somethinkblue | Waking the universe

May 1, 2011

somethinkblue — May 1, 2011 | Nima D. Seifi

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

There are moments in history that shape humanity’s trajectory. Such events vary in form, content and timescale, and the likelihood is that only a few people are ever truly aware of the epistemological, and in some instances geological, ground shifting beneath them. What if we were on the cusp of such a moment right now?

Ray Kurzweil is an inventor, author and futurist, who for years has provoked debate with his brilliant and, some might say, alarming vision of the future: namely, in 2045, humanity will hit the Singularity, a point of human technological development so swift and breathtaking that our minds (as they are) could never comprehend. Which is why, to stay in the game, humans are going to gradually upgrade by merging with machines, becoming a billion times more intelligent and potentially immortal in the process.

Such a vision wouldn’t seem out of place in a novel by William Gibson or Iain M. Banks. The main difference being, though, Kurzweil is not a science fiction author. He came to this point after measuring the rate of progress of information technology, which revealed consistent patterns of exponential growth.

And what’s more, it’s all extremely predictable. Hence why Kurzweil has been able to accurately predict such events as a super computer defeating a chess champion and the emergence of the Internet. He shows no signs of losing form: you can see it in the data, if you know how to look.

In recent years, Kurzweil’s ideas have attracted increased public attention, in a blend of enthusiasm and incredulity. This looks set to grow following the release of the highly anticipated documentary, The Transcendent Man, which takes a close look at the man behind the big ideas that drive him forward. I met with Ray and the documentary’s director, Barry Ptolemy, at the Dorchester on Park Lane (grand ideas require grand surroundings) on the London leg of their international tour, for a discussion about the impending Singularity.

“We are constantly changing who we are. We didn’t stay in the ground; we didn’t stay on the planet. We did not stick with the limitations of our biology. To change whom we are, is who we are.”

somethinkblue [STB]: What exactly makes the idea of Singularity powerful?

Ray Kurzweil: The idea is that informational technology — not everything — but information technology progresses in an exponential manner. That’s a very powerful idea, and it’s also very predictable. If you take the fundamental measures of information technology — there are a hundred of them — for example, the power of computation, instructions per second per dollar, you see a very smooth line of exponential progression that has been uninterrupted since the recording devices used in the 1890 American Census.

Nothing had any effect on it, not World War I, World War II, or the Great Depression, the Cold War, or anything. It goes through thick and thin, war and peace, boom times and recessions. It’s remarkably predictable. But it’s not intuitive. We have an intuition about the future, which is hardwired in our brains. That intuition is linear, not exponential. So there are some quite complex ideas here, but the core is simple. A lot of my explanation is about the difference between them.

STB: What’s significant about the difference?

Ray Kurzweil: Basically, if you take 30 steps linearly, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and so forth, at step 30 you’re at 30. If you take 30 exponential steps, doubling each time, 2, 4, 8, 16, at step 30, you’re at a billion. It makes a huge difference. And this is not an idle speculation about the future. This computer on my belt is a billion times more powerful, per dollar or per pound, than the one I used when I was a student at MIT. And that’ll happen again in 25 years.

STB: How does that affect humanity’s progress?

Ray Kurzweil: Well, for instance, the power of our biological technology is now progressing exponentially. When biologists who are not familiar with this idea look at health and medicine before it was an information technology — it wasn’t always and only became so recently with the collection of the genome — they look at how long things have taken in the past and use that as a model for the future. But the past was linear. The future of health and medicine and our longevity will be exponential, because health and medicine is now an information technology.

People often say, it can’t all be totally predictable, and I give them example after example of how for decades — over a century in the case of computers — this law of accelerating returns holds up. Its an outgrowth of what we see in evolution, because an evolutionally process evolves a capability and uses that capability to evolve a next stage, and that next stage is more powerful as it builds on the shoulders of the stage before. It goes more quickly, there’s an inherent acceleration. So there are many implications, but ultimately it will affect everything we care about, including our life spans.

STB: So what we’re effectively talking about here is the evolution of evolution via technology?

Ray Kurzweil: Exactly.

STB: Does that mean we’re actually on the verge of immortality?

Ray Kurzweil: The key idea there is radical life extension, to overcome the phenomena that results in short life spans, which I think are really quite tragic. The movie illustrates that with the example of my father. He really did die prematurely, but in my view everybody dies prematurely. By the time people actually get into their stride and have figured out how to be creative, and people start listening to them, they pass from the scene.

But then people say, we have to get rid of all these old people and make way for new people. [I believe that] We don’t need to get rid of older people, their wisdom and accumulated knowledge to make way for the new – now that we can actually reprogramme the software underlying our biology. Just in the same way we reprogramme our phones and computers.

