Ray Kurzweil: Life in the Future

Will new technologies fundamentally change what it means to be human? Inventor and author Ray Kurzweil talks about technological change and its effects on everything from health to artificial intelligence.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

What do you think about when you imagine the future, perhaps a future as little as 50 years down the road? Well, if you remember those Popular Science magazines and things where they always talked about flying cars, we had robotic servants--well, you're not thinking big enough, according to my next guest.

Ray Kurzweil says that technology is changing so fast and changing ever faster that we probably can't even begin to comprehend what the future's going to look like. What happens when advances in technology produce machine intelligences that are even smarter than we are? Some thinkers call the idea the singularity. That's a comparison, of course, to the confusing physics in the space around a black hole, a gravitational singularity. Does technology have the potential to bring almost limitless power? How about immortality? And should it?

Well, that's what we're going to be talking about for the rest of the hour with Ray Kurzweil. He's the inventor of countless technological devices, especially in the fields of music synthesis, speech recognition, reading technology, optical character recognition--you know, the whole gamut. You've been following his career. He's the author of several books, including his latest, "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology," published by Viking, and also known for his book "Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever," published last year by Rodale. Our number, 1 (800) 989-8255; 1 (800) 989-TALK.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. RAY KURZWEIL (Author, "The Singularity Is Near"): Good to be with you again, Ira.

FLATOW: Good to have you back. When we talk about a singularity--and let me quote from your own writing way in the book about singularity, and you call yourself--"a singulatarian is someone who understands the singularity and has reflected on its meaning for his or her own life. I have engaged in such reflection for several decades. Needless to say, it is not a process that one can ever complete." How do you get started if you can't complete it?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, I think you alluded to one of the key ideas, which is that technology is accelerating. And, actually, that might seem obvious, but relatively few observers take that into consideration. We're doubling the power of information technology every year, doubling the price performance, the capacity, the bandwidth, and it's not just electronics; it's really anything having to do with information, including, for example, biology, which you were just talking about. It took us 15 years to sequence HIV; we sequenced SARS in 31 days. Our knowledge of the brain, which is our information processes, is doubling every year. The amount of data we have, the spatial resolution, our brain scanning is doubling every year. I mean, we could list 50 or 60 different...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. KURZWEIL: ...information measures which are growing in this exponential fashion. Doubling every year means multiplying by a thousand in 10 years, a billion in 30 years--it's actually 25 years. If you think about how powerful--information technology--computers, communications, the Internet--our knowledge of biology is already, and then multiply that by a billion in 25 years, and the factor in the fact that it's also miniaturizing at a rate of five per linear dimension per decade, so these technologies in 3-D volume will be thousands of times smaller and a billion times more powerful, and you come up with some pretty remarkable capabilities.

And one of the key ideas here is that, as you mentioned, we'll be able to capture human intelligence in a non-biological system--a machine, if you will--but these machines won't be like machines that we're used to. If you look at--and the hardware side of this equation is not even controversial; just look at Intel's Roadmap or the so-called ITRS Roadmap from the semiconductor industry, and you'll see that a chip in 2020 will have 5 nanometer features and will be as powerful as the human brain, a thousand times more powerful than the human brain by 2030.

And the more important issue, the software, the methods of human intelligence, are being sort of unraveled through this grand project to reverse-engineer the human brain to understand its principles of operation. And there, again, we're making exponential gains in our understanding. We already have models, detailed mathematical models and simulations of a couple dozen regions out of the few hundred that exist in the human brain, and we can apply, for example, advanced psychoacoustic tests of this model of the auditory cortex and get similar results as applying these tests to human auditory perceptions. There's actually a simulation of the cerebellum where we do a skill formation, which comprises more than half the neurons in the brain, and then...

