Originally published in Google Think, photography by Bill Wadman
There’s a scene near the opening of Transcendent Man, the 2009 documentary on futurist Ray Kurzweil, showing archive footage of the then 17-year-old’s appearance on US panel show I’ve Got A Secret. Suited and smiling and exuding the awkward confidence of someone becoming slowly aware of a great gift, Ray sits at a piano and rattles off an unusual piece of music. The panel are surprisingly quick to guess his secret: the composition was written by a computer – a computer, it transpires, that Ray also built and programmed. He jokes in his jerky New York accent that his composer father doesn’t like the competition, and the audience laughs, albeit slightly nervously. The host, Steve Allen, congratulates young Raymond and predicts a bright future for him.
It’s an auspicious introduction to a man for whom computers are arguably as valuable as human life itself, and predicting the future very much a part of the present. Kurzweil made his name as an inventor in the ’70s and ’80s, patenting everything from the flatbed scanner and text-to-speech synthesiser (both pre-emptively created to enable the completion of the Kurzweil Reading Machine for the blind), to the Kurzweil K250, a piano synthesiser constructed following a conversation with Stevie Wonder (a close friend thanks to the reading machine), and one musicians were unable to differentiate from a real piano in tests.
Yet it wasn’t until 1990 that Ray’s first book, The Age Of Intelligent Machines, put his decades of research and development into a wider context. Ray’s arbitrary inventions seemed now part of a wider effort to nudge humanity towards the age of electronic enlightenment described in those pages: an age in which man and machine coexisted, but machines were the superior being, blessed with artificial intelligence that allowed them to take on many of the tasks formerly falling to human hands, and allowing their creators lives of inordinate luxury as a result.
It sounded to many like wishful science fiction of the sort that Kurzweil himself had read avidly in his youth, but he spent the following decade doing everything in his power to prove the seriousness of his claims. His technological output soared: he created educational software for children with learning disabilities, computer simulated patients for medical students, speech recognition programs and a visual art synthesiser complete with cybernetic poetry generator; he founded companies, sold companies and consulted for companies, and increased his fortune and his fame many times over.
Then in 1999, two years after IBM’s Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov at chess (an event Kurzweil had predicted in his first book would happen in 1998), Ray released his follow up, The Age Of Spiritual Machines. He used the opportunity to extend his earlier predictions of a future in which man and machines coexisted to a point at which they would become, essentially, one and the same. By 2029, he wrote, man would be able to prolong his lifespan indefinitely through advances in biogenetics and nanotechnology, and would ultimately become all but indistinguishable from the robots he had created. Computers would no longer be rectangular objects sitting in our offices, palms or pockets, but integrated in our very beings; virtual reality worlds and internet applications would be accessed via implants, and robots would be petitioning for recognition of their rights as conscious beings. This dawn of a new age became known as the singularity – a sort of rapture for technophiles – and it turned Ray Kurzweil from an eccentric modern-day Edison into a different sort of figure altogether; one feared by some, revered by others, ridiculed by many.
The subsequent decade has seen Kurzweil’s critics grow both in number and the noise of their complaints, and he is regularly bombarded by attacks on what some see as his pseudo-religious reverence for robotics and the cult status he holds among more fanatical followers. Others draw attention to various of his predictions for 2009 that failed to materialise: translating telephones, for example, or continuous economic expansion. Elsewhere, his promise of technology-enhanced immortality has riled the religious right, while traditional scientists raise issue with everything from his understanding of human biology to his timeline for the singularity: in the Transcendent Man documentary, Wired magazine’s co-founder Kevin Kelly notes how ‘convenient’ it is that all this will come to pass just in time for Kurzweil himself to benefit. It’s a criticism that Ray answers with obvious frustration, but without breaking his stride, his voice never losing the slightly monotonal timbre that suggests he may already have begun merging with his software.
“Kevin is thinking linearly. He assumes that the necessary precursors just aren’t there, and I agree with that: the precursors aren’t there, but that would only be a problem if progress were linear, and it’s not. Halfway through the genome project people started panicking because it had taken seven years to complete one percent of the genome, and they believed that therefore it would take 700 years to complete the whole thing. But they were ignoring the fact that progress was exponential, not linear, and as such the whole project was finished seven years later.”
The law of accelerating returns underpins much of what Kurzweil believes. The exponential rate of development means that we’ll see 200,000 years’ rather than a century’s worth of advances in the 21st century, something backed up with a series of colourful graphs, most tapering quickly to a vertical line, on the kurzweilAI website (the AI stands for Accelerating Intelligence).
“When I came to MIT it had one computer: you needed influence to get inside the building and you had to be an engineer to use it. Now computers are everywhere, including the poorest nations of the world, and the law of accelerating returns means they get cheaper as they become more ubiquitous. Today you can buy an iPhone that’s twice as powerful and half as expensive as it was two years ago. That’s a four-fold increase in price performance in two years, which is a 50% deflation rate per year. The computer you just called me on is a billion times more powerful per unit currency than the one I used when I was a student, and it will be a billion times more powerful again after another 25 years.”
