Ray Kurzweil’s Basic Ideas


I and many other scientists now believe that in around twenty years we will have the means to reprogram our bodies’ stone-age software so we can halt, then reverse, aging. Then nanotechnology will let us live forever. ~ Ray Kurzweil

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 4, 2016.)

Ray Kurzweil (1948 – ) is an author, inventor, futurist, and currently Director of Engineering at Google. He is involved in fields such as optical character recognition, text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments; he is the author of several books on health, artificial intelligence, transhumanism, the technological singularity, and futurism; and he may be the most prominent spokesman in the world today for advocating the use of technology to transform humanity.

In his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Kurzweil argues that in the next one hundred years machines will surpass human intelligence. Computers already surpass humans in playing chess, diagnosing certain medical conditions, buying and selling stocks, guiding missiles, and solving complex mathematical problems. However, unlike human intelligence, machine intelligence cannot describe objects on a table, write a term paper, tie shoes, distinguish a dog from a cat, or appreciate humor. One reason for this is that computers are simpler than the human brain, about a million times simpler. However, this difference will go away as computers continue to double in speed every twelve months, achieving the memory capacity and computing speed of the human brain around 2020.

Still, this won’t allow computers to match the flexibility of human intelligence because the software of intelligence is as important as the hardware. One way to mirror the brain’s software is by reverse engineering—scanning a human brain and copying its neural circuitry into a neural computer of sufficient capacity. If computers reach a human level of intelligence through such technologies, they will then go beyond it. They already remember and process information better than we do, remembering trillions of facts perfectly while we have a tough time with a few phone numbers. The combination of human-level intelligence along with greater speed, accuracy, and memory capabilities will push computers beyond human intelligence. A main reason for this is that our neurons are slow compared with electronic circuits, and most of their complexity supports life processes, not computation and information analysis. Thus, while many of us think of evolution as a billion-year drama that leads to human intelligence, the creation of greater than human intelligence will quickly dispel that notion.

Kurzweil supports his case with a number of observations about cosmic evolution and human history. Consider that for most of the history of the universe, cosmologically significant events took eons of time—the interval between significant events was quite long for most of cosmic evolution. But as the universe aged the interval between significant events grew shorter, and cosmically significant events now happen at increasingly shorter intervals. We can see this in the pace of cosmic evolution: ten billion years until the earth’s formation; a few billion more for life to evolve, hundreds of millions of years till the emergence of primates, millions of years till the emergence of humanoids, and the emergence of homo sapiens a mere 200 thousand years ago. In short, transformation is speeding up; the interval between salient events is shrinking.

Now technology is moving this process. Technology—fashioning and using ever more sophisticated tools—is simply another means of evolution which expedites the process of change considerably. Consider that Homo sapiens sapiens appeared only 90 thousand years ago, and become the lone hominoids a mere 30,000 years ago. Still, it took tens of thousands of years to figure out how to sharpen both ends of stones to make them effective! Needless to say, the pace of technological change has accelerated remarkably since then. For example, the 19th century saw technology increase at a dramatic rate compared to the 18th century, and increased unbelievably fast compared to the 12th century. In the 20th century major shifts in technology began to happen in decades or in some cases in a few years. A little more than a hundred years ago there was no flight or radio; and a mere fifty years ago there were no wireless phones or personal computers, much less cell phones or the internet. Today it seems your phone and computer are obsolete in a matter of months.

Technology has enabled our species to dominate the earth, exercise some control over our environment, and survive. Perhaps the most important of these technological innovations has been computation, the ability of machines to remember, compute, and solve problems. So far computers have been governed by Moore’s law: every two years or so the surface area of a transistor is reduced by fifty percent, putting twice as many transistors on an integrated circuit. The implication is that every two years you get twice the computing power for the same amount of money. This trend should continue for another fifteen years or so after which it will break down when transistor insulators will be but a few atoms wide. (At that point quantum computing may move the process forward in fantastic ways.) To really understand what will happen in the 21st century and beyond, we need to look at the exponential growth of the technology that will bring about vast changes in the near future.

Crucial to Kurzweil’s analysis is what he calls “the law of time and chaos.” He asks why some processes begin fast and then slow down—salient events in cosmic evolution or in the biological development of an organism—and why others start slowly and then speed up—the evolution of life forms or technology. The law of time and chaos explains this relationship. If there is a lot of chaos or disorder in a system, the time between salient events is great; as the chaos decreases and the order increases, the time between salient events gets smaller. The “law of accelerating returns” describes the latter phenomenon and is essential to Kurzweil’s argument. (You might say that his entire philosophy is a meditation on accelerating returns or exponential growth.) He argues that though the universe as a whole increases in disorder or entropy, evolution leads to increasing pockets of order (information for the purpose of survival) and complexity. Technology evolution is evolution by means other than biology, and it constantly speeds up as it builds upon itself.

