Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil has received some attention recently. His latest book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology was published in 2006. Besides the June 3rd New York Times article, Kurzweil was featured in the April 29th episode of “Ideas”, on CBC Radio, which unfortunately is no longer available for download.

Ray Kurzweil is someone who is particularly well known among blind people primarily because he invented the first machine to translate text into speech. That original model, which debuted in the mid-seventies, was the size of a washing machine, yet while attending the 2006 National Federation of the Blind convention, I saw him demonstrate his latest cell-phone-sized model. Kurzweil says a couple of things about the advancement of technology that I think members of the “What Sorts” team might want to consider.

1. The advancement of technology follows an exponential, as opposed to a linear, trajectory.

For reasons related to our evolution, he argues, we make our predictions about the future — including predictions about technology — under the assumption that progression occurs linearly. This leads many to make overly cautious predictions about what will be possible in the next fifteen or twenty years.

2. Radical changes in the way we live occur as the result of many small incremental steps, each one of which is in itself a conservative change.

So while the idea that humans will be uploading their consciousnesses into computers (what Kurzweil calls the “Singularity”) might cause us to respond with disbelief, disgust, or horror, he would argue that our responses are such because we have not actually taken each incremental step. When the time comes, something like the “Singularity” will seem perfectly reasonable.

I think these points are relevant to the “What Sorts” project. If he is right about the exponential trajectory, then it will be very difficult for us to imagine what the world will be like in twenty years. If he is right about the incremental process, then it highlights the need to pay more attention to each step along the way rather than focusing only on the end result.

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