Q&A: Ray Kurzweil, Inventor and Futurist

Ray Kurzweil shares his predictions for the future in Bridges Auditorium at Pomona College on Tuesday. (Michelle Chan • The Student Life)

Renowned inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil is one of the world’s leading experts on technological progress. He is a recipient of the National Medal of Technology, holds 21 honorary doctorates, and has authored five national bestsellers. He visited Pomona College on Feb. 7 and spoke with TSL about his optimistic vision for humanity. Read on for the interview, or listen to the full audio below.

TSL: You talk about an “exponential increase in technological capabilities” due to what you call the Law of Accelerating Returns. Broadly speaking, what do you mean by this and where do you see humanity going?

RK: Specifically, what the Law of Accelerating Returns says is that the price performance and capacity, not of every technology, but of information technology, progresses exponentially, doubling every period of time (which is typically on the order of a year). So, for example, you can get the same amount of computation that you could get a year ago for half the price today, which means it falls by a factor of a thousand in a decade. People have been referring to that as Moore’s Law, but Moore’s Law is really just one paradigm among several that have accomplished that. It started decades before Moore was even born. And it applies not just to computation, but to any information technology. The number of bits we communicate wirelessly has been growing exponentially for a hundred years starting with morse code over AM radio a century ago and continuing with 4G cellular networks today.

TSL: You talk about ‘the singularity.’ What do you mean by that, and when do you think it’s going to happen?

RK: There is one milestone after another that is falling to computer intelligence. Chess in 1987, Go in this past year, and many others. I’ve been consistent in saying that by about 2029, computer intelligence will match human intelligence in the ways in which humans are now superior, particularly in the art of understanding language. We will literally merge with artificial intelligence. I’d say we already are well on our way to doing that. We all carry it on our belts. We communicate with intelligent resources in the cloud on an hourly basis. It’s not yet connected into our brains. It may as well be. It will be, I think, by the 2030s. Just as your phone communicates with the cloud and multiplies its capabilities a millionfold by accessing vast resources in the cloud, we’ll do that directly from our brains, and actually extend the scope and scale of our neocortex. If you follow out the math of the Law of Accelerating Returns, by 2045, we’ll multiply our intelligence a billionfold. That’s the singularity.

TSL: On a purely intuitive level, many of your predictions seem wildly optimistic, and indeed you have a number of critics who dismiss them as such. Why do you think it’s so difficult for us to envision the future you predict, and what can we do to reconcile your ideas with our intuitions?

RK: The power and capacity of information technology grows in an exponential manner. But people don’t think exponentially. Their intuition is linear, not exponential. You take 30 steps linearly, and that gets you to 30. You take 30 steps exponentially, and that gets you to a billion. And that’s what we’ve been seeing.

The key difference between myself and my critics is that they’re looking at the same world I’m looking at and making a linear prediction about where we will be. So, for example, halfway through the genome project, one percent of the human genome had been gathered after seven years. So mainstream critics said “okay, one percent after seven years. It’s going to take 700 years, just like we said.” That was linear thinking. My reaction at the time was “oh, we finished one percent, so we’re almost done.” Because one percent is only seven doublings from 100 percent, and it had been doubling every year. That was going to continue. And indeed, that is what happened, and it did finish seven years later. That exponential progression has continued since the end of the genome project. The first genome cost a billion dollars. Today, you can get sequencing of a genome for a few thousand dollars.

TSL: What are your own intuitions like? Do you have to do this reconciling yourself?

RK: I also have a linear intuition, so I find my own predictions remarkable, but I didn’t start last week. I’ve been doing this since the early 1980s and I have a track record now of several decades making these predictions.

TSL: Many students here care deeply about social justice. What steps can we take to help ensure that the technological advances you predict will be distributed equitably and will help reduce rather than exacerbate inequality?

RK: I think the technology itself is moving in the right direction. Because of this 50 percent deflation rate that’s inherent in the Law of Accelerating Returns, ultimately it becomes very inexpensive. You had to be wealthy to access something like a computer decades ago, and they didn’t work very well. Today, a kid in Africa with their $50 smartphone can access the cloud and has access to more intelligently organized information than the President of the United States did twenty years ago. So there is an inherent democratization in the access to these information services. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be active in making sure it is distributed equitably.

TSL: As a broadly influential figure, many people may be interested in your thoughts on the current political moment in the U.S. Are you concerned about the prospects of a Trump presidency, or about current trends within social justice culture, or both?

RK: I am concerned with appeals to intolerance and I’m very supportive of immigration. My parents were fortunate enough to escape Hitler and come to the United States. I think that in the current political environment, there’s concerns of Mexico and China taking our jobs. That’s actually not where the economic insecurity comes from. I think it comes more from automation. The reality is actually that automation is creating more jobs than it’s been destroying. That’s been true for the 200 years we’ve had since the beginning of the industrial revolution. But that’s not the perception. The weavers in the 1800s looked around and saw that their livelihood was going away to these emerging machines. And indeed it did. So if you were a prescient futurist at the time, you’d say, “don’t worry, we’re going to invent these new jobs.” And people would say, “oh really, what new jobs?” The answer is, “I don’t know. We haven’t invented them yet.” It’s a bad political answer. It happens to be true. For example, in recent years, millions of people are creating apps for mobile devices and trading things on eBay and creating websites. These are things that we didn’t do a decade ago, but people are now making a livelihood out of them. However, it’s very hard to see that until these things actually happen. That said, the need to feel economically secure is very important to people, and I think it’s important that we find ways to give them that. Proposals such as universal guaranteed income could allow people to feel some measure of economic security in light of this very rapid change.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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