Ray Kurzweil and the Future

I went to a talk given by Ray Kurzweil today. This is a man who helped shape the way I think, because I read one of his books at age 15 or so, and it was startling. As soon as he started talking today I knew I had seem him before… it must have been a similar talk at MIT last year, or maybe a recording I watched online. The funny thing about him is that he talks about these crazy things that will happen in the future, in a totally droning voice like he’s so bored with all these obvious predictions. Also, you can’t argue with the guy. His numerical evidence is just way too strong. You have no grounds whatsoever to disagree. The only way you can beg to differ is by going outside the game — finding what he’s not talking about.

There are a couple of his points that I wanted to touch on here. An audience member said that a century ago people predicted that they would have more leisure time in the future; why isn’t that the case? And Ray basically pointed out that it is the case — most people work a lot because they want to, not because they have to in order to survive. Their jobs are a big part of who they are, what gives them gratitude. So, in many senses, that’s leisure. It struck me as slightly profound. Not working is boring. And if no one depends on you, what is the meaning of your life?

Another interesting aspect of Kurzweil is that he talks about all these exponential trends as if they are completely inevitable. Computer power doubling every year, gene sequencing doubling every year, brain imaging resolution doubling every year. And I agree with him 100% — when you look at those numbers, it does seem inevitable. But you also can’t forget that it only happens because real people do it!

He talked a fair bit about renewable energy. Apparently the amount of electricity in the world coming from solar power has been doubling every 2-3 years. Right now it accounts for around 1% of our electricity. If you follow the exponential trend, this means that in 15-20 years, just about all our energy will come from solar. I think this prediction has an excellent chance of coming true. But it’s interesting to compare Kurzweil with Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who argue a very similar thing in their recent book: climate change will be solved by massive investment in technology. The difference is that N&S are closer to the ground, advocating more research funds towards renewable energy technology. To Kurzweil, it will just happen because people like N&S and all the scientists will do their thing and make it so. It’s kind of amazing how he’s lifted himself out of the big complex mess of actually doing it. But if everything is preordained, what’s the meaning of life?

If I’m coming off as giving Kurzweil a hard time, I don’t mean to. Not only is he brilliant, he is in fact working hard with many companies on new research and advocating for research funding from his positions on government panels. I should mention that he became famous partly because he invented the first realistic music synthesizer, the first flatbed scanner, and the first robust optical character recognition system… among others. (And he wrote some damn good books — because, as he says, he can’t work on systems that are 15 years away, so he can only write about them.)

Based on current exponential-growth information technology trends and the estimated computational capacity of the human brain, Ray estimates that a computer will pass the Turing test (be able to simulate a human) around the year 2029. Many people argue that such a thing could never happen, but I see no good reason why not. I will be 45 in 2029. Who knows what the world will be like when extra human intelligence is cheap. Ray was quick to point out that we will use these technologies to extend ourselves — as we have with all past technologies — not to build artificial intelligence robots that take over the world — as is popular in sci-fi.

One last thing. It occurred to me that regardless of all the technological progress that has taken place, all the “social networking” that goes on online, I still just really want to cuddle with real humans. As the world becomes more connected and more overwhelming, we need to figure out how to make sure people feel loved and involved in their real world communities, and interact with real physical people. Yes, maybe in 50 years we will have realistic physical virtual reality, but that is too far away to worry about (I will be 74). I wonder what I could do in the meantime to help create more loving, physical, local communities.

There was a couple sitting next to me, about my age, and they were bored and “passing notes” by typing them on a cell phone and passing it back and forth. It seemed vaguely ironic… here was Ray Kurzweil, telling us that 10 years ago only a few people even owned cell phones. It had never even occurred to me to pass notes on a cell phone. It makes me wonder if I will read this 10 years from now and think, typing on cell phones, how old-fashioned…