FLATOW: But isn't there a difference between figuring out how our senses work and figuring out how we synthesize ideas?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, the cerebellum, actually, is not sensory. It has to do with skill formation, and it's closely related to the key thing that the brain does, which is pattern recognition. But if you're saying that we haven't finished the project of reverse-engineering the human brain, you're correct, but the progress is exponential. And we've shown that as we get the data from very high-resolution scans that can now actually see individual interneural connections in the brain and see them operate in real time, we're able to turn this detailed data into working models, mathematically expressed, and simulations. And I make the case in chapter four in the book that it's really a conservative expectation that in 20 years we will have detailed models of the several hundred regions of the brain, which will include our pattern recognition, which is really the key to human intelligence, as well as our other cognitive functions.

FLATOW: Are there no limiting factors that might pop in to derail a picture like this?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, good question. People say, well, you can't extend exponentials forever. Rabbits in Australia grow exponentially, but then they hit a wall when they eat up all the foliage.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KURZWEIL: And right now we're growing computation because of Moore's Law, shrinking transistors on an integrated circuit; that will hit a wall around 2020 because the key features will be a few--couple dozen atoms in width. We won't be able to shrink them anymore. But Moore's Law is not the first, but the fifth paradigm to bring exponential growth to computing, and every time a paradigm ran out of steam--for example, with shrinking vacuum tubes in the 1950s, and that hit a wall, and then we went to another paradigm: transistors. And we'll go to the sixth paradigm well before 2020, which will be three-dimensional molecular computing, and I calculate the capability of that--a one-inch cube of nanotube circuitry, which is already working in laboratories. In fact, a nanotube-based memory is due to hit the market next year. A one-inch cube would be millions of times more powerful than the capability of the human brain at its limit.

So we can continue these trends, you know, well through the 21st century and well past a point where these computational models can be far more powerful than the human brain. And now you might wonder, well, what's the big deal with capturing human intelligence? We already have a lot of human intelligence. We've got...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KURZWEIL: ...billions of human brains in the world. There's two things to consider. It'll be a powerful combination to take the subtle pattern recognition powers of human intelligence and apply it to machines, which already can demonstrate things we can't do; for example, sharing knowledge and skills at electronic speeds which are a million times faster than language, and then it will continue to grow exponentially. The, you know, amount of biological intelligence we have, which I estimate to be 10 to the 26th power calculations per second among all human brains, is fixed, will reach a crossover point in the 2020s where the non-biological capabilities we have will exceed that and then continue to grow at a factor of a thousand in less than a decade.

So it'll continue to grow. Non-biological intelligence can master science and engineering, read all the literature out on the Web, access its own source code and prove itself in an ever faster iterative design cycle.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. In fact...

Dr. KURZWEIL: Also...

FLATOW: ...you believe we can download our brains soon--not soon, but we should be able to eventually download the knowledge.

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, that's actually more difficult than just capturing the basic principles of operation of human intelligence, which would be significant enough. But ultimately, we'll be able to send little scanners through the bloodstream, go inside the capillaries of our brain and actually scan details of our own brains, and then sort of recreate something that would have our own knowledge and skills and personality. But I think the real significance, though, is to capture human intelligence and then not have it be some kind of invasion from--of these intelligent machines, but actually enhance our own intelligence by--which we arguably already do, since we routinely do intellectual feats that would be impossible without our computers. And we're getting closer and closer to our machines. They're now in our pockets. They'll ultimately be in our clothing. They will make their way into our bodies and brains and keep us healthy from inside, and then also go inside our brains and enhance our cognitive functions, enhance our memories, our skills, our pattern recognition, and really directly enhance human intelligence.

FLATOW: So do you think--in your book you talk about nanotechnology actually creating immortality by repairing all the parts of your body, eventually.

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, radical life extension will proceed in what we call three bridges. And bridge one is today's knowledge, and we talk about how even baby boomers, like my co-author of "Fantastic Voyage," Terry Grossman, and myself, can apply today's knowledge in an aggressive way to slow down aging disease processes. We can really stop things like atherosclerosis, which cause heart attacks, and dramatically reduce the risk of cancer, and so that baby boomers and, certainly, people who are younger--and even a little older--can be in good shape. Only 10 or 15 years from now, when we have the second braid, which is the full flowering of the biotechnology revolution--biology today is entering a new paradigm, where we're actually understanding biology as the information processes that they are, and gaining the tools to reprogram them.

