This inventor is fascinated by long time scales, tiny pieces of matter, long strings of information and the brain’s ability to make jokes and love.
We are addicted to the short term, the dopamine jolt delivered by our various screens. Turn on the news and you get a blast of randomness of the negative variety. Switch to entertainment, what the stars are wearing. A TED Talk subs for reading a book.
So Ray Kurzweil’s thoughtful optimism and long view of the world are refreshing. Pragmatic and creative, the animated inventor and archetypal boy genius is no longer a boy, but he wants to live forever.
He forages on information and produces ideas, books, talks, real-world products, start-ups and consulting gigs. His terrain includes computer science, optical character recognition, speech recognition, and electronic keyboard instruments; health, artificial intelligence, life extension technologies, nanotechnology, robotics, and biotechnology. Unlike most so-called futurists, he has a solid track record of long-term prediction.
While Kurzweil’s inventions have helped to transform several fields, he also has Edison’s knack for commerce, churning out patents and co-founding companies.
Speaking at the Big Data for Productivity Congress in Nova Scotia, the director of engineering at Google takes us on an intellectual road trip back to our small rodent-like ancestors.
Kurzweil zeroes in on the neocortex that first appeared in the brains of small mammals 200 million years ago. About the size of a postage stamp, it allowed these creatures to create a new behavior on the fly–and remember it. Zigging as a predator zagged, for example. Their brethren could watch and learn.
Most of the time the environment changed slowly, allowing less intelligent animals to evolve, he explains Then 65 million years ago there was a catastrophic event, the Cretaceous extinction. Dinosaurs and many other life forms went extinct. Mammals could cope with that scale of change and grow the neocortex.
“But we still have primitive drives for conquest that we sublimate by writing books and giving talks.”
A key step in our evolution was the large forehead where the expanded cortex allowed language, the arts, science and technology. Cognitively, our brain is a pyramid where each level is more abstract than the one below. The higher levels allow us to get creative. This is where we find a sense of irony and a love of poetry and music.
Now we can expand the power of the brain by connecting it to the cloud, he says. We will invent new forms of music. By 2030 our thinking will be a hybrid of biology and technology. Implanted devices are already improving the performance of those with Parkinson’s.
Big data and the cloud are just the latest flavours of what Kurzweil calls the law of accelerated returns, the exponential growth curves that characterize information technology. This insight has led him to make a host of predictions.
He saw, for example, that ARPANET would expand to something we now know as the Internet and the World Wide Web. He foresaw the need for search. “Many researchers were working on it, but I did not anticipate that a couple of kids in a Stanford dorm would take over the world.”
Most decisions today are made by linear thinking: 1+ 1 +1 = 3, and so on, he says. Our rodent-like ancestors were able to calculate a possible escape route from a predator because it was all about straight lines.
“Exponential growth is not intuitional,” he says. “We have a brain to predict the future but we evolved to make linear predictions — our linear intuition fails us today.”
Moore’s Law, based on transistors, predicts that computing power doubles roughly every couple of years. This is just one iteration of a deeper trend, he says, slapping up slides that show the exponential nature of technology. He calls Moore’s Law the fifth paradigm of a pattern that can be tracked back to the census of 1890. This pattern continued even through the disruptions of the World Wars, the Depression and recessions.
Growth in IT is the driver of the economy today, he says. It infiltrates every sector. “The total bits shipped is increasing exponentially and it is very cheap to make bits. Innovation is coming up with new uses for bits.”
He has turned his fertile mind to biology, including what he considers the outdated information processing system of DNA. Health and medicine are now based on information technology. Biology is an information process. Genes are software.
“In the past, by age 25 the adult human was using up the precious food of the tribe. There was no need for longevity.” He would like to update this out-dated software. [DNA is not written in C++, he jokes. Maybe in COBOL.] DNA sequencing is growing exponentially. Now we can turn genes on and off and add new genes.
He would like to turn off the insulin receptor gene that helped our ancestors get the maximum energy from a limited food intake, but now it helps to make us fat. “It was a great idea 10,000 years ago, but now we do our hunting at the supermarket.”
We have doubled life expectancy, he says. The first baby to live to be 150 has been born. Health and medicine will increase longevity by reprogramming outdated information processes. Nanobots will patrol the bloodstream, attacking disease and repairing the body. We will print out human organs like lungs and kidneys. By the 2030s we will be augmenting the immune system with new T cells.
Every year that you live you will add more than one year of potential life. [“Google is doing its part. Self-driving cars mean we will be less likely to be hit by the proverbial bus.”]
For all his idealism, Kurzweil warns that we are in the hype stage of the technology cycle. “Exponential growth is transformational but not instantaneous.” Still, by 2020 3D printing will transform manufacturing. There will be open source design of clothing the way it has transformed music, movies and books that can now be sent as email attachments.
People will still pay for products and services. The traditional economic model will coexist with open source. “It is a leveler. Kids in Africa can afford a phone. Critics say you can’t eat technology, it can’t build a house. But that will change.” IT is transforming all sectors.
Kurzweil says he finally got a day job after being hired by Larry Page, one of the founders of Google. While this would be a dream for most in the tech world, it wasn’t in his plan. He approached Page to invest in one of his start-ups, and Page turned the tables and offered him a job.
Kurzweil’s optimism is tempered with a broad sense of responsibility. “We have a moral imperative to improve technology to reduce damage to the environment and reduce poverty.”
Yes, there will be implications for white collar and other jobs, he says, in the same way farming and manufacturing no longer dominate the economy. But technology will create new jobs in fields like renewable energy.
“There are always short- term issues, but if you look at the broad trends we are headed in a good direction.”