Ray Kurzweil: The Exponential Mind

The inventor, scientist, author, futurist and director of engineering at Google aims to help mankind devise a better world by keeping tabs on technology, consumer behavior and more.
October 9, 2014

Ray Kurzweil is not big on small talk. At 3:30 on a glorious early summer afternoon, the kind that inspires idle daydreams, he strides into a glass-walled, fifth-floor conference room overlooking the leafy tech town of Waltham, Mass.

Lowering himself into a chair, he looks at his watch and says, “How much time do you need?”

It doesn’t quite qualify as rude. He’s got a plane to catch this evening, and he’s running nearly two hours behind schedule. But there is a hint of menace to the curtness, a subtle warning to keep things moving. And this is certainly in keeping with Kurzweil’s M.O.

“If you spend enough time with him, you’ll see that there’s very little waste in his day,” says director Barry Ptolemy, who tailed Kurzweil for more than two years while filming the documentary Transcendent Man. “His nose is always to the grindstone; he’s always applying himself to the next job, the next interview, the next book, the next little task.”

It would appear the 66-year-old maverick has operated this way since birth. He decided to become an inventor at age 5, combing his Queens, N.Y., neighborhood for discarded radios and bicycle parts to assemble his prototypes. In 1965, at age 17, he unveiled an early project, a computer capable of composing music, on the Steve Allen TV show I’ve Got a Secret. He made his first trip to the White House that same year, meeting with Lyndon Johnson, along with other young scientists uncovered in a Westinghouse talent search. As a sophomore at MIT, he launched a company that used a computer to help high school students find their ideal college. Then at 20, he sold the firm to a New York publisher for $100,000, plus royalties.

The man has been hustling since he learned how to tie his shoes.

Though he bears a slight resemblance to Woody Allen—beige slacks, open collar, reddish hair, glasses—he speaks with the baritone authority of Henry Kissinger. He brings an engineer’s sense of discipline to each new endeavor, pinpointing the problem, surveying the options, choosing the best course of action. “He’s very good at triage, very good at compartmentalizing,” says Ptolemy.

A bit ironically, Kurzweil describes his first great contribution to society—the technology that first gave computers an audible voice—as a solution he developed in the early 1970s for no problem in particular. After devising a program that allowed the machines to recognize letters in any font, he pursued market research to decide how his advancement could be useful. It wasn’t until he sat next to a blind man on an airplane that he realized his technology could shatter the inherent limitations of Braille; only a tiny sliver of books had been printed in Braille, and no topical sources—newspapers, magazines or office memos—were available in that format.

Kurzweil and a team that included engineers from the National Federation for the Blind built around his existing software to make text-to-speech reading machines a reality by 1976. “What really motivates an innovator is that leap from dry formulas on a blackboard to changes in people’s lives,” Kurzweil says. “It’s very gratifying for me when I get letters from blind people who say they were able to get a job or an education due to the reading technology that I helped create…. That’s really the thrill of being an innovator.”

The passion for helping humanity has pushed Kurzweil to establish double-digit companies over the years, pursuing all sorts of technological advancements. Along the way, his sleepy eyes have become astute at seeing into the future.

In The Age of Intelligent Machines, first published in 1990, Kurzweil started sharing his visions with the public. At the time they sounded a lot like science fiction, but a startling number of his predictions came true. He correctly predicted that by 1998 a computer would win the world chess championship, that new modes of communication would bring about the downfall of the Soviet Union, and that millions of people worldwide would plug into a web of knowledge. Today, he is the author of five best-selling books, including The Singularity Is Near and How to Create a Mind.

This wasn’t his original aim. In 1981, when he started collecting data on how rapidly computer technology was evolving, it was for purely practical reasons.

“Invariably people create technologies and business plans as if the world is never going to change,” Kurzweil says. As a result, their companies routinely fail, even though they successfully build the products they promise to produce. Visionaries see the potential, but they don’t plot it out correctly. “The inventors whose names you recognize were in the right place with the right idea at the right time,” he explains, pointing to his friend Larry Page, who launched Google with Sergey Brin in 1998, right about the time the founders of legendary busts Pets.com and Kozmo.com discovered mankind wasn’t remotely ready for Internet commerce.

How do you master timing? You look ahead.

“My projects have to make sense not for the time I’m looking at, but the world that will exist when I finish,” Kurzweil says. “And that world is a very different place.”