I mean, how much software do you have that you haven't changed in 30 months, let alone 30,000 years? And yet we have these 23,000 software programs, genes, that evolved, you know, tens of thousands of years ago, which have not changed very much, and we're gaining the tools to actually reprogram them. RNA interference, for example, can turn genes off by destroying the messenger RNA that expresses them. There's new forms of gene therapy that can effectively add or turn on genetic information. We can turn on and off enzymes, which are the workhorses of biology. So, for example, Pfizer's torcetrapib destroys one key enzyme that destroys HDL in the blood, and actually, the Phase II trial showed that it was quite effective in stopping atherosclerosis and is spending a record $1 billion in the Phase III trials...

FLATOW: Ray, I think people, you know, can easily be convinced about, you know, cleaning our arteries, you know, protecting their body parts. I think they get a little more upset when they talk about our brains and actually--you talk about the ability that actual experiences will be shifted from real reality to virtual reality through brain implants that'll enable us to experience other people's lives. Is that...

Dr. KURZWEIL: We'll have full immersion visual-auditory virtuality without going inside the body and brain, you know, really in the next decade. I'm on the Army Science Advisory Board and experienced the sort of Army technology they have that can put a soldier in a virtual-reality...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KURZWEIL: ...environment that writes images directly to the retina. And this will be a routine technology, where you can really feel like you're with someone else visually and auditorily with high bandwidth connections, and this will all be in our clothing but it won't be inside our bodies and brains.

But let me tell you what we can do already, today, and then imagine applying this sort of billion-fold increase in price performance and capability of electronics and communications over the next 25 years. There's four major conferences on bioMEMS of putting blood-cell-sized devices in the bloodstream of animals that actually are performing complex therapeutic functions. One scientist cured Type I diabetes in rats, which lets insulin out in a controlled fashion, blocks antibodies. It's in seven-nanometer pores. It's a nano-engineered device. And this is actually something being done now, so if you take what's already being done--or another example is putting neural implants in people's brains, so people with Parkinson's disease can have a computer that replaces the destroyed tissue that actually then interacts with their biological neurons, and so these people actually have a hybrid of biological and non-biological intelligence. And the latest generation of this neural implant actually allows you to download new software to your neural implant from outside the patient, and this is an FDA-approved therapy. So this--and it requires surgery today.

But if you apply this miniaturization by factors of thousands over the next 20 years and increase in price performance and power of this electronics and communications over the next 20, 25 years, these nanobots, these blood cell-size devices, can be very sophisticated and really interact with our biological neurons. But there are already people who have computers interacting with their biological neurons, you know, for serious medical problems. And that's today.

FLATOW: Talking with Ray Kurzweil on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News, author of the new book "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology." Our number is 1 (800) 989-8255.

Let's see if we can get some phone calls. Rick in Sedona. Hi, Rick. Sedona, Arizona.

RICK (Caller): Hi. This is Rick.

FLATOW: Hi, Rick. Go ahead.

RICK: I just wanted to make a comment relative to the ethical side of your question, you know, should we allow technology to move this direction? And first of all, I wanted to say that I absolutely agree with the guest that we can't even begin to imagine what the future holds. But in relationship to that, I don't believe we can even begin to imagine the forces that, you know, are allowing these technological advances to occur. So in answer to the question and to use a slightly controversial relationship to the comment that I don't believe any of these advances would be possible without an intelligent design aspect. So it seems evident to me that some form of higher power is absolutely guiding and allowing these advances to occur. And so wherever we end up as a human species, it will be in relationship to that one God, that one intelligent design, whether that be the dark matter, the black hole or God him or herself.

FLATOW: Ray, any comment?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, without commenting directly, let me say that what I call the law of accelerating returns that's articulated in the book is a theory of evolution. And of course as evolution proceeds, whether it's biological evolution or technology evolution, entities don't necessarily become more complex. Some become simpler, some become more complicated, some become more intelligent. But the complexity of the most complex entities does increase over time. That's what we see in biological evolution. And entities have evolved that are more intelligent. And then ultimately we had a species that combined cognitive capability with an opposable appendage, a thumb that could manipulate the environment. And that brought in technology. And technology has actually continued this exponential progression. We always use the latest technology to create the next. And, you know, I would allow people to argue philosophically as to why this occurs and, you know, how the universe could allow these kinds of evolutionary processes to take place, came into being. I mean, it's a philosophical discussion. But we can actually simulate evolution in a computer and see that it does create, you know, more capable, more complex and often more intelligent solutions over time.

