Many will know of Kurzweil as the name behind the first synthesiser keyboards able to represent an entire orchestra. Ray Kurzweil has been an inventor however, since he was just 15. A highly awarded futurist and author, an early invention included an omni-font character recognition system, a machine he developed that reads text in any font for the blind. Locked in the dark, singer Stevie Wonder was the first to buy a production model.
Kurzweil observed that through the many years some inventions took to become fully developed, the market to which they would eventually be introduced would be altered from when the inventions were first conceived.
I realized most inventions fail not because the research and development department couldn’t get them to work but because the timing was wrong. Inventing is alot like surfing; you have to anticipate and catch the wave at just the right moment.
Researching progress through his desire for timely invention led to startling discoveries. By developing metrics measuring- then projecting- steadily lowering manufacturing costs, increased computer memory, minituarization of machine parts, and countless other measures of performance, Kurzweil can determine not only what new possibilities developments enable, but anticipate the date key inventions successfully hit the broader market.
The power (price-performance, speed, capacity and bandwidth) of information technologies is growing exponentially, at present doubling about every year. This principle applies to a wide range of measures, including the amount of human knowledge.
This theory of accelerating returns pervades Kurzweil’s bestseller The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005). It examines implications in the speed and potential of technology break-throughs. Combining them, he charts predictions for the near future. Kurzweil predicted in an earlier work that a computer would beat the world’s best chess champions by 1998. The supercomputer ‘Deep Blue’ did just that in May 1997. Bill Gates has called him “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.”
Kurzweil uses the term The Singularity to represent “the nearly vertical phase of exponential growth that occurs when the rate is so extreme that technology [reaches near] infinite speed…an acute and abrupt break in the conformity of progress”. According to Kurzweil, we are rapidly approaching the “knee of the curve”. With rates of brain-scanning bandwidth doubling every year for example, Kurzweil marks 2029 as the date by which humans have developed the necessary tools for successful reverse-engineering of the human brain; closer than many would imagine.
With exponential growth of even the exponential speed (the exponent) in information technologies, his same logic suggests the arrival of computers capable of performing functions trillions of times faster than the human brain by mid-century. Theorists concerned by a finite (human) ability to grasp and continue to improve on technological breakthroughs needn’t worry according to Kurzweil. As he explains in this TIME magazine article,
You get people who really accept, yes, things are progressing exponentially, but they fall off the horse at some point because the implications are too fantastic. I’ve tried to push myself to really look.
Neuro-plasticity, the way our brain patterns alter to accomodate new forms of communication, show that at each successive stage; instant messaging, audio-visual communication, genome mapping, travel at distances and speeds vastly in excess at which our forefathers could experience, we have kept pace with advancement. The seeming linear pace of progress of our near past would appear like a thunder-clap singularity from the standpoint of a few hundred years ago. However, Kurzweil also points to genetic design and computer augmentation as avenues to transcend biological limitations into the future. In short, our very inventions will enable our bodies to use further advancements.
While experts continue to debate Kurzweil’s theory, his unique brand of techno-optimism has made him something of a pop-phenomenon. The Singularity is Near has been translated into a documentary of the same name, and another The Transcendent Man chronicles Kurzweil’s life and his researched implications for human longevity and intelligence. Kurzweil’s ‘singularity’ not only imagines, but is making future appointments for, a universe of exciting possibilities ♦
[Presenter and Singularity enthusiast Jason Silva shares the excitement in this interview with Barry Ptolemy, director of Transcendent Man (approx. 8 mins). The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005) is available from Penguin Press. Kurzweil's current book project is entitled How the Mind Works and How to Build One.]