Don’t panic if you look for your computer today and can’t find it. We have it on the authority of technology maven Ray Kurzweil that this year computers will have vanished because of miniaturization. As he said at the TED conference in February 2005:
By 2010 computers will disappear. They’ll be so small, they’ll be embedded in our clothing, in our environment. Images will be written directly to our retina, providing full-immersion virtual reality, augmented real reality. We’ll be interacting with virtual personalities.
If you have a different impression of the world today, Kurzweil would want you to know that he is technically correct. If the rest of the world fails to think that’s enough, the rest of the world is wrong.
Of course, Kurzweil did not mean to say that all computers would actually disappear. Rather, embedded microprocessors would allow many of the functions once uniquely served by computers to disseminate to phones, tablet computers, and even cars, clothes, and key chains. And in that sense, 2010 might indeed be seen as a ringing vindication of Kurzweil’s prophecy, because smartphones and iPads are everywhere.
But a moment’s reflection reveals that expansive interpretation of Kurzweil’s remarks to be, at bottom, insipid. Here’s why: Many of those same devices were already popular commercial products in 2005. Stylus-based computer interfaces have been around since at least the 1980s. Microsoft introduced pocket and tablet versions of Windows in 2000 and 2001. Smartphones and PDAs emerged in the mid-1990s. Handspring brought out the Palm OS Treo in 2002. The RIM BlackBerry smartphone also came out in 2002.
So by Kurzweil’s soft definition, the computer had already disappeared when he was on stage in 2005. In fact, much of his audience may have had its replacements in their pockets. If his rhetoric about computers disappearing by 2010 isn’t meant to be taken literally, then essentially all that’s left is the claim that smartphones and other digital devices would get smarter, smaller, and more popular, which would not win any prizes for sagacity.
Therein lie the frustrations of Kurzweil’s brand of tech punditry. On close examination, his clearest and most successful predictions often lack originality or profundity. And most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable. Yet he continues to be taken seriously enough as an oracle of technology to command very impressive speaker fees at pricey conferences, to author best-selling books, and to have cofounded Singularity University, where executives and others are paying quite handsomely to learn how to plan for the not-too-distant day when those disappearing computers will make humans both obsolete and immortal.
Ray Kurzweil’s genius is beyond dispute. He has been awarded the National Medal of Technology, a Lemelson-MIT Prize, and a raft of other international accolades and honorary degrees. He is in the National Inventors Hall of Fame in the United States. In high school he wrote software that could compose music in the style of classical composers (an achievement that earned him an appearance on the TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1965). He invented the first optical scanner capable of interpreting writing in any typeface, then directed the further development of the first CCD flatbed scanner and text-to-speech synthesizer so that he could build the Kurzweil Reading Machine for the blind. He has developed commercial speech recognition systems used around the world, founded a number of companies and started a hedge fund.
And yet, while garnering honors for his brilliance, Kurzweil has also become famous (or notorious) for his views on the technological future, which he has outlined in the best-selling books The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), and The Singularity Is Near (2005). In brief, they describe his discovery of a “law of accelerating returns” that governs technological progress. Computer intelligence and other technologies will evolve exponentially fast, he says, bringing true artificial intelligence, human immortality, and fantastic nanoengineering capabilities within a very few decades. Within the century, they will push history to a technological singularity literally beyond imagination.
Kurzweil is confident, for instance, that by 2029 researchers, having reverse engineered the human brain, will build an AI that can pass as human. (He has a US $20 000 bet to that effect with computing pioneer Mitchell Kapor riding at the Long Bets Web site.) Neuroscientists, AI researchers, and others have objected that no one today has more than the faintest idea of how to accomplish these feats and that his time line is highly unrealistic. Kurzweil dismisses all such objections: The obstacles will undoubtedly melt away in the face of Moore’s Law and the unstoppable acceleration of technology.
In his talks, Kurzweil says he began studying rates of technological change because he realized that a major reason tech businesses fail is not that they fail to build what they intend but that their timing is wrong: By the time their innovations come to market, the opportunity is past, having become irrelevant or having been seized by someone and something else. To help spread the gospel of accelerating returns, Kurzweil and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis established the Singularity University, in California, which offers 9-day executive training sessions (for $15 000) and 10-week graduate studies (for $25 000) on how to understand and master exponentially advancing technologies.