And so that's what this theory is. And a related question is can we really predict the future? And you would think that the future is very unpredictable. And that's true of specific projects. It's very hard to tell, you know, what will the next wireless standard be? Will it be WiMAX, CDMA G3? But if you're asking me, you know, what will the price performance of computing be in 2010 or how much will it cost to sequence a base pair of DNA in 2012 or the spatial resolution of brain scanning in 2014, I can give you a figure, because these things have been progressing very smoothly and very exponentially for long periods of time. And I've got dozens of examples in the book, some of which go back a century, of this computation. And you might wonder, how could that be? I mean, how could we make reliable predictions when each project's unpredictable?

And we see a similar thing in thermodynamics. You know, the path of each particle in a gas is unpredictable, yet the overall properties of the gas are very predictable, according to the laws of thermodynamics, to a high level of precision. And that's because all of these unpredictable particles are in a complex system and we can predict certain properties of that overall complex system. And...

FLATOW: All right, I got...

Dr. KURZWEIL: ...that's true of technology evolution.

FLATOW: All right, we'll come back and talks lots more with Ray Kurzweil. And his book, "The Singularity Is Near." Taking your questions. We'll talk with Ray about how he believes we can live forever today and what he's done to prepare himself for it. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Announcements)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about the future with my guest, who is an inventor and futurist and technologist, Ray Kurzweil, author of "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology."

Right before I left, I mentioned in passing that you write in your book that you believe we have the ability to live forever even today. And you have taken steps to get there.

Dr. KURZWEIL: Right. We can implement bridge one, as we were chatting about earlier, which by itself won't get us that far, but it will keep us in good shape for another 10 or 15 years until we get the full blossoming of the second bridge.

FLATOW: What was bridge one again, briefly?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Bridge one is applying today's knowledge. For example, I had Type II diabetes 22 years ago, but the conventional treatment actually made it worse, so I invented my own approach involving nutrition, nutritional supplements, completely overcame that problem. I've had no trace of that issue for many years. According to elaborate and sensitive tests, my biological aging hasn't changed much in 15 years.

FLATOW: You haven't gotten older in 15 years; is that what you're saying?

Dr. KURZWEIL: I mean, there's some controversy about these biological aging tests, but I think they have some merit. You measure 40 different things like memory time and reaction and tactile sensitivity and blood levels of different things. And my mind has stayed very stable, whereas typically in the aging process, these things get worse. My cholesterol was 280 20 years ago; it's been 130 for a long time, you know, and so on.

FLATOW: Without drugs or--just with supplements, your own herbal supplements?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Yeah, extensive supplementation to really reprogram my biochemistry using today's knowledge. But what will happen in 10 or 15 years is we'll have the means to really reprogram through biotechnology these information processes involving enzymes and expression of our genes and really reprogram biology--and I talk about that extensively in both of these books--and really stop the processes that lead to the degenerative diseases like heart disease and cancer and diabetes, which cause 95 percent of the deaths in the developed world, and also slow down the aging process. Aging is not one thing; there's a dozen different processes, and we're beginning to understand them and we'll be able to stop most of them.

And the second bridge will lead to the third bridge in maybe 20, 25 years from now, when we can use nanotechnology to actually go beyond the limitations of biology. And that really will enable us ultimately to live indefinitely. I mean, we'll get to a point where we can extend human life expectancy, even remaining life expectancy, by more than a year every year. And then as we go forward, our remaining life expectancy gets further and further out.

FLATOW: What if you can't afford to buy the supplements or can't afford to partake of the medicines or the advances that are going to be coming down the years? Are we going to...

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, let me say...

