Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil on the future of employment

By | Ray Kurzweil | No Comments


In this ten minute video Ray Kurzweil explains his view that as robots and AI automate low skilled jobs new higher skilled jobs will be created. In other words human labour will move up the skill ladder, as we have done before when we moved from agriculture to manufacturing and from manufacturing to knowledge work.

I think he’s right about that, but as I’ve written before I’m worried that the job destruction might happen much faster than the job creation and we will suffer major dislocation during the transition. Ray makes two interesting points in this area that made me feel a little better, one is that 65% of Americans are now employed as information workers, a category that didn’t exist 25 years ago – so job creation has happened quickly in the recent past, and the other is that the explosion of online education is making it easier for people to re-skill.

Ray finishes with a discussion on what you could call ‘post scarcity employment’, when our material needs are provided for and we only work for enjoyment.



Looking forward to Transcendence the movie

By | Ray Kurzweil, Startup general interest, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I’ve just seen the trailer for upcoming sci-fi movie Transcendence (embedded below) and I can’t wait for the 18 April release date. I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about a movie. Transcendence is about one of my favourite subjects – the point when humans escape the limitations of our physical form, i.e. when we transcend biology. I’m excited to see this topic brought to the mainstream and I hope the movie is a hit. And we have Johnny Depp playing a Ray Kurzweil like character – what’s not to like 🙂

Most importantly I think that as a society we need greater awareness and debate about the power and implications of artificial intelligence (AI). The movie highlights the risks of a luddite reaction and that AIs might be dangerous to humans and will, I hope, help that debate to happen.

In my view powerful AI is coming and there is little that can be done to stop it. If any one country tries to put the brakes on the innovation will move abroad, or worse, underground.  That’s the way it goes with technology innovation – it’s much better to embrace and control than to try and resist.

At the moment popular opinion is very far from that view. Hopefully Transcendence nudge everyone in the right direction. From the trailer you can see that an AI goes wild and causes a lot of problems. I hope the movie ends with the realisation that AIs can be a benevolent force for good, rather than the rogue AI being killed.


The difference between brains and computers

By | Identity, Ray Kurzweil, Startup general interest | 4 Comments

I believe that within my lifetime processors will get powerful enough and software good enough that we will see computers that emulate human brains and pass the Turing Test (for more detail see my earlier posts Kurzweil predicts we will reverse engineer the human brain using software, Kurzweil predicts computers with the power of the human brain by 2025, Scientists create artificial brain with 2.3m simulated neurons).

Today I read a good Economist article which explains the challenges of building ‘human computers’. Brains currently have three key characteristics that computers do not:

These are: low power consumption (human brains use about 20 watts, whereas the supercomputers currently used to try to simulate them need megawatts); fault tolerance (losing just one transistor can wreck a microprocessor, but brains lose neurons all the time); and a lack of need to be programmed (brains learn and change spontaneously as they interact with the world, instead of following the fixed paths and branches of a predetermined algorithm).

Having identified these characteristics scientists are now working to design around them, as detailed in the rest of the Economist article. In summary progress is being made but it is very early days. The third characteristic of not needing to be programmed runs contrary to our current notions of development, and is perhaps the most challenging.

The other issue at play here is consciousness. ‘Would human computers be conscious or not?’ and ‘What is consciousness anyway?’ are unresolved questions with inherently unknowable answers. My view is that consciousness arises from the mind and human computers would be to all intents and purposes be conscious. Any other answer creates more questions than it answers and hence falls foul of Occam’s razor. This question was debated earlier today here and on Hacker News.


Scientists create artificial brain with 2.3m simulated neurons

By | Innovation, Ray Kurzweil | 2 Comments

One of Ray Kurzweil’s central predictions is that we will create software that emulates the human mind by reverse engineering the human brain. I think that is a sensible prediction – at some point in the not too distant future we will have the hardware, and after that it is just a question of developing the software, which will naturally follow from our continually improving understanding of how the mind works.

