This is part of IEEE Spectrum's SPECIAL REPORT: THE SINGULARITY
MIT professor Neil Gershenfeld and technology futurist Ray Kurzweil have long worked at the leading edges of physical science and computer science. Today, in their own ways, both believe that we are on the event horizon of a technological singularity. But they arrived at this conclusion from two very different directions, discovered one child prodigy who has both of these luminaries as mentors.
Well before Gershenfeld and Kurzweil's different visions of the future merged, their thoughts came together to influence the mind of David Dalrymple, now age 16 and an MIT graduate student. Dalrymple began corresponding with Gershenfeld in 1999 at the tender age of 8. Later that year, Gershenfeld invited him to a White House event to demonstrate a device he had built using Lego Mindstorms. There Dalrymple met Kurzweil, who had built some of the earliest music synthesizers and the first text-to-speech synthesizer. At age 9, Dalrymple joined Kurzweil as a presenter at TED, the conference on Technology, Entertainment, Design. Dalrymple worked with Kurzweil for three summers while an undergraduate at the University of Maryland Baltimore County; he graduated at age 13. Dalrymple is now working toward his Ph.D. under Gershenfeld.
Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms, studies the boundary between computer science and physical science, looking toward a future in which they merge, computers essentially disappear into the physical world, and everything becomes programmable. Kurzweil has been fascinated with modeling the physical world in computers--simulation, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality--and believes if he takes good care of his health, he may just survive long enough to see computers that are far smarter than people.
For years, Dalrymple has been trying to reconcile these two visions of the future: Gershenfeld's future in which computers collapse and simply become part of reality, and Kurzweil's future in which reality as we know it collapses and simply becomes part of computers. In an e-mail exchange prompted by a lunchtime discussion in Gershenfeld's laboratory during which another student referred to Kurzweil's work, Dalrymple asked his mentors, ”Is it possible for both to happen at the same time?”
”We see these apparently opposing trends in many contexts. Studying natural intelligence gives us the insights to create artificial intelligence while at the same time artificial intelligence is extending our natural intelligence. Reverse-engineering biology is giving us creative new designs for advanced technologies, while those same technologies overcome the limitations of biology.
”As Neil points out, we will be infusing physical reality with embedded, distributed, self-organizing computation everywhere. And at the same time we will be using these massive--and exponentially expanding--computational resources to create increasingly realistic, full-immersion virtual reality environments that compete with and ultimately replace real reality.
”We get from today's world to the remarkable world of the future not in one giant leap but in thousands--millions--of little steps which go in apparently disparate and even contradictory directions.”
Indeed, Gershenfeld says that he and Kurzweil are no longer predicting a different future:
”I had always considered Ray and me to be headed in opposite directions: he developed artificial intelligence and virtual worlds while I was interested in the ’natural' intelligence of physical systems; he forecast the future while I was investigating technologies that are possible in the present.
”The result for me has been an increasingly close integration of physical science and computer science, bringing the programmability of the digital world to the physical world. But whether computers are merged with reality or reality is merged with computers, the result is the same: the boundary between bits and atoms disappears.
”It's as if Ray went east and I went west, but we arrived at the same point, which is exactly the definition of a singularity.”
For more articles, videos, and special features, go to The Singularity Special Report
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor based in Palo Alto, Calif., where she’s been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. Perry started reporting on California tech companies from IEEE Spectrum’s New York office in the early 1980s, before relocating to the Bay Area full time in 1986. She has the privilege of having a front-row seat as tech history is being made, including the early days of video games, the growth of the personal computer industry, the rise and fall of Xerox PARC, and the incredible startup boom in Silicon Valley today. She has conducted in-depth interviews with a host of tech pioneers, including Gordon Moore, Andy Grove, Robert Noyce, David Packard, Irwin Jacobs, Andrew Viterbi, Jim Clark, Ray Dolby, Alan Kay, Adam Osborne, Gene Amdhal, Gary Kildall, Gordon Bell, Steve Wozniak, Marissa Mayer, Elon Musk, and Nolan Bushnell.
Besides covering Silicon Valley and startups in print and in her blog, View From the Valley, Perry follows trends in consumer electronics technology around the world. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University.