Yet for a subject bound up with prediction there is a great deal of mystery surrounding the exact nature of life after the singularity. Kurzweil notes that this is unavoidable: that beyond a certain number of exponential doublings in technology and the associated effects on our lives, we can know nothing for certain except that humanity will be very different to how we understand it now. And therein lies a problem he has faced for decades: rational philosophies of life and death developed over centuries aren’t easily dispensed with, and asking people to open their minds to ideas that set every fibre of conventional wisdom ringing with alarm never gets any easier.
There’s a scene in Transcendent Man, for example, in which Ray is filmed explaining to Colin Powell his theories on solar energy, a subject he looked into with Google’s Larry Page while the pair were putting together a US energy plan for the National Academy of Engineering. Solar energy technology, says Kurzweil, is doubling in efficiency every two years, and is only eight doublings away from being capable of filling 100% of America’s energy needs. Powell regards him with a look of cautious optimism steadily subsumed by scepticism, but Ray persists, knowing that deep-rooted notions are the hardest to displace.
“This is another of these myopic views: that we’re running out of energy, that we’re running out of food and water. That’s nonsense: we could have 10,000 times more energy than we need from the sun, all of it free, if only we could convert it, and our ability to do that is increasingly as we approach the point where we can apply nanotechnology to solar panels. Same with water: 98% of the world’s water is salinated or dirty, but we’re increasingly capable of cleaning it thanks to emerging technologies like Dean Kamen’s water purifier. There’s going to be a new agricultural revolution using vertical farming: growing food in buildings using artificial intelligence, recycling the nutrients within the building so there’s no ecological damage. And we’ll start using three-dimensional printers to mass produce the building blocks for houses that you can snap together Lego-style to deal with housing issues in developing countries.”
Kurzweil blames the prevailing notion of a world going to hell in a handbasket on increased visibility: if there’s a battle in Fallujah or Tripoli we’re there, he says, on our laptops or palmpads, facing the human tragedy of the situation in ways we never could before. In reality, the number of deaths in wartime has plummeted since the mechanised wars of the first half of the 20th century; he also cites strong evidence to support the idea that democratic nations don’t go to war with each other, and has watched the recent revolutions in the Middle East with interest and great optimism, not least because of the role played by social networking technology in destabilising their former dictatorships.
“In The Age Of Intelligent Machines I predicted that the Soviet Union would be swept away by the then emerging decentralised communication network. People didn’t believe that a superpower could be overcome by a few teletype machines, and after the 1991 coup against Gorbachev Time magazine ran a cover of Yeltsin standing on a tank. But that was the old way of thinking, it really had nothing to do with it: the battle was won by a clandestine network of hackers that kept everyone in the know. The old paradigm of the authorities grabbing a central TV or radio station and plunging everyone into the dark just didn’t work anymore. And now with the rise of social networking, and young people being able to compare their own ways and standards of living with others, everybody wants the same thing. It’s a powerful democratising force, and it’s bringing the nations of the world closer together all the time.”
Calling out against such faintly utopian scenarios are some increasingly audible voices of warning. The question of how much man can merge with machine before the essence of humanity is irretrievably lost is a philosophical argument (Kurzweil counters that transgressing limitations is what defines humanity), but there are more pressing concerns from critics who offer convincing reasons why the singularity could well bring about the end of human life altogether. Kevin Warwick, the cybernetics professor from Reading University made famous by Project Cyborg (in which a series of electrodes inserted under the skin allowed him to remotely control everything from lights and heaters to a robotic hand that mimicked his own) envisages a ‘Terminator scenario’: intelligent machines calling the shots, humans reduced to the role of slaves or exterminated altogether. Hugo de Garis, former head of Xiamen University’s artificial brain laboratory, has written at great length on what he calls the Artilect War: a worldwide conflict between those resisting and those submitting to the new AI. It’s a war that Kurzweil quips would resemble the American military fighting the Amish, and be over before it started, yet some are already spearheading such pockets of resistance – including Bill McKibben, author of Enough: Staying Human In An Engineered Age and advocate of the anti-technology ‘relinquishment’ movement.
“I think relinquishment is a bad idea for three reasons,” says Kurzweil. “Firstly it would deprive us of profound benefits: I think we have a moral imperative to try to cure cancer, for example, and overcome the suffering that still exists in the world. Secondly it would require a totalitarian government to implement a ban on technology. And thirdly it would force these technologies underground, where they would actually be more dangerous, and the responsible scientists we’d be counting on to create defences against abuses wouldn’t have the tools to do so.”
Instead, Kurzweil advocates the implementation of ethical standards that he compares to the Asilomar guidelines for biotechnology, or the stringent online defences against software viruses, both of which have an excellent success rate against those looking to turn technology against its users. Yet even then he remains cautious, admitting that there is great peril as well as potential in mankind’s merging with machine.
“I have a reputation as an optimist, which I suppose is fair in the sense that optimism isn’t just an idle speculation about the future, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I think you have to be an optimist to be an inventor or entrepreneur. But I’m not oblivious to the dangers. I’m optimistic that we’ll make it through without destroying civilisation – which doesn’t go without saying, because even as we speak there are still 10,000 or 20,000 thermonuclear weapons that could wipe out all of humanity on a hair-trigger. But overall I’m optimistic that we won’t destroy ourselves completely. I’m less optimistic that we will completely avoid painful incidents along the way: a future populated with warring groups of humans enhanced with AI is obviously a worrying possibility, which is all the more reason to put the necessary safeguards in place as soon as possible.”