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JUNE 29, 2000


The Future According to Ray Kurzweil

The visionary and author tells expo-goers to expect mind-shattering, exponential development in computing and other tech fields

Ray Kurzweil's recent book "The Age of Spiritual Machines" looked far into the future, when electronic devices may think, act, and even feel emotions the way humans do. And true to form, the technologist and renowned visionary cut a wide swath across history in a Thursday morning keynote speech at PC Expo.

Kurzweil's talk ranged from human evolution and the Cambrian Explosion, when the number of life forms on earth exploded, to not-yet-invented one-inch computer cubes far more powerful than the human brain. The underlying theme: It's all exponential, from the development of new technologies to the growth of economies to the life spans of humans. "Well see 1,000 times more technological progress in the 21st century than we saw in the 20th," said Kurzweil. "It's remarkable how people fail to internalize the implications of this."

AWESOME PERIOD.   When it comes to implications, Kurzweil knows where of he speaks. A renowned MIT computer scientist who also has a degree in literature, Kurzweil has started half a dozen companies and played a crucial role in the development of cutting-edge technologies in speech recognition and artificial intelligence, among other fields.

Aside from sitting on the boards of numerous companies and running his own consultancy and technology company, Kurzweil Tech, Ray Kurzweil has also proved his mettle as an insightful technology pundit.

His message these days is that we are witnessing an awesome period during which technological growth accelerates in everything from biotechnology to telecommunications to disk storage space. As a result, the entire world will change right before our eyes in our lifetime, and decidedly for the better.

PARADIGM SHIFT.   Kurzweil predicted that at PC Expo in 2009 or 2019, attendees will wear tiny computers, and images of slides and presentations will be beamed directly onto their retinas. And after 2019, Kurzweil says life expectancy of humans in advanced countries will increase by an entire year or more each year because of rapid-fire advances in science that will treat currently intractable diseases.

This might sound far-fetched. But, says Kurzweil, all of this makes more sense when people start to understand that the trajectory of development curves in most aspects of the world are exponential -- but the human condition forces us to view these curves as linear. "One has a different view of the future if you view it exponentially, instead of in linear terms," said Kurzweil.

In a series of paired graphs that illustrated the exponential nature of progress, Kurzweil showed how Moore's Law and silicon circuit boards constitute the fifth paradigm shift -- in computation alone. (It was preceded by electro-mechanical, relay-based, vacuum-tube-based, and transistor-based computing.) "And it's not just applicable to computation. It's applicable to telecommunications, biotechnology, bandwidth, disk drives -- everything," he said.

The advances are such that in our lifetimes billions of tiny molecular computers could be used inside our brains to map neural activity and, through gentle electrical impulses create a "virtual reality" that is completely indistinguishable from the sensory reality of the physical world. Computers will become invisible, tightly woven into our clothes, houses, cars, and the fabric of our lives, believes Kurzweil.

ADVICE FOR GREENSPAN.   Ultimately, computers will become so powerful that they will dwarf the mental capabilities of mankind and even begin to take on human characteristics such as spontanteity and impulsive discoveries. These same computers will create communication systems between people that are far more complex than voice or written transmissions, where massive amounts of knowledge in the form of neural network patterns can be transferred from one wired human brain to another.

The constant flow of innovation will also create an era of steady deflation. In fact, Kurzweil suggested that the U.S. Federal Reserve should focus less on interest-rate judgements based on oil prices and the consumer price index and more on the effects of exponential growth in computational power and bandwidth.

Furthermore, Kurzweil hopes that these technology advances will filter out to the rest of the world and enable the planet to finally fulfill the most basic needs of all its inhabitants. In that optimistic view he serves as the foil to fellow technologist Bill Joy, who published a controversial essay in April warning of the dangers of machines that think too much and too well. "I'm optimistic we'll make it through the next century, but I'm hopeful we'll make it through less painfully than the last," he said.

Salkever is a staff reporter at Business Week Online

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