Jun 08

Before we get to Ray Kurzweil’s plan for upgrading the “suboptimal software” in your brain, let me pass on some of the cheery news he brought to the World Science Festival last week in New York.

Do you have trouble sticking to a diet? Have patience. Within 10 years, Dr. Kurzweil explained, there will be a drug that lets you eat whatever you want without gaining weight.

Worried about greenhouse gas emissions? Have faith. Solar power may look terribly uneconomical at the moment, but with the exponential progress being made in nanoengineering, Dr. Kurzweil calculates that it’ll be cost-competitive with fossil fuels in just five years, and that within 20 years all our energy will come from clean sources.

Are you depressed by the prospect of dying? Well, if you can hang on another 15 years, your life expectancy will keep rising every year faster than you’re aging. And then, before the century is even half over, you can be around for the Singularity, that revolutionary transition when humans and/or machines start evolving into immortal beings with ever-improving software.

At least that’s Dr. Kurzweil’s calculation. It may sound too good to be true, but even his critics acknowledge he’s not your ordinary sci-fi fantasist. He is a futurist with a track record and enough credibility for the National Academy of Engineering to publish his sunny forecast for solar energy.

He makes his predictions using what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns, a concept he illustrated at the festival with a history of his own inventions for the blind. In 1976, when he pioneered a device that could scan books and read them aloud, it was the size of a washing machine.

Two decades ago he predicted that “early in the 21st century” blind people would be able to read anything anywhere using a handheld device. In 2002 he narrowed the arrival date to 2008. On Thursday night at the festival, he pulled out a new gadget the size of a cellphone, and when he pointed it at the brochure for the science festival, it had no trouble reading the text aloud.

This invention, Dr. Kurzweil said, was no harder to anticipate than some of the predictions he made in the late 1980s, like the explosive growth of the Internet in the 1990s and a computer chess champion by 1998. (He was off by a year – Deep Blue’s chess victory came in 1997.) Continue reading »

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