ray kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil is a bit of a techno wunderkind. Designing his first computer program at age 15 in 1963 (that’s right, most of us would question if there were even such things as computers back then) and credited with inventing the flatbed scanner, the first text-to-speech programs, and optical character recognition amongst many other projects, Kurzweil now works for Google as their mysterious “director of engineering”, which turns out to mean he is the man responsible for determining and implementing Google’s most futuristic projects–including Google Brain, the company’s ambitious plan to recreate the human mind in virtual format.

He’s also known for having an eerily accurate knack for predicting the future of human progress: he posited that the internet would be central to our lives back when it was just a spotty connection in England in the early 80s, he foresaw the date that computers would be able to beat human chess players, and predicted the fall of the Soviet Union.

Recently, he sat down with Jimi Disu for an interview eliciting further prognostication into the future of human technological advancement, and I have to say, his predictions leave my heart fluttering with the possibilities. Here we give you a rundown of the list of futuristic foretellings and our take on what each means for society (our notes in italics).

2017: Self-driving cars
“Google self-driving cars have gone half a million miles without human drivers on highways and city streets, with no incidents. Within ten years they will be ubiquitous. Humans have a fairly narrow field of view, these cars have sensors, both visual and laser, and artificial intelligence to be able to assess what’s going on in their environment. Ultimately these cars will communicate with each other and co-ordinate their movements. You also won’t need to own a car, there’ll be a pool of them circulating, and you’ll just call one from your phone when you need it.”

You think Uber is cool? Imagine no one having to own a car and pay those pesky payments or skyrocketing gas bills. Open up your mobile phone (or implanted chip in your brain) and call for a robotic car to pick you up at X place at Y time to bring you lickety split right to your doorstep. Too busy to pickup your kids at school and bring them to soccer practice? No biggie, get your handy robo-chauffeur to do the “foot”work for you, all while checking up on them via video conferencing from your desk at home.

2018: Personal assistant search engines 
“Right now, search is based mostly on looking for key words. What I’m working on is creating a search engine that understands the meaning of these billion of documents. It will be more like a human assistant that you can talk things over with, that you can express complicated, even personal concerns to. If you’re wearing something like Google Glass, it could annotate reality; it could even listen in to a conversation, giving helpful hints. It might suggest an anecdote that would fit into your conversation in real time.”

Siri was a disappointment for many people, but imagine a Siri that actually works like an intuitive human being. “Siri, find me that one movie with John Candy and those Jamaican dudes where they’re bobsledding or whatever…” and she knows what you’re getting at: “Oh, you’re thinking of the movie Cool Runnings, here’s the IMDB page.”

2020: Switch off our fat cells
“It was in our interest a thousand years ago to store every calorie. There were no refrigerators, so you stored them in the fat cells of your body, which now means we have an epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Thanks to the Human Genome Project, medicine is now information technology, and we’re learning how to reprogram this outdated software of our bodies exponentially. In animals with diabetes, scientists have now successfully turned off the fat insulin receptor gene. So these animals ate ravenously, remained slim, didn’t get diabetes, and lived 20 per cent longer. I would say that this will be a human intervention in five to ten years, and we will have the means of really controlling our weight independent of our eating.”

As a lover of cake, cookies, and ice cream, there’s not much more I can say about this one.

2020: Click and print designer clothes at home
“Currently there is a lot of overenthusiasm about 3-D printing. Typically where people are prematurely very excited it leads to disillusionment and a bust, like the dot.com crash. I think we’re about five years away from the really important applications. By the early 2020s we’ll be replacing a significant part of manufacturing with 3-D printing. We’ll be able to print out clothing and there’ll be an open source market of free designs. There will be personal 3-D printers, but also shared ones in your local Starbucks, for example.”