I’m writing this today because scientists have taken a good first step by creating an artificial brain with 2.3m simulated neurons configured in networks that resemble some of the brains own networks. Its cognitive network simulates the prefrontal cortex to handle working memory and the basal ganglia and thalmus to control movements. This brain takes input via a camera like sensor that can view an image and outputs by writing characters with a robotic arm. In the video below you can see it perform a series of tests with varying levels of success – recognising digits, recalling from memory, adding numbers and completing patterns. Like many human brains it is good at pattern recognition (in this case recognising characters) and struggles a bit with short term memory (in this case drawing a series of random numbers in the order they were shown).

This is just a small start. Everything the brain does could be performed by a computer and it is much simpler than a normal brain which has an estimated 86bn neurons. But it is a promising start. There is a long way to go from 2.3m neurons to 86bn, but I imagine getting the first 2.3m working is more challenging than the next 85.9977bn, at least in the requirement for deep insight and fundamental breakthroughs.

All of this is important because once a computer can emulate a human mind it will be able to perform many, if not all, of the functions a human can perform which will have a transformative effect on society, I think for the good.

Your brain peaked when you were twenty–what to do?

By | Personal health, Ray Kurzweil | 7 Comments

This is one of my occasional health related posts.

The next area of focus for me as I seek to slow the process of ageing is the brain. Physical fitness is a pre-condition for mental longevity, so I was right to start there, but the statistics (such as they are) on the physical decline of the brain after the age of twenty make for terrifying reading.

The average human brain weighs around 1.5kg (3lbs), has a volume of around 1,200 cubic centimetres and contains 80-120bn neurons.

The interesting question for me right now is how that changes with age. There isn’t a great deal of good data out there, but I found an NCBI study which looks pretty solid and was consistent with the bits and pieces of information I found on other sites. The NCBI study culled data from 20,000 autopsy reports and found that:

  • brain mass quadruples age 0-4
  • quintuples again age 5-20
  • is flat to slightly down age 20-45
  • goes into progressive decline from 45-86,
  • different regions of the brain decline at different rates, with some regions shrinking up to 1% per year
  • at age 86 the average brain mass is 11% below peak (some estimate 20%)

The reasons for the decline in mass are still poorly understood. Until a couple of years ago there was consensus that our brains shrink with age because large numbers of neurons die, but now some people are thinking that it is due to a decline in the volume of cellular fluid.

As well as shrinking in mass the brains chemical and hormonal functions change with age. This is even less well understood, but it appears that the brains ability to expand certain regions to learn new things (it’s plasticity) declines, and the production of key pleasure hormones dopamine and serotonin works less well.

The physical changes can manifest themselves in the following symptoms (not everybody suffers):

  • Loss of memory
  • Poor concentration and focus
  • Slower thinking
  • Reduced function in the brain’s pleasure centres

So far, so morbid. The good news is that there are things we can do which stand a chance of arresting the decline (although nobody knows for sure).

Firstly there are the common sense items – sleep well, eat well, stay fit, keep active, and avoid stress.

Secondly, treat the brain like a muscle – use it and it will stay strong. Actually, the brain is more like a group of muscles that have to be exercised individually – one for emotions, one for physical co-ordination and one for logical computation. There seems to be widespread consensus that the best way to overall brain health is to work on all three – spend time with people you love, engage in activities which require tricky co-ordination, and do the crossword! Change is also important – seek out new people, try new sports, and switch to soduku every now and again.

The third area is where things are interesting for me right now, and that is supplementation. This is also the most controversial. None of the supplements I mention below are being sold with FDA approved claims about brain health or anti-ageing – i.e. none of them have effects which are proven to the satisfaction of the regulator. However, many have positive indicators from small scale trials and chemical or biological reasons to believe they might have a beneficial effect. Over the next 5-10 years I expect some of them will go on to be accepted by regulators and move into widespread use. I’m 39 now which means my brain will enter its ‘progressive shrinking stage’ soon and I’m strongly minded to take advantage of the latest helpful technologies today rather than waiting for a decade by which time some regions of my brain might have shrunk by 5%.

