Ray Kurzweil Keeps Saying It Will Merge With Artificial Intelligence

Sitting near a window at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, overlooking the duck pond in the city’s Public Garden, Ray Kurzweil held up a sheet of paper showing the steady growth in computing power a dollar could buy over the past 85 years.

A neon green line rose steadily across the page, like fireworks in the night sky.

That diagonal line, he said, shows why humanity is just 20 years away from the Singularity, a long-hyped moment when people will merge with artificial intelligence and equip themselves with millions of times more computing power than their biological brains currently provide.

“If you create something that is thousands of times — or millions of times — more powerful than the brain, we can’t predict what it will do,” he said, wearing multicolored suspenders and a Mickey Mouse watch he bought at Disney World in the early 1980s.

Mr. Kurzweil, a renowned inventor and futurist who has built a career on predictions that defy conventional wisdom, made the same claim in his 2005 book, “The Singularity Is Near.” With the arrival of AI technologies like ChatGPT and recent efforts to implant computer chips in people’s heads, he believes it’s time to reiterate his claim. Last week, he published a follow-up: “The Singularity Is Nearer.”

Now that Mr. Kurzweil is 76 and moving much more slowly than before, his predictions have an added edge. He has long said he plans to experience the Singularity, merge with AI, and live indefinitely that way. But if the Singularity comes in 2045, as he claims, there’s no guarantee he’ll be alive to see it.

“Even a healthy 20-year-old could die tomorrow,” he said.

But his prediction isn’t as outlandish as it seemed in 2005. The success of the ChatGPT chatbot and similar technologies has encouraged many top computer scientists, Silicon Valley executives, and venture capitalists to make wild predictions about the future of AI and how it will change the course of humanity.

Tech giants and other wealthy investors are pouring billions into developing artificial intelligence, and the technologies are becoming more powerful every few months.

Many skeptics warn that wild predictions about AI could collapse as the industry wrestles with the limitations of the raw materials needed to build AI, including electricity, digital data, mathematics, and computational power. Techno-optimism can also seem shortsighted, and presumptuous, in the face of the world’s many problems.

“When people say AI will solve every problem, they’re not really looking at what causes those problems,” said Shazeda Ahmed, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who explores claims about the future of AI.

The big step, of course, is to imagine how human consciousness would merge with a machine, and people like Mr. Kurzweil struggle to explain exactly how that might happen.

Born in New York City, Mr. Kurzweil began programming computers as a teenager, when computers were room-sized machines. In 1965, at 17, he appeared on the CBS television show “I've Got a Secret,” performing a piano piece composed by a computer he had designed.

While still a student at Martin Van Buren High School in Queens, he exchanged letters with Marvin Minsky, one of the computer scientists who founded the field of artificial intelligence at a conference in the mid-1950s. He soon enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study with Dr. Minsky, who had become the face of this new academic endeavor, a mix of computer science, neuroscience, psychology, and an almost religious belief that thinking machines were possible.

When the term artificial intelligence was first introduced to the public at a 1956 conference at Dartmouth College, Dr. Minsky and the other computer scientists there did not think it would take long to build machines that could match the power of the human brain. Some argued that a computer would beat the world chess champion and discover its own mathematical theorem within a decade.

They were a little too optimistic. A computer would not beat the world chess champion until the late 1990s. And the world is still waiting for a machine to discover its mathematical theorem.

After Mr. Kurzweil founded a series of companies that developed everything from speech recognition technology to music synthesizers, President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the country’s highest honor for achievement in technological innovation. His fame continued to grow as he wrote a series of books predicting the future.

Around the turn of the century, Mr. Kurzweil predicted that AI would reach human intelligence before the end of the 2020s, and that the Singularity would follow 15 years later. He repeated these predictions when the world's leading AI researchers gathered in Boston in 2006 to celebrate the field's 50th anniversary.

“There were some polite chuckles,” said Subbarao Kambhampati, an artificial intelligence researcher and professor at Arizona State University.

Artificial intelligence began to improve rapidly in the early 2010s, when a group of researchers at the University of Toronto explored a technology called a neural network. This mathematical system could learn skills by analyzing large amounts of data. By analyzing thousands of photos of cats, it could learn to identify a cat.

It was an old idea that had been discarded by people like Dr. Minsky decades earlier. But it began to work in surprising ways, thanks to the enormous amounts of data the world had uploaded to the Internet, and the arrival of the raw computing power needed to analyze all that data.

The result, in 2022, was ChatGPT. It was driven by that exponential growth in computing power.

Geoffrey Hinton, the University of Toronto professor who helped develop neural network technology and may be more responsible for its success than any other researcher, once dismissed Mr. Kurzweil’s prediction that machines would surpass human intelligence before the end of this decade. Now he thinks it was enlightening.

“His prediction doesn't seem so silly anymore. Things are happening much faster than I expected,” said Dr. Hinton, who until recently worked at Google, where Mr. Kurzweil has led a research team since 2012.

Dr. Hinton is among the AI ​​researchers who believe that the technologies that drive chatbots like ChatGPT could become dangerous, perhaps even destroy humanity. But Mr. Kurzweil is more optimistic.

He has long predicted that advances in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, which could alter the microscopic mechanisms that control the behavior of our bodies and the diseases that afflict them, will push back the inevitability of death. Soon, he said, these technologies will extend life at a rate faster than people age, eventually reaching an “escape velocity” that allows people to extend their lives indefinitely.

“By the early 2030s, we will no longer be dying from aging,” he said.

If it can reach that moment, Mr. Kurzweil explained, it can probably reach the Singularity.

But the trends that underpin Mr. Kurzweil’s predictions — simple line graphs that show the growth of computing power and other technologies over long periods of time — don’t always pan out as expected, said Sayash Kapoor, a researcher at Princeton University and coauthor of the influential online newsletter “AI Snake Oil” and a book of the same name.

When a New York Times reporter asked Mr. Kurzweil in 2013 whether he was predicting immortality for himself, he replied, “The problem is, I can’t call you in the future and say, ‘Well, I did it, I lived forever,’ because it’s never forever.” In other words, he could never be right.

But he may be proven wrong. Sitting by the window in Boston, Mr. Kurzweil acknowledged that death comes in many forms. And he knows his margin for error is shrinking.

She recalled a conversation with her aunt, a psychotherapist, when she was 98. He explained his escape velocity theory of longevity in life, that people will eventually reach a point where they can live indefinitely. She responded, “Can you hurry up, please?” Two weeks later, she died.

While Dr. Hinton was impressed by Mr. Kurzweil's prediction that machines will become more intelligent than humans by the end of the decade, he was less convinced by the idea that the inventor and futurist will live forever.

“I think a world ruled by 200-year-old white men would be a scary place,” Dr. Hinton said.

Audio produced by Patricia Sulbaran.

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