Transcript for Ray Kurzweil on Our Cyborg Future


Jim Fleming: Ray Kurzweil is one of the world's leading inventors and futurists. He's been described as the ultimate thinking machine, and he believes we're all on our way to becoming thinking machines - literally. Kurzweil says we'll soon have tiny computers imbedded in our brains. He thinks we're on the verge of a new era in evolution - a fusion of biology and machine technology. Kurzweil spells out this visionary future in his books 'The Singularity is Near' and 'How to Create a Mind'.


He tells Steve Paulson what we can look forward to.


Ray Kurzweil: We'll have nanobots - blood cell sized devices that have powerful computers in them, and communication devices, they'll all be on a wireless local area network, they'll be on the Internet, and we can have billions of them in our brain. Today we have neural implants - in fact some of them are programmable from outside the patient, like the FDA-approved Parkinson's implant - but these have to be surgically implanted - we'll be able to send them in without surgery, and not just in one spot in the brain, but to billions of locations, and have them interact with our biological neurons, and really evolve into a hybrid of biological and non-biological intelligence by the late 2020s.


Steve Paulson: So what does that mean if we are, in a sense, hooked up to the Internet, just constantly, all the time, because we have this technology in our brain? What changes at that point?


Kurzweil: Well some people feel we are already there, but we do have to interact with our computers, which for the most part are outside our bodies today, but they're going to make their way inside our clothing, and ultimately inside our bodies. Once we can build computers that are the size of blood cells in the early 2020s, they'll be interacting with our bodies and brains to vastly expand human intelligence.


The one thing that's important to understand is that once the non-biological intelligence gets a foothold in our brains, that non-biological portion of our intelligence will double in power every year - not because it's self-replicating, but just because that's the nature of what I call the law of accelerating returns, and that's been going on for a century and will continue. Our biological intelligence is basically fixed - by my calculations we have 10 to the 26th power calculations per second among all the human brains in the world, and that will be the same fifty years from now. But by the 2020s, we'll achieve the crossover point, and in the 2030s the non-biological portion of our intelligence will be much more powerful than the biological portion. And by the 2040s - I put the date for the singularity at 2045, because at that time the non-biological portion of our intelligence - the intelligence of our civilization, will be a billion times more capable than the biological portion.


Paulson: Now when you talk about all of this intelligence becoming millions or even billions of times more intelligent than what the biological brain is today, are you basically talking about the computational power of the brain or are you talking about all kind of things - I mean, other kinds of neural capacities.


Kurzweil: Okay, good question. If we talk about human intelligence, we can identify both hardware - computational ability - and software, which is to say, the methods, the principals by which we can recognize patterns or display emotional intelligence, or solve analytical problems, and so on. In order to achieve human levels of intelligence - so called strong AI, strong artificial intelligence - we need both the hardware and the software.


Paulson: You're talking about computer artificial intelligence that shows love and happiness and all of those very human emotions.


Kurzweil: That's right, all that takes place in our brain. Our emotional intelligence is not something sort of stuck on the side as a sideshow, it's actually the cutting edge of human intelligence. Being funny, being jealous, expressing a loving sentiment - these are very complex and sophisticated behaviors. It's actually the most intelligent thing that we do. But we will ultimately understand that.


Paulson: Well suppose this future comes to pass - what you've just laid out - and we're in the year 2050 and there are all of these super smart people. How does life change at that point? What's different?


Kurzweil: We will go through a stage in the 2020s and 2030s where we are putting these intelligent nanobots in our bloodstream which will keep us healthy from inside, augment our immune system, provide dramatic gains in human life expectancy, and then expand our mental functions. We'll still be human-like, but we'll have these mental prosthesis. Now, some people might say that search engines are already a memory enhancement - I certainly use them; in fact I may be on interviews and I'm sitting there on my search engine looking up facts in real-time. One woman said that her son's computer may as well be in his brain because he carries it around with him all the time.


But over time, because of this exponential growth, that non-biological portion of our intelligence will ultimately predominate, and we'll have human level intelligence that doesn't have a physical body in real reality, but will be able to project bodies in virtual reality. We'll be spending more and more time in virtual reality - for example, if you want to go in virtual reality the nanobots shut down the signals coming from your real senses, replace them with signals that your brain would have been receiving had it been in the virtual environment, and to your brain it feels like you're in that virtual environment. It can be just as realistic and compelling as real reality - you go to move your arm and your legs, but it moves your virtual body, which doesn't have to be the same body you have in real reality. Design of new virtual reality environment and new bodies to inhabit those new environments will be a new art form. You can go there with one other special person, or a hundred people, for anything from a conference to an intimate encounter, and have these virtual experiences involving all of your senses.


Paulson: Does the physical body become irrelevant? Does it become an anachronism?


Kurzweil: Well, you know we don't abandon old technologies immediately - people didn't throw their manual typewriters away when the first clumsy word processors appeared, but it's hard to find a mechanical typewriter today. We tend to keep these old technologies around.


Paulson: [laughing] So the human body, you're saying, will become an old technology, going the way of the typewriter.


Kurzweil: Eventually, we'll be able to create human body version 2.0 and 3.0, and you can have different bodies, a couple could become each other to experience the relationship from the others perspective. A teacher could assign a student not just to dress up as Ben Franklin, but to be Ben Franklin in a virtual Congress. So there's applications for relationships, for education, and certainly for entertainment.


Paulson: Now of course, a lot of people are appalled by this scenario, and part of what bothers them so much is, it seems like, you're redefining what it means to be human. And I'm wondering if you see it that way.


Kurzweil: Well, my definition of being human is we are the species that goes beyond our limitations. We didn't stay on the ground - we didn't even stay on the planet. We have not stayed within the limitations of our biology. When our genes were evolving it was in the interest of the species for not that many people to live past child-rearing, which generally meant like age 28, because there are only limited resources, and those are best used by the young and those caring for them. In 1800 the human life expectancy was 37 - Mozart and Schubert died in their 30s, and that was typical. There was no sanitation, so people got bacterial infections. There were no antibiotics, there were no social safety nets. Human life was very hard.


So we've gone way beyond those limitations already - no other species has the knowledge base that they pass down from generation to generation. They may teach certain genetically prescribed skills to their young, but they don't have a knowledge base that itself evolves - our knowledge base is doubling every year, and we need our technology to encompass it.


Jim Fleming: Ray Kurzweil, talking with Steve Paulson - his books include 'The Singularity is Near' and 'How to Create a Mind'. 

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