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Ray Kurzweil’s Basic Ideas

John G. Messerly
By John G. Messerly
Reason and Meaning

Posted: Feb 4, 2016

Ray Kurzweil is an author, inventor, futurist, and currently Director of Engineering at Google. He is involved in fields such as optical character recognition, text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments; he is the author of several books on health, artificial intelligence, transhumanism, the technological singularity, and futurism; and he may be the most prominent spokesman in the world today for advocating the use of technology to transform humanity.

I and many other scientists now believe that in around twenty years we will have the means to reprogram our bodies’ stone-age software so we can halt, then reverse, aging. Then nanotechnology will let us live forever. ~ Ray Kurzweil

In his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, Kurzweil argues that in the next one hundred years machines will surpass human intelligence. Computers already surpass humans in playing chess, diagnosing certain medical conditions, buying and selling stocks, guiding missiles, and solving complex mathematical problems. However, unlike human intelligence, machine intelligence cannot describe objects on a table, write a term paper, tie shoes, distinguish a dog from a cat, or appreciate humor. One reason for this is that computers are simpler than the human brain, about a million times simpler. However, this difference will go away as computers continue to double in speed every twelve months, achieving the memory capacity and computing speed of the human brain around 2020.

Still, this won’t allow computers to match the flexibility of human intelligence because the software of intelligence is as important as the hardware. One way to mirror the brain’s software is by reverse engineering—scanning a human brain and copying its neural circuitry into a neural computer of sufficient capacity. If computers reach a human level of intelligence through such technologies, they will then go beyond it. They already remember and process information better than we do, remembering trillions of facts perfectly while we have a tough time with a few phone numbers. The combination of human-level intelligence along with greater speed, accuracy, and memory capabilities will push computers beyond human intelligence. A main reason for this is that our neurons are slow compared with electronic circuits, and most of their complexity supports life processes, not computation and information analysis. Thus, while many of us think of evolution as a billion-year drama that leads to human intelligence, the creation of greater than human intelligence will quickly dispel that notion.

Kurzweil supports his case with a number of observations about cosmic evolution and human history. Consider that for most of the history of the universe, cosmologically significant events took eons of time—the interval between significant events was quite long for most of cosmic evolution. But as the universe aged the interval between significant events grew shorter, and cosmically significant events now happen at increasingly shorter intervals. We can see this in the pace of cosmic evolution: ten billion years until the earth’s formation; a few billion more for life to evolve, hundreds of millions of years till the emergence of primates, millions of years till the emergence of humanoids, and the emergence of homo sapiens a mere 200 thousand years ago. In short, transformation is speeding up; the interval between salient events is shrinking.

Now technology is moving this process. Technology—fashioning and using ever more sophisticated tools—is simply another means of evolution which expedites the process of change considerably. Consider that Homo sapiens sapiens appeared only 90 thousand years ago, and become the lone hominoids a mere 30,000 years ago. Still, it took tens of thousands of years to figure out how to sharpen both ends of stones to make them effective! Needless to say, the pace of technological change has accelerated remarkably since then. For example, the 19th century saw technology increase at a dramatic rate compared to the 18th century, and increased unbelievably fast compared to the 12th century. In the 20th century major shifts in technology began to happen in decades or in some cases in a few years. A little more than a hundred years ago there was no flight or radio; and a mere fifty years ago there were no wireless phones or personal computers, much less cell phones or the internet. Today it seems your phone and computer are obsolete in a matter of months.

Technology has enabled our species to dominate the earth, exercise some control over our environment, and survive. Perhaps the most important of these technological innovations has been computation, the ability of machines to remember, compute, and solve problems. So far computers have been governed by Moore’s law: every two years or so the surface area of a transistor is reduced by fifty percent, putting twice as many transistors on an integrated circuit. The implication is that every two years you get twice the computing power for the same amount of money. This trend should continue for another fifteen years or so after which it will break down when transistor insulators will be but a few atoms wide. (At that point quantum computing may move the process forward in fantastic ways.) To really understand what will happen in the 21st century and beyond, we need to look at the exponential growth of the technology that will bring about vast changes in the near future.