In recent years, companies like Ford, Hallmark and Hershey’s have recognized the value in this way of thinking, hiring expert guides like Kurzweil to help them study the shifting sands and make sense of the road ahead. These so-called “futurists” keep a careful eye on scientific advances, consumer behavior, market trends and cultural leanings. According to Intel’s resident futurist, Brian David Johnson, the goal is not so much to predict the future as to invent it. “Too many people believe that the future is a fixed point that we’re powerless to change,” Johnson recently told Forbes. “But the reality is that the future is created every day by the actions of people.”

Kurzweil subscribes to this notion. He has boundless confidence in man’s ability to construct a better world. This isn’t some utopian dream. He has the data to back it up—and a team of 10 researchers who help him construct his mathematical models. They’ve been plotting the price and computing power of information technologies—processing speed, data storage, that sort of thing—for decades.

In his view, we are on the verge of a great leap forward, an age of unprecedented invention, the kinds of breakthroughs that can lead to peace and prosperity and make humans immortal. In other words, he has barely begun to bend time to his will.

 

Ray Kurzweil does not own a crystal ball. The secret to his forecasting success is “exponential thinking.”

Our minds are trained to see the world linearly. If you drive at this speed, you will reach your destination at this time. But technology evolves exponentially. Kurzweil calls this the Law of Accelerating Returns.

He leans back in his chair to retrieve his cellphone and holds it aloft between two fingers. “This is several billion times more powerful than the computer I used as an undergraduate,” he says, and goes on to point out that the device is also about 100,000 times smaller. Whereas computers once took up entire floors at university research halls, far more advanced models now fit in our pockets (and smaller spaces) and are becoming more miniscule all the time. This is a classic example of exponential change.

The Human Genome Project is another. Launched in 1990, it was billed from the start as an ambitious, 15-year venture. Estimated cost: $3 billion. When researchers neared the time line’s halfway point with only 3 percent of the DNA sequencing finished, critics were quick to pounce. What they did not see was the annual doubling in output. Thanks to increases in computing power and efficiency, 3 percent became 6 percent and then 12 percent and so on. With a few more doublings, the project was completed a full two years ahead of schedule.

That is the power of exponential change.

“If you take 30 steps linearly, you get to 30,” Kurzweil says. “If you take 30 steps exponentially, you’re at a billion.”

The fruits of these accelerating returns are all around us. It took more than 15 years to sequence HIV beginning in the 1980s. Thirty-one days to sequence SARS in 2003. And today we can map a virus in a single day.

While thinking about the not-too-distant future, when virtual reality and self-driving cars, 3-D printing and Google Glass are norms, Kurzweil dreams of the next steps. In his vision, we’re rapidly approaching the point where human power becomes infinite.

Holding the phone upright, he swipes a finger across the glass.

“When I do this, my fingers are connected to my brain,” Kurzweil says. “The phone is an extension of my brain. Today a kid in Africa with a smartphone has access to all of human knowledge. He has more knowledge at his fingertips than the president of the United States did 15 years ago.” Multiplying by exponents of progress, Kurzweil projects continued shrinkage in computer size and growth in power over the next 25 years. He hypothesizes microscopic nanobots—inexpensive machines the size of blood cells—that will augment our intelligence and immune systems. These tiny technologies “will go into our neocortex, our brain, noninvasively through our capillaries and basically put our neocortex on the cloud.”

Imagine having Wikipedia linked directly to your brain cells. Imagine digital neurons that reverse the effects of Parkinson’s disease. Maybe we can live forever.

He smiles, letting the sweep of his statements sink in. Without question, it is an impressive bit of theater. He loves telling stories, loves dazzling people with his visions. But his zeal for showmanship has been known to backfire.

The biologist P.Z. Myers has called him “one of the greatest hucksters of the age.” Other critics have labeled him crazy and called his ideas hot air. Kurzweil’s public pursuit of immortality doesn’t help matters. In an effort to prolong his life, Kurzweil takes 150 supplements a day, washing them down with cup after cup of green tea and alkaline water. He monitors the effects of these chemistry experiments with weekly blood tests. It’s one of a few eccentricities.

“He’s extremely honest and direct,” Ptolemy says of his friend’s prickly personality. “He talks to people and if he doesn’t like what you’re saying, he’ll just say it. There’s no B.S. If he doesn’t like what he’s hearing, he’ll just say, ‘No. Got anything  else?’”

But it’s hard to argue with the results. Kurzweil claims 86 percent of his predictions for the year 2009 came true. Others insist the figure is actually much lower. But that’s just part of the game. Predicting is hard work.

“He was considered extremely radical 15 years ago,” Ptolemy says. “That’s less the case now. People are seeing these technologies catch up—the iPhone, Google’s self-driving cars, Watson [the IBM computer that bested Jeopardy genius Ken Jennings in 2011]. All these things start happening, and people are like, ‘Oh, OK. I see what’s going on.’”

