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Ray Kurzweil

David Jay Brown

Interviews Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil is a computer scientist, software developer, inventor, entrepreneur, and philosopher. He is a leading expert in speech and pattern recognition, and he invented a vast array of computer marvels. He was the principal developer of some of the first optical character and speech recognition systems, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments.

Kurzweil has successfully founded and developed nine businesses in speech recognition, reading technology, music synthesis, virtual reality, financial investment, medical simulation, and cybernetic art. In 2002 Kurzweil was inducted into the U.S. Patent Office’s National Inventors Hall of Fame, and he received the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the nation’s largest award in invention and innovation. He also received the 1999 National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony, and has received eleven honorary Doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents. 

Kurzweil has also written several popular books on the evolution of artificial intelligence. His book The Age of Intelligent Machines was named Best Computer Science Book of 1990. The Age of Spiritual Machines has been published in nine languages, and it achieved the #1 best selling science book on Amazon.com. Kurzweil’s books read like mind-bending science fiction. In The Age of Spiritual Machines he predicts that computer intelligence will exceed human intelligence in only a few decades, and that it won’t be long after that before humans start merging with machines, blurring the line between technology and biology. While for Star Trek fans this may evoke disturbing images of the Borg, Kurzweil’s vision of a cyborg civilization is far more upbeat and hopeful.

I spoke with Ray on July 18, 2003. Ray speaks very precisely, and he choses his words carefully. He presents his ideas with a lot of confidence, and I found his optimism to be contagious. I don’t think too many of my questions surprised him. The questions that I asked him about the nature of intelligence, the evolution of consciousness, brain implants, non-biological consciousness, the potential dangers and benefits of nanotechnology, and the possibility of human and machine intelligence merging in the future were all subjects that he’s thought deeply about. 

David: How did you become interested in technology?

Ray: Actually, I had the idea that I wanted to be an inventor since the age of five. I had a lot of time by myself, and I think an erector set had an influence on me. But, for whatever reason, I had the idea that inventions could change the world. I was seriously working on a rocket ship, which didn’t work. But my inventions got a little more traction when I was seven or eight, and I built these robotic puppet theaters that did work. 

I discovered the computer at the age of 12. I would hang around Canal Street in Manhattan, and buy used electronic equipment, so that I could build my own computational devices. I also had the opportunity to discover some early computers–an IBM 1401 and 1620. When I discovered the computer it became apparent to me that you could create models of the world, virtual worlds, inside the computer. So I became fascinated by that. 

One influence on me was the Tom Swift Jr. series of books, which I read when I was seven through ten. There are 33 books in that series, although I think there were nine when I started reading them. The paradigm was always the same; Tom Swift Jr. and his friends would get into trouble–usually the whole human race, or a good portion of it was in trouble along with him–and he would then go into his laboratory and come up with up some idea that would save the day. The dramatic tension in the books was exactly that, what genius idea would he come up with that would get him out of the seemingly impossible jam? 

That represented an idea that has had a lot of influence on me. Specifically, this was the power of ideas. No matter what kind of problem you face–it could be any kind of problem, from a personal problem, to a business problem, and certainly science and technological problems–there’s an idea, and it can be found. And I can find it. We can find it. And then, when we find it, we need to implement it. Ideas can really overcome problems, and they can change the world. And that’s actually moving into philosophy. I think the fundamental ontological reality is ideas, rather than matter and energy. Another word for ideas is patterns, or knowledge. They persist in the world, and they are more powerful than matter and energy.

David: What kind of potential do you think there is to develop new technologies, such as neural implants, that enhance the abilities of the human mind?

Ray: If you ask, what is a human being? I think the response is the fundamental attribute of human beings is that we seek to expand our horizons. Biological evolution, which defines us as some specific niche, is not only limited, but is really missing the whole point of what human beings are. Evolution works through indirection. It creates something in that new capability creates the next stages. At one point, biological evolution created a technology-creating species, and then the cutting-edge of evolution since that time has been human cultural and technological evolution. We didn’t stay on the ground. We didn’t stay on the planet. We’re not staying with the limitations of our biology, and we’re already greatly extended the reach of our bodies and our minds through our technology.

The Age of Neural Implants, which is really only one of quite a few revolutionary technologies that are in their early stages, has already started. There are quite a few people walking around who are cyborgs. These people have computers in their brains that are hooked up to their biological neurons, where the electronics works seamlessly with the biological circuitry. We’ve started by using these computer implants to help with specific medical conditions and disabilities. For example, we have cochlear implants for the deaf, and deep brain stimulation implants for people with Parkinson’s Disease. In the Parkinson’s case, the new generation devices actually have downloadable software, where you can download new software from outside the patient for the device. In the first ones the software was hard-wired in the device.

These little computers interact with biological neurons, and replaces the function of the corpus of cells that are destroyed by Parkinson’s. In the early demonstrations of this system, the French doctor, Dr. A. L. Benebid, had people come in, and he had the device turned off. He could turn it on or off from outside the patient. They were in advanced stages of Parkinson’s with very rigid motor movements. And when he would then flip the device on, it was as if these patients came alive. They were then able to move and act normally. This has been approved by the FDA in the past year, and it’s now being looked at for other neurological conditions. 

There are retinal implants that are being prepared, which are experimental, and there are experimental implants for a wide range of other conditions. Today, neural implants have two limitations. One is they have to be surgically implanted. So people are not going to use them unless they have a very compelling reason. Having advanced Parkinson’s is such a compelling reason. And it can only be placed in a very small number of places, generally just one place. 

However, both of those limitations will be overcome when we have full-scale nanotechnology, and, specifically, nanobots–nanoscale robots, the size of blood cells–that can go through our capillaries, and into the brain, non-invasively. That’s not as futuristic as it sounds. In fact, there’s already four

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