Promise and Peril: Deeply Intertwined Poles of Twenty First Century Technology

Ray Kurzweil
Founder and Chief Technology Officer, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, and Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Kurzweil Educational Systems

In considering the genesis of Moores Law, I put 49 famous computing devices over the past century on an exponential graph. From this exercise, it became apparent that the acceleration of computing power did not start with integrated circuits, but has continued through multiple paradigm shifts (electromechanical calculators, relays, vacuum tubes, transistors, and finally integrated circuits).
Moores Law was not the first, but the fifth paradigm, to provide exponential growth in computing. The next paradigm, which will involve computing in three dimensions rather than the two manifested in todays flat chips, will lead to computing at the molecular, and ultimately the subatomic level. We can be confident that the acceleration of computing will survive the well anticipated demise of Moore s Law.

There are comparable exponential trends underlying a wide variety of other technologies: communications (both wired and wireless), brain scanning speeds and resolutions, genome scanning, and miniaturization (we are currently shrinking technology at a rate of 5.6 per linear dimension per decade). Even the rate of technological progress is speeding up, now doubling each decade. The mathematical models Ive developed over the past couple of decades to describe these trends, which I call the law of accelerating returns, has proven predictive of the developments weve seen during the 1990s. From these models, I believe we can be confident of continued exponential growth in these and other technologies for the foreseeable future.

By 2009, computers will disappear. Displays will be written directly onto our retinas by devices in our eyeglasses and contact lenses. In addition to virtual high resolution displays, these intimate displays will provide full immersion visual virtual reality. We will have ubiquitous very high bandwidth wireless connection to the Internet at all times. Going to a web site will mean entering a virtual reality environment at least for the visual and auditory sense where we will meet other real people. There will be simulated people as well, but the virtual personalities will not be up to human standards, at least not by 2009. The electronics for all of this will be so small that it will be invisibly embedded in our glasses and clothing.

By 2029, as a result of continuing trends in miniaturization, computation, and communication, we will have billions of nanobots intelligent robots the same of blood cells or smaller traveling through the capillaries of our brain communicating directly with our biological neurons. By taking up positions next to every nerve fiber coming from all of our senses, the nanobots will provide full immersion virtual reality involving all five of the senses. So we will enter virtual reality environments (via the web, of course) of our choice and meet people, both real and virtual, only now the difference wont be so clear.

Just as people today beam their images from little web cams out onto the Internet for others to share, many people in 2029 will beam the full stream of signals coming directly from their senses onto the web. We will then be able to experience what other people are experiencing, a la John Malkovich. Of course, the everyday lives of many such experience beamers may not be all that compelling, so there will be plenty of prerecorded experiences we can plug into it. Beyond just the five senses, these shared experiences will include emotional responses, sexual pleasure, and other mental reactions.

Brain implants based on these distributed intelligent nanobots will extend our brains in every conceivable way, massively expanding our memory and otherwise vastly improving all of our sensory, pattern-recognition and cognitive abilities.

Well live a long time also. The expanding human life span is another one of those exponential trends. In the eighteenth century, we added a few days every year to human longevity; during the nineteenth century we added a couple of weeks each year; and now were adding almost a half a year every year. With the revolutions in rational drug design, genomics, therapeutic cloning of our own organs and tissues, and related developments in bio information sciences, we
will adding more than a year every year within ten years. So take care of yourself the old fashioned way for just a little while longer, and you may actually get to experience the remarkable century ahead.

Technology has always been a double edged sword, and the early Twenty-First century will contribute its share of new dangers. Self-replicating nano-engineered entities may introduce non-biological forms of cancer. And robots whose intelligence exceeds that of humans who remain unenhanced by nanobot-based neural implants may be less friendly than we like. My presentation will review the deeply intertwined promise and peril of the early Twenty-First century