Hansen: If this guy is right, the future is closer than we think - Omaha.com
Published Monday, October 21, 2013 at 12:00 am / Updated at 9:36 pm
Hansen: If this guy is right, the future is closer than we think

A decade from now, we will use 3-D printers to make our shirts.

In two decades, our brains will be directly plugged into the Internet.

In thirty years, a 100th birthday won't be a big deal because 100 won't be old.

Oh, and we're closing in on an era when computers will become smarter than humans — so much smarter than us, in every way, that the human brain will have to join up with the computer brain because it can no longer beat it. That era is, give or take, 35 years from now, says the man predicting the future.

“Thinking will be a hybrid of bio and non-bio intelligence,” he says. “We will be a hybrid.”

This man is not standing outside the CenturyLink Center wearing a tattered trench coat and shaking a cardboard sign warning of the coming apocalypse.

This man is standing inside the CenturyLink Center, wearing a fancy hands-free microphone and preparing to speak to hundreds of excited engineers, architects and researchers.

This man has invented a dozen things, received 19 honorary degrees, written seven books and won awards from three U.S. presidents. Oh, and he also predicted both the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of an Internet search engine like Google in the 1980s.

Now Ray Kurzweil is Google's director of engineering. He's following University of Nebraska President J.B. Milliken onto the stage at a university-­sponsored event called “Building the 22nd Century,” on a rainy recent morning. He doesn't blush when he's introduced as this century's Thomas Edison.

“You can predict the future,” Ray tells yours truly and the rest of his spellbound Omaha audience. “What's remarkable is how predictable it is.”

Feel free to sneer at Ray's futuristic notions. People much smarter than you and I already have. In fact, nearly every prediction that Ray Kurzweil will make on this stage has been savaged by a Nobel Prize winner in one field or another.

But before you sneer, understand two things: One, Ray doesn't care. And two, so far he's been right quite a bit.

Ray's ability to foretell the future comes from a theory he came up with decades ago, something he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns.

He adapted and built upon something called Moore's Law, worked on the theory for years, and he came up with this: Information technologies don't grow and advance in a linear, step-by-step fashion, which is how our evolved human brains tend to see the world.

Instead, information technology grows exponentially, often exploding in a way that often seems unfathomable. Unfathomable, until it's real.

Ray holds up his smartphone to illustrate this point. His phone is thousands of times more powerful than the computers he used while a college student at MIT in the late 1960s, even though it is also thousands of times smaller.

We take this for granted today. Of course, if Ray or anyone else had predicted this in the 1960s, everyone would have rolled their eyes.

Ray did predict the smartphone, or a variant of it, in the early 1990s, by the way. He also predicted wireless Internet, e-books, iTunes, Siri and Google Glass a full decade or more before they came into actual existence. In all, Ray has made 147 predictions for years that have now come and gone. He says, in a published research paper, that 127 of these predictions are more or less right.

Others disagree, sometimes vehemently, about his track record. A famous biologist once called Kurzweil “one of the great hucksters of the age.” A Pulitzer Prize-winning professor of cognitive science once said that Kurzweil's books are “a bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy.”

But even his critics likely agree with the larger point Ray is trying to make.

People romanticize the past, he thinks, forgetting that the average life expectancy was 36 in 1800 and the vast majority of humans lived in abject poverty through most of the 20th century. And we cast a suspicious eye toward the future, often worrying that it will be worse than the past.

Ray thinks this is hooey. Ray thinks we consistently and foolishly underestimate the pace of change. Ray thinks the future is going to be awesome.

Take our bodies. Ray argues that the sequencing of the human genome and other breakthroughs turned the inner workings of us into an information technology. Already, computer chips are being implanted into the brains of Parkinson's sufferers, experimental stem cell treatments are repairing damaged hearts and the genes that tell our bodies to store fat are being “turned off” in lab rats.

He predicts that, soon enough, nanobots will be able to replace red and white blood cells. The fit among us will be able to sprint for 15 minutes straight without gasping for breath. Also, we're coming for you, cancer.

This combined activity means an exponential growth in average life expectancy. It's about to explode, Ray thinks. He thinks the first person to live to 150 has already been born.

“We are decoding biology,” he says.

Take our brains. Already, the knowledge we hold inside them is easily mixed and matched with the brilliant devices we hold in our hands — phones with the power to look up almost any fact in seconds. Already, a child with a smartphone in Africa has more information at his fingertips than the president of the United States did 15 short years ago, he says.

So, using the Law of Accelerating Returns, we're headed to a place where a computer is so small it can't be seen with the naked eye. Then it will be inserted into our brains, Ray says.

Powerful computers are already better than us at chess and “Jeopardy.” Around 2045, he predicts, they will also be better than us at making witty conversation at parties, problem-solving, understanding emotion, basically everything that our brains can do. And at that point — a point that Ray calls “The Singularity” — the old era of using the human brain to control computers ends. And something else, something new, begins.

Ray understands this freaks people out, but he points out that this sort of change has actually happened before. Animals didn't always have a neo­cortex — the part of the brain that makes mammals special — or the ability to speak language, write language, build tools, build weapons.

Of course this is scary. It always is. Of course this has a downside. It always does.

“Fire kept us warm,” he says. “But it also burned down our villages.”

Ray has been talking rapid-fire for 45 minutes, and he is still here, standing on this stage, bubbling about the future.

Speaking of that: In a decade or two, he may return to Omaha and stand on this stage again, but he won't really be here.

Why? Because a holographic version of himself will be beamed into the CenturyLink Center, and this hologram will look real and even be able to shake our hands afterward.

In this same way, we will use virtual reality — which currently looks cool but also cartoonish — to take real-­seeming vacations and go to our real jobs.

“We could be having this conversation on a beach on the Mediterranean,” he says.

This last part, at least, sounds pretty good. I'd like to be having this conversation on a Mediterranean beach. If “The Singularity” is inevitable, I better be taking a virtual European vacation while wearing a T-shirt I printed on my own 3-D printer when it happens.

FROM THE NOTEBOOK
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

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