We might reconstruct his basic argument as follows: a) evolution builds on itself, thus; b) in an evolutionary process order increases exponentially, thus; c) the returns accelerate. This law of accelerating returns drives cultural and technological evolution forward, with the returns building on themselves to create higher returns. Thus the entire process changes and grows exponentially, meaning that the near future will be radically different than the present.

… evolution has found a way around the computational limitations of neural circuitry. Cleverly, it has created organisms that in turn invented a computational technology a million times faster than carbon-based neurons … Ultimately, the computing conducted on extremely slow mammalian neural circuits will be ported to a far more versatile and speedier electronic (and photonic) equivalent.[i] This will eventually lead to reverse engineering the human brain by scanning it, mapping it, and eventually downloading our minds into computers. This means that your mind (software) would no longer be dependent on your body (hardware). Moreover, your evolving mind file will not be stuck with the circuitry of the brain, making it capable of being transferred from one medium to another, just as files are transferred from one computer to another. Then “our immortality will be a matter of being sufficiently careful to make frequent backups. If we’re careless about this, we’ll have to load an old backup copy and be doomed to repeat our recent past.”[ii]

We could download our personal evolving mind files into our original bodies, upgraded bodies, nanoengineered bodies, or virtual bodies. As we are currently further along with body transformation than with brain transformation—titanium devices, artificial skin, heart values, pacemakers—we might want to first completely rebuild our bodies using genetic therapies. But this will only go so far because of the limitations of DNA-based cells that depend on protein synthesis. No matter how well we enhance our bodies, they would still just be second-rate robots.

Instead Kurzweil suggests we use nanotechnology to rebuild the world atom by atom. The holy grail of nanotechnology would be intelligent self-replicating nanomachines capable of manipulating things at the nanolevel. (The great physicist Richard Feynman originally explained the possibility of nanotechnology in the 1950s. Today, important theorists like Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle have shown the feasibility of self-replicating nanobots. Nanotechnology programs are now common in major universities.) The possibilities for nanotechnology to transform the world are extraordinary. It could build inexpensive solar cells to replace fossil fuels, or be launched in our bloodstream to improve the immune system, destroy pathogens, eradicate cancer cells, and reconstruct bodily organs and systems. It even has the potential to reverse engineer human neurons or any cell in the human body. Will people use this technology?

There is a clear incentive to go down this path. Given a choice, people will prefer to keep their bones from crumbling, their skin supple, and their life systems strong and vital. Improving our lives through neural implants on the mental level, and nanotech enhance bodies on the physical level, will be popular and compelling. It is another one of those slippery slopes—there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided.[iii]

Kurzweil also argues that “the law of accelerating returns” applies to the entire universe. He conjectures that life may exist elsewhere in the universe and proceed through various thresholds: the evolution of life forms; of intelligence; of technology; of computation; and finally the merging of a species with its technology—all driven by accelerating returns. Of course there are many things that can go wrong—nuclear war, climate change, asteroids, bacteria, self-replicating nanobots, and software viruses. Still, he remains optimistic.

Kurzweil ends his book by arguing that intelligence is not impotent against the mighty forces of the universe. Intelligence thwarts gravity and manipulates other physical phenomena despite its density being vanishingly small in a vast cosmos. If intelligence increases exponentially with time, then it will become a worthy competitor for big universal forces. He concludes: “The laws of physics are not repealed by intelligence, but they effectively evaporate in its presence… the fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.”[iv]


[i] Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines (New York: Penguin, 1999), 101-102
[ii] Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, 129.
[iii] Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, 141.
[iv] Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, 260.

2 thoughts on “Ray Kurzweil’s Basic Ideas

  1. I haven’t read kurtzweil’s predictions in any detail so he may have addressed this issue but it seems to me that his privileged life has blinded him to the fact that such a future non-carbon based intelligence quite possibly would reach the conclusion that conscious existence is fundamentally pointless and as a result pull the plug so to speak:) Consciousness has been a powerful weapon on the evolutionary battlefield but what happens once that battle has been finally decided in the sense that we have ultimate control? The burden of immortality and infinite intelligence would simply result in conscious life putting itself out of its misery.

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