Fenger Pointing

Becky Fenger | June 18, 2008 Becky Fenger
Man and machine as one

What becomes of a 5-year-old boy from Queens, New York, who tells his parents that he is going to be an inventor? Well, he becomes an inventor, an entrepreneur, an author, a futurologist and one heck of an interesting human being. It’s all elemental for Ray Kurzweil who simply sees a problem or need and solves or fills it.
ray kurzweil
The love and worship of ideas ran in the family. His grandfather actually touched some of Leonardo da Vinci’s manuscripts and was filled with emotion to be so close to the fruits of genius. His parents escaped Nazi Germany in 1938. He discovered a computer at age 12 and never looked back. He invented the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first music synthesizer and a reading machine for the blind. Stevie Wonder was his first customer in 1976 when the reader was the size of a washing machine instead of a cell phone. In 2002 he was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame.

One has to listen to Kurzweil for only an hour to be convinced there is almost nothing that man can’t do. “Fifty years from now we will be spending most of our time in virtual reality,” he says. “We will be enhancing our brains by merging with our technology. We will be able to back up our mind files,” he continues. Future folks will think it pretty amazing that we went through the day in the “old” days without backing up the information in our brains the way we now do with our computer info.

“We are going to be able to send nanobots – blood-cell sized devices inside our bloodstream – to our brain through our capillaries that will interact with our biological neurons that will keep us healthy,” Kurzweil notes. If that sounds futuristic, you should know that there are already people who have computers in their brains. For example, Parkinson’s patients have a pea-sized computer in their brains that replaces the biological neurons that were destroyed by that disease. The latest generation has allowed scientists to download new software to the neural implant inside our brains from outside. This kind of technology is doubling per year, and of course shrinking in size. “Twenty-five years from now, these technologies will be a billion times more powerful and a hundred thousand times smaller,” he states.

Believe it or not – and Kurzweil certainly makes a convincing case – but we will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological intelligence. Get this: By 2029 a machine will be indistinguishable from us in intelligence! Better yet, we will be able to download knowledge and skills to the non-biological part of our intelligence! If this sounds too wild, would your mother have thought her child would be taking a device out of his pocket and accessing all of human knowledge?

Kurzweil points to the democratizing power of decentralized electronic communication like the Internet and fax machines to topple repressive regimes. In the 80s he wrote that the Soviet Union was doomed because of these devices.

Did you know we have “outdated software” running in our bodies now? These are all the genes that man has had for thousands of years. For example, the fat insulin receptor gene says to itself, “I’d better hold onto every calorie, because the next hunting season may not be successful.” Good idea then; bad idea now. Thus, the obesity epidemic. When that gene was turned off in animals, they ate a lot yet remained slim and free of diabetes, heart disease and lived longer. Pharmaceutical companies are rushing to bring that technology to the human market. (Please hurry!)
RNA interference technology can turn genes off, and work is being done to do just that to genes that promote disease and aging. And new forms of gene therapy can add new genes. How exciting to be reprogramming our outdated software inside ourselves. Eighty-year-olds will look and act like 40, Kurzweil says. No wonder he plans to live forever.

Asked about our energy crisis, Kurzweil responded that we will do away with fossil fuels within 20 years. He believes that solar energy alone can meet all of our needs, and that the tipping point for affordability is less than 5 years away when the cost per watt will be less than that for coal or oil. He has been working with Larry Page, the co-founder of Google on the new nano-engineered solar panels that they tell us will be much more efficient.

What won’t technology replace? Human relationships, the wizard reveals. Ah, I’m so thankful.