Ray Kurzweil and the fast future


Futurist Ray Kurzweil outlined a vision of the future for attendees at the RSA Conference this week that postulated that technological progress will grow at an exponential rate, leading to sudden, startling paradigm shifts every five years.

"People have an overly conservative view of the future because they view it linearly," he said. "We will see more progress in the next five years than the last."

Of course, it helps to line up the data that way.

Kurzweil trotted out a bunch of charts showing how exponential technological improvement has occurred in semiconductors, hard drives and computers. Power and performance has doubled every two years or sometimes annually, while prices have declined at a similar rate.

But the projection begins to break down, or at least look strained, when it comes to biology. Scientists working in decentralized labs, for instance, should be able to come up with flu vaccines in a matter of days. Security experts defuse exploits rapidly because of rapid-response teams and decentralized thinking.

"We need to do this with some of these other dangers," he said, like the bird flu. He might be right, if DNA research continues at its current pace. We know significantly more about proteins and immunization than we did five years ago, and a lot of that knowledge comes because of faster computers. Still, a number of geneticists would say biology has yet to be completely wrestled into IT-like paradigms.

Later, Kurzweil discussed the differences between humans and lower primates. Lower primates don't have technology--they use tools, but they don't pass tool-making techniques down to their kids. Thus, the tools don't improve over time. Humans do.

"There is a very clear acceleration in evolutionary processes," he said. Maybe, but if evolutionary processes were accelerating exponentially, the average person should be 100 times smarter than Einstein right now or 1,000 times taller than Napoleon. At a minimum, we should be far more articulate than the Romans.

And even in information technology, the analogy doesn't always work.

"Five years ago, most people didn't use search engines," he stated. Three years ago, not many knew of communities or podcasts. Really? Five years ago was 2002. Yahoo was a worldwide brand.

One prediction, though, heartened the crowd of security software experts.

"With computers in everything from clothing to eyeglasses, software security becomes the quintessential issue," he said.

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