What the Future Will Bring

June 15, 2005 by Ray Kurzweil

“Follow your passion,” Ray Kurzweil advised graduates in a commencement address on May 21 at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, one of the nation’s earliest technological universities. “Creating knowledge is what will be most exciting in life. To create knowledge you have to have passion, so find a challenge that you can be passionate about and you can find the ideas to overcome that challenge.” Kurzweil also described the three great coming revolutions-genetics, nanotechnology and robotics-and their implications for our lives ahead.

Transcript of the Commencement Address by Ray Kurzweil at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, May 21, 2005, Worcester, Massachusetts. Published on KurzweilAI.net, June 15, 2005.

Click here for audio recording.

President Berkey, trustees, esteemed faculty, honored graduates, proud parents and guests, it’s a pleasure to be here. It’s a great honor to receive this distinction. Congratulations to all of you. I’ve long been an admirer of WPI and this is a terrific way to start your career. Actually judging by the practical experience you’ve had and the entrepreneurship which is blossoming on this campus you’ve already started your career.

A commencement is a good time to reflect on the future, on your future, and I’ve actually spent a few decades thinking about the future, trying to model technology trends. I suppose that’s one reason you asked me to share my ideas with you on what the future will hold, which will be rather different and empowering in terms of our ability to create knowledge, more so than many people realize.

I started thinking about the future and trying to anticipate it because of my interest in being an inventor myself. I realized that my inventions had to make sense when I finished a project, which would be three or four years later, and the world would be a different place. Everything would be different&#8212the channels of distribution, the development tools. Most inventions, most technology projects fail not because the R&D department can’t get it to work&#8212if you read business plans, 90 percent of those groups will do exactly what they say if they’re given the opportunity yet 90 percent of those projects will still fail because the timing is wrong. Not all the enabling factors will be in place when they’re needed. So realizing that, I began to try to model technology trends attempting to anticipate where technology will be. This has taken on a life of its own. I have a team of 10 people that gathers data in many different fields and we try to build mathematical models of what the future will look like.

Now, people say you can’t predict the future. And for some things that turns out to be true. If you ask me, “Will the stock price of Google be higher or lower three years from now?” that’s hard to predict. What will the next wireless common standard be? WiMAX, G-3, CDMA? That’s hard to predict. But if you ask me, “What will the cost of a MIPS of computing be in 2010?” or, “How much will it cost to sequence a base pair of DNA in 2012?” or, “What will the special and temporal resolution of non-invasive brain scanning be in 2014?,” I can give you a figure and it’s likely to be accurate because we’ve been making these predictions for several decades based on these models. There’s smooth, exponential growth in the power of these information technologies and computation that goes back a century&#8212very smooth, exponential growth, basically doubling the power of electronics and communication every year. That’s a 50 percent deflation rate.

The same thing is true in biology. It took us 15 years to sequence HIV. We sequenced SARS in 31 days. We’ll soon be able to sequence a virus in just a few days’ time. We’re basically doubling the power of these technologies every year.

And that’s going to lead to three great revolutions that sometimes go by the letters GNR: genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. Let me describe these briefly and talk about the implications for our lives ahead.

G, genetics, which is really a term for biotechnology, means that we are gaining the tools to actually understand biology as information processes and reprogram them. Now, 99 percent of the drugs that are on the market today were not done that way. They were done through drug discovery, basically finding something. “Oh, here’s something that lowers blood pressure.” We have no idea why it works or how it works and invariably it has lots of side effects, similar to primitive man and woman when they discovered their first tools. “Oh, here’s a rock, this will make a good hammer.” But we didn’t have the means of shaping the tools to actually do a job. We’re now understanding the information processes underlying disease and aging and getting the tools to reprogram them.

We have little software programs inside us called genes, about 23 thousand of them. They were designed or evolved tens of thousands of years ago when conditions were quite different. I’ll give you just one example. The fat insulin receptor gene says, “Hold on to every calorie because the next hunting season may not work out so well.” And that’s a gene we’d like to reprogram. It made sense 20 thousand years ago when calories were few and far between. What would happen if we blocked that? We have a new technology that can turn genes off called RNA interference. So when that gene was turned off in mice, these mice ate ravenously and yet they remained slim. They got the health benefits of being slim. They didn’t get diabetes, didn’t get heart disease or cancer. They lived 20 to 25 percent longer while eating ravenously. There are several pharmaceutical companies who have noticed that might be a good human drug.

There’s many other genes we’d like to turn off. There are genes that are necessary for atherosclerosis, the cause of heart disease, to progress. There are genes that cancer relies on to progress. If we can turn these genes off, we could turn these diseases off. Turning genes off is just one of the methodologies. There are new forms of gene therapy that actually add genes so we’ll not just have designer babies but designer baby boomers. And you probably read this Korean announcement a couple of days ago of a new form of cell therapy where we can actually create new cells with your DNA so if you need a new heart or new heart cells you will be able to grow them with your own DNA, have them DNA-corrected, and thereby rejuvenate all your cells and tissues.

