Google engineer sees technology in human mind's future
By Lou Fancher Contra Costa Times San Jose Mercury News
By the time you read these words, the changes inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil says are coming, may already have halfway happened.
And by April 13, when the newly appointed director of engineering at online giant Google comes to Cal Performances' Wheeler Auditorium for his "Strictly Speaking" lecture, he's likely to be light speed ahead of himself.
The Wall Street Journal has called him "the restless genius" and MIT gave him the largest-in-the-world $5000,000 Lemelson Prize for innovation, but Kurzweil has been too busy inventing machines to notice.
A master of "firsts" (CCD flatbed scanner, omni font optical character recognition, print-to-speech reading machine, text-to-speech synthesizer, and more), he claims to have seen it all coming. Lately, he's had a different machine on his mind: the human mind.
"I wrote a paper 50 years ago about how I thought the brain worked and I described it as a series of pattern recognition modules," he writes, in a recent email interview. "The difference today is that I am able to cite neuroscience evidence -- very recent evidence, actually -- for this thesis."
A lot of us wrote papers that wound up in shredders, but Kurzweil has turned his ideas into systems that have been the precursor to and are used in today's technology.
In "How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed," the newest of his five bestselling books (he's written seven all told), Kurzweil unpacks the latest findings from neuroscience and information technology.
"It is true that we are what we eat, but it is even more true that we are what we think," he says.
What we are -- 300 million modules arranged in hierarchical packs of axon-dendrite connections composing 80 percent of the brain's mass -- is about to undergo profound change, he predicts. Health, medicine and biology are all coming under the purview of accelerating growth and milestone-stepping price-performance advancement in artificial intelligence (AI).
Stating that we are not about to be invaded by intelligent, alien machines from Mars, Kurzweil nevertheless manages to sound hyperbolically science fictional. "Ultimately we can create synthetic neocortexes that will have the flexible intelligence that the human mind has, but that can be applied to the massive scale of all human knowledge."
If AI tools weren't already being actualized, his suggestions would induce eye-rolling.
University of Southern California neuroscientist Theodore Berger has moved science one step closer to mitigating early stage Alzheimer's disease with an artificial hippocampus (a major component of the brain) implanted and tested in rats.
Alpha, developer Wolfram Alpha's computational answer engine, uses 15 million lines of Mathematica code to come up with answers to everything and is behind the snappy replies from Apple's Siri.
"The latest generation of Parkinson's (disease) neural implants allows new software to be downloaded wirelessly from outside the patient," Kurzweil says. "By the 2030s, we will have blood cell-sized computerized devices that can be placed into the bloodstream non-invasively."
Those microscopic chips will connect to the cloud, he insists, resulting in an exponential explosion in not only big data computing, but in human brainpower.
Eventually, the progression of a particular technological evolution runs out of steam, creating a vacuum for its successor, he says. Moore's law of shrinking integrated circuits (known as the 5th paradigm) will run it's decelerating course until researchers press forward with what he labels as "self-organizing (3-D) molecular circuits."
"The primary application of computerized devices in the body is not just for monitoring but to replace and to improve natural functions," he says. Then, leaping into ethical territory, he adds, " ... future enhancements will be good for your health and it would be unethical to ban them. In my view, the technology that we use -- whether it is inside our bodies or outside -- is part of who we are."
Access to innovative technology will be universal, although initially, neural devices will be expensive, much like the earliest cell phones.
"Technologies are only available to the rich at an early stage, when they actually don't work very well," he says. "By the time the technologies are perfected, they are almost free."
He believes technology makes us more, not less, moral. Looking across the futuristic neocortical landscape, Kurzweil sees in the past (after all, he thought of it years ago) man's best path to the future.