TR: We’re asymptotically approaching God?
KURZWEIL: But never reaching it. By the end of the 21st century, nonbiological intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than human intelligence. That’s hard for us to imagine, and maybe from the human perspective, it’s virtually infinite. But from a literal mathematical perspective, it’s still finite, so we can consider God as an ideal that evolution never reaches.
TR: It sounds like such an optimistic vision. Are there no drawbacks?
KURZWEIL: I think there’s always a struggle between the constructive and the destructive forces of technology. Biotechnology today is a very good example: On the one hand, we’re at the very early stages of a burgeoning revolution that’s going to reverse disease and aging processes over the next five to 15 years. But there’s an obvious downside: The means and skills exist in a routine bioengineering laboratory to create a pathogen that would be more destructive than an atomic weapon. The technology we’re creating for the 21st century will be even more powerful. Because it’s self-replicating, nanotechnology will ultimately be able to provide anything in the physical world that we want, so if properly applied, it can meet all of our needs and desires and create fantastic wealth. But there are also enormous dangers to nanotechnology. Self-replication run amok would be a nonbiological cancer that would be even more destructive than a biological cancer.
I tend to come out on the optimistic side of the field, that overall technology creates a better world despite our sometimes feeling a romantic desire for the good old days. Richard Dawkins calls evolution “the blind watchmaker”-I think he should have called it the “mindless watchmaker,” because he was using “blind” to mean “mindless,” which is insulting to blind people. There’s no intelligence behind the process but yet nonetheless it created all the wonders of the natural world and created human beings. This next stage of evolution, which is technology, is a mindful watchmaker. So we do have actually the ability to guide that process, and therefore the responsibility to guide it in constructive directions.
TR: One area where your companies and inventions have already played a role in guiding technological evolution is in the arts, and your most recent piece of software, “Ray Kurzweil’s Cybernetic Poet,” is a foray into electronic writing. How does it work?
KURZWEIL: It’s a system that reads poems from a particular author, and it creates a language model that describes how those poets create poetry, and then it can write original poetry in that style. Probably the majority of those poems don’t work fully. However it comes out with really terrific turns of phrase and very interesting lines of poetry, so we’ve packaged it as a poet’s assistant-you write a poem in one window and the Poet’s Assistant will give you ideas for alliterations, rhymes, half rhymes, the next word of your poem, and turns of phrase that are relevant to what you’ve written, and you can fill up the screen with these different suggestions. It doesn’t have human intelligence but it can do clever things with language, and help you to write a poem of even prose. It’s available as a free download at www.KurzweilCyberArt.com.
TR: What will happen as computers become more artistically adept, and something like a cybernetic poet does reliably write poems that work?
KURZWEIL: In order for a computer to create completely satisfactory art, it needs to have a human level of intelligence. And when a computer does have a human level of intelligence, it brings up the issue of who is human-some of these cybernetic poets and artists will think that they are. And once a machine achieves a human level of intelligence, it will necessarily soar past it, because machines already have certain advantages over human intelligence. One is the ability to share their knowledge by quickly downloading software. They inherently will be much faster than humans because their electronic circuits are already 10 million times faster and their memories are much more accurate. If you take those inherent advantages of machine intelligence and combine them with what are today advantages of human intelligence-our pattern-recognition capabilities and the tremendous breadth and subtlety of our intelligence-that’s a very formidable combination.
TR: Do you look forward to the future that you envision?
KURZWEIL: I do. I hope to be around working on it. I’m still on the first bridge to immortality, which is trying to take care of my biological body and brain in the old-fashioned way. I do think there are dangers, and the story of the 21st century hasn’t been written. We have to create the next stage in evolution and infuse it with human values-not that we have a consensus of what those are.
TR: Will you be one of the first to make the jump and say good-bye to your squishy body?
KURZWEIL: It’s a difficult question. You could scan my brain while I’m sleeping and recreate this new nonbiological Ray Kurzweil, which could come to me in the morning and say, “Hey Ray, good news. We’ve successfully copied and reinstantiated your brain and body, we don’t need your old brain and body anymore.” I might see some flaw in that philosophical perspective. I’ll wish the new Ray well and I’ll probably end up being jealous of him because he’ll be able to succeed in endeavors I could only dream of, but I’m still here in my old biological body and brain. It’s not clear how one gets over that divide to the other side-I haven’t quite figured that out yet, but I do hope to see the era.