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.

Techland: You have a unique approach to personal health that’s covered in your book Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. Can you explain a little about how you take care of yourself and offer some basic advice to people looking to live healthier lifestyles?

Kurzweil: Dr. Terry Grossman and I have written two books. The first one is Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and then recently, Transcend. In those books we talk about three bridges to radical life extension. Bridge One is what you can do right now, and that’s the bulk of both books. But we do also talk about Bridges Two and Three.

Bridge Two is the full blossoming of the biotechnology revolution. There’s a revolution going on right now in that health and medicine, which did not used to be an information technology, have now become an information technology. We didn’t have the software of life, which is our genes.

We now have that software and we now have the means of changing that software. I mean, how long do you go without updating the software in your cell phone? It’s probably updating itself right now as we speak. But we’re walking around with outdated software in our bodies and brains that’s thousands—in some cases, millions–of years old. It’s due for a revision.

And we have new technologies that can change our genes, not just in a newborn but in a mature individual. Our innate appearance can turn genes off, new forms of gene therapy can add new genes, and we can model, design, and simulate these processes on computers.

All of these technologies are in an early stage now. They will be a thousand times more powerful in 10 years and a million times more powerful in 20 years because the power of these technologies is doubling every year.

The full flowering of this biotechnology revolution is about 15 to 20 years away, and that’s the second bridge. It’ll bring us to the third bridge, which is the nanotechnology revolution. Even if we reprogram the information processes underlying biology, we ultimately can go beyond the limitations of biology with nanotechnology.

For example, nanobots in the bloodstream keeping us healthy from the inside. That sounds very futuristic, but I point out that there’s already 50 experiments doing that with the first generation of nano-engineered devices in animals. Some scientists cured type-1 diabetes in rats with a blood cell size device that lets insulin out in a controlled fashion through 7-nanometer pores. And there are many other examples.

The Golden Era of nanotechnology as applied to health is probably about 25 years away, so that’s the third bridge that ultimately can extend our lives indefinitely. We ultimately will be able to back up our bodies and brains just as we back up our computers. Our bodies and brains are, fundamentally, information. We don’t have a means of backing it up yet but that’s the ultimate goal. And that’s a few decades away.

So in order to get to these future bridges we need to take care of ourselves the old-fashioned way, and there’s actually a lot more that we can do than people realize to dramatically slow down aging processes right now.

It’s not a simple silver bullet. It’s not just “lower your carbs, lower your fat, eat a grapefruit every morning.” Our biology is complicated and there are many different systems and issues. We talk about a personalized program for each one of these.

I’ll give you one simple example. Aging is not one thing, it’s about a dozen different processes. One of those processes is the depletion of phosphatidylcholine—are you recording this, by the way?– from the cell membrane. Every one of our 10 trillion cells has phosphatidylcholine and that’s actually about 90% of the cell membrane when we’re a 10-year-old, and typically down to 10% when we’re a 90-year-old.

It gradually depletes and the cell membrane gets filled in with hard fats and cholesterol and other inert substances that don’t work very well–that are not elastic. That’s why the skin in an elderly person is not soft and supple and the organs don’t work as well. So that’s an aging process, and that’s actually a simple one to reverse by simply supplementing with that substance. If you really want to do it effectively, you can take it intravenously like I do every week or two at a health clinic.

Another aging process which also happens to be a disease process is the filling up of your arteries with plaque–both vulnerable plaque and calcified plaque–that’s called atherosclerosis. It underlies almost all heart attacks and strokes but also, as an aging process, it leads to complications with the limbs, impotence in men, and all kinds of other conditions. Basically your arteries don’t transmit blood effectively if they fill up with plaque.

And that can be slowed down, stopped, and even reversed. Dean Ornish has shown in a number of experiments that you can actually reverse it. But this is really more complicated than taking one supplement. It’s a multifaceted issue that really requires a comprehensive lifestyle program. In some instances, medications like statin drugs, but you have to eat the right diet and exercise.

