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Ray Kurzweil

     ... inventor and futurist. Known for the startling ideas he offered in The Age of Intelligent Machines, Mr. Kurzweil continued to push out ideas about technology's boundaries in The Age of Spiritual Machines. His inventions include reading machines for the blind, music synthesizers and speech-recognition technology. Named by M.I.T. as Inventor of the Year in 1988, Mr. Kurzweil is also recipient of 9 honorary degrees and honors from two U.S. presidents including the National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest such honor, by President Clinton in 1999. His technology company is located on Boston's famous Route 128. Transcendent Man -- a documentary film about Mr. Kurzweil's ideas and life -- is being shown around the world.

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The future is coming at us a lot faster then we think, according to inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. In fact, he says, the dramatic changes we are all experiencing right now are part of a vast acceleration of changes that are building on themselves. Mr. Kurzweil anticipates 4 times as much change in the next 25 years as we saw in the last 100.

Technology is more than just one of the activities in which humans are engaged, Mr. Kurzweil insists. We are a technology-creating species and technology is ultimately part of the great story of evolution that began billions of years ago, he says, each stage creating the foundation for the next stage to be more powerful and to take place more quickly.

Mr. Kurzweil is optimistic in the face of what he expects will be dramatic, exciting (and to others disturbing) paths ahead. He envisions a time, as early as 2030 or 2040, when humans and machines are indistinguishable. Hence his books about the age of intelligent and spiritual machines.

But first, Mr. Kurzweil urges, we need to face fundamental philosophical questions about what life means. We can't get there through objective measurements, he says, it will have to be resolved as humans resolve everything: politically. And politically, he thinks, machines will prevail in asserting their rights. They will be very intelligent, ultimately more intelligent than unaided human intelligence. Mr. Kurzweil also believes that ultimately, we will accept machines as conscious entities, as much as we accept that other humans are conscious. He suspects we'll get there even before we grant legal rights to non-human primates.

The game of human-machine interaction has already changed, Mr. Kurzweil assures us. We already use biologically inspired computer programs to solve problems -- like designing jet engines -- which have too many variables and are too complicated for a person to sit down and design directly. And no, we cannot predict what's ahead. Already our technological systems are so complex that they are unpredictable, just like people are.

Ultimately -- remember, he's talking 2030 or 2040 -- we won't be able to tell the difference between humans and machines. The two worlds of thinking will have become intimately intertwined. That's fine with Mr. Kurzweil who sees the technology of which he speaks as an expression and extension of human civilization and its powers. Even when non-biological entities have a personality and a human presence and are operating at a fully human level or beyond, they'll still be an extension of us, not an invasion, since they're emerging from within our civilization. He sees nanotechnology delivering nanobots, liberating us from the limited creatures we are today, enabling us to expand human intelligence. And yes, he says, there are a lot of implications which we would do well to consider -- with a deep sense of urgency.


[This Program was recorded November 2, 2001 in Wellesley Hills, Massachusettes, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Ray Kurzweil gives Paula Gordon and Bill Russell a series of examples of how change is accelerating. He explains why he is confident that building on today's rate of change, we will make 100 years of progress in the next 25. He describes how he believes this will impact us, convinced distinctions between people and computers will dissolve as our relationship become more.


Conversation 2

Mr. Kurzweil sees a general trend from the real world to a virtual one, from concentrated technologies to decentralized ones. He expands, then anticipates practical, political and legal issues in the 21st century around the rights of humans, computers and creatures who are some of both. He considers what he believes will happen when we extend our biological human intelligence using non-biological machine intelligence. The success of today's neuronal implants which relieve Parkinson's disease present Mr. Kurzweil with a premise from which to talk about the possibility of "nanobots" extending human intelligence. He uses his speech-recognition invention to show how knowledge can be transferred from biological to non-biological intelligences and back again.


Conversation 3

Mr. Kurzweil considers just how pressing it is to address issues of legal and political rights. He bases distinctions on considerations of consciousness and suffering, comparing claims of rights for other animals, for humans and some day in the foreseeable future, for machines. He predicts why and when machines will appear more "human" than other animals do. He urges us to think about fundamental ontological questions -- the philosophy of being -- in order to address deep questions ahead of us. He explains why he believes machines will, in the end, prevail.


Conversation 4

The issue of human "control" is addressed. Drawing examples from financial markets and beyond, Mr. Kurzweil asserts that our machine-human interfaces expand our humanity. The conversation turns again to values. He explains why he considers technology as a continuation of the evolutionary process that gave rise to a technology-creating species -- us -- in the first place. He declares our interfaces with computers are already profoundly different than when we invented the machines, offering examples from biologically-inspired computer programs. He assures us that some computers are now as unpredictable in solving problems as humans are.


 Conversation 5

Mr. Kurzweil considers transcendence from a variety of perspectives. In anticipation that one day we may be able to replicate ourselves, the discussion turns to how we see ourselves and how we relate to the world around us. Mr. Kurzweil proposes differences between objective and subjective reality. He distinguishes between the objective issue of creating an entity that operates at human levels or has human-like personalities and the more philosophical, mysterious consideration of what it means to be conscious.


Conversation 6

Reminding us that he is the messenger for both promise and peril, Mr. Kurzweil positions himself as essentially an optimist. However, he sees promise and peril deeply intertwined, citing biotechnology and its many intersecting revolutions as a practical example. He proposes that the world of the future will be more profound than today's, but neither perfect nor free of problems.



Mr. Kurzweil had already had more than a full day and week when he welcomed us to his offices on a cold and rainy Friday November evening. We thank his staff for their warm welcome and we thank Mr. Kurzweil for keeping his ideas -- sometimes startling, always thought-provoking -- in front of us all. We also thank him for the vast amount of good he has done with his inventions, while cautioning us that nothing about technology and its uses is a foregone conclusion.

Additional Links:

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence is a Penguin Book, published by Viking Penguin and Penguin Putnam.

There's more about Ray Kurzweil and his work at his websites: Kurzweil Technologies and

The late Michael Dertouzos, who directed MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science from 1974 to 2001, had a view of the relationship between computers and people which is very different  from that of Mr. Kurzweil.

In his poetry, Kurt Brown, examines the relationships between humans and science, humans and mathematics.

At the very least, Mr. Kurzweil has an abundance of what critic Curtis White believes is missing from our popular culture: imagination.

In his thinking and writing, theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman describes the future of science in ways different from but not wholly incompatible with Mr. Kurzweil's view.

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