NPR's On the Media | The future brain

April 3, 2009

NPR's On the Media — April 3, 2009 | Brooke Gladstone

This is a summary. Read original article in full here.

[MOVIE CLIP] NARRATOR: Ray Kurzweil is a pioneer in the field of artificial intelligence. He’s an award-winning science and engine, a millionaire several times over because of his inventions.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: He predicted, far in advance, that the Soviet Union would crumble, that a computer would beat a human at chess and that a computer communications network would span the earth. He even predicted when.

[MOVIE CLIP]: NARRATOR: Bill Gates has called him the best in the world at predicting the future. [END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Transcendent Man, a new film about Kurzweil, debuts later this month. It ponders the dilemma he poses. We cannot simply dismiss so respected, so prescient a scientist, nor can we easily embrace his mindboggling vision of the future. Kurzweil believes that before the century is half over, humans will merge with their technology, our mental capacities will seem limitless, compared to today, and we will not have to die. He says it’s a pretty simple calculation, once you factor in the rate at which technology advances.

RAY KURZWEIL: A key issue to understand is that information technology grows exponentially, basically doubling every year. What used to fit in a building now fits in your pocket, and what fits in your pocket today will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years. And that gives you some idea of what will be feasible.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve said that the year 2045 is the year of the singularity. Can you explain what that is?

RAY KURZWEIL: By 2029, we’ll have finished the reverse engineering of the human brain. There’s already 20 regions of the brain we’ve modeled and simulated and tested. We’ll have very powerful and very small computers by that time. Most of the computers in the world are not yet in our bodies and brains, but some of them are in our brains. If you’re a Parkinson’s patient you can put a computer in your brain. It’s not blood cell-sized today, it’s pea-sized.

And if you take what we can do today and realize these technologies will be a billion times more powerful per dollar in 25 years, a hundred thousand times smaller, you get some idea of what we’ll be able to do.

And one thing we’ll be able to do is send millions of nanobots, blood cell-sized devices, inside our bloodstream. They’ll keep us healthy from inside. They’ll go inside our brains and interact with our biological neurons, just the way neural implants do today, and put our brains on the Internet, make us smarter, provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system. And so, we will become a hybrid of biological and non-biological intelligence.

So over time, the non-biological portion of our intelligence will predominate, and that’s basically what we mean by the singularity. When you get out to 2045, we’ll have multiplied the overall intelligence of the human/machine civilization a billionfold, and that’s such a profound transformation that we call it a singularity.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’ve just breezed by some extraordinary predictions, that our brains and personalities someday will be basically downloadable, that we’ll have full body virtual reality. How will the Internet look and function, how will we interact with it when we reach the singularity?

RAY KURZWEIL: Well, let’s take some scenarios from, say, the 2030s. The nanobots in our brain would, if you want to go in virtual reality, will shut down the signals coming from our real senses, so to our brain it feels like we’re in that virtual environment. And these virtual environments will be very realistic, a counterpart to real reality, and will also mix up real and virtual reality. We’ll have augmented real reality. So if you look at somebody in real reality there’ll be little popups telling you information about that person, and so on.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, when people write about you, there’s often this tone of, I know this sounds absolutely insane, but this Kurzweil guy is really, really smart and he’s created a lot of revolutionary things, so maybe we shouldn’t dismiss him out of hand.

RAY KURZWEIL: Well, first of all, I’ve been making predictions for 30 years. They’ve tracked very well. It actually is pretty remarkable how predictable the trajectory of these information technologies is.

I predicted a World Wide Web tying together hundreds of millions of people emerging starting in the mid-1990s. And I said that in the ’80s, and that seemed ridiculous when the entire U.S. defense budget could only tie together a few thousand scientists with an unreliable network. But it grew exponentially, and it happened right on schedule.

And we’re going to get from here to the world of 2035 or 2045 one step at a time, and it’s going to be thousands of little steps, and each little step will be some new product announcement, some new technology. It starts out not working that well, then it works a little better. And we get from here to there through many of these benign steps, but you put them all together and it reflects a pretty profound transformation.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, let’s say your predictions come true. Our brains will essentially be computers, and we’ll live in a virtual world. Will we cease being human?

RAY KURZWEIL: We will be very much human. Scientists are very fond of saying, oh, there’s nothing special about humans. We didn’t descend from the gods. We descended from worms. And there’s nothing special about the Earth. It’s just a humble planet around a routine star.

But there is something unique about humans in that we’re the only species that we know about that actually extends our reach with our tools, ever since we picked up a stick to reach a higher branch. We’re already a human/machine civilization. Our tools are part of who we are. They always have been. And that’s what unique about human beings.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.

RAY KURZWEIL: My pleasure. I enjoyed it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ray Kurzweil is an inventor and the author of several books, including Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, and The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.