Kurzweil discusses future of tech.
By Charles Rafkin
Published on Friday, November 9, 2012
The exponential curve plotting information technology’s accelerating rate of development “doesn’t look revolutionary, except it enables revolutions,” inventor, theorist and futurist Ray Kurzweil said to an audience overflowing into adjacent rooms during his Thursday lecture in Filene Auditorium.
Technology becomes smaller, smarter and cheaper at exponential rates, making substantial breakthroughs likely in the near future, Kurzweil said, citing historical trends in information technologies like computing, artificial intelligence and biomedical engineering.
“It actually took 400 years for the printing press to reach a mass audience,” Kurzweil said. “Wikis, blogs [and] social networks did that in three years.”
Kurzweil — inventor of the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, founder of Singularity University and the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” according to Forbes — compared medical advances to other technological advances, arguing that biology now is subject to the same law of accelerating returns. Kurzweil predicted that scientists will soon be able to “reprogram” the information processes that form the foundations of biology.
“The brain is a big pattern recognizer,” Kurzweil said, citing research from his upcoming book, “Creating an Artificial Mind.”
Neuroscience advances, including synthetic neocortexes, could soon expand our thinking “into the cloud,” he said.
The neocortex, present only in mammals, enables conscious thought and comprehension of hierarchies and, in humans, facilitated the development of language. Kurzweil compared the potential effects of synthetic neocortex expansions to the ability of Apple’s Siri to tap into online servers.
While he recognized that technology can be a “double-edged sword,” Kurzweil attributed advances in human life expectancy and societal wealth to technology.
“Within 15 years, we’ll be adding more than a year each year to your remaining life expectancy,” he said.
Having decided to be an inventor at the age of five, Kurzweil advised students to find and pursue passions that will enable them to discover, apply and create new knowledge.
Kurzweil made a litany of technological predictions for the next decade in an interview with The Dartmouth, foreseeing search engines that “won’t wait to be asked” as well as the ability to rewrite genetic code and meet others in virtual reality environments.
“The tools of creativity are in everybody’s hands,” Kurzweil said, citing the founders of Google and Facebook as examples. “You don’t have to be a big organization with millions of dollars of equipment to change the world.”
Interim College President Carol Folt introduced Kurzweil to the audience, listing his inventions, which include optical character recognition technology. Kurzweil, called the world’s leading futurist by some commentators, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2002.
In the question-and-answer session following his lecture, Kurzweil said that institutions of higher education should reduce their focus on physical infrastructure and building expansions.
“That is not going to be the heart of education,” he said. “It’s going to be the talent, the tremendous talent that you have.”
As content becomes increasingly available online, higher education will focus more intensely on one-on-one mentor relationships and hands-on learning, he said.
While Matthew Digman ’15 described the lecture as “anticipatory,” Hanover citizen Dick Powell said he felt the talk gave him “a great feeling of optimism about the future.” However, he said he worries that, given his current age of 84, he may not reap the benefits of new technological advances.
His wife, Margaret Powell, said she enjoyed Kurzweil’s historical analysis, which suggested that solutions to pressing world issues may not be unattainable.
The talk titled “Innovation in an Era of Accelerating Technologies,” was the latest installment of the “Leading Voices in Higher Education” strategic planning lecture series and considered the effects of technology on biology, thought, communication and higher education.