in print | the New York Times • the Soul of the Next New Machine: humans

feature: with Ray Kurzweil
December 1, 2018

— story —

publication: the New York Times
story title: the Soul of the Next New Machine: humans
deck: How the wedding of brain + computer could change the universe.
section: Arts + Ideas
author: by Rob Fixmer
date: November 1999

— introduction —

by Rob Fixmer

When Ray Kurzweil discusses human destiny, it’s not always clear whether he’s talking about technology or theology. It’s technology that defines his resume. He’s spent 50 years inventing ingenious uses for artificial intelligence.

But like a priest caught playing in a physics lab, he keeps coming up with inventions inspired by aesthetics and social conscience. For instance: when he was still in high school, he wrote a program that composed music — while his latest software writes poetry. In between he created machines that read print aloud to the blind, software that draws + paints, electronic keyboards that produce the sounds of acoustic instruments — plus one of the most advanced, commercially successful forms of computer speech recognition.

— part 1 —

All of these were products of a restless mind consumed by the question of what will be. A more abstract product of that vision is his latest book: the Age of the Spiritual Machine: when computers exceed human intelligence. Kurzweil looks at the exponential increase in calculating power since the turn of the century. He concludes: in 50 years, machines will not only be smarter than humans — but also smart enough to persuade us that they are conscious beings.

That assertion has drawn the wrath of several prominent philosophers, who question his definitions of intelligence + consciousness. For example: John Searle PhD — the University of California at Berkeley professor of philosophy — wrote in the New York Review of Books: “the fatal flaw in Ray Kurzweil’s argument: it rests on the assumption the main thing humans do is compute. His proposals aren’t science. I think he got a little carried away and made philosophical errors.”

Debates about how to define intelligence + consciousness get the most public attention — but a more compelling idea in the book is his prediction that our children will eventually become  human-machine hybrids. Based on current trends in computer and biological sciences, he claims super-power intelligence will come from that hybrid. Merging the human body and computer circuits will enable humanity to re-design itself.

Ray Kurzweil said: “The primary issue isn’t the mass of the universe — or the possible existence of anti-gravity or of Einstein’s so-called cosmological constant. The fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made, one we’ll intelligently consider when the time is right.”

John Searle PhD said: “Kurzweil doesn’t think he’s writing a book of science fiction. He’s making serious claims that he thinks are based on solid scientific results.”

— part 2 —

The stuff he’s talking about is no less than a physical hybrid of human beings and their technology. He says the machines being created today are the beginning of our meta-morphosis from thinking mammal to all-knowing hybrid.

Biological evolution has already given way to much more rapid — and less random — technological evolution, Ray Kurzweil argues. He predicts: within 30 years direct links will be established between the human brain and computer circuitry. The implications are mind-boggling. Such links could mean that the entire contents of a brain could be copied (and preserved) in an external database. Not only would the human brain be supplemented with enormous amounts of digital memory, it would also be linked to vast information resources like the internet — at the speed of thought.

That would produce, through direct brain interface: a virtual reality indistinguishable from objective reality. Ray Kurzweil cites medical treatments in which silicon chips have been successfully implanted into human brains. For example: to alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, or for cochlear implants for the deaf. He says these are examples of primitive steps toward his predictions.

While these sorts of visions might seem far-fetched, other respected futurists find Kurzweil’s ideas compelling. Marvin Minsky PhD — a well-known professor of media arts + science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — said Kurzweil is a leading futurist of our time.

Kurzweil’s theories are seriously considered — and that’s evidence of his credentials. Since his teenage years he has been harnessing computer power to do pattern recognition tasks. He explains that pattern recognition is: a part of the computer science filed of artificial intelligence — where we teach computers to recognize abstract patterns, a capability that dominates human thinking.”

In year 1965, at age 17, his music composing program won a Westinghouse science award, a visit to the White House and a spot as a contestant on the old television game show I’ve Got a Secret. His secret stumped former Miss America Bess Myerson — but was guessed by the second panelist, the actor Henry Morgan.

By the time he graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970, Ray Kurzweil had already achieved his first business success. He founded a computer database service that helped high school students choose the right college. He sold it for $100,000 and went on to create more businesses built on his inventions. Among his best-known is the Kurzweil reading machine for the blind. It was a true marvel when it was introduced. CBS news was so impressed with the device that television news anchor Walter Cronkite used it to deliver his signature sign-off: “… and that’s the way it was on January 13, 1976.”

Along the way, he won several accolades in business and academics, and received many honorary doctorates. In addition to writing his next book, he’s developing Fat Kat, an artificial intelligence system that applies algorithms to securities investment decisions.

— part 3 —

In Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the future, the man-machine hybrid won’t happen through a Frankenstein-like amalgam — but through an elegant technology: micro-scopic, self-replicating robots called nano-bots that could travel through the human bloodstream and interact with our body + brain.

Ray Kurzweil said: “The idea is to direct nano-bots to travel through every capillary in the brain, where they will pass in very close proximity to every cortex feature. This could enable the tiny machines to scan each part of the brain and build up a huge database of its contents. And all these nano-bots could be communicating with each other, such as on a wireless network. They could also be on the web.”

The breakthrough in nano-technology came several years ago with the discovery of the nano-tube, a carbon molecule of enormous strength. Just about anything can be fabricated from nano-tubes: with many times the strength of conventional materials, but with a fraction of the weight.

Also, nano-tubes have more capacity for raw computing power than commonly used silicon. Maybe this combination of features means that it could be possible: to build machines the size of a human blood cell, that are programmable with software — maybe even able to self-replicate of themselves from carbon atoms.

Ray Kurzweil said: “The size of the technology is shrinking so rapidly, that in 30 years both the size and cost of this scenario will be feasible.”

Of course, such technology would inevitably be accompanied by terrifying dangers. By scanning a brain into a database, a person’s most private thoughts and memories would be vulnerable to intrusions by hackers. And wouldn’t the brain also be vulnerable to external control of information, thought processes and even perceptions of reality?

— part 4 —

Ray Kurzweil said: “Those are real concerns. Organizations like governments, religious, or terrorist groups — or just clever individuals — could put nano-bots in food or water supplies, trillions of them. These would then make their way inside people and would monitor their thoughts and even could control them and place them into virtual environments. But we won’t be defenseless. We have these concerns today at a primitive level with Trojan horses that make their way into our computers.”

He says there’s no turning back. Once evolution produced a technological species — humanity — it put us on a relentless quest for understanding, and control of our universe.

Ray Kurzweil said: “I’m optimistic, but that’s more of a personal orientation than something I could scientifically argue. There definitely are dangers, and we do tend to address them imperfectly, so there’s some possibility this will fail.”

— notes —

MIT = Massachusetts Institute of Technology
CBS = Columbia Broadcasting System

John Searle is John Rogers Searle PhD