|Born||February 12, 1948 (1948-02-12)
Queens, New York, United States
|Occupation||Author, entrepreneur, scientist and futurist|
|Spouse(s)||Sonya R. Kurzweil|
Raymond Kurzweil (pronounced /kɚtswaɪl/) (born February 12, 1948) is an American inventor and futurist. He is involved in fields as diverse as optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments. He is the author of several books on health, artificial intelligence (AI), transhumanism, the technological singularity, and futurism.
Ray Kurzweil grew up in the New York City borough of Queens. He was born to secular Jewish parents who had escaped Austria just before the onset of World War II, and he was exposed via Unitarian Universalism to a diversity of religious faiths during his upbringing. His father was a musician and composer and his mother was a visual artist. His uncle, an engineer at Bell Labs, taught young Ray the basics about computers. In his youth, he was an avid reader of science fiction literature. In 1963, at age fifteen, he wrote his first computer program. Designed to process statistical data, the program was used by researchers at IBM. Later in high school he created a sophisticated pattern-recognition software program that analyzed the works of classical composers, and then synthesized its own songs in similar styles. The capabilities of this invention were so impressive that, in 1965, he was invited to appear on the CBS television program I've Got a Secret, where he performed a piano piece that was composed by a computer he also had built. Later that year, he won first prize in the International Science Fair for the invention, and he was also recognized by the Westinghouse Talent Search and was personally congratulated by President Lyndon B. Johnson during a White House ceremony.
In 1968, during his sophomore year at MIT, Kurzweil started a company that used a computer program to match high school students with colleges. The program, called the Select College Consulting Program, was designed by him and compared thousands of different criteria about each college with questionnaire answers submitted by each student applicant. When he was 20, he sold the company to Harcourt, Brace & World for $100,000 (roughly $500,000 in 2006 dollars) plus royalties. He earned a BS in Computer Science and Literature in 1970 from MIT.
In 1974, Kurzweil started the company Kurzweil Computer Products, Inc. and led development of the first omni-font optical character recognition system—a computer program capable of recognizing text written in any normal font. Before that time, scanners had only been able to read text written in a few fonts. He decided that the best application of this technology would be to create a reading machine, which would allow blind people to understand written text by having a computer read it to them aloud. However, this device required the invention of two enabling technologies—the CCD flatbed scanner and the text-to-speech synthesizer. Under his direction, development of these technologies was completed, and on January 13, 1976, the finished product was unveiled during a news conference headed by him and the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind. Called the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the device covered an entire tabletop. It gained him mainstream recognition: on the day of the machine's unveiling, Walter Cronkite used the machine to give his signature soundoff, "And that's the way it is, January 13, 1976." While listening to The Today Show, musician Stevie Wonder heard a demonstration of the device and purchased the first production version of the Kurzweil Reading Machine, beginning a lifelong friendship between himself and Kurzweil.
According to former Kurzweil Computer Products employees, the Kurzweil Reading Machine's designer was engineer Richard Brown, a KCP employee at the time.
Kurzweil's next major business venture began in 1978, when Kurzweil Computer Products began selling a commercial version of the optical character recognition computer program. LexisNexis was one of the first customers, and bought the program to upload paper legal and news documents onto its nascent online databases.
Two years later, Kurzweil sold his company to Xerox, which had an interest in further commercializing paper-to-computer text conversion. Kurzweil Computer Products became a subsidiary of Xerox formerly known as Scansoft and now as Nuance Communications, and he functioned as a consultant for the former until 1995.
Kurzweil's next business venture was in the realm of electronic music technology. After a 1982 meeting with Stevie Wonder, in which the latter lamented the divide in capabilities and qualities between electronic synthesizers and traditional musical instruments, Kurzweil was inspired to create a new generation of music synthesizers capable of accurately duplicating the sounds of real instruments. Kurzweil Music Systems was founded in the same year, and in 1984, the Kurzweil K250 was unveiled. The machine was capable of imitating a number of instruments, and in tests musicians were unable to discern the difference between the Kurzweil K250 on piano mode from a normal grand piano.  The recording and mixing abilities of the machine, coupled with its abilities to imitate different instruments made it possible for a single user to compose and play an entire orchestral piece.
Kurzweil Music Systems was sold to Korean musical instrument manufacturer Young Chang in 1990. As with Xerox, Kurzweil remained as a consultant for several years.