Stress management is important and there are supplements that will deal with the various issues of atherosclerosis. So we talk about this in quite some detail because it’s a very important issue since it underlies the biggest killers. It’s also a major aging issue that you can stop it if you’re aggressive enough.

The public health recommendations come pre-compromised. I’ve had these debates with, for example, the committee that sets the American Heart Association guidelines. They agree that the guidelines that we set are optimal but they say that they have enough trouble trying to get people to follow the watered-down recommendations, and ask how are they going to get people to follow our more aggressive recommendations?

Our response is that one of the reasons they have trouble getting people to follow their recommendations is that they don’t work very well. In any event, people should be told what’s optimal and if they want to compromise they can decide their own compromises. People assume these public health recommendations are optimal, so then they figure they are not going to be perfect and they go compromise them even more. So now they’re doubly compromised.

To summarize some of the recommendations, for example, in nutrition, it’s not a matter of eating low carb and low fat but to eat healthy carbs and healthy fats. Healthy carbs are vegetables and legumes, unhealthy carbs are sweets and starchy foods. Healthy fats are anti-inflammatory fats. These disease processes are inflammatory diseases. They result from an overactivation of the immune system. So pro-inflammatory fats like saturated fats and trans fatty acids are unhealthy. Anti-inflammatory fats like fish oil, extra virgin olive oil, the mono unsaturated fat found in nuts, and avocado are anti-inflammatory and are healthy.

A whole other area is supplements in that it’s not good enough just to be natural because it’s natural to start aging by 20 and be dead in your 20s. Human life expectancy was 23 a thousand years ago, and that was in the best interest of the human species because there weren’t enough resources for people to live very long. So in order to slow down aging processes, you need to, sort of, change the natural order of things through supplements.

That’s very much a personalized issue and it depends on your own health conditions. A healthy 25-year-old might just take some basic comprehensive vitamins and minerals. If you are 50 years old with type II diabetes and a heart condition, then you would be much more aggressive.

So these are some of the highlights of how you can slow down the aging process so that you can be in good shape when the second bridge comes around in about 15 years.

Techland: For those that don’t make it to the second bridge, what do you believe happens to people when they die?

Kurzweil: Well we can say that people live on in the patterns of information that they leave behind, including the memories of that person among the people who knew them and loved them. Their works and artifacts and ideas.

That’s about all we can say. There’s really no evidence that we live on in any other way that you can point to. I think we’ve rationalized death as a good thing because there’s been no credible alternative up until recently. So we did the next best thing saying, “Oh, that tragedy? That’s really a good thing.” And we’ve invested a lot of effort into these rationalizations.

For example, with my father, I have all of his records. He kept everything. His letters, he was a musician so I have all of his music, photographs, videos, and so on. In the future, AI’s will be intelligent enough to create a virtual person. An avatar in virtual reality that would have some of the characteristics of the person who’s no longer with us based on our memories of that person, all of our files about that person, and their DNA which you could find at their gravesite.

So in that sense we could bring back an avatar that would pass a person-specific Turing test. You could have a healthy debate about what the relation is between that avatar and the original person. My father died in 1970. Had he lived, he’d be much different today than he was then.

But that’s about all we can say.

Techland: What modern day consumer technology impresses you the most?

Kurzweil: I’ve actually been writing an essay on how my predictions that I made in the late 1990s in The Age of Spiritual Machines for 2009 have fared. And 90% of them are correct and some of them became correct very quickly. They looked like they were years away to many people and then a month later, they’re there.

Like high-quality speech recognition on cell phones, or a translating telephone that would convert from one language to another, or augmented reality. Late in 2009, augmented reality applications started appearing on the iPhone. You can point your iPhone at a building and it will recognize the building using image recognition and GPS, and then access a database through wireless communications to essentially allow you to see inside the building. You can see there’s a Starbucks in there and so on.

Recently someone actually put out an application that you can point at a person and there’ll be a little pop up that’ll give you information about that person. I think if we go forward, augmented reality and virtual reality are going to become the next major wave over the next five years or so.

