Inside the Kurzweil SXSW Keynote: On Infinite Mind Power, Robotic Overlords and Immortality

He is one of the world’s most renowned futurists, and onstage at South By Southwest, Ray Kurzweil stirred debate with a speech that outlined the incredible role artificial intelligence will play in the future, as it reshapes humanity

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Futurist Ray Kurzweil (left) and TIME writer Lev Grossman lead a South By Southwest Interactive keynote on March 12, 2012

South By Southwest Interactive is a bubble of optimism; a haven of ingenuity that seems liberated from all the constraints, or cynicism, of daily life. There are conceptual talks here that forgo all notions of funding or commerce, to instead bask in the glory of the Next Big Idea. There are demonstrations where you can sense that you’re peering around the corner, at how people will be interacting differently with their computers – and their worlds – two or three years from now.

And then occasionally there are presentations which send you spiraling through a time warp, glimpsing a vision of the future society that this conference seems to be moving towards each and every year, in increments that can be measured with every new app or software update. (See TIME’s full coverage of the 2012 SXSW) At Monday’s keynote event, which paired futurist Ray Kurzweil with TIME’s own Lev Grossman – who last worked together in forming the dazzling scientific hypotheses of this 2011 TIME cover story, which served as a basis of sorts for the Austin address – more than three thousand conference-goers filled every last seat of South By Southwest’s largest venue to marvel at Kurzweil’s vision of the future.

(MORE: Kurzweil Tells TIME — Humans Will One Day Be Immortal)

The session opened with a monologue from Kurzweil, a rapid-fire summary of his widely-known beliefs in exponential growth, as far as technology and computing power is concerned. Pointing to his smart phone, Kurzweil routinely tells crowds that what he uses and carries around everyday is now a billion times more powerful than the computer he used as a student. And also thousands of times smaller, and cheaper.

(VIDEO: 10 Questions for Ray Kurzweil)

It is precisely this dramatic growth in computing power that guides many of Kurzweil’s beliefs. As computer chips get smaller, and more powerful, he sees the trend intensifying to the point that humans will start aggressively employing, and implanting, nanotechnology, as devices the size of a blood cell emerge as one billion times more powerful than our iPhone. Just as these devices aid doctors in diagnosing and treating patients, Kurzweil also envisions a day when doctors will be able to more radically manipulate our genes and DNA. As he sees it, with the mapping of the human genome – which, he says, is yet more proof of his exponential growth paradigm, as it took seven years to map out first one percent of the genome but only a few years to map the remaining 99 percent – scientists will start approaching biology from the paradigm of information technology. He says that some of the outdated biological laws that govern human bodies, like conserving calories in the event than next year’s hunting season falters, could be switched off, alleviating issues of obesity. Or manipulate other aspects of the genome and you can start tackling issues of hereditary disease and even aging.

In one animated portion of Kurzweil’s slideshow, he used a graph that plotted data from the late 1800s through the 21st century, comparing average human lifespan to average incomes, demonstrating how incremental gains in both during the first half of the twentieth century accelerated furiously in the second half. The rising tide of technology, Kurzweil would surely claim, lifts all boats.

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Grossman directly addressed some of the recent controversy that has surrounded Kurzweil’s exponential growth hypothesis, citing a recent essay written by Paul Allen that claimed while Kurzweil had been accurate thus far in determining the surge in computing power, this growth is bound to hit a wall in the coming years (or decades). Just because something has always worked, Allen claimed, doesn’t mean that the trend will always hold true. Kurzweil’s response cited new paradigms to come for the industry. In the early days of computing, he said, the increases in power were to be found in the shrinking of vacuum tubes. That was the trend of the day, until it didn’t make sense any more, and scientists made the move to a new paradigm. Kurzweil says he envisions this next paradigm on the horizon to involve 3D chips, already in existence inside Intel. As has always been the case, this breakthrough into a new paradigm will then magnify computing power exponentially.

