Even a great film is better when played in front of the right crowd. Transcendent Man, Barry Ptolemy’s documentary on the life and ideas of futurist Ray Kurzweil, had a special screening at the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts on Thursday. The event gathered an audience of several hundred people, many of which had seen the film previously in some form. It wasn’t much of a surprise then that Transcendent Man received a very warm reception. Kurzweil and Ptolemy were both in attendance and garnered loud applause when they appeared on stage before the screening began and again when they answered questions after the movie finished. As always with these types of events, the Q&A was really the best part of the evening. I’ve written up those questions and their answers for you below. While he is still working on bringing his vision into the mainstream, thanks to Transcendent Man it seems like Kurzweil has already convinced San Francisco about the importance of the Singularity.
I’ve covered the plot and philosophy of Transcendent Man extensively in the past, from its premiere in Tribeca in 2009, to my recent interview with Barry Ptolemy this month. As such, I’m just going to jump to the good stuff. Here’s Kurzweil and Ptolemy’s Q&A session from Thursday night, as hosted by Peter Diamandis. (Questions are paraphrased as needed):
Question: In your predictive models, how do you account for politics?
Ray Kurzweil: There are political things that happened, like WWI and WWII, the Cold War – those were political – that’s part of the model. It’s really amazing how predictable these events are. They go through politics and they go through wars and different economic conditions. You might wonder how you can get such a predictable results. What is it that we’re measuring? We’re actually measuring creativity, innovation, competition. Exactly what you would think would be the least predictable. And indeed specific projects are indeed unpredictable. The fact is that Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s project [Google] succeeded and 20 others failed in creating a search engine. That was not so easy to predict. But the overall effects turn out to be remarkably predictable. And we see other examples in science of that phenomena – were you have a lot of random events and out of that chaotic activity is an emergent property that is very predictable. Take the Law of Thermodynamics, you look at the mathematics of Thermodynamics it’s actually modeling all these different particles that follow random paths, so I can’t predict where one particle will be in 10 seconds. It’s random, but the result of all that chaotic behavior is very predictable in terms of the properties of the whole gas. You can predict to a very high degree of accuracy from the Laws of Thermondynamics. It’s an emergent property. An emergent property of this chaotic activity given we have millions of people involved in creating computers and all the other aspects of information technology follow very predictable trajectories. It’s withing this political model. You go back to where Gutenberg had his invention there wasn’t the communication methods for people to even learn about these phenomena and things moved very very slowly. Somebody took the boat over and people heard about it in another part of the world. Information moved very very slowly. Think about how quickly it flows today. That’s really part of the process. We see politics being transformed today. In places in the world – there really is no third world anymore – places we used to think were undeveloped – Egypt and so on – have very modern technology. And very capable hackers who have very revolutionary ideas like democracy and it spreads very quickly. It really is very democratizing. It really is creating one world culture. The competition between nations is far less significant than the world wide competition in markeplaces for ideas.
Question: (from Peter Diamandis) What was the inspiration for this movie?
Barry Ptolemy: It was chapter 1 of Singularity is Near. Maybe it was chapter 2, maybe it was chapter 3. It was somewhere very early in the book. When the ideas were resonating with me. As you pointed out in the movie, it seemed obvious to me. I knew if we took these ideas and combined them with the power of cinema, we would have something I thought would be special. So it happened upon reading the book.
Question: (from Diamandis) Ray, when Barry and Felicia brought this idea to you, you decided on this fairly quickly?
Ray Kurzweil: Pretty much. I got an email. I actually do go through all my emails. It’s seemed sincere and earnest so I agreed to meet them.
Peter Diamandis: Actually you didn’t answer the first five of MY emails.
Ray Kurzweil: Well actually you made a suggestion to me over dinner. You said, you know it really is time for a new university built around these ideas. And I said yeah, let’s do that. That was actually the first event that Barry filmed.
Peter Diamandis: He filmed us eating pills together over dinner.
Barry Ptolemy: [Laughs]
Ray Kurzweil: Eating pills and hatching universities. But if you remember I agreed to that project very quickly. And we’ve had hundreds of meetings about that since. That’s a real phenomenon sitting not very far from where we’re sitting here. And the same thing happened with Barry. We got together in a hotel lobby, had some drinks, and it was within minutes that I said okay.
