The Future of Human Intelligence: A Conversation with Ray Kurzweil

Information is at the core of being human, the universe and evolution itself. Information creation is accelerating, and its use is transformative in nature.

Machines generate more information than humans today. Machines share their knowledge instantly and understand the nuances of language. One day, machines will directly enhance the human mind, and allow each human to have an augmented IQ of 200.

One person who knows exactly where we’re headed is author, inventor and futurist, Ray Kurzweil. Ray’s writings have deeply influenced me, more than any other person I’ve learned from. One of his best-known predictions centers on the singularity—the point in time when AI will outpace human intelligence.

Ray recently spoke with me to reveal some of his predictions, from nanobots and human immortality, to why he thinks we are moving towards an infinitely better future.

I’m excited to share excerpts from our conversation here.

MJB: What is the singularity?

RK: Let me back up a little. I talked about passing the Turing Test. There are many different versions of the Turing Test, but a Turing Test would really convince you and everybody else that AI is human. But in order to pass the Turing Test, it would actually have to dumb itself down. If it comes in and plays Go better than any human has ever played it, you’ll know it’s a computer.

We’re going to be competing with these computers, and they’re much better than we are at everything. How can we compete with them? And that brings up the issue of connecting humans to computers, so that we enhance who we are. We need to take this AI and bring it into ourselves, so that we become greater, so that we can perform tasks that would otherwise be impossible.

MJB: What are some of the outcomes of this point in time where machines and humans merge? Do we create a society, a world, where everyone can have an IQ of 200? And all of human intelligence goes up?

RK: It’s going to increase vastly, and yes, the kinds of differences we see now between people will be very insignificant compared to the difference between a person and a person that’s enhanced by being connected to the cloud. And yes, it will be along the lines that you’re saying, or even more so.

MJB: So maybe the spread of the intelligence curve narrows. Intelligence is higher, but the spread narrows.

RK: I think we’ll be more different than we are today. Right now, we notice very small differences between people and exaggerate them in our minds. We’ll become much more different than we are, because we can enhance and pursue things in ways that we can’t today. I think we’ll be more tolerant of differences.

MJB: You write about three overlapping revolutions: genomics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR). I’d love to get your thoughts on any of them, but particularly nanotechnology.

RK: I’m in touch with people who are working on nanotechnology. They are making very good progress. A key thing will be to actually interact with our brain cells in a way that doesn’t disturb them. I think we’ll see that in the 2030s.

That’s actually a key point, whether we can do that in time, because we’ll have computers that are greater than humans by 2029. At that point, we’ll really need to be able to interact in our brains with them in order to keep up with them. If that’s delayed—say, it takes another 10 years—that could be an issue. That could be a problem. That’s one of the things I worry about.

MJB: Sort of a race between nanobots and AI.

RK: Yes. But AI will actually help us to achieve that. There are certain problems that need to be solved to create nanotechnology, which we understand. Having AI will help us to achieve those goals

MJB: You know, there’s always been a big debate here in Silicon Valley, and of course across the world, of how do you extend life? I’d love to get your thoughts on life extension vs. immortality, in- or post-singularity.

RK: Ultimately, we’ll actually be able to preserve what we are, if we’re putting these computers in our brains. Everything that a computer does is synced, and we understand what’s happened. We have all of its history. We don’t have that with our brains.

But ultimately, if 99% of our thinking is done by computers, it will understand everything, including what our brain does. And we can back all of that up. I have a backup of this cell phone, but we don’t have a backup of our brains. That seems very important. We just assume that’s the way it is, but we’ll overcome that. We’ll be able to back up who we are. And so, even if we get blown up or something, we can still recreate our brains. I think that’s the ultimate life extension.

Now, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect either. You can lose a file. It doesn’t mean you can recreate everything. But ultimately, we can do a very good job of that.

MJB: As we like to say, the backup is easy. It’s the recovery. That’s the hard part.

RK: Exactly. That’s going to be the case with our brains. We won’t understand all of it, but piece by piece, we’re going to push this back. If you go out enough, beyond the singularity, we’ll be able to back up who we are as data files.

MJB: Any advice to all the young programmers out there and young creators of software? They’re eager to hear your voice.

RK: I have a philosophy that information is extremely important. I once heard about this woman that had a novel on her computer. Then somebody stole her computer, and she lost her novel. So, if you’re actually collecting data, to be able to have it in a way that we can use it, understand all of its different aspects and have it contribute to the next level of data is vital to human progress. All the efforts you’re making to understand and solve datasets is extremely important. Never lose any data. Always keep that for the next round.

MJB: Thank you for that, Ray. We’ll do our part. Let me end with a quote you had in one of your books, which I love. It was Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” We added to the universe today, Ray.

As Ray predicts, AI and machines will soon vastly out-perform human intelligence. The future will be driven by sensors, nanobots, software and—oh, yes—humans. People, too, must evolve.

At OpenText, we can’t wait to keep learning, evolving, and innovating—and building new stories that shape the future.

Watch this space for more details about OpenTalk with Mark Barrenechea, my conversations with some of the world’s greatest thinkers and leaders.