Crucial to Kurzweil’s analysis is what he calls “the law of time and chaos.” He asks why some processes begin fast and then slow down—salient events in cosmic evolution or in the biological development of an organism—and why others start slowly and then speed up—the evolution of life forms or technology. The law of time and chaos explains this relationship. If there is a lot of chaos or disorder in a system, the time between salient events is great; as the chaos decreases and the order increases, the time between salient events gets smaller. The “law of accelerating returns” describes the latter phenomenon and is essential to Kurzweil’s argument. (You might say that his entire philosophy is a meditation on accelerating returns or exponential growth.) He argues that though the universe as a whole increases in disorder or entropy, evolution leads to increasing pockets of order (information for the purpose of survival) and complexity. Technology evolution is evolution by means other than biology, and it constantly speeds up as it builds upon itself.

We might reconstruct his basic argument as follows: a) evolution builds on itself, thus; b) in an evolutionary process order increases exponentially, thus; c) the returns accelerate. This law of accelerating returns drives cultural and technological evolution forward, with the returns building on themselves to create higher returns. Thus the entire process changes and grows exponentially, meaning that the near future will be radically different than the present.

… evolution has found a way around the computational limitations of neural circuitry. Cleverly, it has created organisms that in turn invented a computational technology a million times faster than carbon-based neurons … Ultimately, the computing conducted on extremely slow mammalian neural circuits will be ported to a far more versatile and speedier electronic (and photonic) equivalent.[1] This will eventually lead to reverse engineering the human brain by scanning it, mapping it, and eventually downloading our minds into computers. This means that your mind (software) would no longer be dependent on your body (hardware). Moreover, your evolving mind file will not be stuck with the circuitry of the brain, making it capable of being transferred from one medium to another, just as files are transferred from one computer to another. Then “our immortality will be a matter of being sufficiently careful to make frequent backups. If we’re careless about this, we’ll have to load an old backup copy and be doomed to repeat our recent past.”[2]

We could download our personal evolving mind files into our original bodies, upgraded bodies, nanoengineered bodies, or virtual bodies. As we are currently further along with body transformation than with brain transformation—titanium devices, artificial skin, heart values, pacemakers—we might want to first completely rebuild our bodies using genetic therapies. But this will only go so far because of the limitations of DNA-based cells that depend on protein synthesis. No matter how well we enhance our bodies, they would still just be second-rate robots.

Instead Kurzweil suggests we use nanotechnology to rebuild the world atom by atom. The holy grail of nanotechnology would be intelligent self-replicating nanomachines capable of manipulating things at the nanolevel. (The great physicist Richard Feynman originally explained the possibility of nanotechnology in the 1950s. Today, important theorists like Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle have shown the feasibility of self-replicating nanobots. Nanotechnology programs are now common in major universities.) The possibilities for nanotechnology to transform the world are extraordinary. It could build inexpensive solar cells to replace fossil fuels, or be launched in our bloodstream to improve the immune system, destroy pathogens, eradicate cancer cells, and reconstruct bodily organs and systems. It even has the potential to reverse engineer human neurons or any cell in the human body. Will people use this technology?

There is a clear incentive to go down this path. Given a choice, people will prefer to keep their bones from crumbling, their skin supple, and their life systems strong and vital. Improving our lives through neural implants on the mental level, and nanotech enhance bodies on the physical level, will be popular and compelling. It is another one of those slippery slopes—there is no obvious place to stop this progression until the human race has largely replaced the brains and bodies that evolution first provided.[3]

Kurzweil also argues that “the law of accelerating returns” applies to the entire universe. He conjectures that life may exist elsewhere in the universe and proceed through various thresholds: the evolution of life forms; of intelligence; of technology; of computation; and finally the merging of a species with its technology—all driven by accelerating returns. Of course there are many things that can go wrong—nuclear war, climate change, asteroids, bacteria, self-replicating nanobots, and software viruses. Still, he remains optimistic.