Our bodies were designed for a 30-40 year lifespan and we struggle to maintain optimum levels of many chemicals and nutrients after that age, even with a healthy diet, and the high level thinking is that supplements can help reduce the deficit. I already take some supplements that help with brain health (fish oil, vitamin b complex) and I’m thinking of adding the following:

  • Phosphatidyl Choline – which helps with cell membrane constituents (and hence plasticity) and improves memory and learning
  • Ginkgo Biloba – which improves blood flow to the brain and may help with short term memory
  • Phosphatidylserine – also good for cell membranes, and helps with memory loss and stress related damage
  • Co-Enzyme Q10 – helps with energy levels (provides energy to the mitrochondria)
  • N-Acetyl-L-Carnitine – good for memory and blood flow to the brain

If you had asked me a week ago I would also have had Vinpocetine on the list. Vinpocetine increases production of adenosine triphsophate, the brains energy source and many people take it because it makes them feel more alert and able to concentrate for longer. However, after finding this discussion about negative side effects I think I will probably give it a miss.

Similarly I’m going to give geranium stem (aka dimethylamylamine, methylhexanamine and DMAA) a miss. It’s supposed to provide a long caffeine like buzz without the downside, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

My primary source for this has been Transcend by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, but I have also read websites too numerous to mention.

Any thoughts on the above would be much appreciated. It’s a big step to start supplementing for brain health, and I want to think it through properly. Simply writing this post has helped a lot.

Software will eat the *whole* world

By | Innovation, Ray Kurzweil | 5 Comments

Back in August Marc Andreessen wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal explaining why Software is eating the world. His main observation was that the fastest growing companies in almost all industries are betting their future on software. He gave several examples of which the best two from a breadth of industry perspective are Amazon and Disney/Pixar:

Perhaps the single most dramatic example of this phenomenon of software eating a traditional business is the suicide of Borders and corresponding rise of Amazon. In 2001, Borders agreed to hand over its online business to Amazon under the theory that online book sales were non-strategic and unimportant.


Today, the world’s largest bookseller, Amazon, is a software company—its core capability is its amazing software engine for selling virtually everything online, no retail stores necessary. On top of that, while Borders was thrashing in the throes of impending bankruptcy, Amazon rearranged its web site to promote its Kindle digital books over physical books for the first time. Now even the books themselves are software.


The best new movie production company in many decades, Pixar, was a software company. Disney—Disney!—had to buy Pixar, a software company, to remain relevant in animated movies.

The ‘software companies win’ trend is highly visible in many other industries as well – e.g. entertainment (Netflix, Zynga), music (Spotify), direct marketing (Groupon), telephony (Skype), and recruitment (LinkedIn).

I’m thinking about this today after attending a one day session of the Singularity University (SU) in Rotterdam yesterday. The Singularity University was founded by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis to “assemble, educate and inspire a new generation of leaders who strive to understand and utilise exponentially advancing technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges”. That’s a big vision and yesterday was an inspiring day. Kudos to Yuri van Geest for putting it together.

“Exponentially advancing technologies” are the three most important words in the SU vision. The most famous exponentially advancing technology is computer processors whose power doubles every 18 months (Moore’s Law) but many other industries are now progressing at similar rates. The folk at SU have done a lot of work on this and it turns out that once an industry becomes digital then it jumps onto an exponential progress path and stays there. Computer processing power has been improving exponentially for over 100 years now.

Before I go on I want to take a moment to dwell on the implications of exponential progress. The physical world in which we evolved operates linearly and our brains are hardwired to think accordingly, and because we extrapolate linearly we routinely under-estimate the impact of technologies that are growing exponentially. Global phone penetration is a good example of technology that grew exponentially and analysts routinely made projections based on linear extrapolations and saw the market come in ahead of expectations. I need to look at the data, but it seems to me that the same thing might be happening to mobile advertising now. Underestimating a market generally means missing an opportunity.

I think there is a link between software eating the world and digital industries enjoying exponential growth. Software is digital, and industries that are dominated by software will innovate and grow faster, and, most importantly, the players within those industries that move towards software first will out-perform the laggards.

