Kurzweil on coming revolutions in genetics, nanotech and robotics (strong AI)

By August 19, 2010Ray Kurzweil

This is the fourth post in a series summarising the key arguments of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is near: When humans transcend biology.  The previous posts were:

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image Kurzweil sees the ongoing accelerating pace of change over the coming decades being driven by revolutions in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (really strong artificial intelligence).  He devotes a fair portion of The Singularity to discussing the current state of development in each of these areas and his reasons for believing they hold significant promise for the future.  My view after reading the book is that it is hard to argue against the potential of these technologies and difficult to see why that potential won’t be realised.  The timescales for that realisation are perhaps more debateable, and whilst I accept Kurzweil’s timing predictions are reasonable best guess estimates there is significant potential for delay and little chance of progress coming much faster than predicted.  This is, perhaps, a feature of any development which progresses along an exponential curve.

For the remainder of this post I’m going to write a very few words on each of the three pending revolutions, firstly describing what they are and then commenting on the state of play today and the path for future development. 

Genetics

In Kurzweil’s words, during the revolution in genetics:

we will learn to reprogram our biology to achieve the virtual elimination of disease, dramatic expansion of human potential and radical life extension

‘Reprogramming our biology’ is all about manipulating our DNA and controlling the process of gene expression by which specific functional cells are created.  Every human cell has the full complement of the body’s genes, a specific cell, such as a skin cell or pancreatic islet cell gets its characteristics from only the small fraction of the genetic information that is relevant to that particular cell type.  Controlling the process of gene expression offers the potential of altering the fraction of genetic information from which each cell takes its characteristics, effectively reprogramming cells from one type to another.

This revolution is already underway – the human genome was decoded at the end of the last decade and substantial progress is being made toward controlling gene expression.  Indeed, here at DFJ Esprit we are considering investing in a company which is using control of gene expression to help develop cancer therapies.  Elements of their technology are effectively black box biological processes, they control gene expression in certain beneficial ways, but nobody yet understands how they work – which gives an interesting insight into the state of understanding of genetics here in 2010.

Nanotechnology

Here Kurzweil’s vision is that once we are able to build machines at the nano-scale we will be able to rebuild our world and our bodies literally molecule by molecule, with benefits ranging from full repair of the environment to expanding our human capabilities far beyond the limits of biology.

The key to building things molecule by molecule is of course having machines which can operate at that scale.  A lot of pioneering work was done in this area by Eric Drexler in the 1980s and 1990s.  His work included designs for many of the essential nanotech building blocks – including machines which can pick and place single atoms as part of the building process (picture a device which looks like a crane with a single arm which can ‘pick up’ a single atom using a chemical process).

Since then various nano-scale devices have been built in the lab, including a molecular sized motor created out of fifty eight atoms by Ben Feringa at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

As I mentioned in the first post of this series the key feature size of technology is shrinking at an exponential rate.  At the current rate of approximately a factor of four per linear dimension per decade the feature sizes for most electronic and many mechanical technologies will be in the nanotech range (under one hundred nanometers) by the 2020s.  The picture above shows a nano-robot at work in the bloodstream – something Kurzweil believes we will see in 10-20 years from now.

All of the above relates to precisely controlled nano-scale engineering.  As you are probably aware there are a number of products in the market today which exploit technology with key features measured nanometers – for example nano-tubes used in fuel cells and in solar panels.  These developments augur well for the nano-revolution but stop some way short of nano-scale manufacturing.

Robotics (strong AI)

The robotics revolution will, in Kurzweil’s mind, be the most significant of them all, because it is about intelligence.  The key to the robotics revolution will be achieving strong artificial intelligence (AI) – i.e. general intelligence at the human level and beyond, as discussed briefly yesterday.  This revolution will be the most powerful because, as can be seen from the way humans have dominated the earth, intelligence is the most powerful ‘force’ in the known world.  Moreover, once artificial intelligence equals human intelligence it will rapidly soar beyond it (again, briefly discussed yesterday).  As well as being able to re-design themselves to improve their intelligence strong AIs will be able to rapidly join together and access and share data to improve performance.  Biological brains are able to do these things only slowly.

The drivers for the development of strong AI are the improvements in hardware and software I talked about earlier in this series of posts.  Both are subject to exponential rates of improvement.

The current state of development can be glimpsed from events like IBM’s Deep Blue successfully beating chess world champion Kasparov in 1997 and IBM’s recent completion of a model of a cat brain.

Kurzweil predicts the robotics revolution will arrive around the same time as the nanotech revolution, in the 2020s.

The Impact

Tomorrow I will turn to the impact that all these trends will have on our lives and society.

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  • I’ll be interested in seeing your summary (cult comment notwithstanding), but one thing these points haven’t addressed is the flipside – whether in terms of human hubris or Gaia-style response. So if, for example, man extends his lifespan to 3x as long, we will see a much more crowded planet. Gaia might respond with climate change, with food/water shortages or with new unheard of diseases that mutate as we mutate.

    Similarly, new technologies bring new problems. 2.2% of all deaths in the world (1.2m) are caused by traffic accidents, for example. Not sure this was predicted by ciommentators lauding the emergence of the internal combustion engine.

    My point is not that Kurzweil is wrong. Or even that I believe in a dystopian Terminator-style world. But that history has shown, again and again, that positive enhancements have negative elements too, and that while we see a general sense of progress, it is too steps forward, one step back.

    One obvious one – if we all live for ever, wars become, IMO, *much* more likely due to resource constraints (although the death of a young warrior becomes an even greater tragedy – see the treatment of elven warriors in almost any fantasy literature).

    (And I fear i’ve blown all intellectual credibility out of the water with my last statement)

  • Hi Nicholas – check out the post I just put up for a brief discussion of the downsides. A couple of other points I didn’t mention – we will be able to manufacture food at the nano level, driving food prices down and hopefully eliminating hunger (as well as animal suffering), and probably most importantly we will eventually be able to port our memories and personalities outside our skulls and exist as information, which should make the world less crowded.

    Kurzweil makes the point several times that the cells and atoms which comprise our bodies and brains today recycle and rotate every two to three weeks, which means we have no real permanence are only a pattern of information. Existing as information on a computing substrate rather than biological substrate might not really be so different …. 🙂