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Ray Kurzweil deciphers a brave new world

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

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
9 min read
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.

News.com reporter
Declan McCullagh
chats with Ray Kurzweil.

(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

and then. We're also doubling the resolution of brain scanning every year. So it's a long case, which is why it took a whole book to express it. But we'll have the hardware and software in the 2020s for strong AI. We're a factor of a billion (away).

The tools we have to model the brain, to scan the brain, to simulate these processes, all of these are doubling every year. What that means from the perspective of the 2020s is that it's a very doable project.

I'm quite aggressive in reprogramming my biochemistry. I take over 200 supplements a day.

You cite airplane landing systems as an example of complex software that works flawlessly. Is it really that complex? The first automated landing with radio beacons took place in 1937, and the Concorde's computers flew a glidepath based on beacons in the 1970s. That doesn't seem like a good case for strong AI.
Kurzweil: If you look at the latest generation of software that's used in private planes, it's able to predict the path of not only your plane but other objects in the sky. It can even negotiate (collision avoidance procedures with other planes). The latest system is quite remarkable.

What are you doing to extend your own life?
Kurzweil: Do you have a copy of my book "Fantastic Voyage"? It talks about (multiple steps) including what you can do right now, which will even help the baby boomers. Later on is the nanotechnology revolution.

I'm quite aggressive in reprogramming my biochemistry. I take over 200 supplements a day. The thing that's unique about our program is that it's what we call aggressive supplementation. We're not programmed to stick around as long as I am. We need to reprogram our biochemistry, to reprogram our disease processes, processes that result in cancer, and various aging processes. My own personal program is detailed in the book.

(I can calculate my age) based on tactile sensitivity, memory and reaction times. When I was 40, I tested with an age of around 38. Now that I'm 57, I come out around 40. On these tests I haven't aged very much.

You say in your book that augmented humans will run software programs and that "government authorities will have a legitimate need on occasion to monitor these software streams" in our brains. Doesn't that sound Orwellian?
Kurzweil: I think there's going to have to be a balance, like there is today. We need to be keenly aware of the empowerment that these technologies provide. We have an existential risk right now in terms of the ability to bioengineer biological viruses. Nanotechnology will have destructive applications. So will strong AI. I've given testimony to Congress about the need for a Manhattan Project for a response mechanism to biological viruses. We don't have that system in place.

As more and more of our lives become dominated by software, software viruses will become more of a threat.

We need to combat asymmetric warfare on every front. There is a legitimate role (for government). I think we can take some comfort from how well we've done in terms of resisting software viruses, which are getting more and more sophisticated.

It seems to me that viruses should be plotted on your exponential curve as growing in number and destructiveness. How do you square that with a humans-running-software world?
Kurzweil: That's an example of how both the creative and destructive aspects of technology develop. You don't hear people say, "The problem is so bad we should shut down the Internet." Despite the real nuisance of software viruses, we can't simply cross that off our list. As more and more of our lives become dominated by software, software viruses will become more of a threat.

What rights to privacy should we have, and will we have, a few decades from now?
Kurzweil: We do have a concern now about asymmetric warfare and terrorists. Small groups can (wreak international havoc). I think there's

a role for intelligence that compromises privacy to prevent those types of results. There has to be a balance. There's no easy issue.

When the wealthy are augmented and others aren't, it seems to be that social divides will become more extreme. What happens when Congress enacts a law saying that nobody can live beyond 150 years until 20 percent of the population can afford a similar opportunity?
Kurzweil: When it's only exploitable by the rich, it doesn't work. When it becomes merely expensive, it kinda works. When it becomes exploitable by everyone, like cell phones, (it really works).

So you're not worried about the political fallout over some people being uplifted and others not?
Kurzweil: There's not going to be a strong isolated phenomenon. We'll get there through a lot of incremental steps that have wide support, like cell phones. They've quickly become ubiquitous.

What happens to non-uplifted humans when 90 percent of the world's population is augmented--smarter and more physically able? Are they kept as pets?
Kurzweil: People adopt technology at different rates. Relatively few people completely resist technology. How many people just don't use telephones at all? They're off the beaten track. These technologies are going to bring material wealth. People will be fairly foolish not to use them. (And even the) very few people that make no use of technology will benefit nonetheless.

It's one thing not to have a cell phone. But what if some people are billions of times smarter than others?
Kurzweil: I don't think that's where the social unrest will occur. If, in fact, the technology were static and only the elite had it, it will lead to social unrest. But because it rapidly moves and comes down in price 50 percent a year and improves in quality, the technology reaches more people.

Even the limits that we have now on stem cell research--and I support stem cell research--the controversy and limitations are small stones in the river of progress. The river just flows around them.

As a species, our history of predictions of the future seems to be pretty poor. Whatever happened to the flying cars?
Kurzweil: I don't think it's fair or appropriate to bring up the failed predictions of others to talk about my predictions and the law of (accelerating returns). I have a very good track record over 20 years of making predictions based on these models. A lot of other futurists don't have a sound model of the exponential nature of progress.

You've indicated in your book that if there were a computer with 10^20 power IQ over humans, it should run the economy. Isn't that just central planning all over again, but this time even worse?
Kurzweil: I don't think that's the right interpretation. My view is that we'll learn from this technology. We're already collaborating with our machines. No professional could perform his function without computers. We will literally enhance our own intelligence. It's not going to turn it over to a centralized machine.