Ray Kurzweil responds to John Brockman’s “The Edge” Annual Question of 2007

February 4, 2007 by Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil responds to John Brockman’s The Edge Annual Question – 2007: WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT? WHY?

Published on Edgeon January 2007. Reprinted with permission.

Optimism exists on a continuum in between confidence and hope.Let me take these in order.

I am confident that the acceleration and expanding purview of informationtechnology will solve within twenty years the problems that nowpreoccupy us.

Consider energy. We are awash in energy (10,000 times more thanrequired to meet all our needs falls on Earth) but we are not verygood at capturing it. That will change with the full nanotechnology-basedassembly of macro objects at the nano scale, controlled by massivelyparallel information processes, which will be feasible within twentyyears. Even though our energy needs are projected to triple withinthat time, we’ll capture that .0003 of the sunlight needed to meetour energy needs with no use of fossil fuels, using extremely inexpensive,highly efficient, lightweight, nano-engineered solar panels, andwe’ll store the energy in highly distributed (and therefore safe)nanotechnology-based fuel cells. Solar power is now providing 1part in 1,000 of our needs, but that percentage is doubling everytwo years, which means multiplying by 1,000 in twenty years.

Almost all the discussions I’ve seen about energy and its consequences(such as global warming) fail to consider the ability of futurenanotechnology-based solutions to solve this problem. This developmentwill be motivated not just by concern for the environment but alsoby the $2 trillion we spend annually on energy. This is alreadya major area of venture funding.

Consider health. As of just recently, we have the tools to reprogrambiology. This is also at an early stage but is progressing throughthe same exponential growth of information technology, which wesee in every aspect of biological progress. The amount of geneticdata we have sequenced has doubled every year, and the price perbase pair has come down commensurately. The first genome cost abillion dollars. The National Institutes of Health is now startinga project to collect a million genomes at $1,000 apiece. We canturn genes off with RNA interference, add new genes (to adults)with new reliable forms of gene therapy, and turn on and off proteinsand enzymes at critical stages of disease progression. We are gainingthe means to model, simulate, and reprogram disease and aging processesas information processes. In ten years, these technologies willbe 1,000 times more powerful than they are today, and it will bea very different world, in terms of our ability to turn off diseaseand aging.

Consider prosperity. The 50-percent deflation rate inherent ininformation technology and its growing purview is causing the declineof poverty. The poverty rate in Asia, according to the World Bank,declined by 50 percent over the past ten years due to informationtechnology and will decline at current rates by 90 percent in thenext ten years. All areas of the world are affected, including Africa,which is now undergoing a rapid invasion of the Internet. Even sub-SaharanAfrica has had an average annual 5 percent economic growth ratein the last few years.

OK, so what am I optimistic (but not necessarily confident) about?

All of these technologies have existential downsides. We are alreadyliving with enough thermonuclear weapons to destroy all mammalianlife on this planet-weapons that are still on a hair-trigger. Rememberthese? They’re still there, and they represent an existential threat.

We have a new existential threat, which is the ability of a destructivelyminded group or individual to reprogram a biological virus to bemore deadly, more communicable, or (most daunting of all) more stealthy(that is, having a longer incubation period, so that the early spreadis undetected). The good news is that we have the tools to set upa rapid-response system like the one we have for software viruses.It took us five years to sequence HIV, but we can now sequence avirus in a day or two. RNA interference can turn viruses off, sinceviruses are genes, albeit pathological ones. Sun Microsystems founderBill Joy and I have proposed setting up a rapid-response systemthat could detect a new virus, sequence it, design an RNAi (RNA-mediatedinterference) medication, or a safe antigen-based vaccine, and gearup production in a matter of days. The methods exist, but as yeta working rapid-response system does not. We need to put one inplace quickly.

So I’m optimistic that we will make it through without sufferingan existential catastrophe. It would be helpful if we gave the twoaforementioned existential threats a higher priority.

And, finally, what am I hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic,about?

Who would have thought right after September 11, 2001, that wewould go five years without another destructive incident at thator greater scale? That seemed unlikely at the time, but despiteall the subsequent turmoil in the world, it has happened. I am hopefulthat this respite will continue.

© Ray Kurzweil 2007