Thinker-Dreamer Ray Kurzweil

Science/Fantasy Monday: Thinker-Dreamer Ray Kurzweil

Few people outside the science/technology community have heard of him, but Ray Kurzweil is one of the kings of invention, and science fiction writers, at the very least, should become intimately familiar with his work.

He has been described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS included Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries.

Ray Kurzweil is, first and foremost, an inventor.  He was the principle inventor/developer of the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first omni-font optical text recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition, the first computer programs capable of composing music and poetry based on synthesized materials, and the first virtual performing artists (Ramona) to perform in front of a live audience with a live band (just to name a few accomplishments).

He has written six books and a multitude of articles.  He has started several companies.  And he has made several movies/documentaries, including The Singularity Is Near: A True Story About the Future, based on his book of the same title, which is part fiction and part non-fiction; and Transcendent Man, a documentary about Kurzweil made while on his global speaking tour in 2008-2009 (which is curently available for streaming on Netflix).

Kurzweil is a very vocal advocate for futurism and transhumanism.  In his books he has made many forecasts for technological advancements, his arguments derived principally from Moore’s Law, which argues that the rate of innovation in computer technology is increasing not linearly but rather exponentially.  Kurzweil argues that because so much of science and technology depends on computing power, this exponential advancement in computer tech will likewise mean exponential advancement in non-computer sciences, like nanotech, biotech, and materials science.  He calls this concept the “Law of Accelerating Returns.”

Kurzweil is at heart the ultimate optimist.  His predictions include such amazing claims as:

  • Before 2050 medical advances will allow people to radically extend their lifespans while preserving quality of life through use of nanobots.
  • A computer will pass the Turing Test by 2029 (if you don’t know what the Turing Test is, well… then… I just don’t know what can be done for you… Kidding, kidding.  Go read this > Turing Test, and come right back.  I’ll wait.).
  • Sentient artificial intelligences will exhibit moral think and respect humans.
  • The line between human and machine will blur as machines attain human-level intelligence and humans start incorporating more tech into their bodies.

Admittedly, some of these predictions are a bit more far-fetched the others.  The thing is, many of the predictions made in his first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), came true.  As one example, he predicted that a computer would beat the World Chess Champion by 1998, and IBM’s Deep Blue computer did just that in May 1997.  On the other hand, many of his predictions don’t happen at all a fact continually pointed out by his critics (though I think it is unfair to expect him to always get everything right in order to be taken seriously, and if he was always right, I’d be worried about where the hell he actually came from).

Kurzweil’s predictions have given rise to a lot of criticism from within the scientific community and from the media.  Everyone from Douglas Hofstadter (author of Godel, Escher, Bach) to scifi author Bruce Sterling have taken exception to at least some of his ideas.  I myself do not agree with everything he says, or find every prediction all that plausible.  As others have pointed out, and I readily agree, as Kurzweil moves farther away from his focus on technology to biological sciences, his ideas become more far-fetched, more utopian, and a little harder to swallow.

Biologist P.Z. Myer’s blog article about Kurzweil is one example of some of the harsh, but potentially valid criticism that has been laid against Ray Kurzweil in recent years: “Ray Kurzweil Does Not Understand the Brain.”

Ray Kurzweil is one of my heroes.  I love his books, especially The Age of Spiritual Machines and Singularity Is Near, passionately.  But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to his limitations, and that doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything he says.  It is important that we think for ourselves and come to our own conclusions, especially where our heroes are concerned.

But agreeing with everything he says is not that point.  Especially not for science fiction writers.

The point is that this man thinks outside the box constantly and exuberantly, never dismissing any idea no matter how many people have already decided it’s impossible. In a world that is morbidly cynical about science and technology and the roles/consequences they will have in the future, Ray Kurzweil is unblinkingly, unapologetically optimistic.  And, at least some of the time, he is right.  His ideas, predictions, philosophies, and attitudes are positively ripe for the picking for future scientists and scifi writers alike.  While his relevancy within the science community may be fading, and his predictions are beginning to go off-mark, I believe he will remain and indispensable source of inspiration for science fiction writers.

Go read his books.  You’ll see what I mean.

Ray Kurzweil Links: