'Human' machines - get used to it
THE AGE OF SPIRITUAL MACHINES: WHEN COMPUTERS EXCEED HUMAN INTELLIGENCE by Ray Kurzwell Viking 388pp. $25.95Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Welcome to the millennium! Kick back and listen to a few of Ray Kurzweil's predictions about artificial intelligence:
Within 10 years, the TranslatingTelephone will be perfected, and you will be able to speak English to your Japanese friend while she hears Japanese - in your voice.
In the 2020s, neural implants will not just be for disabled people; most people will have neural implants to improve their sensory experiences, memory, cognitive faculties, and creativity.
By 2020 to 2025 we will have the resolution, speed, bandwidth to scan the entire human brain. A $1,000 computer will match the processing power of the human brain - about 20 billion calculations per second.
By the 2030s, people will be able to download their brains into a computer and create a self-replica. This process will be called "reinstantiation."
How seriously should we take Mr. Kurzweil and his predictions? Very.
Kurzweil is not given to hype. He has a proven track record of assessing technological change in discrete time frames and then determining what is likely to occur coincidental with the increase in the processing power of microchips.
In his previous book, "The Age of Intelligent Machines" (MIT Press, 1990), he predicted a worldwide information network linking almost all organizations and tens of millions of individuals: the World Wide Web; defeat of the human world chess champion by a computer by the year 1998; the vast majority of commercial music created on computer-based synthesizers; and almost total reliance on digital image pattern recognition and other software-based technologies in warfare.
In the past 25 years, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate founded, built, and sold, four companies. His first company, Kurzweil Computer Products, created a reading machine for the blind. He sold it to Xerox. The musician Stevie Wonder was one of his first customers. A bond between the two of them led to the development of music synthesizers.
Wall Street certainly takes him seriously. His current project is a software program for fund managers creating an artificially intelligent financial analyst that outperforms humans "by taking advantage of certain arbitrage opportunities," he says. Growth in this form of financial transaction is going to be "huge." Around $5 billion now, it will quickly grow into hundreds of billions of dollars.
Kurzweil possesses a highly refined and precise ability to think exponentially about technology over time. His perception of how things are likely to change comes as naturally to him as balancing a checkbook does to an accountant.
A practical dreamer
Substitute the term co-processing - multiple tasks occurring simultaneously - for conversation, and you get a sense of what it's like to talk with him. He makes so many connections in so many scientific disciplines on matters so fundamental to what it means to be a thinking being that the implications confront the mind like an air, sea, and land assault.
This is not to suggest an interview with Kurzweil at his office in Waltham, Mass., is an encounter with a Prussian officer. Passion, insight, nuance, vision, and a gifted teacher's grace to listen to each student, characterize an exchange with him.
"By 2029, we will have the ability to scan someone's brain, and record every salient detail relevant to its processing of information. We can then re-create those precise processes in a neural computer of sufficient capacity," he says. As shocking as the concept is, his calm, assured prediction of what it will lead to makes the whole endeavor sound less threatening.