Thursday, April 21, 2016

Playboy talks to Kurzweil

Reinvent Yourself: The Playboy Interview with Ray Kurzweil
by David Hochman at Playboy.com
Many think author, inventor and data scientist Ray Kurzweil is a prophet for our digital age. A few say he’s completely nuts. Kurzweil, who heads a team of more than 40 as a director of engineering at Google, believes advances in technology and medicine are pushing us toward what he calls the Singularity, a period of profound cultural and evolutionary change in which computers will outthink the brain and allow people—you, me, the guy with the man-bun ahead of you at Starbucks—to live forever. He dates this development at 2045.
Raymond Kurzweil was born February 12, 1948, and he still carries the plain, nasal inflection of his native Queens, New York. His Jewish parents escaped Hitler’s Austria, but Kurzweil grew up attending a Unitarian church. He worshipped knowledge above all, and computers in particular. His grandmother was one of the first women in Europe to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry. His uncle, who worked at Bell Labs, taught Ray computer science in the 1950s, and by the age of 15, Kurzweil was designing programs to help do homework. Two years later, he wrote code to analyze and create music in the style of various famous composers. The program won him the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search, a prize that got the 17-year-old an invitation to the White House. That year, on the game show I’ve Got a Secret, Kurzweil pressed some buttons on a data processor the size of a small car. It coughed out original sheet music that could have been written by Brahms. 
After earning degrees in computer science and creative writing at MIT, he began to sell his inventions, including the first optical character recognition system that could read text in any normal font. Kurzweil knew a “reading machine” could help the blind, but to make it work, he first had to invent a text-to-speech synthesizer, as well as a flatbed scanner; both are still in wide use. In the 1980s Kurzweil created the first electronic music keyboard to replicate the sound of a grand piano and many other instruments. If you’ve ever been to a rock concert, you’ve likely seen the name Kurzweil on the back of a synthesizer. 
These days, Kurzweil plays the role of tech oracle to the Silicon Valley elite. His best-selling titles The Age of Intelligent Machines and The Singularity Is Near offer eerily specific forecasts on artificial intelligence, biotechnology and human evolution. Much of his work sounds like science fiction, but Kurzweil rationally lays out his vision at symposia, college lectures and confabs such as SXSW and TED. 
At 68, Kurzweil has his fingers in many pots. He co-founded Singularity University, a research institute and think tank that focuses on how science can solve humanity’s challenges involving water scarcity, overpopulation and energy shortfalls. His Google team is developing tools for machine intelligence and natural language understanding, including a series of “chatbots” that can converse with you and have different personalities. In his spare time, Kurzweil started a hedge fund and just finished his first novel. He is a husband, father and grandfather. 
Contributing Editor David Hochman, who last interviewed Rachel Maddow for Playboy, spent extended time in San Francisco with Kurzweil. “Talking to Ray is a little like chatting with Einstein, Mr. Spock and the Google guys all at once,” Hochman says. “His intelligence is off the charts. He knows everything about everything, and it’s all filtered through the lens of whatever’s at the forefront of the wired world.” Kurzweil, who wore a Google watch on one wrist and a Mickey Mouse watch on the other, spoke for hours with his gaze fixed on the middle distance, as if he were in a kind of trance, Hochman says. The biggest surprise? “We were together for two days, and Ray didn’t check his e-mail or text messages once.”

You describe a near future in which nanobots inhabit our bloodstreams, our brains upload to the cloud and people never die. It sounds terrifying.
When people talk about the future of technology, especially artificial intelligence, they very often have the common dystopian Hollywood-movie model of us versus the machines. My view is that we will use these tools as we’ve used all other tools—to broaden our reach. And in this case, we’ll be extending the most important attribute we have, which is our intelligence. 
The capability of information technology doubles each year. At the same time, the price of the same functionality comes down by half every year. These are all features of what I call the law of accelerating returns. It’s why you can buy an iPhone or an Android phone that’s twice as good as the one two years ago for half the price. My smartphone is several thousand times more powerful and millions of times less expensive than the $11 million IBM 7094 computer I used when I was an undergraduate at MIT in 1965. But that’s not the most interesting thing about my phone. If I want to multiply computational and communication power by 10,000—that is to say, if I need to access 10,000 computers—I can do that in the cloud, and that happens all the time. We’re not even aware of it. Do a complex language translation, a complex search or many other types of transactions, and you’re accessing thousands of computers while you sit quietly in a park somewhere. Over the next couple of decades we’re going to make ourselves smarter by integrating with these tools.
Continue reading at Playboy.


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