FLATOW: ...further put a larger gulf between the haves and the have-nots here?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Yeah, let me say two things. First of all, it turns out nutrition and nutrition supplements is, you know, the least expensive, you know, way of staying healthy. I mean, a typical supplement program is measured in hundreds of dollars, generally under a thousand, depending on what issues you have, 'cause it's not a one-size-fits-all--actually eating healthy food like vegetables and fruits and some grains and so on is not so expensive. It's really having the right knowledge.

But in terms of, say, biotechnology, which will be manifested in drugs, rationally designed drugs, not these old form of drug discovery--need to keep in mind that's an information technology, and the price performance doubles every year. You can look at AIDS drugs, actually, a good example. Fifteen years ago it was $30,000 per patient per year and didn't work very well. And now we have drug regimens that actually are quite effective and in the poor countries of Africa it's available for a hundred dollars per patient per year, and although those patients still can't afford it, it's actually affordable now for foundations and NGOs and governments to actually do something about that.

The price performance of sequencing DNA and everything else we look at has been coming down by half by every year. I mentioned it took us 15 years to sequence HIV; we sequenced SARS in 31 days. And going from early adoption of technologies that don't work well and are very expensive to late adoption of very effective and very inexpensive technologies is right now a 10-year process, but even that will speed up. Ten years from now that'll be a five-year process, and 20 years from now it'll be two- or three-year process.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KURZWEIL: Ultimately these technologies are very inexpensive.

FLATOW: Well, what company wants to make a technology that is inexpensive?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, generally what we find--and that's actually a good question because economists worry about this deflationary effect, and I would say that the law of accelerating returns, which is really a 50 percent deflation factor for information technology, is the inflationary force keeping inflation in check right now. That'll become stronger as information technology comprises a bigger part of our economy. But what we see is that people actually consume more. We've had 18 percent per year growth for the last 50 years in information technology despite the fact that you can get twice as much capability per dollar each year.

FLATOW: Yes, but my cable bill keeps going up.

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, you can always look at individual instances, but the overall consumption of information technology more than doubles in terms of capability...

FLATOW: Right. I'm saying--I'm not disagreeing with you about the capability...

Dr. KURZWEIL: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...and the technology and the research. But when it comes down to the consumer level, we're paying more for stuff than, you know, we need to, because you're right, the technology--the information is very cheap; it's getting it that's a little expensive.

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, you know, people didn't buy iPods for $10,000, which is what it would have cost 10 years ago.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KURZWEIL: So when price performance reaches certain level, whole new applications open up, like the Internet, you know, like blogs, like social networks. And the adoption times for these are accelerating. Blogs, you know, hardly existed three years ago, and the first reference to the World Wide Web in The New York Times was 1993. And the adoption of these new types of technology gets faster and faster, and whole new capabilities open up. And so we utilize that extra, you know, price performance.

FLATOW: Do you think that you'll be able to--one of the things that is mentioned in your book is that you think you can overcome hunger, world hunger.

Dr. KURZWEIL: Yes. Well, I mean, we are increasing really wealth overall. And in fact you can look at the World Bank numbers. Poverty in Asia has been cut in half for the last 10 years, and at current rates, the World Bank predicts it will be cut by 90 percent in another 10 years. And all areas of the world have had similar kinds of progress except sub-Saharan Africa, because of the AIDS problem, but because of the improvement in the price performance of AIDS drugs, we'll see progress there as well. And, you know, food production, you know, used to comprise a third of the world's population; now we have only 3 percent of our population working on farms, and price performance of food has greatly increased. Ultimately when we can apply a new biotechnology and nanotechnology techniques, you know, food will get even less expensive.

To take energy, for example, I talk about how within 20 years we could have nanoengineered solar panels which would capture enough sunlight to meet all of our energy needs. If we captured 1 percent of 1 percent of the sunlight that falls on the Earth, we could meet all of our energy needs in a renewable fashion. Now we can't do that today 'cause solar panels right now are an old industrial technology. But using new nanoengineered techniques, you'll see actually significant progress in the next five years, but over 20 years we'll actually be able to meet all of our needs with these kinds of renewable energy technologies and that store them in nanoengineered fuel cells.

