My New Hero

Ray Kurzweil has an interesting interview about the future of technology in CIO Magazine this month, one which perfectly expresses a lot of my feelings about the future.
A link to it is right here, but I’ll pull out a choice bit for the lazy:

What about people? What will we be like? What will we be doing?
Technology progresses at an exponential pace because we use the latest generation of technology to create the next generation. That’s a process that began with biology. It took billions of years to create DNA, but once it had evolved an information processing capacity to store and record the results of evolutionary experiments, the DNA could use that for the next stage. That was the Cambrian explosion.

We see that also in technology. The first computers were designed with pen on paper, and they were put together with screwdrivers and wires. Today, a designer sits down at a workstation and puts in formulas that look very much like software programming. The chips are laid out automatically and fabricated automatically, so the process takes days or weeks rather than years. That’s why the products of technology grow exponentially in price, performance and capability. So the creation of technology is already very much a collaborative process between humans and machines.

I think it’s important to understand that technology and human civilization are deeply integrated and that that integration is going to become more intimate. We’re getting closer to our computers. I was talking to a woman yesterday who said her 10-year-old son’s notebook is an extension of him. She said it might as well be inside him. Well, soon computers will be inside us. Within one to two decades, we will be able to place nonbiological intelligence inside us, noninvasively.

By the 2020s we will be placing millions or billions of nanobots—blood cell-size devices—inside our bloodstream to travel into our brains and interact with our neurons. We will be extending our cognitive capability directly through this intimate merger of biology with machines.

Right now, there’s a restricted architecture to the way our brains work. The brain uses electrochemical signaling for information processing, and that’s a million times slower than electronic circuits. You can make only about 100 trillion connections in there. That may seem like a big number, but the way in which we store information is inefficient, so that a master of an area of knowledge can really remember only about 100,000 chunks of knowledge. If you use Google, you can already see the power of what machines can do. In the future, we will be able to expand the 100 trillion connections we have with new, virtual ones. Once nonbiological intelligence gets a foothold in our brains, it will grow exponentially. As we get to the 2030s, human beings will have biological brains enhanced with more powerful nonbiological thought processes.

So the answer to your question is, if we remain unenhanced, if you just had machines developing on a distinct track, they would surpass humans. But that’s not what’s happening. We are merging.”

10 Responses to “My New Hero”

To be nitpicky: He needs a small lesson in evolutionary biology.

I think he ignores the cost issue of this integration. Sure, the uberwealthy will be able to integrate, but that will create a bottom class of “non-cybers” who will be of lesser and lesser ability, and therefore value, in the world he envisions. Capitalism is a bitch for idealists (I say this as an idealist).

Also, while I agree that technology’s growth will be exponential, it will be deterministic in nature, and self-limiting. Apples can’t imagine oranges. Though the involvement of humans will mediate that effect to a degree (possibly less of a degree the more the technology becomes integrated with the human).

Owen - October 17th, 2004 at 1:43 pm

Owen, don’t you think everything is deterministic? If so, it ceases to be a meaningful criterion. 😛

Actually, I disagree with you almost entirely. Apples can’t imagine oranges? Then how did RNA lead to proteins lead to memes lead to mechanics lead to electronics lead to quantum mechanics? Radical processes are possible, but take lots of little steps. I disagree that it’s self-limiting, too.

As to the fact that there would be haves and have-nots? Every human society larger than family band (and some, even there) has this distinction. It’s not going to go away for a long, long time, if ever. But we shouldn’t abandon hope of progreess because of that.

Paradoxdruid - October 17th, 2004 at 2:08 pm

I am not sure his time-line is very realistic either. Where as I do agree that we are moving towards you micro and nano technology I am not sure that in 30 years that we will have made the necessary advance in either robotics or neurology to be effectly able to merge those two. I can really talk in depth about the robtics but my understanding of nerual biology is that they stubling around in the dark in many areas.

I am also not sure about the advances in technology holding to their current pace. I think it would be foolish to assume that we can maintain this pace forever. At somepoint, something well provided enough of a barrier that the advances will slow until the obstical can be over come. We have seen evidence of socail pressures doing such a thing. I imagine there other more techincal issues that could come up.

However I think the essay makes some good points about who technology is progress and how digital and organic technologies are likely to advance.

Gilvoro - October 17th, 2004 at 3:54 pm

Bah, I think that science is improving (very, very roughly) “exponentially,” looking back on how much progress we’ve made in the past 50 years compared to the last couple millenia, but I also think there is a component of chance. Heck, some of the first antibiotics were discovered by chance, and what a major breakthrough that was. I think it’s really hard to predict the future in science, honestly. And… I’m not sure how much sense there is in arguing over how quickly this or that is going to be developed decades down the road… we should just wait and see 😛 (I mean, we’re trying our hardest as it is!)
Then again, I guess that kind of defeats the purpose of most science fiction writers then 🙂 (Maybe I should re-think that…)

Teisha - October 17th, 2004 at 6:14 pm

what happens when it goes asymptotic? 😛

mallorn - October 18th, 2004 at 12:23 pm

You laugh, Mallorn, but a lot of (supposedly serious and well-respected) people wonder the same thing, and have dubbed that moment the “Singularity”.

Personally, I think they’re full of it. 🙂

Paradoxdruid - October 18th, 2004 at 2:44 pm

Assuming an “asymptotic” state on a graph with a mostly vague y axis is of any sort of significance. Not to mention it’s unitless. What IS the unit for “technological development”?

Owen - October 19th, 2004 at 7:31 am

There’s a lot of very valuable mathematics and engineering that’s done without units.

mallorn - October 19th, 2004 at 10:16 am

But for there to be any meaning to an asymptotic state the measured thing would have to have definable increments in the first place (i.e. a unit).

Owen - October 19th, 2004 at 11:35 am

Here’s a nice quick summary of “The Singularity”:

Paradoxdruid - October 19th, 2004 at 12:38 pm

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