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.

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