FLATOW: Why would a company want to make a fuel cell that costs so cheap they don't make any money on it or the energy is free?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Because as products are made more inexpensively, like take computer memory, we use more of it. And that--you know, why would people in 1800 want to make shirts less expensively with those industrial technologies that emerged in the early stages of automation? Because people didn't just buy one shirt; they then suddenly wanted a whole wardrobe. And we invented fashion so people would change their wardrobes. And the common man and woman could have well-made clothing for the first time.

And you look more recently, computer memory comes down, you know, per bit by half every year. Well, it doesn't mean that the revenues come down by half. We use more than twice as many bits each year. So we more than keep up with this improving price performance. In fact, that actually leads to economic growth, and a lot of the economic growth we see is because of this improving price performance.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. Let's go to Jesse in San Francisco. Hi, Jesse.

JESSE (Caller): Hi there. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a longtime listener. I have a comment, or--it's a question, a quick comment. I was a philosopher--a philosophy major in college and, although I don't get paid for it, I'm still a philosopher in general life. And I was wondering, with all these issues not only being brought up within science, as they always have been, but really catching ground in the media and even helping to decide political elections, if we could possibly expect, you know, within the next 20 years, some sort of renaissance of the practical professional philosopher or even, you know, well-known and respected philosophical think tanks that are addressing these issues.

My comment after that is--or I guess it's also a subquestion--why do we want to extend life? If you can extend 30 years of looking like you're looking in, like, the 20s, it'd be great, but if you're 150 and you look and feel all of it, is that really a good thing and is it really going to be beneficial in any sense?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, you've brought up a number of good, important issues. I think if we, you know, are 150 and are what we think of now as a 90-year-old or a hundred-year-old, people don't want to live for hundreds of years as somebody who's, you know, lost their sensory capabilities and suffered some of the other deprivations of advanced aging. The point is actually to stop the aging process and remain vital and capable and actually ultimately extend our capabilities.

And that, in my mind, is what the human species is all about, to put this in philosophical terms. We're the species that seeks to expand our horizons. We didn't stay on the ground; we didn't stay on the planet; we didn't stay with the limitations of our biology. I mean, today's life extension would be considered radical if you'd look a few hundred years ago; life expectancy was 37 in 1800. Schubert and Mozart died at 34, and that was typical, and it's not even including infant mortality. So we've gone already beyond the limitations of our biology.

And in my mind, death, disease, suffering--these are tragic circumstances really at any age. It's a profound loss. We have rationalized that it's a good thing in some of our philosophies because we've had no alternative. But we are close to gaining the means to making dramatic improvements in our health and keeping our health for long periods of time.

FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255. John in Grants Pass, Oregon. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. And before I get to my question, I have to ask you, is the Ray Life Diet(ph) online?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, we--in "Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever," which I co-authored with Terry Grossman, MD,, about half the book is bridge one, which is really kind of a practical how-to book. To remain healthy, avoid these degenerative diseases, slow down aging. And in fact, my personal program is Chapter 10, and Terry's personal program is another chapter, so we talk about how we've implemented this in our own lives.

JOHN: Great. I'll take a...

Dr. KURZWEIL: But it is a personalized program. It's not one-size-fits-all.

JOHN: Understood. Ray, no doubting that the physical improvements are going on. I question if we can equate intelligence with calculation speed. You've got--the essence of humanness is experiential. You've got despair and angst, inspiration, joy, fulfillment. If the machine can't enjoy itself, what are the machines getting out of it?

FLATOW: Let me just break in this machine break-in and remind everybody this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

JOHN: Love your program. Thanks very much.

FLATOW: Thanks for--we'll actually take the answer off the air. Go ahead, Ray.

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, I definitely agree that computational speed alone is just one ingredient. And if we just had very fast computers but we didn't have the software and understanding of how the human brain works and produces intelligence and emotions, we'd just have very fast calculators. And so that really brings up the other issue of actually understanding human intelligence and then expanding the tool kit of techniques we already have in artificial intelligence with an understanding of how the human brain performs its functions of learning and reasoning and pattern recognition. And I discuss that in detail. It's a complex subject, but we're making exponential gains in that. And we will ultimately understand our emotional intelligence, which is something the brain does and is, in fact, the cutting edge of human intelligence. So those are the most complex and subtle things we do, but the brain does do them and they are also information processes.

