An Interview With Ray Kurzweil

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In an interview with Techland, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts the existence of machines with human-level intelligence by 2029, offers advice to inventors, and discusses how you can prepare yourself for the very real possibility of human immortality in the not-too-distant future.

Dr. Kurzweil will be delivering a keynote address titled “Acceleration of Technology in the 21st Century: The Impact on Media, Communications, and Society” at the 2010 NAB Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday, April 13th.

Techland: What were you like as a kid? What initially attracted you to technology?

Kurzweil: I decided to be an inventor when I was five. My parents had given me a few various enrichment toys like erector sets and, for some reason, I had the idea that if I put things together just the right way I could create the intended effect. Although I didn’t have that vocabulary, I can remember the feeling that if you put something together the right way, you could do something magical. You could solve problems. You could solve any problem.

And that reflected the philosophy and religion of my family; a belief in human ideas. No matter what problem you encounter, whether it’s a grand challenge for humanity or a personal problem of your own, there’s an idea out there that can overcome it. And you can find that idea.

And it became personalized. You, Ray, can find the ideas to overcome challenges. I decided I would be an inventor when I was five and I was quite serious about it. Other kids were wondering what they were going to be and I always had this conceit; “I know what I’m going to be.”

So I started working on these projects, trying to spend as much time on them as possible. When I was in school, I’d be holding the textbook but behind it I’d be working on my own projects. And it’s continued for the last half century. I’m still working on my projects.

Techland: You are well known for your concept of “Technological Singularity.” Could you explain that idea?

Kurzweil: There are several different perspectives. One is that the paradigm shift rate is speeding up. It took 50 years for the telephone to be adopted by a quarter of the population, the cell phone did that in seven years. Social networks, Wikis, and blogs and tweets did that in three years. We’ll get to a point that technology is moving so fast that we won’t be able to follow it unless we enhance our minds with the technology we’ve created.

So that’s another perspective. We’re going to merge with the intelligent technology we’re creating. I make the case in The Singularity Is Near that we’ll have both the hardware and the software to create human-level intelligence by 2029. I’ve been consistent on that date.

I expect the hardware much before then. The exponential growth of the price/performance, capacity, and bandwidth of information technology has been very predictable and exponential going back to the 1890 census. It’s not something I’m just saying—backdating to past data—but making accurate forward-looking predictions on those for 30 years.

Right now we’re doubling the capabilities of computers in less than a year. When I was a student at MIT, we all shared a computer that took up half a building and cost tens of millions of dollars. The computer in my cell phone today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful. That’s a billion-fold increase in the number of MIPS per dollar and the number of bits per dollar since I was a student. And we’ll do it again in the next 25 years.

The software is a more complex issue. But I make the case extensively in The Singularity Is Near and I’m now writing another book just on that issue called How the Mind Works and How to Build One. We’re making exponential progress on understanding the human brain. We’ve already modeled and simulated 20 different regions of the brain including substantial slices of the cerebral cortex, which is where we do our thinking–particularly our hierarchical thinking, which is unique to mammals. Our capacity to do that is unique in humans. It underlies language, technology, and machines.

The Blue Brain project expects to have a full human-scale simulation of the cerebral cortex by 2018. I think that’s a little optimistic, actually, but I do make the case that by 2029 we will have very detailed models and simulations of all the different brain regions. The goal of which is actually to understand how human intelligence works and then we can use engineering to focus and leverage those capabilities, which is what technology does.

But the goal of human-level intelligence in machines is not some alien invasion to compete with us and displace us, but really to merge with us. And we do that already. I mean, the fact that I have a computer on my belt that I can take out and use to access all of human knowledge with a few keystrokes makes me smarter. Almost nobody today can do their work without these brain extenders that are transforming every field, even if most of them aren’t hooked up to our bodies and brains just yet.

Although some of them are. If you’re a Parkinson’s patient you can replace the portion of the brain destroyed by that disease with a computer. It’s not blood-cell size today, it’s pea size. But it will be blood-cell size within 25 years. And each generation allows you to download new software to the computer inside your brain from outside the patient. That’s today.

If you consider that each of these technologies will be a billion times more powerful per dollar and 100,000 times smaller in 25 years, you get some idea of what will be feasible. We’re going to put these devices in our bodies and brains and they’re going to keep us healthier and make us smarter.

When you talk to a human in 2035, you’ll be talking to someone that’s a combination of biological and non-biological intelligence. The non-biological portion will amplify itself by thinking out in the cloud just the way our computers do today. So we’ll be increasingly thinking in the cloud as we go through the 2030s and 2040s.

While the non-biological portion of our intelligence is going to grow exponentially, the biological portion is fixed. Ultimately we’ll get to the point where the non-biological portion predominates.

By 2045 we’ll have multiplied our intelligence a billion-fold through this merger and exponential growth with information technology. It’s such a profound transformation that we call it a singularity, borrowing a metaphor from physics where it’s really the event horizon that we’re talking about.

It’s very hard to see beyond the event horizon of a black hole in a physics singularity. Similarly, it’s hard to see beyond the event horizon of this historical singularity but we actually do have enough intelligence right now to imagine what life would be like if we fell into a physics black hole. And similarly, we can imagine some of the implications of what it would be like to multiply our intelligence a billion-fold.

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