Peter Diamandis: Well thank you for doing that, it was a great film.
Question: Do you think it will be a problem that people see the Singularity as in conflict with Religion?
Ray Kurzweil: I don’t think there’s much resistance from religion. I think since the Protestant Reformation the Christian church has supported the idea of applying science and technology to overcome human suffering. The church is pro-life, remember, and that applies to both ends of life. Pretty much applying science and technology is supported by all the major religions. Where there is resistance is what I call fundamentalist human-ism. Fundamentalist nature-ism. That we should make no change, at all, to biology, that biology is sacred. That we should not change the nature of a tomato…or a human. That is actually part of the environmental movement. The anti-GMO movement in Europe for example has been very strong. It’s now fading…There is a strong reflexive anti-technology stance.
…I’ve actually written extensively about the downsides [of Technology]. Bill Joyce famous article: Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us – all about the dangers – he’s getting most of the material from my books which he cites. Technology is a double edged sword and I acknowledge that…Peter and I founded Singularity University and the major theme there is on the one hand let’s apply these exponentially growing information technologies to overcoming the major challenges of humanity and it’s only these technologies that will have the power to do so. But on the other hand lets be aware that these technologies bring on new dangers and new exponential risks.
Question: Since the universe is such a large place, isn’t likely that the Singularity has already happened somewhere? If that’s the case, why are we not aware of it? Or are we just the product of someone else’s Singularity?
[Applause from the crowd]
Ray Kurzweil: That’s a great question. It’s called the Fermi Paradox. There’s this formula called the Drake formula where you can estimate how many intelligent (defined as radio and computer capable) civilizations there are in our galaxy. It has lots of imponderable variables. In The Singularity Is Near I propose a set of reasonable sounding parameters and you come out with several thousand. The general estimate by SETI is there’s somewhere between a thousand and a million. I then have another analysis where I give another set of reasonable sounding hypotheses for these variables and you come out with 1.25 such civilizations and we already know of one [crowd laughter]. So it’s not clear how many there are, but the common SETI assumption is that there must be thousands or millions in each galaxy and of course we have hundreds of billions of galaxies. Now the common assumption among the SETI philosophy is a linear one. These civilizations aren’t going to be spread out over a few years, they occur over cosmological time, so many of these are going to be millions (if not billions) of years ahead of us. The assumption is that really doesn’t matter that not much is going to change, that they’re going to be kind of like us. But if you consider the exponential growth, once a civilization gets to our point it’s not very far away from really transcendent technology. It certainly wouldn’t take more than a few centuries, at most, to do galaxy wide engineering. If there are millions of such civilizations and a substantial fraction of them are doing galaxy wide engineering, how can we not notice them? So my conclusion, and I write about this in the end of chapter six in The Singularity Is Near is that they don’t exist. You can say, ‘maybe they destroyed themselves, maybe they decided to take the Star Trek ethical commitment not to disturb primitive civilizations like us until they were more sophisticated.’ And if there was just one such civilization you could say they took that ethical stance or destroyed themselves, but if there were thousands of them, millions of them, it’s very unlikely that all of them have had the same outcome. So my conclusion is that we’re the first. That may seem very unlikely, but a lot of things are unlikely. It’s very unlikely that any of us would exist. Because our parents had to conceive us, and their parents had to conceive them and so on. It’s very unlikely that the universe would exist with a set of 50 parameters in the standard model calibrated so perfectly to allow evolution to take place. Yet, by the anthropic principle if it weren’t the case we wouldn’t be here to talk about it. So these are the kind of —
Peter Diamandis: You and I disagree about this because I think life is ubiquitous in the universe.
Ray Kurzweil: So where are they all? [crowd laughter]
Peter Diamandis: In another plane of dimension, my friend.
Question: How do we solve the problems of scarcity and hierarchy?
