Time to Embrace Technological Change
NEAL CONAN, host:
And it's time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. In an op-ed in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer, author and inventor Ray Kurzweil wrote that the pace of technical change is accelerating.
It seems obvious, but think about this: in the next 25 years, he argues, your iPod will be smaller than a human hair, computers and communications devices will be implanted in your clothes, in your body, and nanobots, the size of blood cells, will keep us healthy from the inside.
After all of that, he wonders, might we still call ourselves human? If you have questions about the rate of innovation or about extending what it means to be human, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ray Kurzweil, as we mentioned, inventor, entrepreneur and author of, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. He's with us now from his office in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Nice to talk to you again.
Mr. RAY KURZWEIL (Author and Inventor): Yes. Pleased to be with you.
CONAN: The pace of change is not only beyond our comprehension, pretty much, but you say accelerating - well, not exponentially, but very quickly.
Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, it is growing exponentially. And people assume that it's linear. I was at a conference on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA, and all the speakers used the last 50 years as a model for the next 50 years.
But, in fact we'll make 32 times more technical progress in the next 50 years, as we did in the last, because we're doubling what I call the paradigm shift rate, the rate of technical progress every decade.
And I've actually measured this by collecting a lot of data. I have a group of 10 people that gathers data on many different fields. And if it has anything to do with information technology, the pace of change is accelerating.
And the power of information technology is actually doubling every year. And that's pretty phenomenal. The price performance of computing, for example, doubles every year. That's a fact of a 1,000 in a decade, a billion in 30 years - it's actually 25 years, to be precise.
CONAN: And the result of all of this, you think?
Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, another important point is, that not only is the power of information technology growing exponentially, but it's affecting everything we care about. It's not just iPods and cell phones, and little devices that we put in our pockets.
It's affecting, for example, our biology. We're actually understanding our biology, which is basically an information process, controlled by the genes, as information processes. And that's a new thing, now that we've collected the genome three years ago.
And the genome project itself was controversial. In 1990, we had only collected one ten-thousandth of the genome. And skeptics said it could never be done in 15 years. And halfway through the 15 years, only one percent of the genome had been collected.
But we then doubled that amount every year. So if you double one percent seven times, you get 100 percent. And that's exactly what's happened. And we're actually understanding these disease and aging processes, as information processes, and gaining the tools to reprogram them.
We can turn genes off, for example, with RNA interference. We can add new genes with new effective forms of gene therapy. We can turn on and off enzymes, which are the workhorses of biology, and actually essentially reprogram our biology, the way we reprogram our computerized devices.
And this is accelerating. And we're in the early stages of that. But within 10 or 15 years, we really will be able to reprogram these processes away from disease, and also reprogram the dozen or so processes that underlie aging.
CONAN: You suggest that, in fact, our expected life span, instead of decreasing every year, is going to be increasing.
Mr. KURZWEIL: Right. According to my models, within, I'd say, about 15 years we'll be adding more than a year, every year, to remaining-life expectancy. So, if you can avoid accidents and put on your seatbelts, although we'll also have ways of having safer cars, you're, you know, expectant life, which is not a guarantee, but the amount of time you can expect to live on a remaining basis, will grow longer each year.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. If you'd like to join us, our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our email address is email@example.com.
Our guest is Ray Kurzweil. If you'd like to see his op-ed piece from yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer. You can go to our page at npr.org and there's a link to it and to all of the stories that we've had on the NPR TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page.
Let's start with Brandon, Brandon calling us from Painesville, Ohio.
BRANDON (Caller): Hi. Great to be on the line. I'm a big fan of Ray Kurzweil, and I've actually read two of your books, and I bought an Our Lady Peace album, because it had your book's title.
Mr. KURZWEIL: That's great.
BRANDON: And I was wondering if you could elaborate. In your second book, you talked about how by 2099, most human beings won't exist in reality. They'll only exist within computers. And I wonder if you could elaborate on that.
Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, that was - actually brings up the one point I didn't get to. I mean, not only are we modeling our biology as information processes, but we're in the early stages of modeling our intelligence and our brains, as information processes. There are basically information processes going on in our brains.
And up until recently, we really couldn't see inside our brains. FMRI, we can see fuzzy images about where things are taking place. But we now, because we're doubling the spatial resolution of brain scanning every year, and also modeling individual neurons, we are able to actually model what goes on in our brain as information processes. And by, I'd say, 2029, we'll have both the hardware and the software for understanding human intelligence. And we'll be able to emulate processes, intelligent processes, at the human level - basically have non-biological systems that match human intelligence. And then can combine the advantages that we have today in human intelligence, which is basically our pattern recognition…
Mr. KURZWEIL: …with ways in which computers are already clearly superior. They can remember billions of things accurately. They can share their knowledge at electronic speeds, which is a million times faster than language.
And we will have non-biological systems, software, people, that are indistinguishable from biological people, that will pass a so-called touring(ph) test. And you won't be able to tell them apart.
And it's actually an interesting philosophical question, are those really people.
