May 12, 2006 | Inventor and provocative futurist Ray Kurzweil’s opening keynote at the Bio-IT World Life Sciences Conference + Expo painted an expansive, optimistic vision of a world governed by exponentially growing information technologies that will inexorably transform what it means to be human, dramatically extend lifespan, and produce machines capable of modeling the human brain by 2029.
In his latest book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Kurzweil argues that biology has become an information science. When combined with advancing nanotechnology and computer technology, the new biology, he says, will unleash a new paradigm in life science. Smart nanobots will patrol the body repairing damage and regulating processes. Artificial blood cells might enable Olympic-like performance. Virtual reality systems will interface directly with the nervous system and be able to uncouple you from external sensory input if desired.
The power behind this progress, says Kurzweil, is the exponential rate of advance by information technologies, of which Moore’s familiar law for the doubling transistor performance roughly every 18 months is but one example. If his vision of the future is startling, he says, that’s only because life is perceived linearly. When plotted on a logarithmic scale, IT’s progress is a smooth straight line with interruptions such as wars, recessions, and pestilence — so prominent on a linear graph — dropping from sight.
“[The] 20th century was not a hundred years of progress at the year 2000 rate; it was picking up to that rate, it was about 20 years of progress at the year 2000 rate. [We’ll] make about 20,000 years of progress in the 21st, 1,000 times more than we did in the 20th century,” he said.
Kurzweil wowed his Bio-IT World audience of mostly technophiles in a mesmerizing, if largely unchallenged, performance for the accomplished technologist. A prolific inventor, he is perhaps best known for the Kurzweil music synthesizer, but other accomplishments include flat-bed scanning technology, a variety of speech-to-text and text-to-speech software, a knowledge-based medical reports system, and even a “cybernetic poet.”
Kurzweil views the sequencing of the genome as a watershed, turning biology into an explicit information science. Combined with other biotech technologies, we’re on the verge of being able to reprogram “23,000 software programs inside us called genes” using tools such as RNAi. This evolution, including our ability to manipulate the genome, follows an exponential growth rate, argues Kurzweil.
A core question is whether it will be possible to create a machine with truly human-level intelligence. Kurzweil certainly thinks so: “It would take thousands of trillions of bytes of information to characterize the state of a mature brain, and that’s a lot of complexity. But the complexity of the design of the brain is a billion times simpler, [perhaps] 30 million bytes, which is less than Microsoft Word,” Kurzweil said.
Signs of the Singularity
He forecasts that by 2013, supercomputers will reach processing speeds of 10*16 calculations per second, enough to emulate all the regions of the brain, and by 2029 will be able to model human intelligence. The toughest problem will be the software.
In Kurzweil’s vision, the blend of biology, nanotechnology, and computer technology — all racing along at exponential rates — will lead to well-understood and effective drugs and new drug delivery systems that promise to cure most disease and extend life. It’s a rosy view, but not without a few thorns.
All technologies have promises and peril, Kurzweil concedes, and sometimes they empower destructive individuals. More control of some scientific information may be needed. But suspension or denial of technological pursuit is not the answer, he says. That was the moral of Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World. Abandoning technology drives it underground, where it’s actually much less stable, he contends.
Kurzweil eloquently states his case: “We are the species that goes beyond its limitations. We didn’t stay on the ground. We didn’t stay on the planet. We didn’t stay within the limitations of our biology. I believe within 10 or 15 years, we will add more than a year every year to the remaining years of life expectancy so as you go forward your remaining life expectancy will move away from you, so just hang in there another 10 or 15 years.”