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Kurzweil: The human brain on IT

Inventor and futurologist Ray Kurzweil shakes up an information management crowd with visions of the human brain on IT.

"Change is the new constant" is a saying you hear a lot at technology conferences. "But change is not constant," said inventor and futurologist Ray Kurzweil at a conference I attended last week. The world is changing more and more rapidly, fueled by information technology. Unlike some of us given to mouthing such statements, the recipient of the National Medal of Technology had his argument teed up.

Consider our first information technology, he said -- spoken language. A byproduct of our large brains, human language took hundreds of thousands of years to evolve. Written language, the next big advance in information technology, took tens of thousands of years to develop. The printing press took 400 years to become commonplace. The telephone, 50 years. The mass uptake of the cell phone by Western populations took seven years, according to his calculations, social networks even less time.

Three-dimensional printing, not yet ready for prime time, will revolutionize the manufacturing industry. A state-of-the-art 3-D printer priced at $10,000 today can print out 70% of the parts one needs to print out another 3-D printer. In five years, that will be 100% of the parts. Artificial intelligence, fallen from grace after the 1950s, is back on track.

The big change to come? Look within.

Our neocortex -- the convoluted rind of the brain responsible for this sustained technology evolution -- has already been extended by our computer-enabled access to information. In the next few decades, said Kurzweil, author of How to Create a Mind, our brains will essentially grow by harnessing the power of information technology. Why, if we can hang on long enough, information technology will extend not only our brains but our lives, perhaps forever.

IT can conquer death? Tell that to a CIO, is my reaction.

Exponential, not linear change

Kurzweil has been in the technology limelight since his teens, when he already was writing software programs and winning national science competitions. His theory of how the brain is organized dates back to a paper he wrote at 14. He is the inventor of the first charge-coupled device, or CCD, flatbed scanner; the first omni-font character recognition technology; the first print-speech reading machine for the blind; the first text-to-speech synthesizer; and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the sounds of orchestral instruments. Recently he was named director of engineering at Google, where he is working on understanding natural language.

It is the application of linear logic to how technology will change that gets us into trouble.

"Imagine asking prehuman humanoids, 'What's it going to be like when you invent language, art and science?'" he said. "Today, we can understand the question and take a guess."

Or some can. The fundamental mistake people make about IT -- CIOs, CEOs, journalists, Kurzweil's critics -- is thinking linearly. "It is the application of linear logic to how technology will change that gets us into trouble," he argued. The technology that makes an impact improves exponentially on three axes: price, performance and size, and he could point to one of his own inventions to demonstrate that. The first Kurzweil Reading Machine cost $50,000 and was the size of a washing machine. A few years ago he debuted a reading machine that cost a few hundred dollars and could fit into your pocket. Now the technology is built seamlessly into the software, has essentially no physical size and can read any book.

"The world changes rapidly, and in fact, it changes more and more rapidly, fueled by the exponential growth of our information technology," Kurzweil said to the audience of information management professionals, many of them from Kodak Alaris, the conference sponsor. "It is the application of linear logic to how technology will change that gets us into trouble."

The linear grasp of the future doesn't look so different from exponential growth in the early stages: "1, 2, 3, 4" is not so far apart from "2, 4, 8, 16," but wait until you get out to 2 to the 30th power, and you're at over 1 billion. That's the kind of gap that can get us in trouble, Kurzweil said.

How true, many in the audience must have been thinking. Kodak Alaris is a new entity spun off from Kodak when it emerged from bankruptcy in September, and is its current best hope for keeping the legacy of the legendary brand alive.

Ptolemy was right

Kurzweil put up graphs depicting the consistent, exponential growth of IT in recent times, through thick and thin, with no dips, not during World War I or the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, or our recession. The progression is fueled by human passion and curiosity, by people who have the right idea at the time in the right place; so the exponential growth of IT may be inexorable, but it is not on automatic pilot, he said. Just as inventors must anticipate what the world will be like when their invention is finished, IT and business leaders must think in the same way. "You have to understand the present in the context of the changes going on," he said in answer to a question about balancing the needs of the present with what's coming.