 

Ray Kurzweil was born into a family of artists. His mother was a painter; his father, a conductor and musician. Both moved to New York from Austria in the late 1930s, fleeing the horrors of Hitler’s Nazi regime. When Ray was 7 years old, his maternal grandfather returned to the land of his birth, where he was given the chance to hold in his hands documents that once belonged to the great Leonardo da Vinci—painter, sculptor, inventor, thinker. “He described the experience with reverence,” Kurzweil writes, “as if he had touched the work of God himself.”

Ray’s parents raised their son and daughter in the Unitarian Church, encouraging them to study the teachings of various religions to arrive at the truth. Ray is agnostic, in part, he says, because religions tend to rationalize death; but like Da Vinci, he firmly believes in the power of ideas—the ability to overcome pain and peril, to transcend life’s challenges with reason and thought. “He wants to change the world—impact it as much as possible,” Ptolemy says. “That’s what drives him.”

Despite what his critics say, Kurzweil is not blind to the threats posed by modern science. If nanotechnology could bring healing agents into our bodies, nano-hackers or nano-terrorists could spread viruses—the literal, deadly kind. “Technology has been a double-edged sword ever since fire,” he says. “It kept us warm, cooked our food, but also burned down our villages.” That doesn’t mean you keep it under lock and key.

In January of 2013, Kurzweil entered the next chapter of his life, dividing his time between Waltham and San Francisco, where he works with Google engineers to deepen computers’ understanding of human language. “It’s my first job with a company I didn’t start myself,” he deadpans. The idea is to move the company beyond keyword search, to teach computers how to grasp the meaning and ideas in the billions of documents at their disposal, to move them one more step forward on the journey to becoming sentient virtual assistants—picture Joaquin Phoenix’s sweet-talking laptop in 2013’s Kurzweil-influenced movie Her, a Best Picture nominee.

Kurzweil had pitched the idea of breaking computers’ language barrier to Page while searching for investors. Page offered him a full-time salary and Google-scale resources instead, promising to give Kurzweil the independence he needs to complete the project. “It’s a courageous company,” Kurzweil says. “It has a biz model that supports very widespread distribution of these technologies. It’s the only place I could do this project. I would not have the resources, even if I raised all the money I wanted in my own company. I wouldn’t be able to run algorithms on a million computers.”

That’s not to say Page will sit idle while Kurzweil toils away. In the last year, the Google CEO has snapped up eight robotics companies, including industry frontrunner Boston Dynamics. He paid $3.2 billion for Nest Labs, maker of learning thermostats and smoke alarms. He scooped up the artificial intelligence startup DeepMind and lured Geoffrey Hinton, the world’s foremost expert on neural networks—computer systems that function like a brain—into the Google fold.

Kurzweil’s ties to Page run deep. Google (and NASA) provided early funding for Singularity University, the education hub/startup accelerator Kurzweil launched with the XPRIZE’s Peter Diamandis to train young leaders to use cutting-edge technology to make life better for billions of people on Earth.

Kurzweil’s faith in entrepreneurship is so strong that he believes it should be taught in elementary school.

Why?

Because that kid with the cellphone now has a chance to change the world. If that seems far-fetched, consider the college sophomore who started Facebook because he wanted to meet girls or the 15-year-old who recently invented a simple new test for pancreatic cancer. This is one source of his optimism. Another? The most remarkable thing about the mathematical models Kurzweil has assembled, the breathtaking arcs that demonstrate his thinking, is that they don’t halt their climb for any reason—not for world wars, not for the Great Depression.

Once again, that’s the power of exponential growth.

“Things that seemed impossible at one point are now possible,” Kurzweil says. “That’s the fundamental difference between me and my critics.” Despite the thousands of years of evolution hard-wired into his brain, he resists the urge to see the world in linear fashion. That’s why he’s bullish on solar power, artificial intelligence, nanobots and 3-D printing. That’s why he believes the 2020s will be studded with one huge medical breakthrough after another.

“There’s a lot of pessimism in the world,” he laments. “If I  believed progress was linear, I’d be pessimistic, too. Because we would not be able to solve these problems. But I’m optimistic—more than optimistic: I believe we will solve these problems because of the scale of these technologies.”

He looks down at his watch yet again. Mickey Mouse peeks out from behind the timepiece’s sweeping hands. “Just a bit of whimsy,” he says.

Nearly an hour has passed. The world has changed. It’s time to get on with his day.

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