The transition from today's technology to the immanent singularity of 2020 and beyond may not be as disruptive as Ray Kurzweil's critics imagine. "With rather crude resolution, we already are experiencing virtual reality via the World Wide Web," Kurzweil explained. "By 2030, it will be full immersion, high-resolution virtual reality where content will dominate." For technical professionals such as electronic design engineers or artists and poets, the generation of content will be a dominant activity. Full- immersion virtual reality, blended with advanced computational capability, will simply remove irrelevant physical barriers that currently limit creative and social interaction.
Kurzweil can be taken at his word, maybe.
From his very first career moves, Ray Kurzweil, inventor, futurist, author and entrepreneur, has applied a signature design approach: take an impossible problem and engineer a total systems solution. The result is a unique product difficult or impossible for competitors to duplicate. The novel products also carry another inherent advantage-the automatic generation of wide publicity.
His first success-the Kurzweil Reading Machine-incorporated fundamental advances in optical character recognition and speech synthesis. But these advances, by themselves, were useless without some simple and compact means of reading text into a computer. Undaunted, Kurzweil and his engineering team invented the CCD-based flatbed scanner in order to tie these innovations together into a working system. Only a few prototypes had been built when Kurzweil was invited to demonstrate his reading machine on TV's "Today Show." The demo generated a sensation, catapulting his small startup into the national spotlight. The reading machine for the blind appeared in 1976, an early time for advanced optical character recognition and speech synthesis. Since then the supporting technology and Kurzweil's stream of inventions have only accelerated.
The instant publicity created by the reading machine laid the foundations for his second company: Kurzweil Music Systems. "I was surprised one day when the switchboard told me that Stevie Wonder was on the phone, requesting one of our machines," Kurzweil recalled. It was a slightly embarrassing situation since the company only had a few prototypes, which had not yet reached the product stage. The well-known singer wanted to come over and get one anyway, and the resulting contact has turned into a lifelong friendship.
|Entrepreneur and inventor Ray Kurzweil postulates
that virtual reality will remove irrelevant physical barriers by 2030. |
Discussions between the musician and inventor about some fundamental differences between acoustic and electronic instruments led Kurzweil to attack the problem of realistic sound synthesis. "Acoustic instruments have a rich, aesthetic sound, but each one is unique and mastering them requires a lot of physical skill. In addition, unlike electronic systems, there is no way to record what you have performed in an editable form." Electronic instruments had the drawback of producing thin, synthesized sound with little interesting variation, but were highly versatile in terms of editing and overlaying sound tracks.
Like the early reading machine project, addressing the chasm between acoustic and electronic forms required solving a hard problem: as with speech synthesis, generating realistic acoustical instrument sounds was an unsolved problem. By 1984, Kurzweil was able to claim success by introducing the Kurzweil 250 which could generate realistic piano and orchestral sounds.
Next on his agenda was the problem of speech recognition, which led to the founding of a third company, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence. The speech-recognition capabilities were merged with expert-systems technology to produce a system that allowed doctors to generate medical reports by simply talking to their computers.
Not content with fomenting revolutionary technology through engineering and business ventures, Kurzweil has taken up the task of analyzing current technology and projecting its likely course in the 21st century.
Kurzweil the futurist gauges technological change from a very wide perspective. He has no problem extending current events back to the Greeks and Romans and presents compelling graphs of technological change that carry a disturbing message: We are approaching a fundamental discontinuity in human affairs somewhere around the year 2020. In his analysis, neither the general public nor most technical professionals is aware of the magnitude of change facing humanity. The thesis, which will be presented in a forthcoming book titled The Singularity is Near, is based on the fact that technological advances create a positive feedback loop that is described by "double exponential" curves. For example, circuit designers are now tackling 10-million-transistor designs only because they recently solved the 1-million-transistor chip problem a few years back, leading to much more powerful EDA tools.
These double exponential curves start out almost horizontally. For example, Kurzweil graphs the increase in computational power for all types of mechanical and electronic machines over the entire 20th century and finds that Moore's Law, which only recently generated a lot of press, dovetails with earlier computational generations, fitting smoothly into a double exponential curve. Viewed over the entire century, the curve looks fairly leisurely. However, technology is just approaching the curve's knee, where it will change from mostly horizontal to mostly vertical in a few years. Because the public tends to analyze trends over only a few years, the looming impact of this bend in the curve is still invisible.
Mathematically, a singularity is defined as a point where a variable increases beyond all finite values, or "goes to infinity." Physical systems approaching a singularity cannot go to infinity. What they do instead is transform themselves into a completely new form, governed by essentially new laws. In Kurzweil's big picture, not only computation, but also other technological arenas such as networking, virtual reality and nanotechnology are converging on the same singularity.
Within that singularity, Kurzweil expects the boundary between man and machine to essentially dissolve. The brain will be completely mapped, and it will be possible to noninvasively scan a person's brain and download it to a neurocomputer, creating an exact working copy of any individual. Another scenario has millions of nanobots equipped with wireless transmitters injected into the blood stream. They find their way to the brain and lodge themselves near synapses, creating the ultimate electronic connection between the brain and the outside world. This type of connectivity could be used to generate the ultimate virtual-reality system, since the nanobots could take over the functions of all the senses, broadcasting a distant scene downloaded over the Internet or a computer-generated reality directly into the brain.
The bottom line, however, for the continuing acceleration of technology, is the fact that the now humdrum human intellect will yoke itself to vast computational resources. Not only does nonbiological intelligence offer endless expansion of intellectual resources, everyone's brain will be linked intimately with the exponentially increasing capability of machine intelligence as well.
Kurzweil acknowledges that consciousness has always been a thorny philosophical problem, and it is largely unresolved even today. In the future networked virtual world, biological humans will be encountering highly intelligent, aesthetically evolved virtual entities that will command their respect.
These entities will join the political and social discourse of their times and perhaps establish their own political constituency. At least, that's the hope, or fear.