Humans are Hurtling Exponentially Towards a Healthier, Wealthier, More Expressive Future

Published on October 25, 2017

Opening Speech by Ray Kurzweil, Inventor, Author and Futurist

Everything is going to become information technology, said inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. And that’s a good thing for humanity.

Exponential Growth

Kurzweil said that technology has fascinated him from the age of five, when he saw his first typewriter. He discovered artificial intelligence in the 1960s, when the so-called “connectionist” school was trying to build neural nets based loosely on ideas about how the human brain works. And while only five years ago critics said AI couldn’t tell the difference between a dog and a cat, mathematicians have since solved that problem. All of a sudden, AI is undergoing a tremendous surge.

Kurzweil said that was predictable. Humans have a tendency to look at the linear progresof things – but, he said, information technology grows exponentially. This idea, the “law of accelerating returns, is the basis of his futurism. He gave the example of sequencing the human genome. After seven years, only 1% of the genome was collected, and critics thought it would take 700 years to finish. Seven years later, it was complete.

At the same time, price performance doubles. Genome sequencing costs a fraction of what it once did, and you can buy a smartphone that’s twice as good as it was two years ago for half the price. Information technology’s deflationary impact influences every industry, from genetic sequencing to solar power. 

I made a surprising discovery – there’s one thing about the future that’s remarkably predictable, and that’s the basis of my futurism. I call it the law of accelerating returns. Price performance and capacity – basically the overall power – not of everything, not of every technology, but of every information technology, follows a very predictable path. And that path is exponential, not linear.


The Body as Technology

Until now, Kurzweil said, healthcare has been mostly linear. “To treat biology as an information process, which it is, is a whole new concept.” But genes are strings of data, and he predicted that every aspect of health and medicine is about to undergo a “grand transformation,” thanks to exponential growth.

He mentioned growing organs from our own DNA, an inexhaustible source that our bodies won’t reject. Or making robotic devices the size of our blood cells that will enable our immune systems to attack diseaseand aging.

Kurzweil touched upon other technological advances that will transform our lives. For example, 3D printing has niche applications today, but he predicts it will revolutionize manufacturing by the 2020s. We will download free open source designs and print our own clothing for pennies per pound, or snap together homes from prefab digital modules. 

Information technology will affect the food industry too, with vertical agriculture” for hydroponic plants and in vitro cloning of muscle tissue for meat. Kurzweil said this revolution in food production will take off in the 2020s.

Our Minds in the Cloud

The digital revolution will impact all sorts of things we don’t necessarily think of as digital – including our brains. Kurzweil explained that the neocortex, or outer layer of the brain, expanded 2 million years ago, allowing humans to develop music, language, art and humor. If our skulls got any bigger, childbirth wouldn’t be possible. Now he predicts that we will expand our minds once again by connecting our neocortex to the cloud. “We will become funnier, and more musical, and more intelligent, and create ways of expressing ourselves we can’t even imagine today.”

There’s an evolutionary reason we pay attention to bad news, Kurzweil said: it allows us to survive. Howeverhe pointed out, the world has actually gotten healthier and wealthier over timeand that’s accelerating. Artificial intelligence, 3D printing and virtual reality will provide a much higher living standard for all populations. Hcalculates that we’re only about 12 years away from a tipping point on health and life expectancyKurzweil said we can still be hit by the proverbial bus, until self-driving cars fix that problem. But “if you can hang in there” for another dozen years, “you may get to see the remarkable century ahead.