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When machines call the shots

At some point the talk on stage turned to big data (the theme of the conference) and search. The moderator raised an interesting problem. If much of the world's information is still not digitized, how do we know that the big data we're capturing and mining is the right information? Why, if Google existed at the time of Ptolemy, people would think the sun revolved around the earth, based on the documents.

"There was a way Ptolemy was right," was Kurzweil's quick response. "He had a human-centric view of the earth -- humanity and humans were central to the universe, so he expressed that in terms of this astronomical view that everything circulated around the earth." As far as we know, we are the only intelligent species -- at least in our region of the universe -- to this day, he said.

"So, all of these other planets and stars may not actually revolve around the earth, but this humble planet … does have the unique phenomenon of being the first to create an intelligence that is expanding rapidly."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Executive Editor.

This was last published in September 2013

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How far in the future can you plan out IT, given how fast technology changes?
If you plan is shorter than 3 years, preferably 7 years, you have no path and will end up in fire fighting mode all the time. The challenge is creating a "GPS" vs a "paper map" so that you can re-route as the company goals change.
Life offers no guarantees for stability. No one thinks anything predictable could come of giving the average two - year - old a stick of lit dynamite. Fukushima and other unguarded nuclear power is our dynamite. Hold our breath and hope we survive. Technology on a fried planet can't save us now.
Less than a year is not relevant and more than a year is not relevant too
Technology may move fast but business still plays catch up to that technology at the least 1yr. CFO’s usually don’t want to get the new bright and shiny when what they currently have works especially if it is going to cost a lot.
Plans are made in sand, goals are written in stone! Plans change also!
I believe that five yrs is enough time for a business to plan out their IT. Given that technology keeps changing at a more faster pace but then let’s say a desktops are bought today only to replace them after a year, this I believe would not be healthy for the finances of the business
One year at the outermost. Six months still can see new technology introduced that changes the general landscape too much to stick to a course that was set in ignorance of the unknown surprise innovation.
It depends on the industry but anything over 6 months indicates a very mature industry without much innovation.
Plan out IT is pretty vague. Infrastructure planing can take months (3, 6, 9+) depending on the size of the enterprise, and apps can be developed in days …
Planning as a static document for a fixed interval is dead. Planning is becoming sentient, costly adjusting to surroundings. The ability to capture and evaluate data at real time allows this planning as a living\evolving document.
It fits well within the product life cycles, market learning and acceptance of new products and organizational purchasing processes.
You map to outcomes without worrying about the technology piece parts. You know baseline costs now, and can project modest price decreases for budgeting purposes. Deal sizes shrink, but the focus on outcomes enables the forecasting of what will happen to your business. Critical to this will be changing the way procurement views IT acquisition, which is the biggest impediment to outcome based IT consumption models at this point in time. What works to save money on bulk purchase of light bulbs and paper products does not work with procuring IT in the cloud enabled environment that will transition us out into a true, cognitive computing era.
The world is becoming more complex more quickly than our aboriginal brain architecture can even begin to manage.
One can't gather TODAYS information fast enough to predict tomorrow much less keep up enough to forecast the future. Not yet !
From the time options offer, one year is the closest to our budget, project and planning cycles at this given time. One must also accept that there are other factors such as the time value of money, risk-reward and employee change absorption that must be factored into the rate and amplitude of organizational change. The value of any given change must meet or exceed the initial cost; not all new innovations last long enough or acquire sufficient market traction to sustain themselves (and their users) so risks must be managed; and employees must be able to achieve levels of competence within the new environment to master new processes and business structures such that they can contribute and constructively participate in the next iteration change. Our reality is closer to 2-3 years, certainly shorter than 5.
You have to be particularly careful to weigh the risks of large, capital investments that promise nirvana in the future at the expense of locked in costs today. Years ago ATM was supposed to replace the primitive ethernet technology. It was a big oops for those CIO's who spend their firm's cash on a technology bet that went wrong.
The IT develops exponentially but did anybody analize how problems evolve in time? A good guess would be very frequently also exponentially. So, how is it possible that the effect is still exponential? That's because we tend to solve a more simple problem earier. In very exceptional cases when we wanted to skip simple solutions we always got true benefits, guaranteed.
We still don't have flying cars ...