 19 honorary doctorates and has authored six books. UCSB Arts & Lectures is proud to present as part of its Innovation Matters series, Raymond Kurzweil’s upcoming illustrated public lecture: Innovation in an Era of Accelerating Technologies, at UCSB Campbell Hall on Tuesday, March 6, beginning at 8 pm.

UCSB Senior Writer Karna Hughes informs us that Mr. Kurzweil was “recently featured as one of the tech pioneers in Best Buy’s Super Bowl commercial.” Ray is also a National Inventor Hall of Fame inductee .His ideas and inventions, like the Kurzweil music synthesizer and flatbed scanner, have been touted by legions of fans, from Stevie Wonder to William Shatner. Dubbed “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes magazine, he is the subject of the2009 film Transcendent Man, which explores his prediction of a future where man merges with machine, a point in time he calls “The Singularity.”

Bill Gates claims Kurzweil is “the best in the world at predicting the future.” Kurzweil is also the author of  The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. Mr. Kurzweil has proven so adept at foretelling the future that we decided to ask him a small number of questions that have bedeviled us. The following questions and answers took place via e-mail.

How is it that mammals dominate the animal kingdom?

Everywhere we look around the globe, there is a layer of sediment that represents 65 million years ago which points to the “Cretaceous-Paleogen extinction event,” which led to the rapid demise of many species that could not adapt quickly enough. Mammals, which were relatively new, and which had a neocortex that was capable of hierarchical thinking could adapt.

This was the turning point for neocortex-capable mammals to take over their ecological niche. In this way, biological evolution found that the hierarchical learning of the neo-cortex was so valuable that this region of the brain continued to grow in size until it virtually took over the brain of homo sapiens. It represents 80% of the human brain.

Do you still believe human life spans will be extended an additional fifty years by 2030?

By about 2025, we will be adding more than a year each year to our remaining life expectancy. So, that’s not a guarantee, but it is tipping point. As we continue to go further in time, life expectancy will continue to grow. The whole concept of life expectancy is already obsolete because it is based on the past, whereas the future is going to be very different.

How will we ever communicate with other civilizations in the face of the enormous distances that separate us?

My speculation is that other civilizations probably don’t exist because if they did we would be aware of them. Due to the law of accelerating returns (which refers to the exponential growth of information technologies), progress is extremely rapid once a civilization gets to the point of having radio capable technology. Given that other civilizations are likely to be spread out over cosmological time(that is, millions of years), it is inconceivable that we would not be aware of another civilization with advanced technology. I discuss this argument in more detail in the last section of chapter 6 in The Singularity Is Near.

Although it is speculated that an advanced civilization may progress to methods of communication beyond electromagnetic signals, it is very unlikely that we would not at least be generating vast amounts of electro-magnetic information anyway. When artificial intelligence outpaces human intelligence, where will that leave the human race? Will humans continue to have a function and/or purpose?

AI is not an intelligent invasion from Mars. These are brain extenders that we have created to expand our own mental reach. They are part of our civilization. They are part of who we are. So over the next few decades our human-machine civilization will become increasingly dominated by its non-biological component.

What does medical surgery look like in, say, fifty years?

By the 2030s, we will routinely use nanobots (robots the size of blood cells with multi-nanometer features) that combine intelligent computation and robotics to keep us healthy from inside. So they will continually be performing microsurgery fixing our cells, removing plaque and debris, destroying pathogens, and so on at the cellular level.

Will any human in the future be allowed to go off the grid, or will all humans be under some sort of surveillance from here on out?

I think we will be able to maintain privacy. It is a complex technical issue but the technologies of privacy (for example, encryption) have outpaced the technologies of surveillance (such as decryption). The grid is already how we stay connected with other people, with society and with our exponential expanding knowledge base. So few people really want to stay off the grid for very long.

How close are we to a smart drug, or at least one that substantially increases brainpower and/or memory?

In the 2020s there will probably be drugs that can make us somewhat smarter. But that is not nearly as interesting as directly connecting our brains to artificial intelligence, much of which will reside in the cloud. At that point, our intelligence will grow exponentially the way we see computers doing already. This will start to happen in the mid to late 2030s.

At what point do humans cease proliferating? How many humans can Earth reasonably accommodate?

We can actually accommodate a greatly expanded biological population. We have 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to meet 100 percent of our energy needs. The total amount of solar energy produced each year is doubling every two years and has been for thirty years and is only about seven doublings from meeting all of our energy needs.

There is a similar analysis with water and food and production of housing. The vast majority of land is not used today for human habitation. But ultimately – about a century from now – we will be more concerned with resources for our non- biological brains and bodies than our biological ones.

On a similar plane: when do humans cease propagating? Will having babies even be allowed?

Old technologies fade away very slowly. We still have horse and buggies and vinyl records.

Will space travel ever become real?

A century from now, we will send swarms of intelligent nanobots to explore other celestial bodies. There is no reason to send large squishy creatures like humans.

What is the next step for computers?

Over the next decade, we will see realistic virtual reality that is ubiquitous as well as augmented reality. We will gain mastery of our biology and will start to update the outdated software that runs in our bodies. Computers will master natural language. They won’t wait for you to ask them a question, they will be watching us and listening in and will offer help that they see we need. They will know our needs before we do.