Futurist Ray Kurzweil's new book predicts development of a super 'digital brain'
Futurist Ray Kurzweil optimistically predicts much longer life expectancies, cures for cancer and heart disease, flying cars and robot butlers.
Humans will become capable of feats that now seem impossible — for many of us, in our lifetime — in large part due to expected advances in brain research, posits the inventor and author in his new book, "How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed," due out next month.
Key to his predictions, which he's also outlined in a series of other books including "The Age of Spiritual Machines" and "The Singularity Is Near," is the law of accelerating returns. Kurzweil suggests the pace of information technology advances will grow at an exponential pace until sometime near the end of the century.
In his new book, he predicts technology will virtually grow the human neocortex — the section of the brain responsible for thinking, language, and sensory perception — by directly tying into electronic resources, including the Internet.
"In another 25 years, computers will be the size of blood cells, they'll be another billion times more powerful and we'll put them inside our bodies and brains," says Kurzweil, who is speaking at Toronto's Danforth Music Hall on Thursday.
"Nanobots, little robotic computerized devices, will keep us healthy from inside by augmenting our immune system, they'll go inside our brain, interact with our biological neurons, put our brains in the cloud, on the Internet, and we'll be able to actually have direct brain connection to artificial intelligence, which will incorporate a synthetic neocortex."
While some will undoubtedly write off Kurzweil's predictions as hokum, he has an impressive list of inventions to his name and a proven capacity for visionary thinking. He's credited with inventing the first flatbed scanner, multi-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, and the first music synthesizer to mimic the sound of a grand piano — among many other things.
While his track record of previous predictions has been debated — he claims he's been on the mark or close the vast majority of the time, while critics suggest that's not really true — he has made a number of prescient calls.
In "The Age of Spiritual Machines," which he says he wrote in the mid to late 1990s, back when nearly everyone used dial-up modems, he outlined his visions for 2009. He wrote about the widespread use of portable computers, mobile devices without keyboards, the adoption of digital music, movies and books, the implementation of facial recognition technology, and distance learning.
A transition toward a cyborg future in which society accepts becoming part human, part computer may seem beyond belief, but Kurzweil doesn't think so. He points to present-day medical treatments that already involve brain implants of electronic devices and argues similar procedures could become common among the healthy, too.
"It all happens very gradually, people are already connecting computers into their brains now for serious medical conditions, like Parkinson's disease or deafness. As (these technologies) become smaller and smaller there will be more and more devices like this and it won't require having a serious medical condition," he says.
"People will do it for all kinds of reasons. It'll become more and more acceptable as the benefits become clear."
Our increasing reliance on the Internet and the emerging field of augmented reality are getting us closer to the idea of becoming cyborgs, he says, noting Google's Project Glass could help popularize the concept.
Google is working on a pair of eye glasses that includes a so-called "heads up display," which displays live data about a user's surroundings and their Internet life via a special lens. A demo video suggests users wearing the glasses would be able to virtually see maps, video calls, app data and other digital content all projected within their line of sight.
"Even if we're not putting it yet literally inside our bodies and brains I think that's an arbitrary distinction, even well before we start routinely putting these things in our blood streams there will be such a profound integration with artificial intelligence that we won't see how we would live without it," Kurzweil says.
"I think we've already reached that point."
He predicts "profound" biotechnology achievements will be reached by the end of this decade, which will start forging the way for more revolutionary digital treatments ahead.
"I believe we will see very dramatic gains in being able to control things like heart disease and cancer, basically by turning off their genetic processes and really re-programming the software of these conditions," he says.
"Life is basically a software process ... and we're learning the language they're written in and learning how to reprogram."