Concurrent with Kurzweil Music Systems, Ray Kurzweil created the company Kurzweil Applied Intelligence (KAI) to develop computer speech recognition systems for commercial use. The first product, which debuted in 1987, was the world's first large-vocabulary speech recognition program, allowing human users to dictate to their computers via microphone and then have the device transcribe their speech into written text. Later, the company combined the speech recognition technology with medical expert systems to create the Kurzweil VoiceMed (today called Clinical Reporter) line of products, which allow doctors to write medical reports by speaking instead of writing. KAI exists today as Nuance Communications.
Kurzweil started Kurzweil Educational Systems in 1996 to develop new pattern-recognition-based computer technologies to help people with disabilities such as blindness, dyslexia and ADD in school. Products include the Kurzweil 1000 text-to-speech converter software program, which enables a computer to read electronic and scanned text aloud to blind or visually-impaired users, and the Kurzweil 3000 program, which is a multifaceted electronic learning system that helps with reading, writing, and study skills.
During the 1990s Ray Kurzweil founded the Medical Learning Company. The company's products included an interactive computer education program for doctors and a computer-simulated patient. Around the same time, Kurzweil started KurzweilCyberArt.com—a website featuring computer programs to assist the creative art process. The site used to offer free downloads of a program called AARON—a visual art synthesizer developed by Harold Cohen—and of "Kurzweil's Cybernetic Poet", which automatically creates poetry. During this period he also started KurzweilAI.net, a website devoted towards showcasing news of scientific developments, publicizing the ideas of high-tech thinkers and critics alike, and promoting futurist-related discussion among the general population through the Mind-X forum.
In 1999, Kurzweil created a hedge fund called "FatKat" (Financial Accelerating Transactions from Kurzweil Adaptive Technologies) http://www.fatkat.com, which began trading in 2006. He has stated that the ultimate aim is to improve the performance of FatKat's A.I. investment software program, enhancing its ability to recognize patterns in "currency fluctuations and stock-ownership trends." He predicted in his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, that computers will one day prove superior to the best human financial minds at making profitable investment decisions. In 2001, Canadian rock band Our Lady Peace released an album, titled Spiritual Machines, based on Kurzweil's book. Kurzweil's voice was featured in the album, reading excerpts from his book.
In June 2005, Ray Kurzweil introduced the "Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader" (K-NFB Reader)—a pocket-sized device consisting of a digital camera and computer unit. Like the Kurzweil Reading Machine of almost 30 years before, the K-NFB Reader is designed to aid blind people by reading written text aloud. The newer machine is portable and scans text through digital camera images, while the older machine is large and scans text through flatbed scanning.
Ray Kurzweil is currently making a movie due for release in 2010 called The Singularity is Near: A True Story About the Future based, in part, on his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near. Part fiction, part non-fiction, he interviews 20 big thinkers like Marvin Minsky, plus there is a B-line narrative story that illustrates some of the ideas, where a computer avatar (Ramona) saves the world from self-replicating microscopic robots.
In addition to Kurzweil's movie, an independent, feature-length documentary was made about Kurzweil, his life, and his ideas called Transcendent Man. Filmmakers Barry and Felicia Ptolemy followed Kurzweil, documenting his global speaking tour. Premiered in 2009 at the Tribeca Film Festival, Transcendent Man documents Ray's quest to reveal mankind's ultimate destiny and explores many of the ideas found in his New York Times bestselling book, The Singularity is Near, including his concept of exponential growth, radical life expansion, and how we will transcend our biology. The Ptolemys documented Ray's stated goal of bringing back his late father using AI. The film also features critics who argue against Kurzweil's predictions.
Kurzweil said during a 2006 C-SPAN2 interview that he was working on a new book that focused on the inner workings of the human brain and how this could be applied to building AI.
While being interviewed for a February 2009 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Kurzweil expressed a desire to construct a genetic copy of his late father, Fredric Kurzweil, from DNA within his grave site. This feat would be achieved by deploying various nanorobots to send samples of DNA back from the grave, constructing a clone of Fredric and retrieving memories and recollections—from Ray's mind—of his father.
Kurzweil's first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, was published in 1990. The nonfiction work discusses the history of computer AI and also makes forecasts regarding likely future developments. Other experts in the field of AI contribute heavily to the work in the form of essays. The Association of American Publishers' awarded it the status of Most Outstanding Computer Science Book of 1990.
