Dossier: The Future of Man and Technology

The Future of Man and Technology, Part I: Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil; © 2008 Kurzweil TechnologiesRay Kurzweil, inventor and futurologist, in an interview with Tobias Hülswitt.
(Boston, January 10, 2008)

Tobias Hülswitt: Mr. Kurzweil, during my research the number of my questions has increased exponentially. I now have about 7,000. If we do 100 a day, we’ll need 70 days. Since you're going to live as long as you want to, you have all the time in the world …

Ray Kurzweil: No problem! Seventy days should be only a small fraction of the remaining time.

Overcoming death

And now the work is done, that Jupiter’s anger, fire or sword cannot erase, nor the gnawing tooth of time. Let that day, that only has power over my body, end, when it will, my uncertain span of years: yet the best part of me will be borne, immortal, beyond the distant stars. Wherever Rome’s influence extends, over the lands it has civilized, I will be spoken, on people’s lips: and, famous through all the ages, if there is truth in poets’ prophecies, – vivam – I shall live.”

(Translation: Anthony S. Kline; Source: etext.virginia.edu)

That is the end of Ovid's Metamorphoses. What do you think of it?

It has to do with a transcendence over the apparent temporariness of human life. Up until recently we didn't really have the means to reverse the apparent inevitability of decline and death. Death is hard to imagine, because our own awareness of ourselves, our own consciousness, doesn't seem temporary, it seems permanent. Yet we observe the fact that people don't live forever. So we came up with various theories, why even though it appears that people live for only a limited amount of time they're really eternal: reincarnation, or living forever in heaven, or other formulations. And people will argue philosophically how death is really a good thing, and it's liberating, and it would not be a good idea to extend human life indefinitely, and that’s really a very broad denial of what is in actuality an overwhelmingly terrifying idea. The idea of dying, not to mention the suffering that goes along with the process of dying. So we rationalize it and say: Oh, that's actually a good thing. And we get very attached to these rationalizations, because they allow us to go forward in facing this oncoming tragedy. That's a reasonable attempt to deal with the tragedy of death when you have no alternative. But we do have an alternative now…

What would that be?

Though we don't have it in our hands at this moment, or the knowledge we need to extend life indefinitely, we do have the knowledge to extend life to the point when we will have the knowledge. Because we can apply what I call Bridge One, which is applying today's knowledge, so even baby boomers like myself can still be biologically young and in a good shape ten or fifteen years from now, when we can have Bridge Two, which is being able to reprogram our biology through biotechnology. That will bring us to Bridge Three, when nanotechnology and nanobots inside the body will enable us to live indefinitely.

Is the rebellion against death the starting point of your work?

The fear of death does animate a lot of our stories, and I think it's a driving force in human psychology. But I didn't start with the idea of overcoming death or any of the other similarities of my ideas to religious prophecy.

But rather?

There are two different derivations of my ideas. In terms of information technology I started as a practical inventor. I wanted to time my own projects, since most inventors fail not because they can't get their inventions registered, but because their timing is wrong. So I became a student of technology trends, and I saw that the information content of technology is very predictable. Even though specific projects are not predictable, you can predict the overall power of computation and the power of communication technology. I have a group of ten people, we gather data in many different fields, and we build mathematical models, and they've been very predictive.

Can you give a concrete example of an application of these models?

We have introduced a pocket size reading machine for the blind by using this technique: In 2002 I saw that the underlying technology will become feasible in 2006, so we started the project 2002 so it would be finished 2006. With these models we can predict not only one or five years ahead, we can predict 10 years, 20 years, 30 years ahead and see what the world will be like. And because of the explosive nature of exponential growth and the fact that these information technologies are exponential, I came up with these conclusions, that the world will be remarkably different 20, 30 years from now. And I've now spent decades getting my mental arms around these forecasts and what they actually mean for human life and the human civilization. When people first hear about it and they never thought about it, it just seems overwhelming and very different, and it did to me too, but I had time to think about the implications, and that forms the basis of my books. That is the one source of my thinking.

You mentioned a second ...

The other is health: When I was around 35, 25 years ago, I developed type II diabetes. The conventional approach made it worse, so I said, okay, I'll punch this as an engineer and a scientist. I gathered a lot of information and I came up with my own approach. I cured my diabetes through supplements and life style changes and I've had no indication of diabetes ever since. So that gave me the idea – a kind of a meta-idea – that you really can, and I can, overcome health challenges with the right set of ideas. The ideas are out there, and if I can put the right set of ideas together to overcome something like diabetes, we can do that with any disease. Then I had another health challenge which is called middle age, just the acceleration of aging that normally occurs when people are in their forties and fifties. I think I've dealt with that pretty well. There are biological aging tests where, when I was 40, I came out 38. I'm going to be 60 in a few weeks and I now come out at 40.

Your visions arise on the one hand from your work as an inventor, and on the other hand from coming to grips with your own health. Two entirely different fields.

They used to be two different areas. Now they’ve merged, because now, and this is just since we collected the genome, which is only a few years ago, our health, biology and medicine is becoming an information technology, it's really a new set of computer processes. And it's subject to the Law of Accelerating Returns and to exponential growth. Through the combination of the Law of Accelerating Returns, which has to do with the exponential growth of information technology, with the fact that health, biology, aging, disease, is now being understood as information processes, we have the practical means to see the end of death and a way to get to a tipping point which I think we are only 15 years away from, where we will be adding more than a year every year to our remaining live expectancy. So the sense of time rapidly running out will stop running in the end.

Total genetic information of a cell.

The singularity

You forecast for 2045 something that you call the singularity: the moment when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence in all areas and beyond which we can no longer look into the future because we can’t anticipate the subsequent developments with our present intelligence. But long before that man will be largely fused with intelligent technology and no longer in theory need to die. How are we to imagine that in technical terms?

Certain concepts that we take for granted with our computers routinely seem strange when applied to human beings. We have the idea of a unique identity, and we are embodied in a physical form, and our brains are caged in the skull, they don't physically overlap with other brains, so there's a uniqueness to each individual. Computers are very different. You can take a million computers and make them into one computer, and that can be that one million cpu processor that's basically one computer, and it can then become a million computers again. So computers can merge their identity and all their software very easily and then segregate it again. The identity of a computer is based on its software, and if that notebook dies you can just copy the software from a back-up to another computer and the computer is alive again, even though the hardware crashed. With human beings we have this idea that when the hardware crashes, which is what death is, it's a crash of the hardware, that the software has to die with it. But we don't have that expectation when we talk about computers. So, as we in fact become more non-biological and more computer-like by merging with our computers, the computer part of our intelligence will ultimately be a billion times more powerful than the biological portion, and therefore we will be basically non-biological, and we will have the same attributes as our computers today. We will be able to merge our intelligence just the way they do today. We can really become one and then become separate again, or we can have it both ways, just the way computers do today.

Not a few people are really irritated by your theories. Do they misunderstand you when they see you as an advocate of the singularity? Are they blaming the messenger?

The message certainly seems to touch deep-seated aspects of the personal philosophy of many people. And the influence of ancient traditions of thought and religious conceptions of death is certainly very great. After all, we have been carrying these ideas in us for thousands of years; they help people to cope with the tragedy of death. So people are very attached to these ideas and they don't give them up easily. It's not like: Don't worry about it, you can give up this idea because we have this other idea. They don’t easily adopt an idea like the idea of changing biology – they are attached to biology. The reality is, we are not going to take the step from today's world to the world of 2045 in one great leap. It doesn't work like that. We're actually going to get from here to there through tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of little steps, advances in many different fields. It's happening every day, things that are pretty amazing, like the internet or virtual reality, things we already take for granted now, but which certainly seemed amazing not so long ago. So the world is going to change a lot, and it's getting faster and faster.

Ray Kurzweil, born in 1948 in New York, is an inventor, futurologist and author. He has founded several companies, including in the areas of speech recognition, optical text recognition, text-to-speech conversion and electronic musical instruments. Kurzweil is a visionary of artificial intelligence and has published several books that deal with futurology, Artificial Intelligence and health. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1999 and honored by President Bill Clinton with the National Medal of Technology.
Edited by Jonathan Uhlaner

Cover „Werden wir ewig leben?“; Copyright: Suhrkamp VerlagExcerpt from: “Werden wir ewig leben, Mr. Kurzweil?”, in: Werden wir ewig leben? – Gespräche über die Zukunft von Mensch und Technologie, Tobias Hülswitt und Roman Brinzanik (eds.), edition unseld, Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag 2010

Copyright: Suhrkamp Verlag
Published with kind permission of the Suhrkamp Verlag

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