Barry Ptolemy: I’d like to add one point. People criticize Ray’s ideas about longevity as being ridiculous, almost unnatural to live indefinitely. When people say, I don’t want to live forever, that’d be a form of Dante’s Hell, what they don’t understand is we’re also talking about radical life expansion. Life is going expand a billion fold in every direction in ways we can’t really imagine. The way we understand and enjoy the universe is expanding: we’re going to be able to travel at electronic speeds, we’re going to be able to have millions of friends who we can communicate with all at once. It’s going to be completely different to the life we’re used to right now.

STB: Why do you think people are sceptical about such predictions?

Ray Kurzweil: They’re sceptical because they often don’t bother to read what I’ve written; they just look at the conclusions and say, well that’s not intuitive. That’s not what I imagine will happen. And exponential growth, as I mentioned, is not intuitive. Our built-in predictions [as humans] are linear. So people assume our pace of progress will continue.

STB: Are there indisputable instances where your exponential view has clearly triumphed over our linear intuition?

Ray Kurzweil: I’ll give you an example: the genome project was announced around 1990, and mainstream critics were quite sceptical. I fully expected it would finish on time, which was 15 years. People thought that was ridiculous, because in 1989 we’d only collected one-ten-thousandth of the genome. Halfway through the project, only 1% had been finished. People said, I told you this was going to take centuries. Here we are, 7 years and we’ve only finished 1%. 100 times 7 years is 700 years, but it’ll speed up a little bit: it’ll be 100 years.

It was actually finished 7 years later, because it was doubling every year and 1% is only 7 doublings till 100%. The project was actually finished early. So unless you’ve really studied the implications of this exponential growth, it’s very surprising. In the 1980s, I talked about a worldwide web of communication emerging in the mid-1990s, when the entire U.S. defense budget could only tie together a few thousand scientists with the ARPANET. And people said, that’ll happen some day, hundreds of millions of people connected, but it’ll take centuries. It happened right on schedule, because that’s the power of exponential growth.

STB: Is there going to be a need for us to reconsider and redefine our concept of the future and the human in it?

Ray Kurzweil: I don’t have to change my concept of human, because my concept of human is we’re the species that transcends. We are constantly changing who we are. We didn’t stay in the ground; we didn’t stay on the planet. We did not stick with the limitations of our biology. To change whom we are, is who we are.

We can talk about some things. We’re entering a stage where we’re going to merge with our technology. We are quite merged already. I mean, my phone is not literally inside my body and brain, but it might as well be a part of who I am. Quite intuitively now, I use this as my memory. I’ll think, who was that actress again? and in a few seconds I’ll have that information. We don’t bother remembering things anymore.

Some people have already put computers in their bodies and brains: computerised pancreases, patients with Parkinson’s disease, implants for the deaf. Today they require surgery, because they’re not blood cell sized, yet. Another exponential is in terms of shrinking technology; I’ve measured that, and it’s a factor of a 100 in 3D volume per decade. At the moment these implants are pea sized, but they’ll be the size of blood cells in 20 years, and they’ll make their way into our bodies and brains.

STB: Sounds like we’re talking about cyborgs here.

Ray Kurzweil: We’ll become a hybrid. You’ll still talk to a biological human, your biological parents etc. But nonetheless you’ll be talking to cyborgs — somebody who has biological and non-biological processes mixed-up together. It won’t just be a case that we’ll have computers in our brains, they’ll be out in the cloud. Just as when I use this phone, I’m just using stuff inside this box, it’s out in the cloud accessing all of Google and lots of other services. So our brains will be out in the cloud. It’s going to be a smooth transition, where we’ll be a merger of biological and non-biological intelligence.

STB: Some people might say that this sounds like a future that doesn’t really require the human species. This is an automatic technological development quite indifferent to what we think or do.

Ray Kurzweil: It kind of depends on what you mean by the human species: in my mind this (emphatically points at phone) is a part of us right now. This didn’t come from Mars. This isn’t some kind of alien invasion. We created these tools. It’s who we are. These future humans who will ultimately become predominately non-biological are a continuation of the human species.

If you want to talk about what’s lost, nothing is lost. We are adding to our capability. We’re not going to do things if there is a loss.

Barry Ptolemy: People see technology as something square and mechanical like a computer. They don’t see technology as being a table, or a cup, or a footpath in the forest. When you view technology like that, you realise that technology has always been with us from the very beginning, and more importantly, it makes us more human. It’s amplified who we are, so the question that we should be posing is, who do we want to be?

STB: Isn’t there the potential that unsavoury forces, like oppressive governments or individuals, will use these new technologies?

Barry Ptolemy: The opposite is happening. We’re seeing that these technologies are having a democratising and decentralising effect, and when I say that, I mean more people have these technologies in their hands and in their belts, than ever before. So we’re taking power away from monopoles and putting into more hands.

Ray Kurzweil: There are dangers. Hugo De Garis says in the movie that I don’t like to hear about the downsides. That’s not really true, because I’ve written extensively about it. Of course, nobody likes to hear about it. But a lot of the material about the downsides and dangers comes from my writings.