Ray Kurzweil: That’s a great point, and let’s look at how we’re doing on that. We’ve gone from an era of scarcity to an era of abundance. As is alluded to briefly in the movie, we have 10,000x more energy than we need just from the sun. Of course we can’t plug our refrigerators into the sun. Unless we convert it to electricity but that’s where nanotech comes in. Larry Page and I did this analysis for the National Academy of Engineering. The costs are coming down dramatically per watt. We’re very close with parity with other forms of energy. The total amount of solar energy is doubling every two years, it has been for over twenty years. It’s only eight doublings away from meeting 100% of the world’s energy needs. When I discussed this with the Prime Minister of Israel he said, ‘but Ray do we have enough sunlight to do that with?’ And I said, yes we have 10,000x more than we need. We have plenty of water it just happens to be dirty and salinated, but when we have inexpensive energy we can have inexpensive clean water. There are new food technologies applying AI to produce food very inexpensively with no ecological impact. These are long discussions but we are changing from an era of scarcity to an era of abundance. Making these kinds of resources, things that you don’t think of as information technologies, subject to this law of accelerating returns. When people say that these technologies (life extension and so and so) are only going to be available to the rich. I say, yeah, like cell phones. Where indeed, you saw that 15 year old cell phone in the movie, only the wealthy could afford that and it didn’t work very well. There are now about 6 billion cell phones, according to Google there will be about 6 billion smart phones in a couple of years…
…it’s a very powerful, democratizing phenomenon. I think the way the technology is going, it’s being very widely distributed, because ultimately it’s extremely inexpensive. That’s why I think we will merge with it. I think this idea of a war between those who enhance themselves with those technologies and those who don’t is unlikely. I’ve actually written that would be a very short war [laughter]. Sort of like a war between our military industrial complex and the Amish [laughter]. It’s not going to be one thing, “here sign here, I want to be enhanced. Yes/No” There’s going to be a million choices. There’ll be some that are extremely conservative that everyone does that are very well tested. There will be some experimental ones. We have half a million choices now just in iPhone apps. It’s going to be the same thing in the future.
Question: Will we split ourselves into different people simultaneously?
Ray Kurzweil: …We can see that today. You can have one computer and it can run a thousand different processes and so it splits itself into a thousand different personalities. And each of these processes can be doing something completely different. Conversely we can have a thousand or a million computers become one supercomputer that works on one thing and has one set of thoughts. So there is a flexibility in terms of identity. A physical computer can become many computers or many computers can become one. I think we’ll have those choices in the future. People have said ‘well, in the future if we can all sort of meld our minds this way we’ll all become one mind, we’re going to lose our identity.’ We’ll have it both ways. We’ll be able to be individuals. As individuals we’ll be able to do the things you just described. Conversely we can bring our minds together to create a global mind. We do that today with social networks to create a community that has a mind. An audience like this has a mind, has a personality. We have ways of becoming one. We’re going to be able to increase the power of that.
Question: Will curiosity continue after we reach the Singularity?
Ray Kurzweil: The Singularity is a point…the metaphor we’re borrowing from physics has to do with the event horizon. It’s very hard to see beyond the event horizon because it’s so transformative. However we do have enough intelligence to see beyond that event horizon in some ways both in physics and in this future historical event. We can do mind experiments: what if we actually fell into a black hole what would happen as we fell past the event horizon. I remember that was actually a question in my physics undergraduate course in the final exam —
Peter Diamandis: How did you do?
Ray Kurzweil: I did okay. [laughter] It was open book open end. So you could stay as long as you wanted to answer the question.
Peter Diamandis: Three days later…
Ray Kurzweil: Similarly we have enough intelligence now to actually imagine and talk about what life will be like after the Singularity, after we enhance our intelligence many fold. I attempt to do that in The Singularity is Near and other things I’ve written, and many other people do as well. So I do think we have the ability to contemplate that. …When we are a billion times smarter, people say ‘well, we’ll know everything so life will be boring because there will be nothing left to discover.’ But that’s not true. The more we know the more we know we don’t know. Our knowledge expands but there’s still a horizon of our knowledge and at that edge is ignorance and things we haven’t figured out yet, problems we don’t know how to solve. The more we know the greater is the known ignorance. If you got back a thousand years, man and woman didn’t think there was much they didn’t know. There were people who knew all of science three or four hundred years ago. Now we have a thousand fields of science, even within one field people can’t keep up. I think curiosity and creating more knowledge will continue to be the hard work it is today. Most new employment today is in that area, creating new knowledge, whether it’s graphic arts or library science. That’s continue to be the case.
Question: How do you reconcile the difference between information and knowledge in your timeline for the Singularity?
