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Keynote speaker: Ray Kurzweil

Dinner is over, and I'll have more to say about it later -- including pictures and info on the winners of this year's Foresight Institute prizes.

KurzweilBut in the meantime, the evening's keynote address has begun. The speaker is Ray Kurzweil, who is laying out a broad agenda for his talk for the evening. It sounds like he's going to talk about artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, nanotechnology, genetics and biotech, and all sorts of other cutting-edge technology. The title of his lecture is, "An Exponentially Expanding Future from Exponentially Shrinking Technology."

A quote: "The golden age of nanotechnology is, in my view, fifteen years away.... I have a bet with Mitch Kapur that we'll have... machines that can pass the Turing Test by 2029."

He mentions the (in)famous Wired magazine essay by Bill Joy, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," and says that, according to the NYT, Joy's article was the most-commented-upon article ever written, with (supposedly) ten thousand articles written about it.

UPDATE: It's ten minutes later, and Mr. Kurzweil is still in the "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em phase," just introducing things and not actually getting into the meat of his talk. Kurzweil is very much into the study of technology trends -- he makes charts and graphs that show rates of technology adoption and proliferation and viability, and uses those charts predictively -- and he's hinting that his lecture is going to be about those trends. But he's still just in the info stage... and going...

UPDATE: He's still just introducing. Now he's talking about how we're "accelerating the paradigm shift rate." Meanwhile, you can check out his website here: http://www.kurzweilai.net. Kurzweil is a brilliant inventor -- probably one of the best-known inventors alive, like Dean Kamen -- but has increasingly become known for his futurist musings. Okay, he's started with his PowerPoint slides...

UPDATE: He's got a slide up on the screen called "Countdown to Singularity" which goes from the Cambrian explosion to today's technology, with a straight line plotted through these historical developments, showing the acceleration pace of technological change. The practical point of all these straight lines, or curves (whether it's Moore's law, or other advances), isn't yet clear. One of his graphics:


UPDATE: Kurzweil mentions the biotech revolution, which he says is moving just as fast. He has a new book coming out next week on the subject of health and "radical life extension," which can, he says, be made possible by (1) applying today's knowledge to live longer, (2) advances in biotech will improve medicinem and (3) nanotechnology, which will let us "go beyond the limitations of biology." Those who are interested in the subject should get his book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. He also mentions, as he has said publicly very recently, that he is taking something like 250 supplements and vitamins (250!!) to "reprogram" his body. Sound weird? Well, it is. But he claims that he's healthier today than he was twenty years ago; that he developed his own regimen that cured him of diabetes; and that some mysterious battery of "age tests" have shown that his body seems to be much younger than his actual age.

Now he's talking about "reverse engineering the human brain," an endeavor in which nanotechnology is supposed to play a central part. Thanks to new brain-imaging technology (which we wrote about in the first issue of The New Atlantis), we can now watch the living brain as it works; Kurzweil thinks we will, with time, develop better models and simulations of how the brain works. Here's a functional map that shows one scientist's attempt to model how the brain works:


Now he's jumped to talking about junk DNA; it's not quite clear where he's going with this... now he's moving on to virtual reality being used to train soldiers... where next?

UPDATE: Much of this talk tonight, incidentally, is part of Kurzweil's regular speech. You can see many of the slides for free on the Internet (in PDF format) if you check out his congressional testimony from April 2003. This talk is stunningly disorganized, a real whirlwind of facts and theories presented so quickly that the audience hasn't really the time to digest them, let alone question them. The net effect is, I think, supposed to leave the audience in awe; but without a clearly presented overarching theory or argument, it seems to me to be just a hodgepodge, an awful mess.

Now he's off talking about artificial intelligence and chess-playing robots. Now nanobots that will provide the bridge between our "biological way of thinking and our non-biological way of thinking." Now solar panels. Now life expectancy. Now bioterrorism. Now how we will ultimately need "a nanotechnology immune system." (He's been talking for an hour, and he's still going, and flipping through dozens of PowerPoint slides that he's not even bothering to talk about. "How long is his full talk?" somebody in the back of the room just whispered. A few people are dozing off; it's been a long day, especially for people who had to travel to get here.)

UPDATE: "Relinquishment" of advanced technologies is uncalled for and unrealized, Kurzweil says, pace Bill Joy. Now he's complaining about what he calls "humanist fundamentalism." A clever term, that. He uses it to describe Greenpeace and other groups who oppose genetically modified foods. Not by relinquishing, but only by aggressively pursuing, advances in genetics, nanotech, and robotics/artificial intelligence, will we be able to defeat the potential threats, he says. More: "There is an acceleration of change, and it's leading to an anti-technology movement which is really not well grounded.... I think we'll see a continued increase in this anti-technology reaction. I think it's unfortunate that at least some sections of the environmental movement have moved in that direction.... Technology has always been a double-edged sword. We need to put our efforts into developing ethical guidelines... People always get used to the benefits quickly and then forget about what life was like [before technological advances]."

The lecture is over. In answering a question: By the end of the century, we will have "maxed out on saturating the matter and energy around us with our intelligence," Kurzweil says.

One audience member -- a fellow I met at yesterday's luncheon -- is combating with Kurzweil in the Q&A session, specifically challenging his use of words like "optimal" and "better" in comparing machines to people.

Alright, the Q&A is over, and people are leaving. I'll go up front and snag one more picture of Kurzweil (as he gets swarmed by audience members with inquiries), then will head home and make just one or two more posts before the night's out.

Ray Kurzweil, surrounded by questioners

October 22, 2004 in Applications | Permalink


Okay. Where was this dinner held and what was the assessment of its value (to you and to your longevity).

Posted by: Will Hires | Dec 27, 2004 3:58:01 PM

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