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Kurzweil's faith in the future

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Interview Ray Kurzweil thinks he's going to live forever. And, he thinks you and I will too. As he told me, we are the first generation of humans who can expect to achieve immortality because of, amongst other things, advances in modern science and medicine.

Kurzweil is the author of Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology or The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life : How to Reduce Fat in Your Diet and Eliminate Virtually All Risk of Heart Disease and Cancer.

Asked what he'd like to discuss - we take no prisoners here - Kurzweil is quick to state that there "were a couple of misconceptions" he'd like to clear up that he'd thought quite a bit about for a couple of decades.

First off, Kurzweil says that there was this idea that "you cannot predict the future. You can predict a few things," he said, "yes, the wireless standard is a hard thing to predict. MIPS are also hard to predict. If we can't predict a single project, how can we predict an overall scenario?"

But we can predict an overall scenario, Kurzweil says, giving Thermodynamics as an example "The laws of Thermodynamics control a large number of chaotic particles predictably interacting," he reckons.

The second "misconception" sticking in Kurweil's craw regards progress - or more accurately how and in what way it progresses.

"The popular misconception is that progress is linear, "he says testily. "In reality, progress is exponential. The amount of information we hold on our computers is doubling every year and that means near 1000 times more info in 10 years. That's exponential not linear."

In his books, The Age of Intelligent Machines and particularly The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence Kurzweil delves into the human brain extensively.

"The computer has a long way to go before it can really emulate the brain,"Kurzweil notes. "This doubling of the power of IT is very daunting - we're also shrinking technology simultaneously."

"Reverse-engineering the human brain" is what really interests Kurzweil.

"I had an argument recently with a scientist friend of mine who said, 'It'll be a century before we understand any of the real intricacies of the human brain.' I firmly believe that by the late 2020's, we'll have computers that are much more powerful than the human brain," Kurzweil says forcefully.

With the Genome Project for instance, Kurzweil says the researchers were told "no way you'll finish this project in 15 years - it'll take centuries!"

Kurzweil wryly points out they were done in 14. "The interesting thing was, he observed, "that of the 800 million bytes in the Genome, many were redundant. Only 30 to 50 million bytes were singular - "less than the Word program."

No Joy in immortality

This biological effort takes us into another internal area. Kurzweil is very intrigued by "devices that will go inside our bodies, our capillaries and blood vessels."

The name of his book, "Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever,"was obviously borrowed from the great movie "Fantastic Voyage"which seized my and millions of other young imaginations during the 60's when it beautifully depicted a tiny craft, similar to a spaceship, going inside a human body and experiencing all the adventures and misadventures of things like being inside the heart, stomach, brain and other areas where the special effects were light years ahead of their time.

"We've already cured Type 1 Diabetes in mice,"Kurzweil says, adding "and, we've created an FDA-approved neural implant for treatment of Parkinson's disease which allows new software to be downloaded to the inside of people's brains. More than 20 different regions of the brain have been mapped; out of several hundred regions. Within 20 years, we'll understand the entire brain and how it works quite well."

Kurzweil, 57 now, claims he cured his own Type 2 diabetes more than 20 years ago and has successfully slowed-down the aging processes.

"A full-blossoming Biotech Revolution will occur in 10 to 15 years"Kurzweil also claims, "while the Nanotech Revolution will be here in 20 to 25 years."

"Ray Kurzweil is an optimist,"he says forlornly, "and Bill Joy articulates the dangers of technology. "This brings us to an interesting conversation in technology: the Joy Camp versus the Kurzweil Gang.

In April 2000, Joy wrote a piece for Wired Magazine entitled "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." Joy co-founded and was the Chief Scientist for many years of Sun Microsystems; now he's a VC. The three areas of immense concern for Joy, Genetic Engineering; Nanotech; and Robotics kicked off a maelstrom of controversy and scientific sniping. In each area, Joy envisioned a screw-up or the technology running amok similar to a "Terminator-type scenario" where the machines become smarter than and supplant humans. More detailed discourse can be seen here.

As Joy states in this article, meeting Ray Kurzweil in 1998 at George Gilder's Telecosm conference started him thinking about this subject.

While they strongly agree on some things and disagree on others, they cleary like and respect each other.

We're all doomed - maybe

Kurzweil believes the risks are many but that the benefits to humanity far outweigh those risks. In "The Age of Spiritual Machines," Kurzweil describes immortality as the blending of human with machines to achieve this perpetual life. In a good way. None of this wild, violent machine behavior others foresee. All will be for the best in all possible worlds.

So what's all this about "Ray Kurzweil, Optimist?"

"I describe some daunting perils of emerging technologies in chapter 8 of Singularity is Near and talked about them in my 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines (ASM) as well. ASM was the source of the recent focus on the downsides of these new technologies. An advance copy of the book and a discussion I had with Bill Joy led him to write his now famous Wired cover story on technology dangers. Although the common wisdom is that I am the optimist and Joy is the pessimist, we both agree on both the promise and the peril. I co-authored with Joy a recent op-ed article in the New York Times criticizing the recent publication of the 1918 flu genome on the web. So I am focused on both promise and peril."

Kurzweil advises that "we do have to protect certain sensitive info better; we need to put more stones on the defensive side of the scale, create more defensive technologies to combat viruses; and that the high-tech sector should understand trends better and more. This is why I became a futurist."

"It's annoying when people bring up bad predictions from the past," Kurzweil says.

It must come with the territory, though.

"Well, different futurologists have different methodologies. I use the data-driven approach. I'm not aware of that many people using this method which really involves me constantly building models. A linear model may work for only a very short time; even five years is a long time."

Ray Kurzweil certainly sounds like an optimist - but I like optimists. Without them, the world would be a very dark and scary place to live indeed. ®

Bill Robinson has appeared on CNN, PBS, Bloomberg commenting on high-tech and marketing issues and has written columns and articles for FORTUNE Small Business and United Airline's Hemispheres Magazine and Upside Magazine. Bill may be reached at: bill@relentlessmarketing.com

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