Tech pioneer Kurzweil sees grand digital future

The PC may be dead, the dot-com economy collapsing and privacy threats proliferating, but there still are some unabashed techno-optimists in the world.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
NEW YORK--The PC may be dead, the dot-com economy collapsing and privacy threats proliferating, but there still are some unabashed techno-optimists in the world.

One such person is Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer who has started more than half a dozen companies specializing in synthesizing music or getting computers to read or understand speech. In a keynote address today at the PC Expo conference, Kurzweil predicted a future in which human brains will be teeming with robots that can augment intelligence and transport people into virtual reality realms or enable people to back up their own childhood memories.

Most people recognize technology is changing rapidly, but they fail to realize that the pace of that change is accelerating, Kurzweil said. An improvement that would take 20 years to develop at today's rate of innovation will take only 10 years to achieve in 2010. By 2020, it will take 5 years, he predicted.

Kurzweil's sci-fi views stand in contrast to some voices of pessimism worrying about how the electronic world enables government spying, companies intruding on privacy, and technological divides between rich and poor.

But Kurzweil should know better than some. His experience in artificial intelligence and its applications to tasks such as optical character recognition have given him industry respect, while investors and high-tech companies with newfound prominence pour billions into research efforts.

Miniaturization and ever-higher resolution of brain scans are two trends accelerating technological change that will push together by 2035, Kurzweil predicted. Tiny robots, sent out through blood vessels, will latch onto individual neurons in the brain, he said, where they can monitor or control each brain cell's workings and communicate what's going on by radio.

According to Kurzweil, the result will be the deepest possible connection between the computer realm and perception, the ultimate virtual reality that incorporates not only the five senses but also centers of the brain that express humor, ecstasy or other feelings. These tiny "nanobots" will be able to "suppress the signals from our real senses, replacing them with signals of simulated (information). That'll be the nature of the World Wide Web in 2035," Kurzweil said.

Not only that, but cyber-enabled brains will be able to communicate directly so people can hold virtual conferences or play recordings of each others' experiences, he predicted.

The prospect raises issues of privacy, virus danger and other threats, but so far the benefits of new technology have far surpassed the risks, he said.

Such advancements will require far more powerful computing hardware and software, but more importantly, a very different design from the deterministic, inflexible computer systems of today, he said.

Where computer programs these days crash with a misplaced comma and computers malfunction with a single snipped wire, computing systems of the future will come to resemble the organic, self-programming brain, while still retaining the benefits of today's computers, he predicted.

"We'll be able to blend the chaotic (nature) of human intelligence with the more analytical, logical, database-driven calculating that computers can do today. There will be interesting hybrids of biological and nonbiological intelligence," Kurzweil said.

Kurzweil also predicted that the accelerating pace of medical technology improvements will raise the prospect of immortality--or at least vastly lengthened life spans--in about 10 years.

He also took issue with today's economic models, which don't reflect accelerating technological change, he said. "I think the economic models we're using are completely out of date," Kurzweil said. The federal government pays attention to oil prices while ignoring "bandwidth and MIPS (millions of instructions per second, a computing power measurement) and megabytes, some of the things that are really driving our economy."