Ray Kurzweil Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Futurology is an acquired taste. Either you’re the kind of person who enjoys thinking about hotels on the moon and robots with human brains, or you are not.
Ray Kurzweil, an American thinker, writer and entrepreneur, has always been in the first category; a man who revels in the potential of technology, making predictions that seem outlandish – and then years later turn out to be true.
As a teenager in the 1960s, Kurzweil created a computer program that analysed the work of classical composers and created new compositions in their style. He has made a fortune devising technologies to help the disabled, such as software that scans text and reads it back to the blind.
These days, he is convinced that within two decades, nanotechnology will allow the repair of ageing human cells by microscopic machines, and that computers will be capable of more than just processing data: they’ll be able to think, feel and even make moral choices. He also believes the line between humans and machines will become more blurred as we evolve from creatures who already spend much of our time thinking and communicating with the help of computers to creatures who have the technology embedded within us.
This is not crackpot fantasy, he says, or the ravings of a man who spent too much time reading science fiction as a child, but reasonable prediction based on past trends.
His latest scheme is the Singularity University, an unusual academic institution, part-funded by the founders of Google, which opened last year in California. Unlike most universities, it has no permanent base, no ivy-clad halls, no sports teams. It’s more like a think tank that runs courses for people from around the world to contemplate our greatest challenges – from hunger and disease to climate change – and work out how technology can help.
The name of the university comes from a book Kurzweil published in 2005, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. In it, he envisions a time 20 to 30 years from now when the “singularity” has taken place – meaning that machines have become so brilliant they can help human scientists cure diseases, solve energy shortages and vastly extend human life.
This is not a future of HeathRobinson contraptions that do the housework and make you a cup of coffee the moment you imagine a cup of coffee. Rather it is one that relies on a very specific understanding of how information technology affects the speed at which we develop certain kinds of knowledge.
“The idea is that information technology grows exponentially,” says Kurzweil, who for much of the year travels the world giving talks while managing his businesses. “Exponential growth isn’t intuitive. We’re hard-wired to make linear predictions, but this doesn’t work well for seeing where information technology will be.”
It is true that most of us envisage growth in the same way as we envisage human life: progressing in increments year by year, in a steady linear fashion. Information technology, however, tends to advance much more quickly, sometimes doubling in speed and halving in price every year in step with computer power.
“The computer in the phone in my pocket is a thousand times smaller and a thousand times cheaper than the one I used as a student,” says Kurzweil. “And what now fits in your pocket will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years.”
Once you understand the nature of this change, then all these predictions about the future suddenly sound less crazy. Kurzweil mentions the mapping of the human genome as a classic instance of how people misunderstood exponential growth. The sequencing began in 1990, and several years later many sceptical observers were saying that it would never work. Researchers still had not mapped 1%. But suddenly, once they got to 1%, it was only a matter of doubling their speed every year and after seven years, they had finished.
Getting from zero to one may take a while, but getting from one to 100 by exponential progression can be staggeringly swift.
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