Next, Kurzweil published a book on nutrition in 1993 called The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life. The book's main idea is that high levels of fat intake are the cause of many health disorders common in the U.S., and thus that cutting fat consumption down to 10% of the total calories consumed would be optimal for most people.
In 1998, Ray Kurzweil published The Age of Spiritual Machines, which focuses heavily on further elucidating his theories regarding the future of technology, which themselves stem from his analysis of long-term trends in biological and technological evolution. Much focus goes into examining the likely course of AI development, along with the future of computer architecture.
Kurzweil's next book published in 2004, returned to the subject of human health and nutrition. Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever was co-authored by Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, a medical doctor and specialist in alternative medicine.
The Singularity Is Near was published in 2005. The book is currently being made into a movie starring Pauley Perrette (NCIS), and scheduled for 2010 release.
In February 2007, Ptolemaic Productions acquired the rights to The Singularity is Near, The Age of Spiritual Machines and Fantastic Voyage including the rights to Kurzweil's life and ideas for the film Transcendent Man. The feature length documentary was directed by Barry Ptolemy.
Kurzweil's newest book, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, a follow-up on Fantastic Voyage, was released on April 28, 2009.
The book he's currently working on is called "How The Mind Works and How To Build One" .
Kurzweil has been called the successor and "rightful heir to Thomas Edison", and was also referred to by Forbes as "the ultimate thinking machine."
Kurzweil has received these awards, among others:
|Type of degree||College||Year awarded|
|Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters||Hofstra University||1982|
|Honorary Doctorate of Music||Berklee College of Music||1987|
|Honorary Doctorate of Science||Northeastern University||1988|
|Honorary Doctorate of Science||Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute||1988|
|Honorary Doctorate of Engineering||Merrimack College||1989|
|Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters||Misericordia University||1989|
|Honorary Doctorate of Science||New Jersey Institute of Technology||1990|
|Honorary Doctorate of Science||Queens College, City University of New York||1991|
|Honorary Doctorate of Science||Dominican College||1993|
|Honorary Doctorate in Science and Humanities||Michigan State University||2000|
|Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters||Landmark College||2002|
|Honorary Doctorate of Science||Worcester Polytechnic Institute||2005|
|Honorary Doctorate of Science||DePaul University||2006|
|Honorary Doctorate of Science||Bloomfield College||2007|
|Honorary Doctorate of Science||McGill University||2008|
|Honorary Doctorate of Science||Clarkson University||2009|
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After several years of closely tracking trends in the computer and machine industries, Kurzweil came to a realization: the innovation rate of computer technology was increasing not linearly but rather exponentially. With this, Kurzweil formed a method of predicting the course of technological development. As a computer scientist, Kurzweil also understood that there was no technical reason that this type of performance growth could not continue well into the 21st century.
Since growth in so many fields of science and technology depends upon computing power, such improvements translate into improvements to human knowledge and to non-computer sciences like nanotechnology, biotechnology, and materials science. Considering the ongoing exponential growth in computer capabilities, this means many new technologies will become available long before the majority of people—who intuitively think linearly about technological advance—expect. This core idea is expressed by Kurzweil's "Law of Accelerating Returns".
Kurzweil projects that between now and 2050 medical advances will allow people to radically extend their lifespans while preserving and even improving quality of life as they age. The aging process could at first be slowed, then halted, and then reversed as newer and better medical technologies became available. Kurzweil argues that much of this will be due to advances in medical nanotechnology, which will allow microscopic machines to travel through one's body and repair all types of damage at the cellular level. But equally consequential developments will occur within the realm of computers as they become increasingly powerful, numerous and cheap between now and 2050. Kurzweil predicts that a computer will pass the Turing test by 2029, by demonstrating to have a mind (intelligence, self awareness, emotional richness) indistinguishable from a human's. He predicts that the first AI is built around a computer simulation of a human brain, which is made possible by previous, nanotech-guided brainscanning. An AI machine could handle the full range of human intellectual tasks and would be both emotional and self-aware. Kurzweil suggests that AIs will inevitably become far smarter and more powerful than un-enhanced humans. He suggests that AIs will exhibit moral thinking and will respect humans as their ancestors. According to his predictions, the line between humans and machines will blur as a natural part of technological evolution. Cybernetic implants will greatly enhance human cognitive and physical abilities, and allow direct interface between humans and machines.
