Greater Minds: Ray Kurzweil predicts the hybridisation of intelligence

  • Ray Kurzweil predicts artificial intelligence will augment human intelligence, leading to hybrid thinking.
  • He anticipates exponential advances in brain science and artificial intelligence.
  • My short story, Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo, looked further into the future when the human mind can be uploaded on to an artificial platform.
  • Kurzweil is currently developing an artificial brain for Google.

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Ray Kurzweil in 2012 (TEDx SiliconAlley [CC / Flickr])

In the 1980s, when the US Department of Defence’s primitive network linked a few thousand scientists, Ray Kurzweil predicted the World Wide Web would be widely used by the mid-1990s. Predictions like that make him a lot harder to dismiss now than he was when he said that.

In a 2013 interview for Wired, he predicted that artificial intelligence will understand ‘natural language’ by 2029, and he anticipated a tipping point for human longevity at about the same time.

In 2045, he predicts that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence. The singularity, as he calls it, will be upon us.

Those are some of his key predictions, but he’s made so many that an entire Wikipedia page is devoted to them.

The relationship between human and artificial intelligence was one of the jumping off points for my short story Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo, which is available for free download to Kindle for the rest of the week. Shameless self-promotion aside, he laid out his thoughts on that relationship in a TED talk last year:

Transcript and subtitles

I pontificated about the opportunities and dangers of artificial intelligence a few months ago, but Kurzweil is an optimistic futurist who sees far more of the former than the latter. His view is that rather than artificial intelligence developing in competition with human intelligence, we will build it to expand our own abilities. He sees the future of intelligence being neither biological nor artificial, but in terms of the ‘hybrid thinking’ he describes in the talk.

A biography of the neocortex

He begins a 200 million year story of human intelligence with the brains of the first mammals. He tells it in terms that have probably made a few evolutionary biologists head-butt their desks, but his salient point is that once mammals developed a neocortex, they were able to adapt their behaviour to their situation.

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(Ryan Somma [CC / Flickr])

The behaviour of their therapsid ancestors was hardwired into the structure of their brain. It could only change through physical changes in the brain. Such changes could only come about by the same slow evolutionary processes that turned scales into fur. Once the neocortex evolved, mammals could learn by trial and error, or even by watching each other. Now a parent could teach her offspring how to dodge predators and forage instead of leaving their survival to their genetically-determined brain structure.

The most complex neocortex yet to appear on the planet is found between our own ears. It accounts for my ability to write this and yours to read it, as well as the invention of the computers and the internet we are using to communicate.

Kurzweil sees the development of hybrid thinking as deriving from brain science as much as from current work on computers and their software. At present, we only have a basic understanding of how the brain works. We have no idea what the physical basis of a thought or a memory is, or what overused words such as ‘sentience’, ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’ actually mean. Kurzweil anticipates the development of brain science to be exponential, meaning that it will progress by proportional gains rather than incremental.

Lilies teach the exponential

The best way to understand exponential progress is to refer to the oft-repeated analogy of lily leaves covering a pond. If the lily leaves double in number every day and it takes them 30 days to cover the whole pond, how long does it take them to cover half of it? The answer of course is 29 days. The lilies spend the first three weeks doubling quietly in an insignificant corner of the pond. If you walked past it every day, you wouldn’t notice them until day 23, when they’d cover 1% of the surface. For the last week, you could hardly miss them until they make their final doubling to completely cover the pond on that last day.

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A plot showing an exponential curve, progressing by doubling (pali_nalu [CC / Flickr])

Kurzweil argues that scientific progress often follows such a pattern. In a 2009 interview for New Scientist, he cited the example of the human genome project. In 1990, the project commenced with the announcement that it would be complete in 15 years. Halfway to the 15 year point, only 1% of the human genome had been sequenced. Naysayers saw evidence that the project could never be completed on schedule. Kurzweil saw evidence that it was right on schedule, only seven doublings away from 100% completion. Both were wrong: the complete draft of the human genome was published in 2003, two years ahead of schedule.

He argues that the volume of data on brain science doubles every year, so our understanding of the workings of the brain should follow a similar path leading from today’s very small steps to dramatic breakthroughs in the future. At present:

We can now see inside a living brain and see individual interneural connections connecting in real time, firing in real time. We can see your brain create your thoughts. We can see your thoughts create your brain, which is really key to how it works.

When bodies are yesterday’s news

The mechanism of hybrid thinking that Kurzweil predicts depends on a third branch of science: nanotechnology. He anticipates:

Twenty years from now, we’ll have nanobots, because another exponential trend is the shrinking of technology. They’ll go into our brain through the capillaries and basically connect our neocortex to a synthetic neocortex in the cloud providing an extension of our neocortex.

He is describing a system by which artificial intelligence will be used to augment the human brain to cognitive feats it is incapable of on its own.

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(Doris Hausen [CC / Flickr])

When I wrote Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo, I was playing with the next move that Kurzweil describes: the movement away from dependence on a biological body. In his Wired interview, he describes death as ‘a profound loss of knowledge and skill and talents and relationships’. Amongst other things contained in that statement, he is saying that a finite lifespan is a cognitive limitation. The experience we have to draw on is limited to our lifespans, and on how far we are able to develop our thoughts and ideas.

Medical research is advancing in leaps and bounds, but the idea I ran with in Peppermint Tea was that the next stage will be to move a human consciousness into an artificial medium. The technological hurdles are immense. The human brain would need to be reverse engineered in minute detail for it to be simulated precisely, the mind of the individual would need to be mapped and copied precisely.

My system for uploading a human consciousness had a number of flaws, implying that the technology was not fully developed. I don’t think that would be a bar for the terminally ill people who I put into the system. The question they would be facing is not whether the system could offer them the life they really wanted, but whether it could offer them a better life than they currently had. Not everyone would choose to upload themselves but there would be enough to make it well worth buying shares in Afterlife Inc.

Where do we go from here?

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(PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE [CC / Flickr])

I would like to think that technological optimists like Kurzweil are correct in thinking that we’ll be wiser and more compassionate than Afterlife Inc if we ever develop the technology to find out. It’s not certain that we ever will. Kurzweil’s predictions depend on several different areas of technology developing in parallel before reaching the point they can converge, which won’t happen if any one of them hits an unanticipated roadblock.

That said, naysaying Ray Kurzweil is not a pastime with a reliable success rate. He is currently employed by Google to put his ideas into practice. Developing the artificial brain he has been predicting for decades is one of his projects.

Ray Kurzweil stands out among futurists, both for his willingness to put his money where his mouth is and make specific and scheduled predictions, and for his track record of being right. In one way, his predictions have turned the future into an experiment to test them.
Among his predictions for 2019 are glasses or contact lenses that can deliver not virtual and augmented reality, ubiquitous pinhead-sized cameras and walking exoskeletons for people with spinal cord injuries.

We only have four years to wait before we see if he’s right.

Shameless self-promotion

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo was first published in Qualia Nous, and is now available as a free standing MandaCoverebook from Amazon:

US UK DE FR ES IT NL JP BR CA MX AU IN


Author notes

Preview

Peppermint Tea in Electronic Limbo Kindle edition on Goodreads

Qualia Nous on Goodreads

Cover design by Manda Benson

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