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Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts in-body computers and a potential war with machines

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AP

Author and inventor Ray Kurzweil, 56, speaks with a reporter during an interview in his office, in Wellesley, Mass., Jan. 12, 2005.

Ray Kurzweil

Author and inventor Ray Kurzweil, 56, appears in front of words projected on a screen from his Internet site in his office, in Wellesley, Mass., Jan. 12, 2005. Launch slideshow »

If you worry that the Internet, computers and other electronics play an outsized role in daily life, futurist Ray Kurzweil has one message for you:

This is only the beginning.

Kurzweil, who will speak Sunday night at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Audi Speaker Series, predicts a high-tech society that makes today's lifestyle look straight out of the Stone Age. As he sees it, people will have tiny computing devices in their bodies, more powerful brains and longer lives. Simply put, the world will be dominated by artificial intelligence.

The 64-year-old entrepreneur is the leading evangelist of “Singularity,” the idea that machines will spontaneously adopt humanlike characteristics, become vastly more intelligent than people and change mankind forever. One possibility is they'll turn on us and wipe out humanity.

Kurzweil has pegged the transformation for 2045.

“The nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be 1 billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today,” he says on singularity.com.

Kurzweil has written several books and founded a number of technology companies, including FatKat, which develops pattern-recognition systems for financial markets, and Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, which was launched in 1982 and developed a voice-activated word processor. He recently was hired as director of engineering for Google.

You have said that by the 2030s, people will have blood cell-sized computing devices in their bloodstreams and brains that connect directly to off-site computer data servers. What makes you think that?

We already have computerized devices that are placed inside the body and even connected into the brain, such as neural implants for Parkinson’s disease and cochlear implants for the deaf. These devices can already wirelessly download new software from the cloud. Technology is shrinking at an exponential rate, which I’ve measured at about 100 in 3D volume per decade. At that rate, we will be able to introduce blood cell-sized devices that are robotic and have computers that can communicate wirelessly by the 2030s.

How would such devices be regulated to ensure that outside forces can’t manipulate people’s thoughts and actions through the Internet?

Privacy and security are already very significant issues, considering the personal and intimate things that people do with their computers. This is an issue we will never be able to cross off our “concern list,” but we’re actually not doing that badly. Relatively few people today complain that they have been significantly damaged by privacy and security breaches. I believe we will be able to keep up with the increasing sophistication of the technology.

What kind of new capabilities could brain connectivity bring to humans? How would it affect people's intelligence, athletic abilities, life spans, reproductive capacity?

Click to enlarge photo

Kurzweil was dubbed the "restless genius" by the Wall Street Journal.

We are already much smarter and more productive because of the brain extenders we have, ranging from Google to Wikipedia. When these services went on strike for one day last year to protest the federal Stop Online Piracy Act legislation, I felt like a part of my brain had gone on strike. We are going to literally expand the scope and scale of our neocortex, which is where we do our thinking. Thinking bigger and bolder thoughts will ultimately enable us to overcome the major challenges that our civilization faces.

You have said that you want to bring your father, who died in 1970, back to life. How and when could that be accomplished?

The idea is to create an avatar that looks and acts like my father, based on the information we have about him, or anyone else. The more information we have about that person, the better the job we can do. The goal would be to pass a “Fredric Kurzweil Turing test,” that is for the avatar to be indistinguishable from the original person to the people who knew that person. In the case of my father, that is becoming an easier test as our memories of him are fading.

Do you believe that humans, using technological advances, could achieve immortality? If so, how? And when?

The goal is to achieve a tipping point where science is adding more time than is going by. That’s not a guarantee of immortality, but it would change the metaphor of the sands of time running out. I believe we are about 15 years away from such a tipping point.

Could there be a time, as Google co-founder Larry Page said in 2004, that people simply think of a question and their smartphone tells them the answer?

My project at Google is to help create a technology that will become familiar with your concerns and will find information that will meet your needs without your having to ask for it. For example, it might pop up and present — in your field of view using augmented reality — “you expressed concern about whether vitamin B12 is being absorbed by your cells, here is research released 12 seconds ago that shows a better way to do this.”

A December story in Bloomberg Businessweek described you as a “quasi-religious figure” because of your role as the leading advocate for Singularity. A May 2009 Newsweek article about you and Singularity said the “last thing humanity needs right now is an apocalyptic cult masquerading as science.” How do you respond to those descriptions and accusations?

My research has been a scientific study of technology trends, and my books, such as “The Singularity is Near,” have thousands of scientific citations. It is a thesis based on empirical data and analysis. Of course, any scientific insight will have philosophical implications, but that is not where I started. These sorts of accusations are content-free ad-hominem attacks by people who simply don’t like the conclusions but are unable to criticize my actual arguments.

Will the technological advances you predict change the way we are born? For instance, will be people be born smarter with computerlike brains already in place?

That’s not likely to be an early development, just as we wait now at least a little while before introducing computers to children. But eventually we will probably augment brains at an early age.

Do you think there could be a time when machines take on minds of their own and wage war with humans? If so, when? And who would win?

I think human and computer intelligence will be mixed together just as it is now. We have conflicts today between groups of humans that are both enhanced by intelligent technology. A war between a group that used the latest technology and a group of humans who eschewed modern technology would be a very short war.

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