10 Questions for Ray Kurzweil

As our TimeFrames issue reconsiders the recent past, we asked futurist Ray Kurzweil for his prediction of what's to come

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Rick Friedman / Corbis

Is it a mistake to use the events of the recent past as a method of predicting the future?

Our intuition about the future is linear. But the reality of information technology is exponential, and that makes a profound difference. If I take 30 steps linearly, I get to 30. If I take 30 steps exponentially, I get to a billion.

You predict we'll reach a point with artificial intelligence that you call the singularity. How will that affect us?

By the time we get to the 2040s, we'll be able to multiply human intelligence a billionfold. That will be a profound change that's singular in nature. Computers are going to keep getting smaller and smaller. Ultimately, they will go inside our bodies and brains and make us healthier, make us smarter. We'll be online all the time. Search engines won't wait to be asked.

Will this make it more difficult for us to focus?

We've always been responsible for the triage of our time. I actually think these technologies enable us to focus better. My father was a musician, and he had to hire an orchestra and raise money just to hear his compositions. Now a kid in her dorm room can do that with her synthesizer and computer.

How exactly will technology make us healthier?

We will reprogram our biology. My cell phone's probably updating itself as we speak, but I'm walking around with 1,000-year-old software that was for a different era. One gene, the fat insulin receptor gene, says, "Hold on to every calorie, because the next hunting season may not work out so well." I'd like to be able to tell my fat insulin receptor gene, "You don't need to do that. I'm confident I'll have food tomorrow."

Will we be eating differently?

We'll grow in vitro cloned meats in factories that are computerized and run by artificial intelligence. You can just grow the part of the animal that you're eating. Some people say, "Oh, that sounds yucky." I say, "Well, why don't you go visit a factory-farming installation? You'll find that getting meat from living animals is yucky." But we'll need a marketing genius to sell the idea.

Speaking of marketing, what idea about the future do you have the hardest time selling?

People are most resistant to the idea of dramatic extensions to life expectancy, because it affects every decision they make. They have this cycle of life in mind. People sort of wax philosophical--"Oh, I don't want to live past 100." I'd like to see them say that when they're 100.

Do you think we'll find intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?

The consensus in the field is that there's somewhere between a thousand and a million technologically advanced civilizations just in our own galaxy. But once you get to a point where we are, within a few centuries at most, these civilizations would be doing galaxy-wide engineering. It's impossible we wouldn't be noticing that. So my conclusion is that we may be the first.

What are the dangers of technological innovation?

Technology is a double-edged sword. New technologies can be used for destructive purposes. The answer is to develop rapid-response systems for new dangers like a bioterrorist creating a new biological virus. We don't have to just sit back and wait.

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