Kurzweil's standing as a leading futurist and Transhumanist has gained him positions of prominence within pertinent organizations:
In February 2009, Kurzweil, in cooperation with Google and the NASA Ames Research Center, announced the creation of Singularity University. The University's self-described mission is to "assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges". Using Kurzweil's Singularity concept as a foundation, the University, whose initial class of 40 Fellows began their nine-week graduate program in June, 2009, provides students the skills and tools to guide the process of the Singularity "for the benefit of humanity and its environment". Singularity U encompasses cross-disciplinary studies in ten different scientific and future-oriented tracks, taught by industry experts.
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Kurzweil is on the Army Science Advisory Board, has testified before Congress on the subject of nanotechnology, and sees considerable potential in the science to solve significant global problems such as poverty, disease, and climate change, viz. Nanotech Could Give Global Warming a Big Chill (July, 2006).
He predicts nanobots will be used to maintain the human body and to extend the human lifespan.
Kurzweil has stressed the extreme potential dangers of nanotechnology, but argues that in practice, progress cannot be stopped, and any attempt to do so will retard the progress of defensive and beneficial technologies more than the malevolent ones, increasing the danger. He says that the proper place of regulation is to make sure progress proceeds safely and quickly. He applies this reasoning to biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and technology in general.
In his controversial 2001 essay, "The Law of Accelerating Returns", Kurzweil proposes an extension of Moore's law that forms the basis of the concept of "Technological Singularity".
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Arguably, Kurzweil gained a large amount of credibility as a futurist from his first book The Age of Intelligent Machines. It was written from 1986 to 1989 and published in 1990. Building on Ithiel de Sola Pool's "Technologies of Freedom" (1983), Kurzweil forecast the demise of the Soviet Union due to new technologies such as cellular phones and fax machines disempowering authoritarian governments by removing state control over the flow of information. In the book Kurzweil also extrapolated preexisting trends in the improvement of computer chess software performance to predict correctly that computers would beat the best human players by 1998, and most likely in that year. In fact, the event occurred in May 1997 when chess World Champion Garry Kasparov was defeated by IBM's Deep Blue computer in a well-publicized chess tournament. Perhaps most significantly, Kurzweil foresaw the explosive growth in worldwide Internet use that began in the 1990s. At the time of the publication of The Age of Intelligent Machines, there were only 2.6 million Internet users in the world, and the medium was unreliable, difficult to use, and deficient in content, making Kurzweil's realization of its future potential especially prescient, given the technology's limits at that time. He also stated that the Internet would explode not only in the number of users but in content as well, eventually granting users access "to international networks of libraries, data bases, and information services". Additionally, Kurzweil correctly foresaw that the preferred mode of Internet access would inevitably be through wireless systems, and he was also correct to estimate that the latter would become practical for widespread use in the early 21st century.
Kurzweil also accurately forecast that, by the end of the 1990s, many documents would exist solely in computers and on the Internet, and that they would commonly be embedded with sounds, animations, and videos that would inhibit their transfer to paper format. Moreover, he foresaw that cellular phones would grow in popularity while shrinking in size for the foreseeable future.
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In 1999, Kurzweil published a second book titled The Age of Spiritual Machines, which goes into more depth explaining his futurist ideas. The third and final section of the book is devoted to elucidating the specific course of technological advancements Kurzweil predicts the world will experience over the next century. Titled "To Face the Future", the section is divided into four chapters respectively named "2009", "2019", "2029", and "2099". In each chapter, Kurzweil makes predictions about what life and technology will be like in that year.
While the veracity of Kurzweil's predictions beyond 2009 cannot yet be determined, many of the ideas of the "2009" chapter have been scrutinized. To begin, Kurzweil's claims that 2009 would be a year of continued transition as purely electronic computer memory continued to replace older rotating memory seems to be disproved by continued rapid growth in hard-disk capacity and unit sales, while high-capacity flash drives have yet to catch on in high-volume applications. Nonetheless, solid state storage is the preferred means of storage in low-volume applications such as MP3 players, handheld gaming systems, cellular phones and digital cameras. Many companies produce a 256 GB solid state drive for use in laptops and desktops, but these drives will cost over $600, making storage on them cost roughly five times the price of comparable hard-disk storage. On the other hand, Kurzweil correctly foresaw the growing ubiquity of wireless Internet access and cordless computer peripherals. Perhaps of more importance, Kurzweil presaged the explosive growth in peer-to-peer filesharing and the emergence of the Internet as a major medium for commerce and for accessing media such as movies, television programs, newspaper and magazine text, and music. He also claimed that three-dimensional computer chips would be in common use by 2009 (though older, "2-D" chips would still predominate). But although IBM has recently developed the necessary chip-stacking technology and announced plans to begin using three-dimensional chips in its supercomputers and for wireless communication applications, chip stacking remains a low-volume technology in 2009.
