Essay for E-School News

October 2, 2003 by Ray Kurzweil

Speaking at the 18th Annual Conference on “Technology and Persons with Disabilities” at California State University Northridge in March 2003, Ray Kurzweil described how key developments in science and technology will affect society, alter education and other fields, and benefit everyone, especially those with disabilities. This article is based on that address.

Originally published on eSchool News July 1, 2003. Published on Oct. 2, 2003.

I’ve been involved in inventing since I was five, and I quickly realized that for an invention to succeed, you have to target the world of the future. But what would the future be like?

To find out, I became a student of technology trends and began to develop mathematical models of different technologies: computation, miniaturization, evolution over time. I’ve been doing that for 25 years, and it’s been remarkable to me how powerful and predictive these models are.

Now, before I show you some of these models and then try to build with you some of the scenarios for the future—and, in particular, focus on how these will benefit technology for the disabled—I’d like to share one trend that I think is particularly profound and that many people fail to take into consideration. It is this: The rate of progress—what I call the “paradigm-shift rate”—is itself accelerating.

We are doubling this paradigm-shift rate every decade. The whole 20th century was not 100 years of progress as we know it today, because it has taken us a while to speed up to the current level of progress. The 20th century represented about 20 years of progress in terms of today’s rate. And at today’s rate of change, we will achieve an amount of progress equivalent to that of the whole 20th century in 14 years, then as the acceleration continues, in 7 years. The progress in the 21st century will be about 1,000 times greater than that in the 20th century, which was no slouch in terms of change.

When you say the pace of change is accelerating, most people are quick to agree, as if that’s an obvious statement. But when you ask otherwise thoughtful observers—including Nobel Prize winners—what they expect to see 50 years from now, they often vastly understate the progress of technology.

This happened at a conference I spoke at recently. Time magazine held a conference on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA. Most speakers looked at the last 50 years and saw how much change there was and used that as a model for the next 50 years. No less a luminary than James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, said that in 50 years we will have drugs that will allow us to eat as much as we want and we won’t gain weight. I said, 50 years? We have done that in mice already by identifying the fat insulin receptor gene. The drugs are on the drawing board now and will be in FDA tests in several years—and we will have these available in close to five years, not 50.

The first step in technological evolution took a few tens of thousands of years: fire, the wheel, stone tools. And now paradigm shifts take only a few years’ time.

The one exponential trend people have heard of is Moore’s Law, pertaining to the accelerating rate of computers and electronics. Every two years, we can place twice as many transistors at the same cost on an integrated circuit. They work twice as fast because the electrons have half the distance to travel, so the speed of computing doubles every two years.

Scientists have been debating when that particular paradigm will come to an end. Optimists say 18 years, pessimists say 12—but sometime in the teen years, we won’t be able to shrink computing components any more because they will be just a few atoms wide. Will it be the end of Moore’s Law? Perhaps—but other paradigms will emerge that hold even greater potential.

3-D molecular computing

When the trend for traditional computers runs out of steam—and we can see the end of that road—we will have three-dimensional molecular computing.

I pointed this out in my book “The Age of Spiritual Machines” four years ago, and it was considered a radical notion then—but there’s been a sea change in attitude toward that idea. It’s now the mainstream view that we’ll have 3-D molecular computing long before Moore’s Law runs out.

There’s been enormous progress in four years. In fact, the favorite technology appears to be the one I have felt would win: nanotubes, comprised of carbon atoms, that can be organized in three dimensions and that can compute very efficiently. They’re up to 100 times as strong as steel, so you can use them to create structural components and little “machines.” A one-inch tube of nanotube circuitry would be a million times more powerful than the human brain.

We are miniaturizing all technology. The first reading machine we created in the early 1970s used a large washing-machine-sized computer that was less powerful than the computer in your wristwatch now and cost tens of thousands of dollars. And we are also miniaturizing mechanical systems, which inevitably will lead to nanotechnology by the 2020s.

Nanotechnology was first described by Eric Drexler in a pioneering thesis he did at MIT in the 1980s. Marvin Minsky, who was also my mentor, was the only professor willing to be his thesis advisor because it was such a radical idea. Drexler described machines that could be built atom by atom, and then replicated millions or billions of times. Recently, scientists have used supercomputers to simulate some of his original designs from 1986.

Threshold of human intelligence

Right now, $1,000 of computing power is between that of the brain of an insect and a mouse, at least in terms of hardware capacity. We will cross the threshold of the hardware capacity of the human brain by 2020, and the computers we use then will be deeply embedded in our environment. Computers per se will disappear; they will be in our bodies, in tables, chairs, and everywhere. But we will routinely have enough power to replicate human intelligence in the 2020s.