Ray Kurzweil: There are different aspects to that. One is the sort of software challenge…in my book I talk about many examples of how software is progressing, ways of measuring that increase in complexity. That was just presented to Obama a few weeks ago by his science advisory board. They examined this question and found that improvements in software (sophistication, efficiency of algorithms, and complexity of algorithms) was progressing in an exponential rate and faster than hardware. Over the last 10-12 years hardware has progressed by a factor of a thousand and software has progressed by sixteen thousands according to various ways of measuring it. For a total of 16 million because they are independent. You can see this viscerally – look at Watson. Yes, some of those algorithms look similar to what was done many years ago but they are much more sophisticated. They’re actually hundred of different algorithms in Watson, none of the scientists can predict what it will do because there are so many different algorithms competing and influencing decisions. Just like the human mind, part of why we are so unpredictable is we have a lot of things going on simultaneously. …Google has cars that are driven a 140,000 miles through the cities and towns of California without human drivers…there’s many examples where computers are doing things that we viscerally recognize as being intelligent. ..Software, no matter how you measure it, just in terms of visceral reaction, is getting more sophisticated.
Question: [Why do we focus on immortality when super intelligence is such a more impacting goal?]
Ray Kurzweil: Depends on who you talk to
Peter Diamandis: How many folks would like to live forever? [Show of hands] How many of you would like to be intelligent and not live forever? [Show of hands, laughter]
Peter Diamandis: Okay, a marketplace for both.
Barry Ptolemy: How many of you would like to live to see tomorrow? That’s the real question. Because ultimately we’re going to get older and older, and no matter how old you get, you’re going to want to live to see the next day.
Audience member: No! [Laughter]
Ray Kurzweil: That is the question. Because people say ‘I only want to live to 100…okay 120.’ It’s very easy to put that out there because it kind of far away and you don’t have to worry about. …Okay you get to 120 and say you look like you do now, then what? …If you do ask people who are 100, ‘do you want to die tomorrow?’ They say no.
Barry Ptolemy: I think any system of intelligence, whether it’s flora or fauna, wants to continue to preserve it’s life. I think that’s going to continue, we’re going to want to preserve our lives more in the future, not less.
Question: In regards to human intelligence and other forms of intelligence…where would you put tool use, language, and sentience on a timeline?
Ray Kurzweil: Well, language was our first tool. Verbal language was the first invention, the first technology, then written language. They were very enabling, they enabled the social network, you could communicate with other people, even verbally, to create strategies. Something that animals do, in a limited way, but not with the sophistication not with the hiearchical structure of human language, that’s the key. Sentience is a whole different thing. I think it’s an emergent property of a complex system. Not only humans are conscious. The whole issue underlying animal rights is ‘is an animal conscious?’ Some people actually think that they’re not. The animal rights movement is based on the fact that they are, yes they are capable of suffering and there’s somebody there who is experiencing that. In terms of technology, language really was key. We see now that the heart of artificial intelligence is to understand language. Turing was very prescient to base his Turing test on language.
Question: For all practical purposes (with the arrival of the Singularity being so fast) are we alone in the Universe?
Ray Kurzweil: I agree. One hundred fifty years ago the fastest way to send a message was a pony. [Laughter] By my calculations we’re only fifty years away from transcendent technologies where we greatly expand our intelligence. We’ll ultimately go out into the rest of the universe with intelligent swarms of nanobots. So it happens very quickly, that’s the part of the calculation that was left out of the SETI analysis. I presented it at SETI and had this debate with them. I nevertheless feel that it’s a very important project. I think it will be a negative finding. But that negative finding is important, too.
Question: In regards to the project of resurrecting your father, what is your purpose in doing so, and how will you know you succeeded?
Ray Kurzweil: …I have this desire and inclination to preserve the knowledge and skill he represented. How do you present that? You could present it as a big database of information – that’s not how we interact with people. The best way to interact with that would be an avatar that represented his personality and skills. That’s something I would find personally gratifying. I’ve discussed it with many people and surprisingly people who aren’t into the Singularity find this idea appealing. Especially if they are struggling with dealing with the loss of someone they care about it. They way they I would know if I had succeeded would be if it passes a Frederick Kurzweil Turing Test. That’s getting to be an easier test as time goes by because my memories are fading. I would argue that this avatar would be more like my father than would be if he had lived. That’s not impossible, he would be 98 now. If he were 98 he’d be much less like he was when I remember him at 58. [pause] So, that’s how I would tell.