While this book focuses on the future of technology and the human race as did The Age of Intelligent Machines and The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil makes very few concrete, short-term predictions in The Singularity is Near, though longer-term visions are present in abundance. He recently discussed the singularity with Vice Magazine and was filmed for a documentary on the magazine online network VBS.tv .
Ray Kurzweil admits that he cared little for his health until age 35, when he was diagnosed with a glucose intolerance, an early form of type II diabetes (a major risk factor for heart disease). Kurzweil then found a doctor that shares his non-conventional beliefs to develop an extreme regimen involving hundreds of pills, chemical i.v. treatments, red wine and various other methods to attempt to live longer.
Kurzweil believes that the radical technological advances made throughout the 21st century will ultimately culminate with the discovery of means to reverse the aging process, cure any disease, and repair presently unrepairable injuries. Kurzweil has thus focused himself towards following a lifestyle intended to heighten his odds of living to see the day when science can make him immortal. Kurzweil calls this the "Bridge to a Bridge to a Bridge" strategy: The first bridge to longer life is Kurzweil's regimen, whereas the second- and third bridges are based on advanced biotechnologies and nanotechnologies, respectively, that have not yet been invented. Kurzweil believes they will allow for progressively longer human lifespans to the point of immortality and that successfully implementing the first "bridge" now allows one to reach the second in the future, which then allows one to reach the third.
Some elements of Kurzweil's lifestyle are conventional. He exercises frequently, does not eat to excess, and does not abuse recreational drugs. Many others, however, are controversial and may be explained by his obsession with living as long as possible. Kurzweil ingests "250 supplements, eight to 10 glasses of alkaline water and 10 cups of green tea" every day and drinks several glasses of red wine a week in an effort to "reprogram" his biochemistry.  Lately, he has cut down the number of supplement pills to 150.
Although not supported by science, Kurzweil and many others believe that consuming large amounts of water is necessary for flushing toxins out of the body, and that alkaline water allows the body to preserve important enzymes used for neutralizing acidic metabolic wastes. For this reason, Kurzweil abhors soft drinks and coffee, which are both acidic. Kurzweil believes that acidic drinks drain detoxifying enzyme reserves. Kurzweil has taken criticism from nutritionists and scientists for his advocacy of alkaline water's alleged health benefits and other unconventional beliefs, and he responded to this over the Internet. Green tea and red wine contain antioxidants that neutralize free radicals. Kurzweil also consumes red wine because it contains the compound resveratrol, which may help to fight heart disease according to some evidence, but it is also a potentiator of breast carcinomas which may prove to out-weigh any suggested benefit. Kurzweil also takes pills containing high concentrations of the chemical because the amount in red wine is extremely inconsistent.
On weekends, Kurzweil also undergoes intravenous transfusions of chemical cocktails at a clinic which he believes will reprogram his biochemistry. He routinely measures the chemical composition of his own bodily fluids, undergoes preemptive medical tests for many diseases and disorders, and keeps detailed records about the content of all the meals he eats. On that last note, Kurzweil only eats organic foods with low glycemic loads and claims it has been years since he last consumed anything containing sugar. Kurzweil considers foods rich in sugars and carbohydrates to be unhealthy since they spike the levels of glucose and insulin in the bloodstream, leading to health problems in the long term. He instead eats mainly vegetables, lean meats, tofu, and low glycemic load carbohydrates, and only uses extra virgin olive oil for cooking. Kurzweil also diligently eats foods rich with Omega-3 fatty acids (including small, wild salmon).
Moreover, Kurzweil makes it a priority to get sufficient sleep for physical and psychological health, and he maintains low stress levels in part by meditating and getting massages weekly. He exercises daily with walking, bike-riding and using workout machines, but advises against high-impact forms of exercise. Kurzweil claims that his rigorous efforts have yielded positive results, pointing to his vitamin-selling business partner who claims his "biological age" is more than a decade younger than his chronological age. In fact, Kurzweil claims that his personal health regimen has actually slowed down his rate of aging. He also advocates maintaining a slightly below-average body weight on the grounds that it imparts some of the life-extension benefits of full caloric restriction.