We’ll be putting displays in our glasses, writing images directly to our eyes, creating a virtual display that hovers in the air that can overtake the entire visual field of view and replace it for full immersion virtual reality where we feel like we’re in that environment, not just looking at a screen.

Or augmented reality where you’re in real reality and virtual reality at the same time, particularly where the virtual component is constantly commenting on the real component. We’ll get used to that and wonder how we ever managed without it. There will be constant pop-ups giving you information about people, places, and buildings. We can see the forerunners of that already.

Techland: You’ve invented a ton of stuff over the years. What advice can you offer to potential inventors looking to bring something to market?

Kurzweil: I got into technology forecasting specifically because I was an inventor. And I realized that the key to success as an inventor is timing.

We do some early-stage investing and mentoring, and we get a lot of technology and business plans. I’d say 95% of those teams would build exactly what they say if given the resources but at least 95% of those projects would still fail because the timing is wrong. Not all the enabling factors that are needed for success in the marketplace would be in place at the right time.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin had a great idea about reversing the links on the Internet, and they did it at exactly the right time. The Facebook founders had a great idea about putting these paper Facebooks online and they did that at exactly the right time.

The tools for disruptive change are really in everybody’s hands. In both the Google and Facebook cases, those were done as student dorm projects using $1000 laptops. You don’t have to be a big organization to create powerful, disruptive technologies. And that’s going to be true not just in software, but in areas like biotechnology. The cost of a biotechnology lab is also dramatically coming down.

So the key is timing. You might think the future is unpredictable and, actually, which projects will succeed and fail is unpredictable, but the overall power/price/performance of these fundamental measures of information technology are amazingly predictable.

That was the startling discovery I made 30 years ago. You look at the number of MIPS per dollar that you can buy, it’s an amazingly smooth doubly exponential curve going back to the 1890 census. And nothing had any impact on it, like two world wars, the Cold War, and the Great Depression.

And I’m saying this now not just looking backwards. I’ve been making accurate forward-looking predictions, particularly when it comes to these fundamental measures of information technology.

So the world will be very different in a very short period of time. Think back three years ago. People didn’t use social networks or Wikis or blogs or Twitter. That sounds like ancient history but it wasn’t so long ago. The world will change again just as dramatically in the next three years. People kind of assume that not much is going to change, but that’s really not accurate.

You can predict, quite accurately, certain aspects of the future. In my own case, the fundamental application is still to my own technology projects. For example, we have a project now called Blio, which is an e-reader. It’s a joint venture with the world’s leading book distributor. It’s software that comes with a million free books and is going to be pre-installed on major brands of computers and it’ll be the e-reader for major retail chains.

We have a technology and business plan and, as a discipline, every six months we actually write out what the world will be like in terms of technologies that are important for this type of product. So we will describe exactly what wireless communication will be like, what the platforms will be like, what mobile computing will be like in January 2011, July 2011, January 2012 and so on. We make sure that our plans are appropriate for the world in that description of the relevant technology.

And very few people do that. They just have intuition that things will change a little. People’s intuition about the future is linear, not exponential, which makes a profound difference.

So really consider the future pace of change as a discipline. Be very specific about what the underlying technologies will look like as your project rolls out. Your project has to make sense when it’s finished, not when you start the project. It’s a little like skeet shooting. You have to shoot ahead of the target. Most projects, not just inventions, have a period of time in which they roll out and you have to take this very rapid pace of change into consideration.

Techland: If you could solve one big problem today, what would it be?

Kurzweil: I think the most important problem to solve, because it will give us more time to solve other problems, is reverse engineering biology. To really understand it in information terms. How, exactly, does cancer work?

I’m actually working on that. I’m working on a cancer stem cell project with some scientists at MIT. We believe we’ve actually found the cancer stem cell, so we need to deal with that as well as the cancer cells themselves.

The basic information processes underlying these biological disease processes are not that complicated once we figure them out. And once we figure them out, the remedial solutions readily suggest themselves.

So that’s kind of a race. As we solve these problems, it’ll give all of us more time to solve all the other problems.

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