Ray Kurzweil deciphers a brave new world

The legendary inventor considers how artificial intelligence might reshape human society.

Ray Kurzweil was one of the most remarkable and prolific inventors of the late 20th century.

Now Kurzweil, who can claim credit for developing the first text-to-speech synthesizer and the first CCD flat-bed scanner, is busy inventing a future in which humans merge with machines and the pace of technological development accelerates beyond recognition.

The concept is known by its proponents as the Singularity, and until recently it's been the province of science fiction authors such as Vernor Vinge and Ken MacLeod.

Now Kurzweil, in a new book called "The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology" (Viking, $29.95), claims that the inexorable pace of technological development and its exponential growth will usher in the Singularity by 2045.

To appreciate the dizzying scope of Kurzweil's predictions, read the book. But the condensed version goes like this: Thanks to Moore's Law and other exponential growth rates, by 2030 a $1 computer will be as powerful as the human brain. Information technology's exponential curve will fuel advances in biology, robotics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence--with world-shattering results including radical life extension and practically omniscient and omnipotent abilities for humans who elect self-augmentation.

Adding some heft to this prediction are Kurzweil's earlier books, including "The Age of Intelligent Machines" and "The Age of Spiritual Machines," which show that he has a better-than-average record of predicting the future. In 2002, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and he has received the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize and the National Medal of Technology.

CNET News.com spoke with Kurzweil on Wednesday about his book tour, his views of the melding of man and machine and the political ramifications of having hyper-intelligence initially available to the very wealthy.

You've been busy promoting your new book. How's the tour going?
Kurzweil: It's going great. Seven presentations last week including a keynote at the Accelerating Change Conference, spoke at Google, the Software Development Forum. I gave a keynote at George Gilder's Telecosm, which he named after the book. I'm going to speak at MIT tomorrow.

You said at a speech last week in San Francisco that you were working on a project with former Microsoft CFO Michael W. Brown that'll result in a hedge fund. Can you tell me about that?
Kurzweil: It's been a major project for about six years. It's applying my field, detecting subtle patterns, and using technology forecasting. Six years ago the project wasn't fully feasible because we didn't have rapid access to all ticker data for stocks. You really couldn't place trades very effectively online. The technology wasn't there--it can't take two weeks for the computer to make a decision that needs to be made in five seconds.

(My system) doesn't make perfect predictions. But what we can do is predict them substantially better than chance. That puts us in the position of being the house in a casino. It places lots of bets, some win and some lose, but it consistently makes money. We haven't had a down month yet. It makes 80 to 100 percent returns a year.

When will this be open to people qualified to invest in a hedge fund?
Kurzweil: We've been investing our own funds just to demonstrate it works. We're launching a hedge fund starting in January. But this will be principally open to our own investors.

You talk a lot about exponential growth, including the stock market. But the Dow Jones Industrial Average was around 1,300 points higher in 2000 than it is now. Adjust for the cost of trades and real inflation and you might have lost 6 to 7 percent a year, no?
Kurzweil: It's the power and adoption of information technologies that moves exponentially. The stock market includes many businesses with old business models...You do have long-term exponential growth of the stock market. The measures we find are highly predictable, surprisingly so. But there are business cycles.

How about the Nasdaq index, which features newer business models, and has fallen by over 50 percent from its top.
Kurzweil: Not every technology company succeeds. You have as much creation as destruction. Companies need to reinvent their business models quite regularly. It was only three years ago that people were saying you couldn't make any money in Internet advertising. The psychology of the stock market has its own dynamic. The boom-bust dynamic is a harbinger of (technological) revolutions...Now e-commerce is growing at a point where it's significant.

It's not a theory of the overall dynamics of the stock market, which have a lot of psychological aspects, some overly pessimistic and some overly optimistic.

Your concept of the future relies heavily on "strong AI," the idea that artificial intelligence will become self-aware and eventually surpass human intelligence. But it seems like AI researchers have abandoned that idea for focused real-world applications like face recognition. I was at a speech this week where computer science professor Rudy Rucker said that strong AI was dead.
Kurzweil: There are hundreds of applications where AI is performing projects that would have required a human level of intelligence a few years ago. Those include diagnosing heart disease, routing e-mail messages, cell phone routing, landing planes.

We are now in an era of narrow AI, meaning it's not strong AI. It's not the full range of human intelligence. But it's performing functions that used to require human intelligence. Looking for credit card fraud is one example of that. These were research projects 15 years ago.

This isn't 2029. We'll make a billionfold increase in hardware capacity between now

Featured Video