Inventor, writer and futurist Ray Kurzweil has been a pioneer in speech and character recognition, reading technology, music synthesis, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. He has founded nine businesses in those fields, including Kurzweil Technologies in Cambridge, Mass., and he's won numerous awards, including the National Medal of Technology.
In his recent book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking Adult, 2005), Kurzweil, 57, predicts that ultimately, human intelligence and computer intelligence will fuse and become indistinguishable. He recently told Computerworld how and when that might come about.
Your idea to reverse-engineer the human brain seems pretty far out.
Until recently, we haven't had the tools to scan the brain with sufficient resolution. But there are five or six new scanning technologies. For the first time, we can see the brain creating our thoughts.
The amount of data we are gathering about the brain is doubling every year. As we get the data from particular regions, we can rather rapidly create detailed mathematical models of them. It's a conservative expectation that we will have a very accurate detailed simulation of all the regions of the brain by the late 2020s.
Ten quadrillion  calculations per second is sufficient to emulate all the regions of the brain. Japan just announced two supercomputers that will achieve that by 2010.
The question arises, Are we intelligent enough to understand our own intelligence? Maybe that's a feature of complex systems -- they can't be so complex as to understand themselves. But it turns out that's not the case.
But why re-create the brain in software when we already have it in wetware?
It's going to be very powerful, because we'll be able to combine what currently are advantages of human intelligence, particularly our pattern recognition, with ways in which machines are already demonstrably superior.
What's the future of the computer itself?
Once we get past Moore's Law, we'll use 3-D molecular computing. [In the late 2040s], one cubic inch of nanotube circuitry will be 100 million times more powerful than the human brain. On the software side, machines [in the 2030s] will be able to access their own source code and improve it via an ever-accelerating, iterative design cycle. So ultimately, these systems will be vastly more intelligent than humans and will combine the advantages of biological and nonbiological intelligence. I don't see this as an alien invasion of intelligent machines; this is emerging from within our civilization.
Well before that, computation will be a worldwide mesh of computing elements, and anytime you want, you'll be able to, for example, access 1 million computers for 400 milliseconds.
Early in the next decade, images will be written directly to our retinas. How can you make screens really tiny but big at the same time? Put them in your eyeglasses and beam images directly to the retina.
What do you mean when you say computers will "disappear"?
They'll make their way into our clothing and into the environment, and they'll be very tiny. We'll also move away from the idea that the computers we use are spokes into a network but not part of the network, to where every device will be a node on the network, meaning that not only will you be sending and receiving your own messages, you'll be passing on other people's messages. It will be continually self-organizing, so that all communication links will be continuously finding the most efficient path.
And what do you mean when you say people will "merge" with their technology?
We'll be able to put intelligent machines -- nanobots -- into the bloodstream. By the late 2020s, these devices will have significant computing, communications and robotic abilities. Nanobotic white blood cells could download software for a particular pathogen and destroy it in a matter of seconds, compared with hours for our biological white blood cells. And you could have billions of nanobots go into the brain through the capillaries. [They] will enhance our cognitive functions and really expand human intelligence.
We will be able to go beyond the limits of biology and replace your current "human body Version 1.0" with a dramatically upgraded Version 2.0, providing radical extension of life.
What will Version 2.0 be able to do that we can't do today?
One scenario would be virtual reality from within the nervous system. Nanobots could shut down the signals coming from your own senses and substitute the signals you would be receiving if you were in the virtual environment. You can move your virtual body in the virtual environment, and this will incorporate all five of the senses as well as neurological correlates of your emotions. You can go there with another person for any kind of encounter. And you can have archival experiences.
So will the importance of our biological intelligence diminish?
The nonbiological portion will grow [by a factor] of 1,000 per decade, and the biological portion will ultimately be very insignificant. People look at this and they are alarmed, because they think, I'm going to become a machine. But they are thinking of the machines they know today, which are very crude machines.
What's the future of the IT professional?
The good news is IT is going to become more and more important. Ultimately, everything of importance will be comprised of IT. There's a trend toward specialization, so what IT people can do is to try to get professionals in a number of highly specialized pursuits to be able to communicate with each other and have their computer systems communicate with one another.
Are their any downsides to all of this?
I'm very concerned about the downsides. We have existential risks already -- the potential to wipe out all of humanity with nuclear weapons. But now we have new existential risks -- the ability to design biological viruses. The tools and knowledge to do this are far more widespread than the tools and knowledge to create an atomic bomb, and the impact could be far worse. In my book, I said the last thing we'd want to do is put the genome of dangerous viruses on the Web, but that's exactly what the Department of Health and Human Services has just done with the 1918 flu virus.
What's really, really far out?
In the 22nd century, we will have saturated the ability of matter and energy in and around the Earth to support computational processes, and intelligent computation will spread out to the rest of the universe. Whether this spread to the rest of the universe happens quickly (another century or so) or slowly (billions of years) depends on whether or not we can circumvent the speed of light as a limit on the communication of information. I believe it is likely that we can.
Timeline: the future
- 2010: Computers become invisible.
- 2020: US$1,000 buys a computer working at 10 quadrillion, or 1016, calculations per second.
- 2025: Computers are able to simulate the entire human brain.
- 2030: Nonbiological intelligence matches human intelligence in range and subtlety; $1,000 buys a computer 1,000 times more powerful than the human brain.
- 2045: The point of "singularity" is reached, when technical progress is so fast that unenhanced human intelligence can't follow it. One can no longer distinguish between our biology and our technology.
- 22nd century: Our intelligence, biological and nonbiological combined, saturates the matter and energy around us and begins to spread throughout the universe.