Progress at light speed
The future isn't just evolving, says Ray Kurzweil - it's exploding. We just can't quite see the pyrotechnics yet. That's because change is happening at an exponential rate.
"Exponential growth looks like nothing is happening, and then suddenly you get this explosion at the end," says Mr. Kurzweil, a prominent inventor, mathematician, and entrepreneur. Evolution has taken millions of years to bring humanity to this point, he says. With the help of technology, the pace of change is about to accelerate at an astonishing rate.
Where humanity will be by midcentury is barely conceivable to us now, he says. Humans will merge with their machines to make quantum leaps in intelligence and abilities. They will vastly improve their bodies using nanotechnology and live extremely long lives - or perhaps abandon their bodies altogether, continuing on indefinitely in a nonbiological form.
Kurzweil lays out these startling conclusions in "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology." It tops the science bestsellers list at Amazon.com.
"The Singularity" refers to a future time (Kurzweil says around 2045) at which technological progress accelerates beyond our current ability to understand it. The concept was popularized more than a decade ago by mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge.
While the Singularity itself may be hard to comprehend, the path to it is clear, Kurzweil says. It's based on decades of research and mathematical modeling. The book is "grounded in science with 2,000 scientific citations," says Kurzweil, an MIT grad with a dozen honorary doctorates and many inventions to his credit, including the first reading machine for the blind. A member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, he's been called "the rightful heir to Thomas Edison."
Kurzweil has won some converts already and hopes his book will persuade many more. "A lot of people, sophisticated scientists included, take a linear perspective," he says. "They assume the current [technological] tools will continue [along with] the current pace of progress." His research with mathematical models shows that the pace of technological change is quickening - radically.
"The common wisdom is that we can't predict the future," he says in an interview at Kurzweil Technologies, one of several companies he has founded. "You cannot predict the future of specific projects - like, 'Will Google's stock be higher or lower three years from today?'... But if you ask me what the price-performance [ratio] of computing will be in 2010 ... [or] what will be the resolution of brain scanning in 2014, I can give you a figure, and it's going to be very accurate."
Why is this radical change upon us? Because the pace is doubling and redoubling like compound interest. Kurzweil cites the example of the human genome project, the effort to map and sequence the genes found in humans, begun in the 1980s. The aim was to finish the project in 15 years. But 10 years later, only 2 percent was complete. At a linear pace of discovery, it seemed an impossible task. But the pace was increasing exponentially. As in working a jigsaw puzzle, the first pieces had been the slowest to fit into place. The project was easily completed on time.
Critics argue Kurzweil relies on the development of new technologies that can't be assumed. He predicts, for example, that computers will develop "strong AI [artificial intelligence]," the ability to solve problems. They will pass the Turing Test in the 2020s, in which humans will not be able to tell whether they are conversing with a person or a computer. Others say these landmarks, which Kurzweil bases on being able to "reverse engineer" the human brain, won't be reached until far more years have passed, if then.
Kurzweil's future also relies on rapid development of nanotechnology, the ability to manipulate matter and even create tiny machines at the molecular level. He suggests that within 25 years, blood-cell-size nanorobots will be released in human bloodstreams to eliminate diseases, repair organs, and increase capacities. Others question nanotechnology's safety and advise going slowly.
Kurzweil concedes that his optimistic view of the future could be derailed by an unlikely but massive natural disaster (such as an asteroid hitting the earth) or, more likely, a man-made one. "We introduced [one such threat] in the middle of the 20th century - thousands of thermonuclear bombs sufficient to wipe out the whole species," he says. "They're still around, by the way."
There's also the unlikely possibility that a totalitarian state could take over the world and ban development of new technology. But most worrisome is the possibility of a deadly human-engineered virus circling the globe. On Monday, Kurzweil urged that the recently published genome of the Spanish flu, which caused a pandemic in 1918, be removed from public view so that it cannot be used by bioterrorists.
That humans will alter their bodies, or commune with artificial intelligence, won't seem so strange when we get there, Kurzweil says. "We're not going to make this grand leap into the world I describe," he says. "It's going to be one small incremental step at a time - thousands of little steps, each one of which is benign, small, modest, conservative, and market-tested. But you get thousands of these coming at increasing speed, and you get some profound changes."
One such change will be a profoundly different attitude toward the human body as our identity. "Ultimately, the nature of our identity is going to change," he says. "When you get a new computer, you don't throw all of the files away. The software has a longevity that transcends the hardware.... The hardware can die, but the software lives on."