Kurzweil joined the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics company. In the event of his death, Kurzweil's body will be chemically preserved, frozen in liquid nitrogen, and stored at an Alcor facility in the hope that future medical technology will be able to revive him.
Kurzweil has authored three books on the subjects of nutrition, health and immortality: The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and TRANSCEND: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. In all, he recommends that other people emulate his health practices to the best of their abilities.
Kurzweil and his current "anti-aging" doctor, Terry Grossman, MD., now have two websites. One promotes their first book. One promotes their second book, and promotes and sells their many "longevity products", many of which can be found on medical scam warning sites.
Though Kurzweil's parents were Jewish, they raised him as a Unitarian and exposed him to many different faiths during his youth. Kurzweil gave a 2007 keynote speech to the United Church of Christ in Hartford, Connecticut, alongside Barack Obama, who was then a Presidential candidate. In The Singularity is Near he expresses a need for a new religion based on the principle of mutual respect between sentient life forms, and on the principle of respecting knowledge. This religion would not have a leader, instead being purely personal to adherents.
According to Kurzweil “The primary role of traditional religion is deathist rationalization—that is, rationalizing the tragedy of death as a good thing. In order to benefit from what the Singularity can bring, we need to overcome our deathist rationalization. We need to sweep traditional religion out of our road.” 
"Religious tradition might attempt to slow down technological innovation, transhumanists accuse religious representatives of holding a vested interest in provenance over matters of death and immortality. One of the impediments to the advance toward cybernetic immortality is religion, they say. Religion stands in the way. Religion threatens to block progress. This is because religion has traditionally sought to provide a palliative for people faced with death. Religion brings acceptance of death, and comfort with that acceptance. Ready to engage in combat with traditional religion, in Promethean style Kurzweil wants to defy death and use nanotechnology as a weapon to defeat death."
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Even beyond philosophical arguments over whether a machine can "think" (see Philosophy of artificial intelligence), Kurzweil's ideas have generated much criticism within the scientific community and in the media. Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corporation, has called the notion of a technological singularity "intelligent design for the IQ 140 people...This proposition that we're heading to this point at which everything is going to be just unimaginably different—it's fundamentally, in my view, driven by a religious impulse. And all of the frantic arm-waving can't obscure that fact for me."
VR pioneer Jaron Lanier has been one of the strongest critics of Kurzweil’s ideas, describing them as “cybernetic totalism” (totalitarianism), and has outlined his views on the culture surrounding Kurzweil’s predictions in an essay for Edge.org entitled One Half of a Manifesto.
Pulitzer Prize winner Douglas Hofstadter, author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, has said of Kurzweil's and Hans Moravec's books: "It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can't possibly figure out what's good or bad. It's an intimate mixture of rubbish and good ideas, and it's very hard to disentangle the two, because these are smart people; they're not stupid."
Although the idea of a technological singularity is a popular concept in science fiction, some authors such as Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling have voiced scepticism about its real-world plausibility. Sterling expressed his views on the singularity scenario in a talk at the Long Now Foundation entitled The Singularity: Your Future as a Black Hole. Other prominent AI thinkers and computer scientists such as Daniel Dennett, Rodney Brooks, and David Gelernter have also criticized Kurzweil’s projections.
Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, agrees with Kurzweil's timeline of future progress, but thinks that technologies such as AI, nanotechnology and advanced biotechnology will create a dystopian world.
Daniel Lyons, writing in Newsweek, criticized Kurzweil for some of his predictions which turned out to be wrong; such as the economy continuing to boom from the 1998 dot-com through 2009, a US company having a market capitalization of more than $1 trillion, a supercomputer achieving 20 petaflops, speech recognition being in widespread use and cars that would drive themselves using sensors installed in highways; all by 2009. To the charge that 20 petaflop supercomputer was not produced in the time he predicted, Kurzweil responded that he considers Google a giant supercomputer, and that it is capable of 20 petaflops.
Biologist P.Z. Myers has criticized Kurzweil's predictions as being based on "New Age spiritualism" rather than science and says that Kurzweil does not understand basic biology. Myers also says that Kurzweil picks and chooses events that appear to demonstrate his claim of exponential technological increase leading up to a singularity, and ignores events that do not.