Kurzweil ends his book by arguing that intelligence is not impotent against the mighty forces of the universe. Intelligence thwarts gravity and manipulates other physical phenomena despite its density being vanishingly small in a vast cosmos. If intelligence increases exponentially with time, then it will become a worthy competitor for big universal forces. He concludes: “The laws of physics are not repealed by intelligence, but they effectively evaporate in its presence… the fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.”[4]



[1] Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines (New York: Penguin, 1999), 101-102

[2] Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, 129.

[3] Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, 141.

[4] Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, 260.

John G. Messerly is an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET. He received his PhD in philosophy from St. Louis University in 1992. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of philosophy, evolution, futurism and the meaning of life at his website:
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Hi Professor Messerly,

Kurzweil may be over optimistic on the timeline for AI impacting the human world, and this includes nano-fabrication of all things, as well as The Singularity, however it arrives?

Gerard K. Oneil (The L-5 Princeton physicist of ‘blessed memory’) once wrote: “Scientists tend to over estimate the impact of breakthroughs and under estimate advances in the knowledge we already possess.” I have always seen Oneil’s statement as true, and we see this in our world, this very second. For example, it was not Drexler’s nanotech, or J. Storrs Hall’s utility fog, that has emerged out of no where, but 3D printing. We all can see the impact of 3D printing looks to be, revolutionary, in manufacture, commerce, and international economics. It almost approaches the dreams of K. Eric Drexler in its ascent. I never saw 3D printing approaching, nor, did I see the impact of smart phones over the, now archaic, flip phones. For this, I am in awe of my own stupidity in not seeing this wink

My guess is that Wrist Band A.I. will impact us, hugely in the next 10 years. The greatest impact, I feel, will not be a ‘brain in a box,’ like Hal 9000 from Clarke’s 2001, but rather things like lawyer programs, or doctor of medicine programs, or psychologist and accounting programs-all on your wrist! Why not teaching math this way, or computer science interactively, in this manner? I do suspect that medical, nanotech, will emerge, decades and decades before manufacturing Drexler-style, hits the streets.

AS for Kurzweil, all I can say is: Go, Ray!

Hi spud100, John Messerly here,

I do think Kurzweil, while one of my intellectual heroes, probably overestimates the pace of future change because history is jerkier and not as continuous as he imagines.  Technological progress is not that smooth if you will. So for example progress in physics the first half of the twentieth century were probably faster than they have been since.

Also there are all sorts of social, political, and economic factors governing how fast technology moves. So airplanes of today aren’t that much different from those of 50 years ago because a decision was made to abandon faster planes for slower ones with more seating. So tech progress isn’t inevitable; it depends on all these cultural factors too.  So I’m guessing Ray’s estimates of the approaching technological singularity are probably inaccurate.

But this is not to say that the broad outline of a future vastly different than the past won’t come true. The future, assuming we get there, will be very different and we have visionaries like Kurzweil to thank for helping us see this.

Hi John,

You mention that there are all sorts of influences upon the implementation/development/adaption of technology, but would it be that hard for a person to like Kurzweil to consider that (even if only in a cursory manner)?  Not to mention any possible ties Kurzweil has to present day leaders/specialists that may help to define/understand the agenda?

Albeit, I can agree with the notion that it won’t be smooth, and that it may be “jerky”.  I don’t know overall though, but I’d like to postulate an idea that as more people are brought aboard the “train”’ll pick up speed.  As the younger generations have gotten brought up on the benefits of tech.  It may have created a stronger desire to see such results ensure.  Considering how massive each yearly release of Iphone has been.  It seems like the younger generations (maybe “everyone”) are “addicted to the spice” (spice being technology), and the spice must flow.

Another fun thought is to consider the idea that most of the “innovators” (senior developers/researchers/project leaders…etc) are likely people who weren’t immersed in such levels of tech as children.  We’re still dealing with Boomers/Gen-X leading the charge (or holding the reins) for lack of better phrasing.

