Fortune | Ray Kurzweil: ‘By 2030 we’ll have full-immersion, shared, virtual-reality environments’

October 9, 2000

Fortune — October 9, 2000 | David Kirkpatrick

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“By 2030 we’ll have full-immersion, shared, virtual-reality environments.” Speech technology pioneer Ray Kurzweil is the author of The Age of Intelligent Machines and The Age of Spiritual Machines. He was interviewed by David Kirkpatrick.

A very important aspect of the future is going to be virtual reality — our ability to relate with each other in new ways, much more intimate ways, facilitated by technology. We’ve had one form of virtual reality for a century — the telephone, or auditory virtual reality. We take it for granted, but when people first experienced it in the 19th century, it was quite a revelation. It amazed people that you could be with another person even though they’re in Philadelphia, at least as far as talking to them is concerned. Nothing like that had ever happened in human history.

In the last century we’ve introduced crude forms of transporting ourselves visually — television and videoconferencing. Now we add trends like the Internet, the explosion of bandwidth, of computing capacity, and the growing resolution of visual displays. By the end of this decade we’ll all have high-bandwidth, reliable wireless communication. The electronics will be extremely small. Personal computers will be invisible because they’ll be so tiny they’ll be in your eyeglasses or contact lenses, or in your clothing. The images will be written directly to your retina. And the resolution will be competitive with our visual sense. It might sometimes overtake your entire visual field of view. If you and I wanted to meet, we could block out real reality and sit on a virtual beach or in a virtual game-preserve cafe–although it might be frustrating to sit in a cafe if we can’t eat.

By 2030 you’ll see full-immersion, shared, virtual-reality environments, or spaces, involving all the senses, where we can actually go inside our bodies and brains and tap into the flow of signals coming from our senses.

Several technologies are involved: first, computation, which is getting very small and inexpensive; then, wireless communications, so you could have billions of nanobots, or little microscopic blood-cell-sized robots, communicate with each other over a wireless local area network and also with the Internet; and miniaturization, so you could make these complex devices very small.

Another technology that exists today, in crude form, is the neuron transistor, an electronic device that can communicate with a biological neuron in both directions wirelessly. If the neuron fires, which is a primary way of making a decision, it creates an electromagnetic pulse that’s easy for this piece of electronics to pick up. The device can also create an electromagnetic pulse and trigger the neuron to fire or suppress it from firing.

So you have billions of nanobots taking up positions in the capillaries next to every nerve fiber coming from all of your senses. If you want to be in real reality, the nanobots sit there and do nothing, and you experience the world in the normal way. But let’s say you want to leave real reality. This will shut down the signals coming from your real senses and replace them with the signals you would be receiving if you were in the virtual environment.

Just the way today you have people beaming their lives from their apartments using Webcams, people will be beaming their entire flow of sensory experiences. Rather than just watching their apartment, you will actually experience their sensory experiences — and their emotional reactions.