I visited the Alexander Wang shop in the Village the other day and was gaga over his pared down cuts and elegant silhouettes…then I looked at the price tag. Needless to say, I hightailed it out of that store before my wallet disintegrated in my pocket. Imagine getting the style at 1/10th the cost. Scary for the designer industry, excellent for the consumer, no? 

2023: Full-immersion virtual realities
“Computer games have pioneered virtual reality, and within ten years — but probably more like five — these will be totally convincing, full-immersion virtual realities, at least for the visual and auditory senses, and there will be some simulation of the tactile sense. To fully master the tactile sense we have to actually tap into the nervous system. That will be a scenario within 20 years. We’ll be able to send little devices, nanobots, into the brain and capillaries, and they’ll provide additional sensory signals, as if they were coming from your real senses. You could for example get together with a friend, even though you were hundreds of thousands of miles apart, and take a virtual walk on a virtual Mediterranean beach and hold their hand and feel the warm spray of the moist air in your face.”

I gotta admit, as a lover of the real world this one scares me a bit. Conversely, as a lover of the idea of creating a perfect world, this idea intrigues me. I think The Matrix has explored this concept to its logical extremes, but these types of games and their audience will certainly be interesting to watch develop. Let’s just hope the robots don’t take it over…

2030: Vertical meat and vegetable farms
“There will be a new vertical agriculture revolution, because right now we use up a third of the usable land of the world to produce food, which is very inefficient. Instead we will grow food in a computerised vertical factory building (which is a more efficient use of real estate) controlled by artificial intelligence, which recycles all of the nutrients so there’s no environmental impact at all. This would include hydroponic plants, fruits and vegetables, and in vitro cloning of meat. This could also be very healthy — we could have meat with Omega-3 fats instead of saturated fats, this sort of thing.”

Okay, I have to say, I love meat. I love meat enough that I put the ethical dilemmas associated with its consumption right out of my head as soon as I see a fat, juicy steak sitting in front of me. Anything that takes the ethical question out of the equation is alright by me. And providing more food at a cheaper cost with none of the environmental impact? Needless to say this has huge implications for feeding our ever increasing population.

2033: 100 per cent of our energy from solar
“We are applying new nanotechnologies to the design of solar panels, and the costs are coming down dramatically. A recent report by Deutsche Bank said that ‘the cost of unsubsidised solar power is about the same as the cost of electricity from the grid in India and Italy. By 2014 even more countries will achieve solar grid parity’. So I do believe that within 20 years we could get all our energy from solar energy. I presented this not so long ago to the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was actually my classmate at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and he said: ‘Ray, do we have enough sunlight to do this with?’ and I said: ‘Yes, we’ve got 10,000 times more than we need.'”

This one is super exciting. Energy scarcity drives many if not most of the world’s problems to date, so finally finding a way to equitably, economically, and ecologically produce enough energy for the world would go a long way towards easing tensions and driving prosperity.

2040: Stay young for ever 
“Twenty years from now, we will be adding more time than is going by to your remaining life expectancy. We’ve quadrupled life expectancy in the past 1,000 years and doubled it in the past 200 years. We’re now able to reprogram health and medicine as software, and so that pace is only going to continue to accelerate. There are three bridges to life extension. Bridge 1 is taking aggressive steps to stay healthy today, with today’s knowledge. The goal is to get to bridge 2: the biotechnology revolution, where we can reprogram biology away from disease. Bridge 3 is the nanotechnology revolution. The quintessential application of that is nanobots — little robots in the bloodstream that augment your immune system. We can create an immune system that recognizes all disease, and could be reprogrammed to deal with new pathogens.”

There are many who balk at the idea of living forever–insofar as we choose the lengths of our own lives–but I am definitely not one of them. Give me the ability to keep a healthy body almost permanently and I will shake your hand and thank you for the pleasure. The human body is a beautiful yet frail construction, technology can only improve on our ability to combat the innumerable ways the world has of beating us down.

For more from Ray Kurzweil you can follow him on his website and twitter.

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