Ray Kurzweil - Inventor and Futurist on how Artificial Intelligence technology will shape our future, creativity, consciousness, and humanity.
(Ray Kurzweil talk to WIRED Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Thompson at the Council on Foreign Relations)
“My view is not that AI is going to displace us, It's going to enhance us. It does already.”
Let’s begin with explaining the law of accelerating returns, which is one of Ray's fundamental ideas underpinning his writing and work.
" I'll mention just one implication of the law of accelerating returns because it has many ripple effects—and it's really behind this remarkable digital revolution that we see—is a 50 percent deflation rate in information technology. So I can get the same computation, communication, genetic sequencing, and brain data as I could a year ago for half the price today. That's why you can buy an iPhone or an Android phone that's twice as good as the one two years ago for half the price. You put some of the improved price performance into price and some of it into performance. So when this girl in Africa buys a smartphone for $75, it counts as $75 of economic activity, despite the fact that it's literally a trillion dollars of computation circa 1960, a billion dollars circa 1980. It's got millions of dollars in free information apps, just one of which is an encyclopedia far better than the one I saved up for years as a teenager to buy. All that counts for zero in economic activity because it's free. So we really don't count the value of these products.All of that is going to change: We're going to print out clothing using 3-D printers. Not today; we're kind of in the hype phase of 3-D printing. But the 2020s, early 2020s, we'll be able to print out clothing. There will be lots of cool, open-source designs you can download for free. We'll still have a fashion industry, just like we still have a music and movie and book industry, coexisting with free, open-source products, which are great levelers and proprietary products. We'll be able to create food very inexpensively using vertical agriculture: using hydroponic plants for fruits and vegetables, in-vitro cloning of muscle tissue for meat. The first hamburger to be produced this way has already been consumed. It was expensive, it was a few hundred thousand dollars, but it was very good. But that's research costs. All of these different resources are going to become information technologies. A building was put together recently, as a demo, using little modules snapped together Lego-style, printed out of 3-D printers in Asia, put together a three-story office building in a few days. That'll be the nature of construction in the 2020s. 3-D printers will print out the physical things we need.
A key Issue I didn't mention with the law of accelerating returns is: not only does the hardware progress exponentially, but so does the software.We're going to literally merge with this technology, with AI, to make us smarter. These devices are brain extenders and people really think of it that way, and that's a new thing. People didn't think of their smartphones that way just a few years ago. They'll literally go inside our bodies and brains, but I think that's an arbitrary distinction. Even though they're outside our bodies and brains, they're already brain extenders, and they will make us smarter and funnier.
There has been a lot of focus on AI ethics, how to keep the technology safe, and it's kind of a polarized discussion like a lot of discussions nowadays. I've actually talked about both promise and peril for quite a long time. Technology is always going to be a double-edged sword. Fire kept us warm, cooked our food, and burned down our houses. These technologies are much more powerful. It's also a long discussion, but I think we should go through three phases, at least I did, in contemplating this. First is delight at the opportunity to overcome age-old afflictions: poverty, disease, and so on. Then alarm that these technologies can be destructive and cause even existential risks. And finally I think where we need to come out is an appreciation that we have a moral imperative to continue progress in these technologies because, despite the progress we've made—and that's a-whole-nother issue, people think things are getting worse but they're actually getting better—there's still a lot of human suffering to be overcome. It's only continued progress particularly in AI that's going to enable us to continue overcoming poverty and disease and environmental degradation while we attend to the peril.
And there's a good framework for doing that. Forty years ago, there were visionaries who saw both the promise and the peril of biotechnology, basically reprogramming biology away from disease and aging. So they held a conference called the Asilomar Conference at the conference center in Asilomar, and came up with ethical guidelines and strategies—how to keep these technologies safe. Now it's 40 years later. We are getting clinical impact of biotechnology. It's a trickle today, it 'll be a flood over the next decade. The number of people who have been harmed either accidentally or intentionally by abuse of biotechnology so far has been zero. It's a good model for how to proceed.
I think open-source data and algorithms in general are a good idea. Google put all of its AI algorithms in the public domain with TensorFlow, which is open source. I think it's really the combination of open source and the ongoing law of accelerating returns that will bring us closer and closer to the ideals. There are lots of issues, such as privacy, that are critical to maintain, and I think people in this field are generally concerned about these issues. It's not clear what the right answers are. I think we want to continue the progress, but when you have so much power, even with good intentions there can be abuses.
I've been accused of being an optimist, and you have to be an optimist to be an entrepreneur because if you knew all the problems you'd encounter you'd probably never start any project. But I have, as I say, been concerned and written about the downsides, which are existential. These technologies are very powerful and so I do worry about that, even though I'm an optimist. And I am optimistic that we'll make it through. I'm not as optimistic that there won't be difficult episodes. World War II, 50 million people died and that was certainly exacerbated by the power of technology at that time. I think it's important though for people to recognize that we are making progress. There was a poll taken of 24,000 people in 26 countries recently. It asked, "Has poverty worldwide gotten better or worse?" Ninety percent said, incorrectly, that it's gotten worse. Only one percent said correctly that it's fallen by 50 percent or more.
My view is not that AI is going to displace us. It's going to enhance us. It does already. Who can do their work without these brain extenders that we have today. And that's going to continue to be the case. People say, "Well, only the wealthy are going to have these tools," and I say, "Yeah, like smartphones, of which there are three billion." I was saying two billion, but I just read the news and it's about three billion. It'll be six billion in a couple of years. That's because of the fantastic price-performance explosion. People are about to enter a world where career choices mapped onto a world with completely different technology so my advice will be to find where you have a passion. Some people have complex passions that are not easily categorized, so find a way of contributing to the world where you think you can make a difference. Use the tools that are available. The reason I came up with the law of accelerating returns literally is it was "to time" my own technology projects so I could start them a few years before they were feasible—and anticipate where technology is going. People forget where we've come from. Just a few years ago, we had little devices that looked like your smartphone, but they didn't work very well. So that revolution, and mobile apps, for example, hardly existed five years ago. The world will be comparably different in five years, so try to time your projects to meet the train at the station.
Intelligence is inherently uncontrollable. My strategy, which is not fool-proof, is to practice the kind of ethics and morality and values we'd like to see in the world in our own human society.
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