You often have heard me say that the way to predict the future is to invent it. If you wish to know what the future holds, pay close attention to those people who already have invented some part of it. They are likely to do so again.
Allow me to introduce you to one such individual.
Ray Kurzweil is “the closest thing to a Thomas Edison of our time, an inventor known for inventing,” says Holman W. Jenkins, a Wall Street Journal columnist.[i] Indeed, I suggest that Ray Kurzweil may be the most influential innovator of our time.
In 1965, he made his public debut on Steve Allen's TV show "I've Got a Secret." The panelists eventually guessed that Kurzweil had built a homemade computer that composed original music in the style of the great masters.
He was 17 at the time.[ii]
Since then, Kurzweil’s inventions have literally changed our lives in subtle but significant ways. He invented optical character recognition, and the flatbed scanner. These technologies make it possible to transfer existing printed material to the Web. Without this technology or something like it, we would have to input, keystroke by keystroke, every book, every newspaper, every scholarly paper that was ever published before the digital revolution.[iii]
In 1976, he introduced the Kurzweil Reading Machine, a device that at that time had the astonishing ability to read printed text aloud, and opened the world of books to many who were blind or visually impaired.[iv] That invention led to the creation of Kurzweil Education Systems, one of the world’s leading developers of reading technology for people with learning difficulties and those who are blind or visually impaired.[v]
In the 1980s, Kurzweil made a bet with Stevie Wonder that he could invent a piano synthesizer that produced sound indistinguishable from that of a grand piano.[vi]
Stevie Wonder lost the bet.
The Kurzweil 250 synthesizer is generally recognized as the first electronic instrument to faithfully reproduce the sounds of an acoustic grand piano.[vii]
Understand, however, Kurzweil does not pursue a query or line of research unless he is convinced of its usefulness and timeliness. He once said “I realize that most inventions fail not because the R&D department can’t get them to work, but because the timing is wrong. Inventing is a lot like surfing: you have to anticipate and catch the wave at just the right moment.”[viii]
Or in other words, “there is nothing like an idea whose time has come.”
So what kind of waves does Kurzweil expect to catch in the near future? You may want to buckle your seatbelts, because what he foresees on the near horizon is nothing less than the greatest social, technological and existential ground swell in the history of mankind.
If Ray Kurzweil’s predictions for the next 40 years are accurate . . . many of you here will never truly die.
Let me repeat that: if Kurzweil is right, many of you sitting here this afternoon will never…truly…die.
For even if your physical body fails – and he foresees a time when even that no longer is an eventuality – your memories, your thoughts, even your consciousness, will be recorded and maintained.
Kurzweil, who is 65 years old, says he himself is “right on the cusp,” and may just live long enough to join you in stepping through the threshold of immortality.
It is natural to dismiss such thinking as just another in a long list of well-intentioned but unrealistic predictions. After all, this is 2013 – weren’t we supposed to have colonies on the moon by now, and drive to work in flying cars?
What gives Kurzweil’s audacious predictions any more credibility than those of his many predecessors?
One factor is that he bases his theories on an analysis of very real and documented technology trends.
Yes, Kurzweil’s predictions anticipate dazzling biomedical innovations that will dramatically improve our health and longevity.
But the real meat of his argument has to do with computing power, its accelerating pace, and the likely effect it will have upon us as individuals, as societies, and perhaps even as a species.
You see, we tend to think of human progress in linear terms.
1 + 1 = 2.
1 + 2 = 3.
1 + 3 = 4, and so forth.
But Kurzweil uses irrefutable facts and relentless logic to demonstrate that technology – especially computing technology – does not advance in a linear fashion, but exponentially.[ix]
2 x 2 = 4.
4 x 4 = 16.
16 x 16 = 256.
256 x 256 = 65 thousand, five hundred and 36
Multiply that sum by itself and you get 4-billion, 294-million, 967-thousand, 2-hundred and 96.
In just five steps, we went from a number you can count on one hand, to one so large it boggles the imagination.
In just five steps.
This is what is happening with technology, according to Kurzweil.
If we use that numerical example I just gave, our current, marvelous era of cloud computing and global Internet places us only at step three.
Consider that in the span of just one lifetime, computers have evolved from occupying the entire floor of an office building in the 1940s, to fitting onto our desktops in the 1970s, then under our arms in the 1980s, then in our pockets in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, computing made a detour into the cloud. But in 2013, Google goggles are placing computers on our heads.
How much longer will it be before computers are in our heads?
Kurzweil’s predictions are largely tilted toward an event known as the Singularity, the point at which computer intelligence equals, and perhaps surpasses, human intelligence.
Last year Time magazine devoted a cover story about the Singularity and carried the headline, “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.”[x]
Listen to what they had to say after considering both Kurzweil and his critics.
“The difficult thing to keep sight of when you're talking about the Singularity is that even though it sounds like science fiction, it isn't, no more than a weather forecast is science fiction. It (is) not a fringe idea; it's a serious hypothesis about the future of life on Earth. There's an intellectual gag reflex that kicks in anytime you try to swallow an idea (this large), but suppress it if you can, because while the Singularity appears to be, on the face of it, preposterous, it's an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.”[xi]
As we ponder the possibility of this master inventor’s predictions, two quotes from the past century bear special relevance for us. Mohandas Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”[xii]
“Learn as if you were to live forever.”
In light of Kurzweil’s predictions, there is a special poignancy to that advice.
For as the late, great Yogi Berra once observed, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”[xiii]
[viii] Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near. 2005. Viking Penguin Group Inc. New York, NY. p 3.
[ix] Kurzweil, Ibid. p. 10