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In futures studies and the history of technology, accelerating change is an increase in the rate of technological (and sometimes social and cultural) progress throughout history, which may suggest faster and more profound change in the future. While many have suggested accelerating change, its popularity in modern times is closely associated with the ideas and writings of Raymond Kurzweil, especially in relation to his theories about technological singularity.
In 1958, Stanisław Ulam wrote in reference to a conversation with John von Neumann:
One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
In his book "Mindsteps to the Cosmos" (HarperCollins, August 1983), Gerald S. Hawkins elucidated his notion of 'mindsteps', dramatic and irreversible changes to paradigms or world views. He identified five distinct mindsteps in human history, and the technology that accompanied these "new world views": the invention of imagery, writing, mathematics, printing, the telescope, rocket, computer, radio, TV... "Each one takes the collective mind closer to reality, one stage further along in its understanding of the relation of humans to the cosmos." He noted: "The waiting period between the mindsteps is getting shorter. One can't help noticing the acceleration." Hawkins' empirical 'mindstep equation' quantified this, and gave dates for future mindsteps. The date of the next mindstep (5; the series begins at 0) is given as 2021, with two more successively closer mindsteps, until the limit of the series in 2053. His speculations ventured beyond the technological:
|“||The mindsteps... appear to have certain things in common - a new and unfolding human perspective, related inventions in the area of memes and communications, and a long formulative waiting period before the next mindstep comes along. None of the mindsteps can be said to have been truly anticipated, and most were resisted at the early stages. In looking to the future we may equally be caught unawares. We may have to grapple with the presently inconceivable, with mind-stretching discoveries and concepts.||”|
Since the late 1970s, others like Alvin Toffler (author of Future Shock), Daniel Bell and John Naisbitt have approached theories of postindustrial societies. They argue the industrial era is coming to an end, and services and information are supplanting industry and goods. Some more extreme visions of the postindustrial society, especially in fiction, envision the elimination of economic scarcity.
Many sociologists and anthropologists have created social theories dealing with social and cultural evolution. Some, like Lewis H. Morgan, Leslie White, and Gerhard Lenski, declare technological progress to be the primary factor driving the development of human civilization.
Morgan's concept of three major stages of social evolution (savagery, barbarism, and civilization) can be divided by technological milestones, like fire, the bow, and pottery in the savage era, domestication of animals, agriculture, and metalworking in the barbarian era and the alphabet and writing in the civilization era.
Instead of specific inventions, White decided that the measure by which to judge the evolution of culture was energy. For White, "the primary function of culture" is to "harness and control energy." White differentiates between five stages of human development: In the first, people use energy of their own muscles. In the second, they use energy of domesticated animals. In the third, they use the energy of plants (agricultural revolution). In the fourth, they learn to use the energy of natural resources: coal, oil, gas. In the fifth, they harness nuclear energy. Craig Brownell suggests that there could be a sixth stage in this series: the utilisation of zero-point vacuum quantum fluctuation energy, for propulsion if not actual power generation. There is much debate over whether Casimir effects can be exploited, however.
White introduced a formula P=ET, where E is a measure of energy consumed, and T is the measure of efficiency of technical factors utilizing the energy. In his own words, "culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased." The Russian astronomer Nikolai Kardashev extrapolated this theory to create the Kardashev scale, which categorizes the energy use of advanced civilizations. A Dyson sphere is Type II on this scale, and humanity is currently at about 0.72.
Lenski takes a more modern approach and focuses on information. The more information and knowledge (especially allowing the shaping of natural environment) a given society has, the more advanced it is. He identifies four stages of human development, based on advances in the history of communication. In the first stage, information is passed by genes. In the second, when humans gain intelligence, they can learn and pass information by experience. In the third, the humans start using signs and develop logic. In the fourth, they can create symbols, develop language and writing. Advancements in the technology of communication translates into advancements in the economic system and political system, distribution of goods, social inequality and other spheres of social life. He also differentiates societies based on their level of technology, communication and economy: (1) hunters and gatherers, (2) simple agricultural, (3) advanced agricultural, (4) industrial (5) special (like fishing societies).
Kurzweil in his 2001 essay The Law of Accelerating Returns extends Moore's law to describe an exponential growth of technological progress. Moore's law describes an exponential growth pattern in the complexity of integrated semiconductor circuits. Kurzweil extends this to include technologies from far before the integrated circuit to future forms of technology. Whenever a technology approaches some kind of a barrier, according to Kurzweil, a new technology will be invented to allow us to cross that barrier. He cites numerous past examples of this to substantiate his assertions. He predicts that such paradigm shifts have and will continue to become increasingly common, leading to "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history." He believes the Law of Accelerating Returns implies that a technological singularity will occur before the end of the 21st century, in 2045.