FLATOW: You know, futurists--you can go back as far as you want to Galileo, to Jules Verne, people like that--they all made predictions about the future. Lots of things have come true; lots of things haven't. But one thing that hasn't changed very much is human interaction. I mean, we still kill each other; you know, we still treat each other poorly. There's still plenty of poverty. What makes you think that your world in the future is going to be any better than the one we have now?

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, actually my vision is not a utopian one. I think we will have the means of overcoming poverty, meeting our energy needs, cleaning up the environment. But these new technologies actually can be used for destruction, also. I mean, take biotechnology, genetic technology. We are gaining the means, you know, and will ultimately have the means of overcoming disease, you know, presumably a good thing. But it has also empowered bioterrorists to take a biological virus and modify it and create something that could be a destructive weapon, so that there is this intertwined promise vs. peril. And how we apply these technologies is still in our hands and, you know, as a practical matter, I think we need to increase our investment in defenses against these kinds of pathological uses.

But overall, I would say, you know, although it may not appear that way because we now have a front-row seat on every, you know, battle that occurs, if you look actually at the number of people killed in wars, it's still, you know, a lot higher than we'd like it to be, but it's actually coming down. The Internet, decentralized electronic communication is a democratizing technology. I wrote in my first book 20 years ago that this ultimately would destroy the totalitarian control in the Soviet Union, and I think that's what we saw in this 1991 coup against Gorbachev and the whole democratization movement we saw in the '90s when, you know, many of the nations of the world became democracies; it was fueled by decentralized electronic communication. But you know, I agree, it's not a utopian vision, but these technologies do empower both our creative and destructive side.

FLATOW: Is this--the individual going to make these changes, or are they going to be corporate changes? The real people...

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, you know, we have--I mean, we've democratized the means of creation, so, you know, a kid in her dorm room can command, with a few-hundred-dollar software program and her PC, the equivalent of a million-dollar recording studio of, you know, 10 or 15 years ago...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. KURZWEIL: ...or a multimillion-dollar movie production studio for editing and so on. A blogger with a PC can reach millions of people. A couple of kids in their dorm room in Stanford, just working on a casual dorm project, created some software that today is worth a hundred billion dollars doing searches on the Internet.

FLATOW: Right, Google, right.

Dr. KURZWEIL: So it's not just corporations. But, you know, the processes of free enterprise and as well as government and all the different organizations we're having--that we have will participate in this increasing, you know, creation of valuable knowledge.

FLATOW: So you're hopeful for the future, and you want--and you're going to be here through your diet and things that are going to change.

Dr. KURZWEIL: Well, I'm hopeful enough to want to be around.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. KURZWEIL: So I'm aggressive at taking care of my health, and I am known as an optimist. But you know, a lot of the dangers that are being discussed, I have discussed in my book. Bill Joyce article in Wired magazine about the dangers actually stemmed from some discussions we had in 1998 and a book I wrote, "Age of Spiritual Machines," that came out then. So I am mindful and concerned about these downsides.

FLATOW: All right. I want to take time to thank you for taking time to join us today, and good luck.

Dr. KURZWEIL: All right.

FLATOW: The book is "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology" by Ray Kurzweil. Thanks for, as I say, taking time in this holiday season for joining us.

Dr. KURZWEIL: Yeah, my pleasure, Ira.

FLATOW: And have a happy holiday to you.

Dr. KURZWEIL: You, too.

FLATOW: Ray Kurzweil, as I say, the author of "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology."

(Credits)

FLATOW: If you missed today's program or lots of other programs from the past, we've podcasted them all. They're all up there on the sciencefriday.com podcast Web page. You can download them, listen at your leisure. Also, SCIENCE FRIDAY's Kids' Connection is there. You can download the free teaching curricula we make out of SCIENCE FRIDAY, take them into your classrooms.

I want to wish you a happy and safe holiday weekend. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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