I guess I don’t think it’s that hard to consider Kurzweil’s time frame as that far removed in such possible light.  A better question may be is it worth it to develop so fast?  And a possible followup, are we in an existential risk if we don’t develop at said rate?  It very much seems like the zeitgeist has been released, and it can’t be caged.  At least to me.

Finally, a tie in to spud100’s thoughts.  If everyone/most people have a narrow A.I (lawyer/psychologist/doctor/broker…etc) on their wrists in 5-10 years wouldn’t that also accelerate development?

Hi RJP8915

Appreciate your comments. Just so hard to predict the speed and course of the future. But I do agree with you that we need to develop quickly as there are as many existential risks if we don’t proceed quickly as if we proceed slowly or not at all. And of course there is no risk free way to proceed.  I’m just hoping for a better world and better people because this one and its people are so imperfect.


Ah, to be a little be contrarian (and possibly a little “stupid/inexperienced” which I’ll foot off on age ...mid 20’s).  The notion of an “imperfect” world sort of bothers me somehow, and probably not in the normal manner (wishing for perfection).

As someone who’s taken some Materials (engineering/chemistry) courses, I’ve since realized that “defects/imperfections” are a necessary because they often lend “strength/resilience” to the item (although people are generally not “items”, but we are physical objects in a physical universe.  Therefore similar thoughts may apply(?)).  A reason being is because a perfectly ordered “crystal/item”, may be “struck” from a certain angle that is contrary to the grain which will then cause it to break.  Whereas one that shows some “disorder” may have a misaligned grain that prevents propagation of the stress/problem.  All of that and the notion that in such a case “perfection” is highly disfavored by entropy.

On a different note, what is one to expect when some of the major religions are telling kid’s/people that they are inherently “flawed” from the beginning of their lives (ie Original Sin)?  That it doesn’t matter so long as they “praise the Lord”, and pray for a “release/redemption” from the material world?

Anyways, these are just my thoughts on what “imperfection” means, and do I wish for a more “perfect” world myself?  I don’t really know.  I realize I want a better world for myself, but I’m just one in billions.  And factoring ideas that my “privileges” come at an expense (no free lunches).  It makes one consider just what a “perfect world” may be in a different light.

...sorry for the “rant”.

Well I really do think the meaning of life is found, roughly, in trying to create a heaven on earth. But there is a lot more to say about all this.

A potential problem I see with trying to create a heaven on earth is the varying definitions of Heaven, but yes striving for betterment is good.  I just don’t think it’s entirely “rational” in some aspects because rationality would dictate that since we have a finite resource pool (personal house budget, Government Budget, planet, system, galaxy…etc however big it is still finite).  Something has to “give” in order to fulfill a Utopia project (Utter Perfection/Heaven on Earth).

...I too feel that there’s a lot to be said on such a topic, but I guess it mostly boils down to “metaphysics” in the sense that does one believe in an “Infinite Cosmology” (Heaven, or some variation thereof), or does one abide by “Finite Cosmology” (Limited Earthly realm).  Somehow or another I think a person’s perspective on such a topic ties in with their “constitution” (Mortality vs. Immortality).  Coupled with thoughts about does one recognize “ends” if they’re “immortal”?

And oddly, I was just revisiting Kierkegaard the other day.  In specific the idea of “Life Stages” (Aesthetic, Ethical, Religious) somehow seems like it could relate.  Aesthetic doesn’t care where the resources/pleasures come from, Ethical cares, but realizes that it’s going to be “bankrupt” no matter what, and Religious seeks to “Transcend it”, or live in the paradox.

...I guess I’ve thought about such topics a lot, but I’m not sure if any of my positions are all that tenable (I’d like to see someone try to tear into them).  In the end I suppose I’m being so “vocal” because this seems like a decent forum to do so on.  So forgive me if it seems like I’m being belligerent (I can’t tell how you’re receiving this because it’s the internet).

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