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People are spending a lot of money trying to understand it. The three-year-old Singularity University, which offers inter-disciplinary courses of study for graduate students and executives, is hosted by NASA. Google was a founding sponsor; its CEO and co-founder Larry Page spoke there last year. People are attracted to the Singularity for the shock value, like an intellectual freak show, but they stay because there's more to it than they expected. And of course, in the event that it turns out to be real, it will be the most important thing to happen to human beings since the invention of language.
The Singularity isn't a wholly new idea, just newish. In 1965 the British mathematician I.J. Good described something he called an "intelligence explosion":
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an "intelligence explosion," and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
The word singularity is borrowed from astrophysics: it refers to a point in space-time for example, inside a black hole at which the rules of ordinary physics do not apply. In the 1980s the science-fiction novelist Vernor Vinge attached it to Good's intelligence-explosion scenario. At a NASA symposium in 1993, Vinge announced that "within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create super-human intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."
By that time Kurzweil was thinking about the Singularity too. He'd been busy since his appearance on I've Got a Secret. He'd made several fortunes as an engineer and inventor; he founded and then sold his first software company while he was still at MIT. He went on to build the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind Stevie Wonder was customer No. 1 and made innovations in a range of technical fields, including music synthesizers and speech recognition. He holds 39 patents and 19 honorary doctorates. In 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology.
But Kurzweil was also pursuing a parallel career as a futurist: he has been publishing his thoughts about the future of human and machine-kind for 20 years, most recently in The Singularity Is Near, which was a best seller when it came out in 2005. A documentary by the same name, starring Kurzweil, Tony Robbins and Alan Dershowitz, among others, was released in January. (Kurzweil is actually the subject of two current documentaries. The other one, less authorized but more informative, is called The Transcendent Man.) Bill Gates has called him "the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence."
In real life, the transcendent man is an unimposing figure who could pass for Woody Allen's even nerdier younger brother. Kurzweil grew up in Queens, N.Y., and you can still hear a trace of it in his voice. Now 62, he speaks with the soft, almost hypnotic calm of someone who gives 60 public lectures a year. As the Singularity's most visible champion, he has heard all the questions and faced down the incredulity many, many times before. He's good-natured about it. His manner is almost apologetic: I wish I could bring you less exciting news of the future, but I've looked at the numbers, and this is what they say, so what else can I tell you?
Kurzweil's interest in humanity's cyborganic destiny began about 1980 largely as a practical matter. He needed ways to measure and track the pace of technological progress. Even great inventions can fail if they arrive before their time, and he wanted to make sure that when he released his, the timing was right. "Even at that time, technology was moving quickly enough that the world was going to be different by the time you finished a project," he says. "So it's like skeet shooting you can't shoot at the target." He knew about Moore's law, of course, which states that the number of transistors you can put on a microchip doubles about every two years. It's a surprisingly reliable rule of thumb. Kurzweil tried plotting a slightly different curve: the change over time in the amount of computing power, measured in MIPS (millions of instructions per second), that you can buy for $1,000.
As it turned out, Kurzweil's numbers looked a lot like Moore's. They doubled every couple of years. Drawn as graphs, they both made exponential curves, with their value increasing by multiples of two instead of by regular increments in a straight line. The curves held eerily steady, even when Kurzweil extended his backward through the decades of pretransistor computing technologies like relays and vacuum tubes, all the way back to 1900.
Kurzweil then ran the numbers on a whole bunch of other key technological indexes the falling cost of manufacturing transistors, the rising clock speed of microprocessors, the plummeting price of dynamic RAM. He looked even further afield at trends in biotech and beyond the falling cost of sequencing DNA and of wireless data service and the rising numbers of Internet hosts and nanotechnology patents. He kept finding the same thing: exponentially accelerating progress. "It's really amazing how smooth these trajectories are," he says. "Through thick and thin, war and peace, boom times and recessions." Kurzweil calls it the law of accelerating returns: technological progress happens exponentially, not linearly.