TR: What mistakes do technology forecasters commonly make?
KURZWEIL: A lot of people when they talk about the future do it without any foundation or methodology. They, for one thing, are very afraid to look beyond one or two iterations of technology-for example that screens will be higher resolution, a little smaller, but then progress will stop. People very often fail to see the interaction between many different trends. If you look in different fields-brain scanning, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, computing substrates, communication-you see how all of these fields are going to interact with each other to provide tools that in turn accelerate progress in each other. The most important element that’s very commonly missed, even by sophisticated futurists, is the accelerating pace of change. A futurist may make a statement that we won’t see a particular development for 30 years, because a comparable change took 30 years in the past. But time and the pace of progress is accelerating, so something that took 30 years in the past will only take 7 years in the future.
TR: How do you quantify the future pace of technological progress so precisely?
KURZWEIL: Over the past 20 years, I’ve developed a mathematical model for what will be feasible in terms of computational power and memory and miniaturization, so that I have some methodology for making these predictions. The predictions that I made in the ’80s about the ’90s were quite accurate. I predicted, for example, that the computer would take the world chess championship in 1998-I was off by a year.
TR: Is the accelerating development of technology, in particular computer technology, inevitable?
KURZWEIL: The creation of more and more intelligent machines is an economic imperative. People sometimes say maybe we’ll get to a point where we’ll decide not to build these machines because they’ll be too threatening, but it’s not a realistic scenario-we’d have to repeal economic competition, free enterprise, capitalism, to stop that progression. Anytime anyone creates a machine that’s a little bit more intelligent, it takes over the market. There are tens of thousands of projects with the force of economic competition driving the whole process forward. It’s not a centralized decision.
TR: How will we get from faster and smaller computers to computers with human intelligence?
KURZWEIL: Basic computational power is a necessary but not sufficient condition. There are a number of different scenarios for how we can organize the software of intelligence, but the most compelling one is that we have an example of an intelligent entity in our midst: It’s the human brain and it’s not hidden from us. We’re already down the path of learning about it. For example, we use the kinds of transformations the human brain does on auditory information in our speech recognition system. There’s going to be a tremendous incentive to learn about the brain, to learn the secrets of intelligence and then replicate those methods. If you ignore this resource of the human brain, then you might say that we’ll never figure out the software of intelligence.
TR: Part of your mathematical methodology dictates that evolutionary processes expand exponentially, and that the development of technology is itself an evolutionary process-can you explain?
KURZWEIL: Think about the evolution of life on earth. It took billions of years for the first cells to form, and then in the Cambrian explosion, paradigm shifts only took a few tens of millions of years. Then later on, we went from primates to humanoids in only millions of years, and then Homo sapiens emerged in only hundreds of thousands of years. And then it became too fast for DNA-guided protein synthesis to keep up the pace of progress, so the whole cutting edge of evolution on earth has moved to technology created by the technology-creating species. So in my view, technology is actually a continuation of the evolutionary process that gave rise to the technology-creating species in the first place.
We can describe evolution as a sort of essential spiritual quest. As we evolve, as matter and energy evolves, it creates entities that are more intelligent, more creative, more beautiful, more loving. These are all the qualities that we associate with God. God has been called infinite-infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite creativity. Evolution never really becomes infinite. It remains finite, but it does become very large, so it’s moving in that kind of spiritual direction.