Please Upload Your Brain Now…or at least that’s what my first hero of science, Ray Kurzweil thinks we will be doing in 2040. He might be wrong (or so his critics believe) but then again he might be spot on. I have been fascinated with my own brain for years. He has spent his life inventing machines that help people, from the blind to dyslexics (me). Indeed, I am writing this article with his software as my undiagnosed for 40 years dyslexia and broken wrist prevents typing [full stop, new paragraph]. Should, by some terrible unpredictable misfortune, Ray Kurzweil died tomorrow (I for one hope he gets to 2040) the obituaries would record an inventor of rare and visionary talent.
I read Kurzweil’s first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, in 1990. I still have it on my shelf. I was bowled over (and still am) by his future thinking and his thoughts on the brain Within the book, it forecast the demise of the USSR due to new technologies such as mobile phones and fax machines disempowering authoritarian governments by removing state control over the flow of information. Nearly true if you substitute twitter and Facebook. In the book Kurzweil also extrapolated pre-existing trends in the improvement of computer chess software performance to predict that computers would beat the best human players by the year 2000. Yay! In May 1997 chess World Champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue computer in a well-publicised chess tournament.
I think I was one of the first to buy his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. By then Kurzweil has become known, above all, as a technology speculator whose predictions have really polarised opinion. He does not get it right all the time of course. As he said at the TED conference in February 2005:
By 2010 computers will disappear. They’ll be so small, they’ll be embedded in our clothing, in our environment. Images will be written directly to our retina, providing full-immersion virtual reality, augmented real reality. We’ll be interacting with virtual personalities.
Nearly, but no big cigar.
Now, he believes we’re on the brink of a new age (again this has been my discussion with multiple academics this week) called the singularity when technology will allow us to email each other objects run as fast as Usain Bolt (for 15 minutes) and even live forever.
Aside from futurology, he is involved in fields such as optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments. He has written books on health, artificial intelligence (AI), transhumanism, the technological singularity, and futurism. Kurzweil is a public advocate for the futurist and transhumanist movements, as has been displayed in his vast collection of public talks, wherein he has shared his primarily optimistic outlooks on life extension technologies and the future of nanotechnology, robotics, and biotechnology. Is there sense to his science – or is the man who reasons that one day he’ll bring his dad back from the grave just a mad professor peddling a nightmare vision of the future?
Lets go back to my ‘home turf’ of brains. According to Kurzweil, technologists will be creating synthetic neocortexes based on the operating principles of the human neocortex with the primary purpose of extending our own neocortexes. He claims to believe that the neocortex of an adult human consists of approximately 300 million pattern recognisers. He draws on the commonly accepted belief that the primary anatomical difference between humans and other primates that allowed for superior intellectual abilities was the evolution of a larger neocortex.He claims that the six-layered neocortex deals with increasing abstraction from one layer to the next. He says that at the low levels, the neocortex may seem cold and mechanical because it can only make simple decisions, but at the higher levels of the hierarchy, the neocortex is likely to be dealing with concepts like being funny, being sexy, expressing a loving sentiment, creating a poem or understanding a poem, etc.
Indeed he claims to believe that these higher levels of the human neocortex were the enabling factors to permit the human development of language, technology, art, and science,
If the quantitative improvement from primates to humans with the big forehead was the enabling factor to allow for language, technology, art, and science, what kind of qualitative leap can we make with another quantitative increase? Why not go from 300 million pattern recognizers to a billion?
Ray Kurzweil is now 61 and sincerely believes that his own immortality is a realistic proposition. In Kurzweil’s estimation by 2030 we will be able to outsource our brain to:
- upload the human brain to a computer [cloud]
- capturing a person’s entire personality [cloudy]
- all past memories [cloud forecast]
- every skills and ability
- their very essence and history
The rest of his timetable he is quite clear on (not in order of date but possibly in my order of achievability):
2025 Reconnaissance Dust: These so-called ‘smart dust’ – tiny devices that are almost invisible but contain sensors, computers and communication capabilities – are already being experimented with.
2035 Nano Assemblers: He says that these three-dimensional printers that can create a physical object from an information file and inexpensive input materials. So we could email a blouse or a toaster or even the toast. There is already an industry of three-dimensional printers, and the resolution of the devices that can be created is getting finer and finer.
2037 Respirocytes: A respirocyte is a nanobot (a blood cell-sized device) that is designed to replace our biological red blood cells but is 1,000 times more capable. If you replaced a portion of your biological red blood cells with these robotic versions you could do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath, or sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for four hours.
2040 Transhumans: Humans and non-biological machines will then merge so effectively that the differences between them will no longer matter; and, after that, human intelligence, transformed for the better, will start to expand outward into the universe, around about 2045.With this last prediction, Kurzweil is referring not to any recognisable type of space travel, but to a kind of space infusion. “Intelligence,” he writes, “will begin to saturate the matter and energy in its midst [and] spread out from its origin on Earth.”
2044 Foglets: Foglets are a form of nanobots that can reassemble themselves into a wide variety of objects in the real world, essentially bringing the rapid morphing qualities of virtual reality to real reality.
Of course Kurzweil’s ideas have generated massivecriticism within the scientific community and in certain sections of the media. The very idea of a technological singularity is controversial, while it is a popular concept in science fiction. Lots of academics have voiced skepticism about it’s real-world plausibility. See the this talk by James Stirling Long Now Foundation entitled The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole. In the cover article of the December 2010 issue of IEEE Spectrum, John Rennie criticises Kurzweil for several predictions that failed to become manifest by the originally predicted date.
I am more positive about his thoughts and predictions. Why? Well Kurzweil is extremely well informed about technologies in development (and sits of Google X board) and is highly insightful about how they can feed into one another, particularly over the relatively near term. He is very sharp on trends and all his predictions are thought provoking. His unwavering confidence in the law of accelerating returns allows him to shrug off contradictory facts and perspectives as mere temporary inconveniences. But then again haven’t all great scientists and futurologist but thought as arrogant?
He might be wrong by a year here, a decade there sure; but the accelerating returns of technology will sweep them all away en route to a singularity beyond human imagination ruled by one eternal truth: that Ray Kurzweil was, is, and always will be the smartest guy in the room