We spent a lot of time at SU yesterday discussing how biology and healthcare are becoming digital industries. The cost to sequence a human genome is now around $1,000 and is falling by up 80% a year and there are new technologies for synthesising and manipulating DNA which are abstracted from the physical process. Innovation in healthcare is moving from being expensive, lab based, and rooted in manual process, to inexpensive, office based and rooted in digital process. In other words it is becoming software oriented and will move onto a path of exponential improvement. This is tremendously exciting from the perspective of startups, and of world health :). The applications will be both medical (better, more targeted drugs) and health oriented (e.g. diets customised to your genetic profile, low carbs for one, low fat for another). This is still futures, but it is no longer too far out.

3D printing was also prevalent on the agenda, because 3D printing makes industries digital. We saw details of a conceptual design of a 3D printer that prints houses – one ever 1.5 days. Similarly printers for meat and even human organs are in the works.

Back to the bigger picture, if biology can be understood, modelled and manipulated digitally, and 3D printing advances as expected then almost every industry is vulnerable to digitisation and innovation will become software based. The importance of software will be even more widespread than Marc Andreessen imagined.

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The counter arguments to Kurzweil’s Singularity thesis

By | Ray Kurzweil | 6 Comments

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


image Most of the disagreement with Kurzweil’s thesis stems from what he describes as ‘incredulity’ or ‘simple disbelief that such profound changes could possibly occur’.  Many people think he is simply talking about too much change too quickly.  The key counter arguments are variations of ‘the world is more complex than Kurzweil allows for and these changes are far more difficult/will take longer/may never happen’.

These arguments are applied in the specific to the different strands of Kurzweil’s Singularity thesis – e.g. hardware development, re-engineering the human brain in software and the nanotech revolution.  For examples look in the comments on the posts in this series, or check out this recent conversation on Hacker News where people debate the depth of Kurzweil’s understanding of the brain and one contributor suggests it will take 75 years for us to reverse engineer the brain’s functionality, rather than the 20 years Kurzweil is predicting.

Kurzweil dedicates a chapter of The Singularity to countering the arguments of his detractors.  His broad response to the ‘incredulity’ criticism is to point out the long history of exponential rates of increases in all key technologies (covered in the first post in this series) and to repeat the point that our brains aren’t wired to notice when we are on exponential curves, but instead interpret the progress as linear (i.e. the tangent of the exponential) and hence routinely underestimate the pace of change.  He also notes (perhaps displaying a little hubris…) that humans have a long history of resisting notions that threaten the accepted view that our species is special – be it Copernicus’s insight that the earth was not at the centre of the universe or Darwin’s idea that we are only slightly evolved from other primates.

My view, having soaked up a lot of Kurzweil related material over the last few weeks, is that (rather boringly) the truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Kurzweil has done a lot of good thinking and makes a lot of predictions across a lot of areas.  Inevitably some of them will be right, and some will be wrong, particularly when it comes to timing.  For me the important thing is not exactly when the brain will be reverse engineered or we will have nano-bots in our blood stream, but rather that we are headed in that direction.  This last point is one that not too many people seem to take issue with.  I also think that Kurzweil suffers from being a generalist, and as such he attracts criticism from specialists wanting to defend their turf.

Beyond incredulity there is one other objection to Kurzweil’s theories that I’m going to cover off in a little detail here, which is the argument that exponential trends don’t last forever.  Proponents of this criticism point out that most exponential trends we observe hit a wall, usually driven by the environment.  E.g. human population growth tails off when population density approaches critical levels.  Kurzweil’s response is to me convincing.  He recognises that the tailing off in computing power will come, but argues it is a long, long way off.  To prove the point he describes at some length how we will be able to use more and more of the matter in the universe for computational purposes, and shows how this will provide all the computing power we need to get us a long way past the singularity.

For completeness I’m going to close by noting that there are a number of other criticisms that are beyond the scope of this post and which in my opinion Kurzweil adequately covers off in his book – e.g. brains are too complex to model, quantum computing will be required and is impossible, lock in to legacy technologies will prevent progress, and various philosophical and religious arguments which hold machines can’t be conscious.  In most of these cases my (relatively uneducated) view is that Kurzweil’s arguments are much the stronger, although none of these issues are black and white.


So that is it for the ‘Kurzweil series’ – I haven’t enjoyed writing it as much as I expected I would, largely because the subject is much heavier than my normal posts.  That said, I have learned a lot :-).  Thanks to everyone who commented and retweeted.