Technology has always been a double-edged sword. I think you can make a strong case that we’ve benefited more than we’ve been harmed, but we have felt pain. Fire cooked our food, kept us warm, also burned down our villages, either accidentally or intentionally. Look at the 20th century, we had a 180 million people die in the wars during that period.

If you have enough intelligence you can solve problems, any problem, but it could also be very damaging if you have an entity that is smarter than you are, a thousand times smarter, and also happens to be bent for your destruction. Well, if that happens, you really shouldn’t have gotten into that situation in the first place.

STB: How do we avoid getting into that situation?

Ray Kurzweil: There are many ways, for instance, we can develop rapid response systems to prevent abuse. I’ve actually worked with the US army on developing a response system for new biological viruses that bio terrorists might create. This is analogous to software viruses. If we sat back and said, who would ever want to create a software virus, there aren’t destructive people like that. That’d be a mistake and the Internet wouldn’t last very long.

In fact, we have developed a technological immune system that quickly detects them, helps to reverse engineer them, disable them, and virally spreads an antidote. We can do something comparable in biological viruses, which are already being put in place.

STB: Are we effectively heading towards a civilisation as a hive mind?

Ray Kurzweil: There are steps in that direction already. You can see how it’s politically democratising. Places that were once considered third world are just as sophisticated as we are in terms of social networking. Mathematicians getting together as “hive minds” doing communal problem solving have solved mathematical theorems that were previously thought impossible, because they were able to tap five thousand mathematicians using cooperative problem solving techniques with their computers. Actually part of the solutions were done by computer, some done through collective decision-making. Not in the old communist sense, but as a way of actually getting to the wisdom of crowds.

STB: You mention the word communist — will the old ideologies and political discourses have any relevance in this conception?


(credit: The Economist Newspaper Limited )

Ray Kurzweil: I have written that we’ll actually achieve the original goals of communism through a combination of free enterprise and the Open Source movement. Because we’ll ultimately be able to meet all our needs with information technology, including for physical products.

Recently on the cover of The Economist magazine was a picture of a violin that was printed out by a 3D printer. There’s this emerging industry of printers that print out objects from an information file.

And the precision and scale is getting finer and finer, where we’ll soon be at the molecular level within 20 years.

So, we’ll be able to print out a blouse or a meal, and all the physical things we need. There will be propriety forms of this information just as there are today: music, software, and movies.

And there’ll be Open Source versions, just as there are today.

We’ll achieve the goals of communism, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” without the forced collectivism, which has always been the mistake.

This sort of collective decision-making today, is never forced, it’s spontaneous, people coming together to share and build on each other’s ideas.

Barry Ptolemy: You’ll have technologies that allow for people to communicate in ways they haven’t yet found possible. There are communities in Africa that are going to bypass the industrial revolution and go right from an agrarian economy straight into an ideas economy. And they’ll be hooked into the Internet in a decentralised fashion, and they’re going to provide new arts and ideas ways of communicating that we haven’t even thought about: self-actualising and creative, a fundamental part of this hive-mind you describe.

 Ray Kurzweil: The old axiom that democracies don’t go to war with each other is largely true. Churchill said it was the worst possible system, except for all the others. It is messy, where everybody gets in on the act, but it does ultimately lead to wiser decisions. It’s just another form of collective decision-making.

STB: Is there a space in this new world for people who you describe, Ray, as “concerned and constructive luddites”? The sort of people who aren’t yet convinced that print publishing will fall in the path of digital publishing? In other words, intellectual technophobes?

Ray Kurzweil: You do have this reflexive anti-technology stance that there is something sacred, unspeakably sacred, about the natural human being, or the natural tomato. We should make no changes to the tomato, because it’s from nature, it’s perfect. But the anti-genome movement, for instance, is giving way because the benefits are so overwhelming. Look, they blocked golden rice for five years, and probably a million African children went blind as a result of the delays.

I call it fundamentalist humanism, and fundamentalist naturalism, which has been the most potent opposing position. That it’s just not natural to change our biology and so on. But biology is inherently very limited. And our changing it is not a new story. The Luddites have been around for centuries; actually they started here in England.

STB: We’re sorry about that.

 Ray Kurzweil: There’s a general fear of change, which isn’t new. A feeling that the way things are, is the way things should always be. But that really belies the general inclination of human beings towards progress.

Barry Ptolemy: The modern Luddite movement finds its home in the halls of academia, more than anywhere else. And they play an important purpose, because we need scepticism. If an idea has any merit it’ll certainly be able to endure that. There was scepticism over Darwin, Einstein, and a lot of great thinkers who had great ideas, and they certainly prevailed. I’m sure that Ray and his ideas are going to prevail once people start to truly appreciate what he’s talking about.