The essay begins:
|“||An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense 'intuitive linear' view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). The 'returns,' such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There's even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to the Singularity—technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.||”|
The Law of Accelerating Returns has in many ways altered public perception of Moore's Law. It is a common (but mistaken) belief that Moore's Law makes predictions regarding all forms of technology, when really it only concerns semiconductor circuits. Many futurists still use the term "Moore's Law" to describe ideas like those put forth by Kurzweil and others.
According to Kurzweil, since the beginning of evolution, more complex life forms have been evolving exponentially faster, with shorter and shorter intervals between the emergence of radically new life forms, such as human beings, who have the capacity to engineer (intentionally to design with efficiency) a new trait which replaces relatively blind evolutionary mechanisms of selection for efficiency. By extension, the rate of technical progress amongst humans has also been exponentially increasing, as we discover more effective ways to do things, we also discover more effective ways to learn, i.e. language, numbers, written language, philosophy, scientific method, instruments of observation, tallying devices, mechanical calculators, computers, each of these major advances in our ability to account for information occur increasingly close together. Already within the past sixty years, life in the industrialized world has changed almost beyond recognition except for living memories from the first half of the 20th century. This pattern will culminate in unimaginable technological progress in the 21st century, leading to a singularity. Kurzweil elaborates on his views in his books The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near.
Some claim the exponential growth of technological progress may become linear or inflected or may begin to flatten into a limited-growth curve. In this model, instead of an overall acceleration of progress, technological advance jumps forward whenever there is a human "buy in" and stalls whenever there is no benefit large enough to profit the technologists. As a result, the sequence of changes never gets steep enough to become a singularity.
Examples of large human "buy-ins" into technology include the computer revolution, as well as massive government projects like the Manhattan Project and the Human Genome Project. The foundation organizing the Methuselah Mouse Prize believes aging research could be the subject of such a massive project if substantial progress is made in slowing or reversing cellular aging in mice.
Both Theodore Modis and Jonathan Huebner have argued—each from different perspectives—that the rate of technological innovation has not only ceased to rise, but is actually now declining. The validity of their conclusions has been criticized by John Smart.
Choosing technological "milestones", defining the meaning of technological "growth", and similar semantic exercises often include significant subjectivity, and are therefore easily criticized. For example, it can be claimed that inventions are generally created by a fixed population of human inventors at a constant rate, regardless of their current technological prowess, and therefore technological "progress" is actually a function of population growth, not past inventions.
In fact, "technological singularity" is just one of a few singularities detected through the analysis of a number of characteristics of the World System development, for example, with respect to the world population, world GDP, and some other economic indices. It has been shown that the hyperbolic pattern of the world demographic, economic, cultural, urbanistic, and technological growth (observed for many centuries, if not millennia prior to the 1970s) could be accounted for by a rather simple mechanism, the nonlinear second order positive feedback, that was shown long ago to generate precisely the hyperbolic growth, known also as the "blow-up regime" (implying just finite-time singularities). In our case this nonlinear second order positive feedback looks as follows: more people – more potential inventors – faster technological growth – the carrying capacity of the Earth grows faster – faster population growth – more people – more potential inventors – faster technological growth, and so on. On the other hand, this research has shown that since the 1970s the World System does not develop hyperbolically any more, its development diverges more and more from the blow-up regime, and at present it is moving "from singularity", rather than "toward singularity".
Juergen Schmidhuber calls the Singularity Omega, referring to Teilhard de Chardin's Omega point (1916). For Omega = 2040 he says the series Omega - 2^n human lifetimes (n<10; one lifetime = 80 years) roughly matches the most important events in human history. But he also questions the validity of such lists, suggesting they just reflect a general rule for "both the individual memory of single humans and the collective memory of entire societies and their history books: constant amounts of memory space get allocated to exponentially larger, adjacent time intervals further and further into the past." He suggests that this may be the reason "why there has never been a shortage of prophets predicting that the end is near - the important events according to one's own view of the past always seem to accelerate exponentially."
Kurzweil created the following graphs to illustrate his beliefs concerning and his justification for his Law of Accelerating Returns.
Exponential growth in supercomputer power