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Kurzweil part 5 – the impact

By | Ray Kurzweil | 2 Comments

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


image Kurzweil begins his chapter titled ‘The Impact…..’ with the sentence “A Panopoly of Impacts”, which makes the point that the range of impacts is extremely far and wide, with the potential to change almost every part of life as we know it.  I will give a small number of examples of positive impacts in this post, before turning to a brief discussion of the downside.

I have held off much discussion of the impact until now because many of the potential scenarios seem fantastical, and might serve to reduce confidence in the other arguments and predictions.  Most of the things I have discussed in this series up to now have had a 20-30 year time horizon.  These scenarios go beyond that.

A complete understanding of our genetic make up and a command of nanotech will enable us to build devices that plug directly into and interact with our conscious minds.  This is the obvious next step from the rudimentary brain implants in use today for purposes including treating Parkinson’s disease.

One application that is much talked about is to integrate with the optical nerves to introduce computer generated images into our visual field – augmented reality inside the eyeball, if you will – this would replace in-visor displays for fighter pilots and other military applications and could also be used to augment our memories – e.g. to remind us of people’s names as we see them across the room.

Perhaps more exciting is the possibility of full immersion virtual reality.  A computer could take over your entire visual field and by integrating with your other senses make it seem as if you were in another place, in every sense.  Applications could include games and virtual meetings (which would become indistinguishable from real meetings).

Similarly, our memories could become downloadable and storable elsewhere for back up purposes – making every memory retrievable (should we want it).  Taking it a step further our entire mind could be downloaded, and therefore uploaded again somewhere else – in a biological or non-biological body.  The essence of what it is to be ‘me’ in this scenario shifts from the heap of flesh and bones it is today to pure information.  I could then travel at the speed of light and exist (live) indefinitely.

On the more immediate horizon (20-30 years, at least to get started) is what Kurzweil terms ‘programmable blood’.  Nanotechnologist Rob Freitas has already produced designs to replace our red blood cells, platelets and white blood cells with nano devices.  Programmable blood has the potential to circulate itself around the body, removing the need for a heart, transport oxygen much more efficiently enabling us to hold our breath for vastly extended periods of time (and ultimately dispense with breathing altogether), and finally to download information on new diseases and pathogens via wireless connections to the outside world to target and remove dangerous foreign bodies before the patient experiences any symptoms.

There are, as far as I can see two types of downsides to these developments, specifically to the genetics, nanotech and robotics (strong AI) revolutions.  The first is that they come with increased risks to life and society.  Advances in genetics raise the possibility of terrorists releasing fatal designer diseases into society, nanotech advances raise the real risk of self replicating nano-scale devices enveloping the whole world (the grey goo problem), and strong AI carries the risk of the machines running rampant and using their vastly superior capabilities to destroy humankind.  I think Kurzweil is spot on in his response, which is to say that the benefits outweigh the risks and we can’t stop it any way – if we were to ban development in the UK it would continue in the US, or in China, or Iran or Pakistan.  I think everyone would agree it is far better for leading scientists to be operating in countries where the risk of irresponsible development is lower.  There are also activities we could, should, and are undertaking to minimise each of the specific risks, and any other risks that exist or emerge – these activities are centred around policies, regulation and self regulation.

The second fear that these discussions bring is that in this vision where we all become cyborgs we will lose what it means to be human.  We will lose touch with our bodies and our minds, and if we are reduced to information then what are we?  This is a philosophical and possibly religious question and one where views are formed as much in the gut as in the mind.  I will say only two things.  Firstly, for me this view of the future is much more exciting than frightening – the possibilities for increased exploration and (self) understanding are endless.  Secondly our sense of what it is to be ourselves has grown as we have evolved from no consciousness, to barely conscious to a more refined consciousness today – so there is nothing new about changes in what it is to be human.

On Monday I will close out this series with a post examining some of the critiques of Kurzweil’s position.

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

By | Ray Kurzweil | 2 Comments

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:


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. 


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.


