Friday, May 08, 2009

New Scientist - Ray Kurzweil: A Singular View of the Future

I like Ray Kurzweil, but I think his views on the singularity are naive at best, and just plain silly at worst. Still, he is pretty cool and fun to listen to. This is a good interview.

Ray Kurzweil: A singular view of the future

Ray Kurzweil is not satisfied with being human, and looks forward to the Singularity when, he says, we will all develop beyond our limited biology (Image: Larry Busacca / Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Ray Kurzweil is not satisfied with being human, and looks forward to the Singularity when, he says, we will all develop beyond our limited biology (Image: Larry Busacca / Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Read more: Five futurist visionaries and what they got right

For inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, being human with limited intelligence and doomed biology was never good enough. So he came up with an idea called the Singularity - a time when humans merge with machines, become smart and live forever. From MIT to the White House, people either hate the idea or can't wait for it to happen. So, asks Liz Else, will any of us live long enough to see it?

When will the Singularity arrive?

By 2045, give or take. We are already a hybrid of biological and non-biological technology. A handful of people have electronic devices in their brain, for example. The latest generation allows medical software to be downloaded to a computer inside your brain. But if you consider that 25 years from now these technologies will be 100,000 times smaller and a billion times more powerful, you get some idea of what will be feasible. And even though most of us don't have computers in our bodies, they are already part of who we are.

What about people who don't want to be "trans-human"Movie Camera and merge with technology?

How many people completely reject all medical and health technology, don't wear glasses or take any medicine? People say they don't want to change themselves, but then when they get a disease they will do whatever they can to overcome it. We're not going to get from here to the world of 2030 or 2040 in one grand leap; we're going to get there through thousands of little steps. Put these steps together and ultimately the world is a different place.

Can we outrun our current environmental problems to reach 2045?

Yes. The resources are much greater than they appear. We only have to capture 1 part in 10,000 of the sunlight to get all the energy we need. Nanotechnology is being applied to solar energy collection technology and that is scaling up at an exponential rate. Such new technologies are ultimately very inexpensive because they are subject to the law of accelerating returns.

What do you mean by the law of accelerating returns?

The power of ideas to change the world is accelerating and few people grasp the implications of that fully. People don't think exponentially, yet exponential change applies to anything that involves measuring information content. Take genetic sequencing. When the human genome project was announced in 1990, sceptics said: "No way you're going to do this in 15 years." Halfway through the project the sceptics were still going strong, saying you've only finished 1 per cent of the project. But that's actually right on schedule: by the time you get to 1 per cent you're only seven doublings away.

The power of ideas to change the world is accelerating, but few grasp the implications

You have a strong track record with your predictions. Has this exponential thinking helped get the timing right?

In the mid-1980s, I predicted the emergence of the World Wide Web for the mid-1990s. It seemed ridiculous then, when the entire US defence budget could only link up a few thousand scientists. But I saw it doubling every year and it happened right on schedule. It is quite remarkable how predictable these measures of the power of information technology are. Even so, millions of innovators are going to come up with unexpected ideas. Who would have anticipated social networks and blogs? If 10 years ago I had said we're going to create an encyclopedia and anybody can write and edit it, you'd have thought, my god, it's going to be full of graffiti and completely worthless. It's amazing how good it is if we harness the collective wisdom.

These advances all sound very utopian.

They are not utopian because technology is a double-edged sword, it introduces new problems as well. Overall, though, I do believe the benefits outweigh the damage that technology causes. Not everybody agrees.

Why did you set up the Singularity University earlier this year?

Peter Diamandis - founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation - and I decided the time was right to start a university to bring together the leading people in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology and advanced computing to help solve the problems of the future, because these problems are complex and multidimensional. NASA and Larry Page of Google are also backing it. We're starting out small with 40 students this summer. It's a very intensive nine-week course.

Did you find out anything new about yourself from taking part in the movie Transcendent Man (see "Film review: Transcendent Man")?

Yes, I learned some things about my relationship with my father and the influence he had on my life as a creative person. I realised just how much I miss him. He was an acclaimed composer back in Vienna, which he left to flee the Nazis. He died from a heart attack when I was in my early 20s.

You have said that you would like to bring your father back to life because you miss him.

That's right. Using DNA from his grave collected by nanobots, then adding all the information extracted by AI from my memories and those of other people who remember him. Plus all the mementos of his life that I've kept, in boxes and elsewhere, could be downloaded. He could be an avatar, or a robot or in some other form.

Read more: Five futurist visionaries and what they got right


At 16, Ray Kurzweil and his computer-generated music featured on TV. After studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he made millions from inventions such as the flat-bed scanner and the first text-to-speech synthesiser. His awards include the National Medal of Technology. He takes 150-plus supplements daily to reach the Singularity.

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