Ray Kurzweil has always had an eye for solving problems, whether it was with his reading machine for the blind or his Kurzweil K250 synthesizer. Now he is dedicated to solving humankind’s greatest problem — the advent of death. This was the topic of his lecture Saturday night in Wheeler Auditorium, as part of Cal Events’ “Strictly Speaking” lecture series.
The world-renowned tech prophet is the leading proponent of Futurism, a movement that claims that, in the year 2045, technology will be so advanced that human beings will have to merge with it to keep up, an event labeled the “Singularity.” While this vision he described to his captive audience included fantastical achievements in technology, Kurzweil rattled them off with the matter-of-fact tone of an accountant discussing stock shares. This self-assurance is due to meticulously calculated science.
Moore’s Law is a technological paradigm first used to describe the rapid growth of the microchip. It now acts as the spine for Kurzweil’s theories. Conceptually ,certain technologies have been advancing at an exponential rate due to an increase in price-performance The easiest way to illustrate this is to think of the evolution of the computer: In the early 1960s, a computer was incredibly expensive, took up an entire room and had roughly the same computing power as a calculator. The modern iPhone that sits in your pocket at roughly four ounces has thousands of times more computing power. This is a trend that will only compound further in the future. Kurzweil believes that the key to understanding the Singularity is to think in exponential terms.
“Our built-in predictors of the future that are hard-wired in our brains are linear,” Kurzweil explained in an interview before his lecture. “Exponential growth and linear growth are very different; if you take 40 steps linearly you get 40. If you take 40 steps exponentially, two, four, eight, 16 … you get to a trillion. In fact we’ve seen already a trillionfold increases in price-performance of computers, and we’re going to do that again.”
Kurzweil was recently hired by Google as its director of engineering. His main project will be to develop a search engine that actually understands the questions people ask it, therefore having the capacity to answer just as a human being would in conversation. The trick to breaching this new threshold is buried beneath several necessary breakthroughs in complex language recognition by artificial intelligence.
“We’re inventing new technology,” Kurzweil announced. “I’m collaborating with other A.I. people (at Google). I articulate an approach to artificial intelligence based on hierarchical models … a technique I pioneered in the 1990s.”
Thus far, what separates human intelligence from artificial intelligence is the role of the neo-cortex. Humans can learn from experience and use this ability to formulate new bridges in understanding from what they learn, all while taking in reality around them in a comprehensive manner. Machines currently cannot do this. Kurzweil aims to change that.
“What we really need to do is actually discover how to build that hierarchy from the experience, from the data, so that’s what I’m seeking to do,” Kurzweil revealed. “To really emulate the way the human brain works.”
And once we have finally replicated the brain within the virtual world, we will have found the secret to infinite existence. Cerebral implants would allow us to back up everything that makes us who we are — our memories, our experiences and our personalities — using computer software, just as one might sync the data on his or her iPhone to the iCloud. With this possibility, the imprint of our loved ones can exist forever on a household computer. To some, this notion might seem unnatural and unnerving. To a man like Kurzweil, this is near utopian. But will the unprecedented innovations he describes actually come to fruition? Only the future will tell.