Ten or 15 years from now, which is not that far away, we’ll have the maturing of these biotechnology techniques and we’ll dramatically overcome the major diseases that we’ve struggled with for eons and also allow us to slow down, stop and even reverse aging processes.

The next revolution is nanotechnology, where we’re applying information technology to matter and energy. We’ll be able to overcome major problems that human civilization has struggled with. For example, energy. We have a little bit of sunlight here today. If we captured .03 percent, that’s three ten-thousandths of the sunlight that falls on the Earth, we could meet all of our energy needs. We can’t do that today because solar panels are very heavy, expensive and inefficient. New nano-engineered designs, designing them at the molecular level will enable us to create very inexpensive, very efficient, light-weight solar panels, store the energy in nano-engineered fuel cells, which are highly decentralized, and meet all of our energy needs.

The killer app of nanotechnology is something called nanobots, basically little robots the size of blood cells. If that sound very futuristic, there are four major conferences on that already and they’re already performing therapeutic functions in animals. One scientist cured Type-1 diabetes with these blood cell-sized nano-engineered capsules.

In regard to the 2020s, these devices will be able to go inside the human body and keep us healthy by destroying pathogens, correcting DNA errors, killing cancer cells and so on and even go into the brain, and interact with our biological neurons. If that sounds futuristic, there are already neural implants that are FDA-approved so there are people walking around who have computers in their brains and the biological neurons in their vicinity are perfectly happy to interact with these computerized devices. And the latest generation of the neural implant for Parkinson’s disease allows the patients to download new software to their neural implant from outside the patient. By the 2020s, we’ll be able to greatly enhance human intelligence, provide full immersion virtual reality, for example, from within the nervous system using these types of technologies.

And finally R, which stands for robotics, which is really artificial intelligence at the human level, we’ll see that in the late 2020s. By that time this exponential growth of computation will provide computer systems that are more powerful than the human brain. We’ll have completed the reverse engineering of the human brain to get the software algorithms, the secrets, the principles of operation of how human intelligence works. A side benefit of that is we’ll have greater insight into ourselves, how human intelligence works, how our emotional intelligence works, what human dysfunction is all about. We’ll be able to correct, for example, neurological diseases and also expand human intelligence. And this is not going to be an alien invasion of intelligent machines. We already routinely do things in our civilization that would be impossible without our computer intelligence. If all the AI programs, narrow AI, that’s embedded in our economic infrastructure were to stop today, our human civilization would grind to a halt. So we’re already very integrated with our technology. Computer technology used to be very remote. Now we carry it in our pockets. It’ll soon be in our clothing. It’s already begun migrating into our bodies and brains. We will become increasingly intimate with our technology.

The implications of all this is we will extend human longevity. We’ve already done that. A thousand years ago, human life expectancy was about 23. So most of you would be senior citizens if this were taking place a thousand years ago. In 1800, 200 years ago, human life expectancy was 37. So most of the parents here, including myself, wouldn’t be here. It was 50 years in 1900. It’s now pushing 80. Every time there’s been some advance in technology we’ve pushed it forward.: sanitation, antibiotics. This biotechnology revolution will expand it again. Nanotechnology will solve problems that we don’t get around to with biotechnology. We’ll have dramatic expansion of human longevity.

But actually life would get boring if we were sitting around for a few hundred years&#8212we would be doing the same things over and over again&#8212unless we had radical life expansion. And this technology will also expand our opportunities, expand our ability to create and appreciate knowledge. And creating knowledge is what the human species is all about. We’re the only species that has knowledge that we pass down from generation to generation. That’s what you’ve been doing for the last four years. That’s what you will continue doing indefinitely. We are expanding exponentially human knowledge and that is really what is exciting about the future.

I was told that commencement addresses should have a vision, which I’ve tried to share with you, and some practical advice. And my practical advice is that creating knowledge is what will be most exciting in life. And in order to create knowledge you have to have passion. So find a challenge that you can be passionate about, and there many of them that are worthwhile. And if you’re passionate about a worthwhile challenge, you can find the ideas to overcome that challenge. Those ideas exist and you can find them. And persistence usually pays off. You’ve all had timed tests where you had two or three hours to complete a test. But the tests in life are not timed. If you need an extra hour you can take it. Or an extra day, an extra week, an extra year, an extra decade. You’re the only one that will determine your own success or failure. Thomas Edison tried thousands of filaments to get his light bulb to work and none of them worked. And he easily could have said, “I guess all those skeptics who said that a practical light bulb was impossible were right.” Obviously he didn’t do that. You know the rest of the story.

If you have a challenge that you feel passionately about that’s really worthwhile, then you should never give in. To quote Winston Churchill, “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in.”

Congratulations once again. This is a great achievement. I wish all of you long lives&#8212very long lives&#8212of success, creativity, health and happiness. And may the Force be with you.

© 2005 KurzweilAI.net