Ray Kurzweil has been writing about artificial intelligence and predicting the future for decades now. In 1999, before the iPod even existed, he predicted that in ten years we would have self-driving cars and mobile phones people could ask questions of. His predictions were right, and in December 2012, Kurzweil joined Google, a company responsible for the actualization of both his 1999 predictions. But it is Kurzweil’s interest in “hard AI,” the idea that a human consciousness can be made within a machine, that occupies most of his work at the search giant. In June 2012, Google announced it’s interest in, more or less, building a brain by dedicating substantial resources into artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Kurzweil was recently interviewed by Wired where he was asked about his ability to predict the future, his work on the Google Brain, and the value of death.
“I realized 30 years ago that the key to being successful is timing,” said Kurzweil when asked how he predicts the future. “I get a lot of new technology proposals, and I’d say 95% of those teams will build exactly what they claim if given the resources, but 95% of those projects will fail because the timing is wrong.” He continued by explaining that if you measure price performance and the capacity of information technology over time, you are able to create predictable and accurate exponential curves. “The price performance of computation has been rising in a very smooth exponential since the 1890 census. This has gone on through thick and thin, through war and peace, and nothing has affected it. I projected it out to 2050. In 2013, we’re exactly where we should be on that curve.”
The idea of a machine brain seems like some dystopian idea from a sci-fi story set in the future, but When it comes to the actual creation of artificial consciousness, Kurzweil has a date in mind.
We can now see inside a living brain and see individual inter-neural connections being formed and firing in real time. We can see your brain create your thoughts and thoughts create your brain. A lot of this research reveals how the mechanism of the neocortex works, which is where we do our thinking. This provides biologically inspired methods that we can emulate in our computers. We’re already doing that. The deep learning technique that I mentioned uses multilayered neural nets that are inspired by how the brain works. Using these biologically inspired models, plus all of the research that’s been done over the decades in artificial intelligence, combined with exponentially expanding hardware, we will achieve human levels within two decades.
And that doesn’t just mean logical intelligence. It means emotional intelligence, being funny, getting the joke, being sexy, being loving, understanding human emotion. That’s actually the most complex thing we do. That is what separates computers and humans today. I believe that gap will close by 2029.
Kurzweil has long been a proponent of using technology to extend human life, perhaps even indefinitely. He has often written about and presented keynotes on his idea of a singularity, where man and machine are fused together and death is ultimately escaped. Wired asked Kurzweil about how he would react to Steve Jobs’s famous Stanford commencement address where Jobs said “Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent.” Kurzweil responded by writing off the acceptance of death as a requirement for a civilization without the technology or resources for extending life:
It once seemed to make sense, because up until very recently you could not make a plausibly sound argument where life could be indefinitely extended. So religion, which emerged in prescientific times, did the next best thing, which is to say, ‘Oh, that tragic thing? That’s really a good thing.” We rationalized that because we did have to accept it. But in my mind death is a tragedy. Our initial reaction to hearing that someone has died is a profound loss of knowledge and skill and talents and relationships. It’s not the case that there are only a fixed number of positions, and if old people don’t die off, there’s no room for young people to come up with new ideas, because we’re constantly expanding knowledge. Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t displace anybody– they created a whole new field. We see that constantly. Knowledge is growing exponentially. It’s doubling approximately every year.