Critics say, “Sure, we will have computers that are as powerful as the human brain, but they will just be fast calculators and will not have the other aspects of human intelligence.” So, really, the challenge is this: Where will the software—where will the templates of human intelligence—come from?

To achieve this, another grand project is needed, comparable to the human genome project, to really understand the methods used by the human brain. This project is already well under way, in terms of scanning the human brain and developing detailed mathematical models of neurons and brain regions.

Resolution, speed, price, performance, and bandwidth of human brain scanning is growing exponentially. An upcoming technology will be able to see the structures, non-invasively, of clusters of thousands of neurons, giving scientists an ability to see how memories work. At that point, we will begin to understand how the human brain applies different cognitive functions.

One point about the human brain: It’s not really one organ.

Asking “How does the brain work?” is a little like asking, “How does the human body work?” You can’t answer that question unless you break it down. Well, the body consists of a lot of different parts, and the lungs work differently from the heart, and the liver has many regions.

It’s the same with the brain. The brain is actually several hundred information-processing organs, and they have an intricate architecture. We are beginning to describe in mathematical models how the different modules of the brain work.

Reverse-engineering the brain

In my view, it is a conservative projection to say that within 20 or 25 years we will have reverse-engineered the principles of how the human brain works, and we will be using that knowledge to produce biologically inspired models of computation. We are doing that already. We learned things about how the human auditory system processes sounds. We used that in speech recognition, as I demonstrated, and got better results. We are applying these insights into the software of human intelligence.

Let’s talk about some scenarios.

By 2010, computers will disappear. They will be so tiny that they will be embedded in our environment, in clothing, and so on. We will have high-bandwidth connections to the Internet at all times. We will have eyeglasses for the sighted that display images directly in our retina: contact lenses for full-immersion virtual reality.

I have a prototype, a device allowing me to teleport my image in three dimensions to other locations from my office. I gave a speech to people in Vienna, Austria. It looked to the audience like I was present in three dimensions. People who did not know what was going on thought I was there.

By 2010, we all will be able to do this routinely—full-immersion virtual reality.

Besides teleportation, we will have relatively powerful (but not human level) artificial intelligence (AI) on web sites—artificial personalities such as the avatar-like Ramona, who greats visitors and answers questions at the web site.

Technology for sensory impairments

For the deaf, we will have systems that provide subtitles around the world. We’re getting close to the point where speaker-independent speech recognition will become common. Machines will create subtitles automatically and on the fly, and these subtitles will be a pretty accurate representation of what people are saying. It won’t be error-free. But then, our own auditory understanding is not error-free, either. The same is true of reading machines.

We will have listening systems that allow deaf persons to understand what people are saying. The inability to do so is the principal handicap associated with deafness.

For blind people, we actually will have reading machines within a few years that are not just sitting on a desk, but are tiny devices you put in your pocket. You’ll take pictures of signs on the wall, handouts at meetings, and so on. We all encounter text everywhere, on the back of packages, on menus. By 2010, these devices will be very tiny. You will be able to wear one on your lapel and scan in all directions. These devices probably will be used by the sighted as well, because they will allow us to get visual information from all around us.

Such devices also will translate the information from one language to another for everyone. We’ve put together demonstration technology to show just how the information will be transferred back and forth from English to German, from German to French, from French to English, and so on.

And the voice we use in the demonstration is actually derived from a new generation of synthetic speech. Although it sounds relatively normal, it is not recorded human speech. We use that new speech synthesizer in the Kurzweil 1000 and Kurzweil 3000 reading systems.

Exoskeletal aid for physical impairments

Another area of progress will be in relation to spinal cord injuries and for physically disabled people in general. Two different scenarios: I have always been interested in exoskeletal robotic systems that you could put on like clothing. Such systems could be used discreetly. They could be worn under regular clothing and be relatively invisible.

Such a system would work in concert with the user’s own sense of balance, enabling the user to walk and climb stairs. Being unable to do those two things is the principal handicap in, say, paraplegia. Analysis shows this approach is feasible. One of the philosophies of developing technology for the disabled is to work in close concert with the general flexible intelligence of the disabled person himself or herself.

We are not yet on the verge of creating cybernetic geniuses. But we have many systems in our societies that already can perform intelligently in narrow areas. We have hundreds of examples of these machines. Some of them are flying and landing our airplanes, or guiding intelligent weapons. We have electrocardiogram systems that provide an analysis as accurate as your doctor’s. We have some systems that can diagnose blood-cell images, others that automatically make financial decisions involving stock-market investments. In fact, $1 trillion in stock-market investments use these systems. Other intelligent systems look for credit card fraud, and find optimal routes for email messages and cell phone calls.

