Ray Kurzweil On 'The Singularity' Future

The noted futurist has released a movie, The Singularity is Near, exploring how technology may reshape the fabric of our physical reality and life experiences.
Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil
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"When I was a student at MIT, we all shared one computer and it took up a whole building. The computer in your cell phone today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful. What now fits in your pocket 25 years from now will fit into a blood cell and will again be millions of times more cost effective." -- Ray Kurzweil

Tech professionals have become somewhat inured to descriptions of the exponential rise in computing power in what is commonly described as Moore's law. But when inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil strings together dozens of examples on logarithmic graphs to support his claims of an imminent transformational moment in history, it's an intellectual jolt.

Kurzweil's books have attracted a wide following and his latest project, a film, The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future, evokes a more immediate visceral reaction to his projections on how an ever accelerating technology will increasingly reshape the very fabric of our physical reality and living experience.

The movie utilizes the device of dual story lines. The main thrust is a high-level review of technological trends presented through snippets of Kurzweil's interactions with about 20 leading technologists/scientists and futurists. Most are squarely on-board with Ray, agreeing that we are on the cusp of an epochal shift and eager to discuss the profound implications on a range of fields including energy, medicine, health, and law.

Although environmentalist Bill McKibben questions the morality of imposing such vast changes upon on our own lives and shared ecosphere, and technologist Bill Joy reflects on the dangers inherent in these new technologies, most see the shift as inevitable and generally of tremendous benefit for those of us lucky enough to be alive to experience it. The story's B-line traces Kurzweil's virtual creation, Ramona, through a predicament where she has to pass the Turing Test and fool a panel into thinking she is a real human being. For most of us, the question of when machines will be able to emulate the complexity marking human intelligence is an engaging philosophical pursuit (Ray has a $20,000 bet with Mitch Kapor, creator of Lotus 1-2-3 on this topic), but for Ramona this is a matter of survival, as she will be terminated if she fails.

Despite being in mortal danger, the heroine is able to multi-task, studying for her upcoming exam while combating an insidious planetary threat that several big, bad, and bald "apparatchiks" from homeland security seem all too ready ignore as they obsess on restricting technological and political access to her and other artificially intelligent beings.

Like the character Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Ramona's computationally based intellect is vastly superior to that of her human counterparts, but she still struggles with the subtleties involved in a complex emotional response. Some of the film's constructs chronicling her evolution work well, some are a bit over the top, but the scene of Ramona on a virtual tropical island being coached to get in touch with her inner feelings by Tony Robbins, her own personal Yoda, has my vote as the scene most likely to morph into a classic campy YouTube meme.

The A and B story lines intersect around the nature of the new intelligence we are spawning. Kurzweil considers this phenomenon within a more significant process he has coined as "the law of accelerating returns." He asserts that as quickly as things seem to be moving now, the actual rate of change in our technology is exponentially accelerating as well.

Furthermore, not only are all of our current information-based technologies expanding at an exponential rate, but perhaps even more significantly, a similar revolution has begun in three other critical disciplines; genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. Kurzweil explains that these technologies are essentially another manifestation of the manipulation of information and, as they progress, they will synergistically overlap, thereby increasing the impact of their intertwined realms.

What Is Singularity?

The Singularity in the film's title refers to a point in time when the planet's non-biological intelligence will be one billion times more powerful than the sum of all human intelligence existing today. At that point, the non-biological intelligence will have begun to analyze and improve itself in increasingly rapid redesign cycles. Technical progress will be so fast that un-enhanced humans would be unable to follow it. Kurzweil posits that this will occur in 2045 and concedes the extreme difficulty in making predictions past that point.

However, that doesn't stop him from doing so, including surmising on harnessing the computational power available in simple matter (such as a rock) and humanity's eventual destiny to spread intelligence throughout the universe. I consider these cosmological constructs akin to medieval debates on the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, and check out decades before Kurzweil sees us reaching this point.

While not being much of a believer in human destiny, I feel we are on the cusp of a dizzying array of fundamental shifts, but wonder if some of Kurzweil's other predictions -- such as being able to meet all of our energy needs through renewable sources in a mere 20 years -- will be anywhere near accurate. More selfishly I'm intrigued by his belief that we are about to witness a dramatic extension in life expectancies, initially through the introduction of nanotechnologies into our bodies and eventually through the merger of our thoughts and feelings with our progeny, the ever-expanding non-biological intelligence that we are creating.

In reviewing predictions from Kurzweil's 1998 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, I believe he's batting a bit over 500. (Ray sees his rate being significantly better -- close to 90%.) On the broad scale, if Kurzweil's predictions take twice as long to occur, they won't even show up as a blip on future logarithmic graphs.

However, like any other aging baby boomer, my time is short. A few extra years can equal eternity in my opportunity to personally experience this transformed reality. That's why I'm rooting for Ray's timeframe (and suspect it's why he's projecting it too), hoping that instead of using my one-way ticket to see the Terminator, I'll be bathing in the immersive glow of a virtual Ponce De Leon's fountain of youth.

How To See It

In addition to the June 24th New York showing attended by this writer, The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future has been presented at the Sonoma International Film Festival, Breckenridge Festival of Film, and the San Antonio Film Festival. At the Breckenridge Festival of Film it won the Best Special Effects and 2nd Place Audience Award.

As many producers have found, it's apparently easier to string thousands of computers together over the Net to help search for extraterrestrial life than it is to find channels to profitably distribute an independent film. Unfortunately the short of it is that Singularitarians and the general public will have wait awhile before having the opportunity to view the movie. Visit the movie's official site for information updates.

For Further Reading

Q & A: Futurist Ray Kurzweil

Kurzweil: Computers Will Enable People To Live Forever

Kurzweil, Hawkins Offer Different Timetables On Development of Self-Aware Computers

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