Will the Willy Wonka of technology will help Google usher in a sci-fi future?

Ray Kurzweil / The Transcendent Man

Internet giant Google has made a very high-profile hire, bringing famed inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil on board as the company’s new director of engineering. Interestingly, the announcement wasn’t made by Google but by Kurzweil himself on his own site, perhaps indicating that Kurzweil will maintain a certain amount of independence: although Kurzweil has confirmed to various outlets the job is at Google’s Mountain View headquarters full time, and he will be continuing with activities like lecturing and things like his most recent book How to Create a Mind.

Kurzweil has long been a controversial figure in technology. Some lump him in a loony bin with people making impossibly lofty claims about the future, fueled in part by Kurzweil’s forecasts people will be able to upload their consciousness to machines, spawn off copies of themselves, and that nanotechnology will enable people live in a transhuman state free of disease and aging. On the other hand, Kurzweil has an indisputable record of real-world, practical inventions and technologies that are now part of our every day lives, including things like optical character recognition, text-to-speech, and speech recognition technology — all of which are practical applications of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies of their day.

What does Ray Kurzweil bring to the table … and what can Google expect to get out of this relationship?

Who is Ray Kurzweil?

Ray Kurzweil and Lyndon Johnson 1965

As an inventor and technologist, Ray Kurzweil has earned credentials and awards that are too long to list: suffice to say he is one of the most-lauded and widely-recognized technological innovators of the last four decades. And, unusual for an inventor, many of Kurzweil’s innovations have gone on to become commercially successful, mainstream technologies that have changed everyday life for millions, leading some to describe Kurzweil as something of an heir to Thomas Edison. Here are just a few examples:

  • CCD flatbed scanners
  • Optical character recognition technology that could handle virtually any typeface, rather than special fonts designed explicitly for OCR.
  • Text-to-speech synthesis, enabling computers to speak textual data.
  • Combine those three, and you get the Kurzweil Reading Machine, the first device that could read printed text out loud for the blind. And that was 1976; Kurzweil wasn’t even 28 years old.
  • First music synthesizer to use digital samples to recreate the sound of acoustic instruments
  • The first commercially successful speech recognition system

Entire industries have been built off these innovations. For instance, without flatbed scanners and optical character recognition technologies, massive print digitization efforts like Google Books simply wouldn’t be possible. (In fact, one of the first major customers for Kurzweil’s scanning and OCR technology was LexisNexis, which used them to create their digital archive of legal documents and news.) Text-to-speech and speech synthesis are one of the absolute keys to adaptive technologies — making books, magazines, news, and other information accessible to the visually-impaired — and is increasingly commonplace in everything from mobile phones to cars as devices need to convey information to their users without using a screen. (Heck, the technology has long been pop culture fodder: AUTO, the antagonist artificial intelligence in Pixar’s WALL-E, was voiced by Apple’s MacInTalk text-to-speech system — and it was immediately recognizable to millions.)

The first buyer of the Kurzweil Reading Machine was musician Stevie Wonder, who lead Kurzweil to apply technologies from speech synthesis to using digital samples to recreate the sounds of acoustic instruments. Although the term “sampling” in most popular music refers to lifting snippets of tracks entirely (and should by all rights have made drummer Clyde Stubblefield a very, very rich man) digital sampling technology revolutionized music performance and production, enabling synthesizers to move from the limited (although glorious) beep-boop of the Moog era into meaningfully reproducing everything from grand pianos and full orchestras to world instruments and full drum kits. (Kurzweil’s interest in music goes all the way back: that picture, above, is Kurzweil being congratulated by President Johnson in 1965 for a computer program that composed original music in the style of classical composers. Kurzweil was just 16.)

What has Kurzweil done for you lately?

All this is well and good, but it does smack a little bit of the 1980s. What has Kurzweil been up to more recently?

Many of the practical applications of Kurzweil’s innovations have been in adaptive technology and education. Kurzweil maintained that focus in the 1990s, working on developing educational technologies to assist people with learning disabilities and visual impairments. Examples include text-to-speech applications specifically designed for the visually impaired to enable use of applications like word processors and spreadsheets, and as well as electronic learning programs that applied pattern matching and heuristic technologies to help students develop study skills as well as basic reading and writing. Kurzweil’s interest in the area continues with devices like the Kurzweil Portable Reader for the Blind — technology that’s already been applied to mobile phones. Kurzweil also founded the Medical Learning Company, which developed a medical simulator (or “virtual patient”) as part of an interactive training program for physicians.

Kurzweil has also applied artificial intelligence and pattern recognition technologies to visual arts and even poetry, but also to financial markets, including a project called FatKat that applies “non-linear decision making processes” based on models of the human brain to make investment decisions. The FatKat site may be cobwebby, but the funds are active and in 2005 Kurzweil claimed the system was getting returns of 50 to 100 percent over two years.

The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades

Ray Kurzweil

Kurzweil’s track record for innovations is impressive, but for nearly two decades he has been primarily known as a futurist, mainly through a series of books (1990’s The Age of Intelligent Machines — essentially updated and expanded in 1999’s The Age of Spiritual Machines and 2005’s best-selling The Singularity is Near) as well as a number of articles published elsewhere.

Forecasting the future is a tricky business, but so far Kurzweil’s track record has been remarkable. For instance, in The Age of Intelligent Machines Kurzweil forecast the astronomical growth of the Internet during the 1990s giving users worldwide access to information – he also forecast that by the early 21st century users’ preferred way of tapping into the Internet would be via wireless technologies. He also forecast that information technologies like mobile phones and fax machines would lead to the demise of the Soviet Union, and that computers would be able to defeat the best human players at chess by 1998 (that actually happened in 1997).