Question: With regards to humans who will be unable to afford transhumanist advancements and machines that will be viewed as resources and whose sentience will be difficult to verify, how do you think class systems will develop in the future?
Ray Kurzweil: Well that would happen if we still lived in an era of scarcity. By the time these technologies work well they’re extremely inexpensive. The cell phone is a great example. Because it’s become so ubiquitous. It’s so necessary to have this ability to communicate with others. To communicate with billions of people around the world and all of human knowledge. As it’s become extremely capable and really works well it’s become extremely inexpensive. There are almost 6 billion of them today for 7 billion people. The same thing’s happened with drugs. AIDS drugs – they’re also an information technology. 30,000 dollars per patient per year 15 years ago and didn’t work very well. The cocktail drugs work pretty well now, not perfect, they’re $100 per person per year in Sub-Saharan Africa. The law of accelerating returns implies a 50% deflation rate.
Question: [There seems to be an inverse relationship between textual coincidence and internet usage]
Ray Kurzweil: Interesting. [Laughter]. There are a lot of coincidences – things that seem very unusual. Because there are so many combination of events that could occur that what actually occurs seem very unlikely. The fact that I was born – just think of how unlikely that was. Not only did my parents have to meet but that particular sperm and egg had to meet. And the same thing for my grandparents, and so on…
Question: People say that ‘Ray’s not a scientist’. As someone who shares your optimism, can we take the critique seriously and ask, ‘are there some areas of knowledge that would help you refine your predictions?’
Barry Ptolemy: Real quickly, I want to point out that when you know Ray, and you’ve spent as much time with him as I have. Ray is not only a scientist, he’s a scientist’s scientist. He’s a biologist’s biologist. He’s forgotten more about biology than many biologists have in their brains today. So I personally take issue with people that suggest that Ray Kurzweil isn’t a scientist. All the predictions that Ray is making come from empirical evidence. He is, in fact, a scientist, who happens to also be a futurist. Ray, please go ahead and answer the question.
Ray Kurzweil: I had something I was going to say…
Ray Kurzweil: Oh, I was going to take issue with the characterization of me as an optimist. [Laughter] A lot of the dystopian scenarios that have been written are based on what I’ve written about the perils of these technologies. It’s really not true that I’ve ignored the downside. Technology is a double edged sword. Fire cooked our meals and kept us warm, but it’s also destructive, both accidentally and intentionally. That’s been true of every technology since. I guess I am optimistic in that I do think the benefits will outweigh the dangers. I would make the case that it has happened already. Read Thomas Hobbes or Dickens – how incredibly harsh and difficult life was hundreds of years ago when life expectancy was in the 30s. I think you have to be optimistic to an entrepreneur and inventor. But optimism is not just an idle speculation of the future. I think you do have to be mindful of the downsides. Singularity University, which Peter talked about, is actually devoted to thinking about the downsides and what we can do about it.
Question: How important are the limits of the human brain for your predictions, and how good are we at measuring that?
Ray Kurzweil: I’ve outsourced that myself [points to phone] largely with this…So I don’t have to remember things. That’s why we created these tools, we’ve already expanded our minds. I’ve had work groups that I worked with that used to take 100 people for several years. Now they can be done by ten or twenty people in a month or two. There’s no question that we’re smarter more productive, able to take on tasks that would have been impossible before because of these technologies. We are understanding the limits of human knowledge and intelligence. I think we actually understand more than people people realize about how the brain works. There are a billion little modules in the neocortex each which could store a pattern. That’s very impressive but it’s not a trillion modules. It’s more than a thousand. We are understanding the limits. You can experience that yourself when you run up against the limits of your unaided memory which is not hard to do. Our brains are slow but when we can master certain techniques we can offload them to devices that we can operate very quickly. …That’s why we create these tools, to overcome these limitations. …We did pass a threshold with our brains: to be able to actually advance complex symbolic hiearchical thoughts so that we can create tools. Then we had an opposable appendage so we can turn those thoughts into reality. …That resulted in the whole evolution of knowledge and tools and capability.
[image credits: Transcendent Man, Aaron Saenz/Singularity Hub]