The Web Within Us: Minds and Machines Become One.

February 21, 2001 by Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil’s vision for the 21st century and beyond includes reverse-engineering the human brain and non-biological intelligences.

Originally published December 1, 1999 at Published on February 22, 2001.

By the second half of the next century, there will be no clear distinction between human and machine intelligence. Two things will allow this to happen. First, our biological brains will be enhanced by neural implants. This has already begun. Doctors use neural implants to counteract symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, for instance, and neuroscientists from Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta recently placed an electrode into the brain of a paralyzed stroke victim who now communicates using a PC. In the 2020s, these neural implants will not be just for people with disabilities, but will be used to improve our perception, memory, and logical thinking, and even create virtual sensory experiences. These implants will plug us directly into the Web. By 2030, “going to a Website” will mean entering a virtual reality environment. Our implants will generate streams of sensory input that would otherwise come from our real senses, creating an all-encompassing virtual environment that responds to our behavior. This virtual reality will be as realistic, detailed, and subtle as the reality we know today.

Also, we will have created nonbiological brains, which will extend vastly our own human brains. While our biological intelligence is, for all practical purposes, at a standstill, our nonbiological intelligence is growing at a double-exponential rate. Computing devices have been consistently multiplying in power from the electromechanical calculating devices used in the 1890 U.S. Census through today. Along the way there’s been exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Computer speed (per unit cost) doubled every three years between 1910 and 1950, doubled every two years between 1950 and 1966, and is now doubling every year. By the end of the 21st century, nonbiological thinking will be trillions of times more powerful than that of its human progenitors.

There are many new technologies waiting in the wings that will allow this to happen. Nanotube circuits, for example, are capable of forming extremely dense three-dimensional arrays of computing elements. A 1 inch cube of nanotube circuitry would be at least a million times more powerful than the human brain. Other experimental technologies include three-dimensional chips, optical computing, crystalline computing, DNA, and quantum computing. By 2019, a $1,000 computer will match the processing power of the human brain–about 20 million billion calculations per second. By 2029, your average PC will be equivalent to 1,000 human brains.

Reverse-engineering the Human Brain

This level of processing power is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achieving human-level intelligence in a machine. The organization and content of these resources–the software of intelligence–is also critical. The most compelling scenario for mastering the software of intelligence is to reverse-engineer the human brain–to essentially copy its design–so these machines will seem very human. And through nanotechnology, they will have human-like–but greatly enhanced–bodies as well. Having human origins, they will claim to be human, and to have human feelings. And being immensely intelligent, they’ll be very convincing when they tell us these things.

Human brain scanning has already started. A condemned killer donated his brain and body to be scanned, and you can access all 10 billion bytes of him on the Web. We also have noninvasive scanning techniques today, including high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, optical imaging, and near-infrared scanning. Future generations of scanning technology will enable us to show the connections between neurons. Ultimately we will be able to peer inside the synapses themselves.  

The most viable approach to scanning the brain will be to scan it from inside. By 2030, nanobot technology will be feasible, and brain scanning will be a prominent application. Billions of bots could travel through every capillary of a human brain, and scan every detail. The billions of nanobots would all be on a high-speed wireless Intranet allowing them to communicate with each other, and with computers compiling the brain-scan database. From this data, we will learn how the brain works, and we’ll be able to copy the information into a neural computer.

The Web as Virtual Reality Arena

The nanobots will do more than scan the brain. They will also extend it. One vital application will be full-immersion virtual reality–a VR induced by the interaction of nanobots with the brain. We already have electronic devices that can detect and even control the firing of neurons–essentially creating two-way communication between electronic and neural circuits (such as the “neuron transistors” demonstrated at Germany’s Max-Planck Institute for Biochemistry. Scientists have also demonstrated that biological and nonbiological neurons can work together on pattern recognition tasks just like an all-biological network.  

When we want to experience real reality, the nanobots do nothing. If we want to enter virtual reality, they suppress all of the inputs coming from the real senses, and replace them with signals appropriate for the virtual environment. Your brain would then send signals intended to cause your muscles and limbs to move as you normally would, but the nanobots again intercept these interneuronal signals, suppress your real limbs from moving, and instead cause your virtual limbs to “move” while providing the appropriate movement and reorientation (as well as sounds and tactile sensations) in the virtual environment.  

The Web will provide a panoply of virtual environments to explore, and “going” to these Web environments will not require any equipment not already in our heads. Some will be recreations of earthly places; others will be fanciful environments that have no “real” counterpart. Some would be virtual worlds that seem to violate laws of physics. Want to fly? Walk on walls like a spider? You can, in this virtual world. We’ll be able to visit these virtual Web environments alone, or we’ll meet others there, people both real and simulated. Ultimately, there won’t be a clear distinction between the two.

Nanobot technology will expand our minds in virtually any way imaginable. Our brains today are relatively fixed in design. Although we do add patterns of interneuronal connections and neurotransmitter concentrations as a normal part of the learning process, the overall capacity of the human brain is highly constrained (to a mere hundred trillion connections). Brain implants based on massively distributed intelligent nanobots will ultimately expand our memories a trillionfold, and vastly improve all of our sensory, pattern recognition and cognitive abilities.  

Of course, there will be great concern regarding who’s controlling the nanobots, and over who the nanobots may be talking to. Organizations such as governments or extremist groups or just clever individuals could put trillions of undetectable nanobots in the water or food supply. These “spy” nanobots could then monitor, influence, and even control our thoughts and actions. We won’t be defenseless, however. Just as we have virus scanning software today, we will make use of patrol nanobots that search for (and destroy) unauthorized nanobots in our brains and bodies.

Beyond the 21st Century

Can the pace of technological progress continue to speed up indefinitely? Will we not reach a point where humans are unable to think fast enough to keep up with it? With regard to unenhanced humans, clearly so. But what would a million scientists, each a thousand times more intelligent than human scientists today, and each operating a thousand times faster than contemporary humans (because the information processing in their nonbiological, Web-based brains is faster) accomplish?  

For one thing, they would come up with technology to become even more intelligent (because intelligence is no longer of fixed capacity). They would change their own thought processes to think even faster. When the scientists evolve to be a million times more intelligent and operate a million times faster, then an hour could result in a century of progress.  

Once a species develops computing technology, it’s only a matter of a few centuries before the nonbiological form of their intelligence permeates the matter and energy in its vicinity, and then expands outward. Ultimately, it becomes capable of maneuvering and controlling cosmological forces through its exquisite and vast technology, and creates the world it wants.  

What kind of world will that be? Wait and see.

Reproduced with permission. Copyright (C) 1999 Business 2.0