Mr. KURZWEIL: And they will - you know, I predict they will assert their rights, that they are, you know, entitled to recognition as people.
But in my view it's not going to be really - the primary impact is not going to be a competition between human intelligence and machine intelligence. We are already a human machine civilization.
And we use computers now, and computer intelligence, to extend our own capabilities. We're routinely performing intellectual feats that would be impossible without our machines. Few people could perform their jobs today, without the extensions that we have to our memory and our communication abilities, with computers.
And that's going to get more profound. And the computers are getting closer to it. They're in our pockets now. They'll be in our clothing soon. They're already making their way into our bodies and brains.
It's an early process, but that's going to accelerate as the computers get smaller. That's another exponential trend. We're shrinking the size of technology by a factor of 100 per 3-D(ph) volume per decade.
So, I'd say by 2030 we're going to have a lot of tiny computers, the size of blood cells, inside our bodies, keeping us healthy; and inside our brains, extending our memories, and kind of recognition capabilities, and really expanding human intelligence.
And, you know, then people question, are we still human. But in my view, that is really what being human is all about, going beyond our limitations and expanding our horizons.
CONAN: Brandon, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Ray Kurzweil on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's - you talked about the philosophical questions. There are also some ethical questions, some religious questions, indeed, that arise from all of this, this pace of change.
Mr. KURZWEIL: Well, okay, one ethical question deals with the dangers of these technologies. And all of these technologies do have dangers. And one that we're facing right now is in this genetic realm.
Whereas we are gaining the tools to reprogram biological processes away from cancer, say, the same tools could enable a bioterrorist to create a new biological virus that would be deadly, communicable, and stealthy.
And that's an exponential threat we face right now. Bill Joy and I, actually wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times recently, advocating a Manhattan-style project to develop defenses against new biological viruses, whether they're natural like bird flu, or unnatural like a terrorist weapon.
And Majority Leader Frist recently endorsed our call. I think that's something we ought to be investing in.
When we get to the point of, you know, AI, artificial intelligence, at or near the human level, that will have dangers, too, particularly if people want to use them for aggressive purposes.
But I think a good model for how we can deal with that, is how well we've done with software viruses. These are very destructive, and people put more and more creative software viruses out on the Web.
Yet we've actually done a good job of defending ourselves because we invest in the defenses. We have this rapidly evolving technological immune system of anti-viral programs. And that actually works quite well. It's not perfect, obviously, and never will be.
But I think it's a good model. So, to summarize a complex issue of these ethical dangers, I mean, investing in the defenses is really the answer.
In terms of philosophical and religious issues, it really comes down to, you know, what is a human. I mean, obviously we have a lot of debates, intense debates now, as to what's a human. When does human life start, for example, in a fetus.
CONAN: That's up today, in the United States Senate. Yes.
Mr. KURZWEIL: And we'll have non-biological systems that are even more human than animals or fetuses, because they will be very convincing. They'll be funny. They'll be emotional. They'll have captured emotional intelligence. They will really be very convincing.
They'll have realistic bodies and virtual reality, or even robotic bodies that rival human bodies, with regard to the 2030s(ph) thing.
Mr. KURZWEIL: And it'll be a real debate, what rights do they have. I predict they will assert their rights. And ultimately, I think they will gain them, because one thing we can say about them is that they will be very intelligent. So, they'll be very effective in arguing for their rights.
CONAN: Their cause. Let's see if we can get one more caller in. This is Mark, Mark from Tucson, Arizona.
MARK (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
MARK: I wondered if Mr. Kurzweil could speak to the situation between the developed world and the third world, and how that would - what he's talking about with information technology - how that would relate…
CONAN: Is this a first world phenomenon. Yes.
Mr. KURZWEIL: That's a very good question. And a lot of people ask that, is this going to exacerbate the have/have not debate - divide. And what we find, is that information technology, because of this doubling of price performance every year, has basically a 50 percent deflation rate.
So, these technologies typically start out unaffordable. Only the rich can afford them. But at that point, they actually don't work. A few years later they work a little bit and they're merely expensive. And some more years go by, and ultimately it's almost free, like the Web today, and works quite well.
That, today, is a 10-year progression. In keeping with this doubling of the paradigm shift rate every decade, going from unaffordable to almost free, will be a five-year progression in 10 years, and a two or three progression in 20 years.
And you can see that already. The World Bank reported that poverty in Asia has been cut by half in the last 10 years, and will be cut by 90 percent at current rates over the next 10 years. Because of this adoption of information technologies, there are societies that have gone from primitive agrarian economies, where everybody pushed the plow, to where they have thriving information economies and everybody has a cell phone.
And we see Internet technology rapidly being deployed now in Africa, and even sub-Saharan Africa, for the first time, now, has growth rates even exceeding ours. But - so, this ultimately is a very democratizing technology.
CONAN: And Mark, I'm going to thank you for the question. And Ray Kurzweil, thank you very much for being with us today.
Mr. KURZWEIL: My pleasure.
CONAN: Ray Kurzweil's piece, again, appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. You can get a link to it on our Web page, npr.org.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.
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