Of course, what has always fascinated Kurzweil’s listeners – and what surely intrigued TIME editors, when Kurzweil’s theories were elevated to the cover of the magazine – is the prospect that computing power will become so great in the cloud, that biological technology will become so sophisticated, and that medical devices will become so small that humans will effectively be able to stave off death entirely. By 2045 – or perhaps even earlier – artificial intelligence will become so sophisticated and pervasive that humans will be able to make use of these tools to achieve immortality. This is the future, as Ray Kurzweil sees it.

All this said, what distinguished Monday’s South By Southwest presentation beyond mere talk of immortality or the singularity was the palpable concern for not just what will be possible in the future, but how it will change us as a species. And as both Grossman and audience members steered the conversation away from purely the what and the when towards the why and the how, a few interesting revelations bubbled to the surface:

On losing our humanity: Grossman pointedly questioned Kurzweil about the potential loss of our “human nature” in a world dominated by artificial intelligence. But Kurzweil linked the future of our “human-machine civilization” to the full sweep of human history: “Ever since we first picked up a stick to reach a tree branch,” he said, we have been creating tools to aid our existence. So he sees the futuristic nanotechnology and artificial intelligence purely as tools that will serve as extensions of our humanity. Also: Just as today the data one access on their iPhone exists both within the phone and out in the cloud, he envisions a future where not only are nanobots being added to our bodies but where our brains being augmented by processing power in the cloud. Where search engines do not need to be prompted to offer helpful information, but instead grow intuitive, providing us information as we need it. As Kurzweil sees it, this is about expanding our intellect, and our capabilities, not deferring all this to machines.

On technology as a zero-sum game: Grossman pondered whether some technological gains become a zero-sum game, as we bury our heads increasingly in our smartphones, losing connection to the people and places around us. Kurzweil, however, didn’t share those concerns, pointing out that technology has assisted us in connecting with more people more quickly and in a far richer context than at any other time in human history. The problem, it would appear, is not with the technology but with our use of it. If you want to be more connected with those around you, he surmised, then simply put the phone away.

(VIDEO: Should We Fear the Robots?)

On malevolent machines: A defining aspect of Kurzweil’s “singularity” is the point at which artificial intelligence spirals beyond our control, or even our understanding. Where machines themselves start to replicate machines that are beyond our grasp. Grossman asked whether we can be sure that a superior artificial intelligence would have our best interests at heart. Is it possible that an emerging AI would try to put us down? “I don’t see it as ‘us vs. them.’ I see it as ‘us vs. us,’” Kurzweil replied, noting that there are already armies fighting against each other on Earth, both armed with some degree of artificial intelligence. It’s the humans who will corrupt the technology, he argues, not the technology that will target us.

(MORE: 10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life)

On the success of Siri: Kurzweil cited both IBM’s Watson and Apple’s Siri as major breakthroughs in the ability of artificial intelligence to comprehend and replicate the complex patterns of human speech. Pointing to Watson’s performance on Jeopardy, and Siri’s ability to engage a user in natural language, he said these reflect some of the most ambitious goals of robot scientists: To create machines that can understand things like humor, metaphors and irony. This is the holy grail for inventors, and Kurzweil said developers had already broken through “an amazing threshold, that people are talking to computers…Siri is only going to get better.”

On whether we will ever see robots as humans: In one of his most provocative pronouncements, Kurzweil did not bat an eye in claiming that not only will artificial intelligence evolve to the point that we can carry on human interactions with robots, but that we will easily accept AI as an equal and contemporary to our own consciousness. “We are a human-machine civilization. Everybody has been enhanced with computer technology…they’re really part of who we are,” he said. “If we can convince people that computers have complexity of thought and nuance … we’ll come to accept them as human.”

On the inadequacy of the education system: Kurzweil decried the current state of the educational system, as focusing solely on core skills while failing to develop more complex problem-solving and project management aptitudes. In one aside, he detailed how there were those who feared the introduction of calculators to students because they would then not learn math. And indeed, Kurzweil proceeded, math skills have declined. But the calculators remained. And the key to the future of education is teaching students how to better marshal calculators, and other technologies, towards an end goal; to develop the critical thinking that makes the best use of the available tools.

Steven James Snyder is a Senior Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.

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