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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Kurzweil predicts we will create software that emulates the human mind by reverse engineering the human brain

By | Ray Kurzweil | 17 Comments

This is the third post in a series summarising the key arguments of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is near: When humans transcend biology.  The previous posts were: Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity and the accelerating pace of progress and Kurzweil predicts personal computers with the power of the human brain by 2025.


image Computer hardware by itself is, of course, little use to anyone, so after arguing that we will have personal computers as powerful as the human brain by 2025 Kurzweil goes on to discuss the software that will run on this amazing platform.  His contention, in a nutshell, is that we will reverse engineer the workings of the human brain and emulate the salient parts in software and that the resulting machines will be interact with us in a way indistinguishable from humans.  Further, for all practical purposes, a machine whose interactions are indistinguishable from a human will need to be treated as a human and therefore regarded as conscious, and I guess alive.

It is worth dwelling on the nature of machine capable of ‘interaction that is indistinguishable from a human’, or in other words one that would pass the ‘Turing Test’, of which you might have heard. Such a machine would have to be able to get jokes, infer context, display and comprehend emotion, and exhibit every other human trait you can think of – otherwise it would be distinguishable.  As Kurzweil points out several times in The Singularity, such a machine would be treated as being alive by most people.  Just think how many of us impart human characteristics and personalities to complex but inanimate objects like our cars and computers.

Kurzweil’s contention is that this software will be made possible by continued exponential improvements in scanning technologies (lower power, greater resolution) which will enable us to understand exactly how the brain works.  He is emboldened in this prediction by his conviction that in the next decade or so nano-scale scanners in our blood stream will be able to scan our brain at incredibly high resolution from the inside.  Once we understand how the biological brain works it will be relatively simple to reproduce it in software – a task made easier by the fact that many areas of the brain won’t need to modelled – for example those dedicated to life support and areas where it is sufficient to model at the system or module level.

If you are wondering how far this technology has got today – the answer is the level of a cat brain – which IBM successfully modelled in November last year, and we are also starting to get models for regions of the human brain – e.g. Watt’s model of the auditory regions..  Additionally, many of the underlying artificial intelligence techniques have been successfully operating in narrow domains for some time – e.g. neural nets used in facial recognition, Markhov systems used in speech recognition, genetic algorithms in jet engine design.

This is a good moment to make the point that such a software will not be deterministic in the way that most computer programs are today, but will copy the emergent and chaotic systems of the brain.  The outputs of these human intelligent machines will have random and unpredictable elements, just as human brains do, and they will very much be products of their environment.  The growth and development of an emergent system is hugely dependent on the early environment in which it finds itself (or in other words the early input variables) – look at the way different ways ants nest develop for example.  Different environments will therefore produce very different human intelligent machines.  We might come to think of those differences as different personalities.

These human intelligent machines would start as blank canvases, and to do anything useful they would need nurture and education,  in much the same way as a human child.  One of the reasons that Kurzweil is confident that software will reach this milestone is that each of our human brains is created from a relatively small amount of information – half of the human genome is dedicated to the brain, and that comes to about 25 million bytes, when compressed.  25 million bytes could be represented in around one million lines of code.  Our adult human brains are infinitely more complicated than this and would therefore be much harder to reverse engineer.

Kurzweil’s contention that a reverse engineered machine-baby-brain would grow up to have emotions and all the other aspects that characterise the adult human mind is one that many have taken issue with (including ‘twainventures’ who has left numerous helpful comments on this series of Kurzweil posts).  It is also one that raises philiosophical and religious questions about what it means to be alive or to be conscious, or what it is that provides the spark of life, if anything.

My feeling is that if something (inter)acts like a human then to all intense and purposes it is a human and that questions about the the spark or life etc. are redundant, but that is pure conjecture.  Until we build such a system and see how it interacts I think it will be impossible to know more.

I’m going to close this piece with the observation that once a computer achieves a human level of intelligence it will necessarily sour past it.  Simply put these minds will apply their intelligence to improving themselves and will be able to re-write their own software, very quickly access and upload any information they need to make themselves smarter, and even create new more powerful hardware platforms to run themselves on.

By now you are probably picturing Terminator like nightmare scenarios of machines gone wild – a subject I will return to in the final post of this series.

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