In this way technology is already deeply embedded in our infrastructure. Some observers ask, “What ever happened to artificial intelligence?” It’s like people going to the rain forest looking for ants, with 50 species of ants right below them. But the ants go unseen, because they are embedded.

A disabled person has a narrow need. In the case of a blind person, he or she needs access to ordinary printed material. Deaf persons need to be able to understand ordinary speech from people they encounter at random. Devices to do such things can work in close concert with the much broader, more flexible intelligence of the disabled persons themselves.

And that will be part of the philosophy of an exoskeletal robotic device, to guide and provide balance.

Reconnecting broken nerve pathways

The more profound promise of this research will be to actually overcome spinal cord injuries and reconnect the broken nerve pathways. One of the challenges is that the nerves atrophy fairly quickly through disuse. If you wait years after an injury, since the nerves are not being used, they begin to degenerate. So the pathway is no longer intact and functioning.

There have been interesting experiments in scanning brain patterns 15 or 20 years after the injury in spinal cord patients. They are asked to perform certain functions—lift your leg, walk across the room. The brain-pattern activity was the same as in a non-disabled person, but obviously it was not communicating, because the pathways were broken.

Still, it will be quite feasible to pick up the patterns in the brain and wirelessly communicate them to the muscles, completely bypassing the nervous system that’s no longer functioning.

Ultimately, we will be able to create the muscles as well. We are creating muscle analogs for robots, but those could be used for disabled persons as well. There are other challenges—creating a skeletal system to replace one that may not be up to the task, dealing with the cardiovascular implications. These are complex projects, but I believe we will see profound steps forward by 2010. And by 2020, I think we will have largely overcome the handicaps of spinal cord injuries.

By 2029, all these different trends will mature and come to a head. A thousand dollars of computing power will be a thousand times more powerful than the human brain. We will have completed the reverse engineering of the human brain.

In some ways, machines can do better than humans. Computers are much faster than people when they master tasks and can share knowledge. Something this computer has learned can be shared with thousands of other computers instantly; whereas, if I learn French, I can’t just download that to you.

Enhancing our own intelligence

The implication of that will not be just an alien invasion of intelligent machines to compete with us. We are going to enhance our own intelligence by getting closer and closer to machine intelligence—and that’s already happening.

There are many people walking around now who are essentially cyborgs and have computers in their brains interfacing with their biological neurons. The Food and Drug Administration just approved a neural implant for Parkinson’s disease that replaces the portion of the brain destroyed by that disease. And there are more than a dozen different types of implants like that in use or being developed. Now, they require surgical implantation; but by 2029, we will be able to send these intelligent devices through the bloodstream.

We are already beginning to put them into our bloodstream, although the process is not as sophisticated as it will be in 2029. We will be able to send very intelligent nanobots—nano-robots—into the blood stream to communicate with our nervous system, and they will be able to provide a virtual reality, in which they shut down the signals from my real senses and replace them with the signals from that environment—and it can be just as realistic as actual reality.

Some of these environments will be earthly, some will be fantastic and won’t exist on Earth. A new art form will be to create new virtual reality environments. You will be able to go there by yourself or with other people and have encounters with one or thousands of other people in these virtual-reality environments, incorporating all the senses.

One phenomenon will involve people—″experience beamers,” I call them—putting their flow of sensory experience on the Internet, kind of like the concept in the movie “Being John Malkovich.”

The importance of hanging around

But the real profound implication will be an expansion of human intelligence.

Right now, we are restricted to a mere hundred trillion inter-neural connections. I don’t know about you, but I find that quite limiting. Many people send me books to read, web sites to visit, conferences to attend. And I would love to be able to do all these things, but our human bandwidth is quite limited.

Ultimately, we won’t be restricted to 100 trillion connections. We will able to create new ones with nanobots, and we will have 200 trillion connections or more.

We are today profoundly expanding human intelligence as a species through the Internet and all of our technology. Through much more intimate connections with this technology, we will continue to profoundly expand human intelligence.

Human life expectancy is another one of those exponential trends. Every year during the 18th and 19th centuries, we added a few days to the human life expectancy. Now, we are at the intersection of biology and information science.

Today, we are adding about 120 days every year to the human life expectancy. With the full flowering of the biotechnology revolution, within 10 years, we will be adding more than a year to the human life expectancy every year.

So if we can hang in there for another 10 years, we may actually get to experience the full measure of the profound century ahead.

© 2003