Kuzweil: The cloud will expand human brain capacity

October 10, 2012

Futurist and author Ray Kurzweil predicts the cloud will eventually do more than store our e-mails or feed us streaming movies on demand: it’s going to help expand our brain capacity beyond its current limits.

In a question-and-answer session following a speech to the DEMO technology conference in Santa Clara, California last week, Kurzweil described the human brain as impressive but limited in its capacity to hold information.

“By the time we’re even 20, we’ve filled it up,” he said, adding that the only way to add information after that point is to “repurpose our neocortex to learn something new” (Computerworld has posted up the full video of the talk.)

The solution to overcoming the brain’s limitations, he added, involves “basically expanding our brains into the cloud.”

Kurzweil is one of the more prominent advocates of the technological Singularity, or the idea that computers will become super-intelligent and self-replicating, essentially reducing human progress to a sideshow. He is an optimist in this scenario, arguing in talks and books that the Singularity will effectively make humanity immortal by allowing us to transfer our consciousness into non-organic systems. (An interesting Wired piece from 2008 describes Kurzweil’s health regimen, including the literally hundreds of vitamin pills and supplements he takes every day, in an effort to live long enough to see the Singularity in action.)

Even if we don’t yet possess the ability to upload and download memories to a data-center like so many song and video files, Kurzweil still views technology as instrumental in boosting the brain’s capacity. Search engines and online repositories such as Wikipedia allow for knowledge expansion, he added, “even if it’s not physically inside my body and brain.”

The next stage is the creation of synthetic systems that can mimic the brain’s pattern-recognition abilities, which will carry that expansion to a whole new level: “When we’ve expanded it again, which I think we will do, we can’t even describe what that next qualitative leap will be.”

Whatever form it takes, he emphasized, that stage will take place “in the cloud because that’s where all the interesting things happen.”

In his talk, Kurzweil also touched on natural language technology, a key focus of his research for years. “Big Data is not just numerical tables or alphanumeric tables,” he said. “What I think we will have over the next few years is the ability to get meaningful information from natural language documents.” While some IT vendors claim their software can draw insights from those documents, Kurzweil suggested that those systems rely more on tricks than actual, near-human understanding of what’s on the page.