Forecast of the future

Visionary Ray Kurzweil brings his message to Chico

photo Illustration by tina flynn

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Learn more about Ray Kurzweil at

In the next few decades, technology and biology will merge in the form of blood-cell-sized supercomputers that will exponentially increase the mental capacity and lifespan of human beings. Our power needs will be met, our reliance on fossil fuels broken, and everyone will be fed and nourished on a diet of organic, chemical-free vegetables grown hydroponically in high rises controlled by synthetically intelligent computer systems.

Need a new trachea? No problem—it can be produced by 3-D printers and with biological matter grown from your own skin cells. If and when this planet, or even this galaxy, becomes too crowded with long-lived, super-intelligent human beings, there are plenty of other galaxies out there, all of which will be within reach in a few hundred years.

This is the future according to author, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who spoke at Laxson Auditorium last Friday (April 12) in the latest installment of Chico State University’s President’s Lecture Series. Kurzweil’s presentation was titled “The Acceleration of Technology in the 21st Century: The Impact on Business, the Economy, and Society & How to Retain Our Humanity Through It.”

Chico State President Paul Zingg didn’t hold back his adulation while introducing Kurzweil, likening him to Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and saying his appearance was on par with Nobel and poet laureates who have appeared on campus.

Zingg listed a brief rundown of Kurzweil’s accomplishments, which include inventing the first synthesizer capable of accurately recreating any orchestral instrument and text-to-voice recognition machines to help the blind. Kurzweil, Zingg said, holds 19 honorary doctorates, and has been recognized by Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Zingg noted that in Kurzweil’s first book, 1990’s The Age of Intelligent Machines, he “predicted the emergence of the World Wide Web, a computer winning the world chess championship, the emergence of ‘intelligent’ weapons and the ability for computers even to win on Jeopardy!

Kurzweil’s current tour is in support of his latest book, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. He is also head of engineering at Google and was named by the Public Broadcasting Service as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America.”

Kurzweil began his presentation with some personal history, saying he knew he wanted to be an inventor by the age of 5, and soon after began collecting electronic devices and machinery in various states of repair. He recalled looking over his inventory as a child and thinking, “If I can figure out how to put these together, I can solve anything.”

While Kurzweil’s claims of what’s to come in the not-so-distant future may rival a science-fiction writer’s flights of fancy, he explained they are in fact grounded in science, and he had graphs to prove it. His analysis and predictions are based on a rule of his own creation called “The Law of Accelerating Returns.”

He explained he developed this theory as a way to set timelines for his own inventions. Timing is everything in inventing, he explained, and new technologies are not generally successful if they come too far ahead or behind their time. Thus, he created the law to map out his own long-term projects so that by the time they are perfected, the world will be ready for them and his work wouldn’t be nullified by getting beaten to the punch.

The Law of Accelerating Returns rejects the commonly accepted idea that technology progresses on a linear path, arguing that it instead grows exponentially. New technologies help us develop even better technologies, Kurzweil said. According to his formula, we can’t compare advancements to come in the 21st century to the progress made in the last century. By this rate, he predicts the next 100 actual years will represent the past 20,000 years of progress.

To illustrate this, he noted spoken language—the first human-invented informational technology—took hundreds of thousands of years to develop. It took tens of thousands of years to develop that into written language, and considerably less time to invent the printing press. Radio, television, the Internet and other technologies are now developing at a much faster, exponential rate, and Kurzweil believes this will continue.

While he has an idea of what might come in time, he admitted there are things of which even he cannot dream. He said if you were able to meet the first speaking humans, they would have had no conception of the things language would eventually enable, like the development of art and music. Our future, likewise, holds concepts as-yet undiscovered and undreamed of by humanity.

Kurzweil said the next big leaps and bounds will be in how we can evolve our own bodies and brains, largely due to the Human Genome Project. Before the human genome was mapped in the early 2000s, health and medicine were not “informational systems” subject to the Law of Accelerating Returns, he explained. Now that they are, we will see them progress at rates similar to how we’ve seen computers and other technology develop in the last 50 years.

Kurzweil acknowledged there is still a disparity between the “haves and have-nots,” but that technological advancement is the key to ending this someday. He also said as these technologies emerge, they may initially be available only to the wealthy, but will eventually benefit everyone.

“Just look at cell phones,” he said, pointing out that 20 years ago they were an expensive novelty. “Now the technology is much better and they’re available to everybody.”

After Kurzweil’s presentation, he invited questions from the audience. One young man, referred to by a later questioner as “the hippie,” asked what was on a lot of people’s minds when presented with Kurzweil’s rosy future view.

“I came straight from an environmentalist club meeting, and there were a lot of people there who are pretty sure that we’re screwed,” he began. “Although I’m on your side, I don’t feel entirely misguided in thinking we might be screwed … convince me, Ray.”

Kurzweil responded: “If I thought that progress was linear … I too would feel we would not be able to overcome these mounting challenges in the environment and other areas. But it’s because we have this progression and this trajectory that I believe we can.

“If we only had 20th-century technologies we couldn’t find solutions, but with emerging technologies, we can.”