Many of Kurzweil’s forecasts have been criticized as being obvious or so vague that there’s no way to quantify whether or not they’ve come to pass. Nonetheless, in 2010, Kurzweil published an essay (available as a PDF) tallying up how various predictions in his book were panning out: he figured 89 our of 108 came out to be entirely true and another 13 were “essentially” correct.

“In 1999, I said that in about a decade we would see technologies such as self-driving cars and mobile phones that could answer your questions, and people criticized these predictions as unrealistic,” said Kurzweil, announcing his position at Google. “Fast forward a decade – Google has demonstrated self-driving cars, and people are indeed asking questions of their Android phones.”

A few things about singularity

Singularity / Artificial Intelligence (Shutterstock / agsandrew)

Predictions aside, Kurzweil has perhaps drawn the most attention – and criticism – for his discussion of “the Singularity.” The term was coined by mathematician John Von Neumann in the 1950s, but was popularized by computer scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge (who is also generally credited with first describing “cyberspace”). In this sense, singularity refers to the possible emergence of greater-than-human intelligence through technology. Von Neumann used the term as a kind of tipping point that would signal the end of human culture as we know it; Vinge expanded the notion to include the idea that interfaces between technology and humans could become so sophisticated that users of those systems would effectively acquire superhuman intelligence.

For some, the singularity – if it happens – represents an apocalyptic scenario wherein the pace of change and development will become too rapid for regular humans to comprehend, and they’ll potentially be left behind or wiped out by super-intelligent humans or devices. That’s certainly great fodder for science fiction. For others – including Kurzweil – the singularity represents a tremendous opportunity for humanity, enabling us to rewrite the rules of economies, innovation, culture, logistics, and even death itself. Among Kurzweil’s so-far-untestable forecasts are things like “software-based humans” whose consciousnesses will essentially live on the Web, with the ability to manifest their presence anywhere they like, including in the form of holograms or even as swarms of nanobots. These humans would also be able to load their consciousness into another person and essentially experience the world as that other person would  – like Being John Malkovich but without a hidden passage. Other forecasts include machines eventually attaining the same legal status as humans and most conscious beings actually doing away with any physical form at all, preferring to exist as pure data.

For Kurzweil, advances in medicine and life-extension technologies are significant factors in the scenario. For instance, Kurzweil forecasts that nanotechnology will be able to significantly extend human life, including repairing things like spinal injuries, as well as cellular-level medicine or the ability to eat all the junk food we like. The singularity will herald the ability to upload consciousness to computers, effectively make us immortal.

Kurzweil, now in his mid-60s, is practicing what he preaches there. He has claimed to be taking more than 150 nutritional supplements every day along with intravenous treatments and other practices in an effort to survive long enough to reach the singularity. If that fails, Kurzweil has arranged to have his body cryogenically preserved in the hope future technology will be able to bring him back.

Critics often point to Kurzweil’s forecasts regarding the singularity as both brilliant and spectacularly crazy. Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier has described Kurzweil’s ideas as “cybernetic totalism,” others have questioned Kurzweil’s claims regarding biotechnology, and renowned cognitive researcher Douglas Hofstafer – who’s widely honored in his own right – characterized Kurzweil’s prognostications as “an intimate mixture of rubbish and good ideas.”

Kurzweil at Google

google glasses sergei brin

At first glance, Kurzweil might seem to be a better fit at a company like IBM, which is already simulating computers with neural connections approaching the level of the human brain and famously invests in long-term research and development, than some technological upstart like Google known for doodles and an “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. However, Kurzweil’s entrepreneurial bent and practicality probably make him a better fit at Google. He has demonstrated he can not only think big thoughts about where the world might be in a century or two, but also take concrete actions to apply today’s technology to real problems and make industry changing products, not just cool ideas. Kurzweil has founded innumerable companies to develop and market technologies.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin have repeatedly demonstrated a penchant for future-leaning technologies and product ideas. After all, in 2005 the idea of offering free municipal Wi-Fi in Mountain View seemed like something out of the Jetsons; now, Google is rolling out gigabit fiber in Kansas City. Similarly, Google is looking to possible futures with projects like Google Glasses and self-driving cars. These might not be projects on the scale of uploading human consciousness to a computer, but they are real examples of technologies that could very well shape the future.

Kurzweil’s work at Google will likely intersect strongly with Google’s X Lab, currently overseen by co-founder Sergei Brin. X Lab is basically a secret skunkworks facility that’s reportedly working on everything from a space elevator to technology aimed at making a wide range of everyday devices fully accessible (and interactive with) the Internet. (X Lab spawned Google’s driverless cars and wearable goggles.) Kurzweil has only said he’ll be working on “new projects involving machine learning and language processing;” that seems to tie in very neatly with X lab work reportedly underway on neural networks capable of learning, understanding speech, and analyzing audio, video, and other media.

That’s not much to go on, but one thing seems reasonably certain: Kurzweil will be more than a figurehead adding some shine to Google’s overall talent pool. To be sure, having Kurzweil on board will likely attract some top talent towards Google. There are any number of talented engineers and developers who would love to work under Ray Kurzweil on projects funded by a company with pockets as deep as Google. But Google isn’t known for making high-profile hires and letting them sit idle. After all, the “father of the Internet” Vinton Cerf has been with Google since 2005 and he’s substantially enhanced his contributions to Internet governance and policy since that time. Kurzweil won’t be a big name who Google trots out to the press every time they need to attract some attention; they will be leveraging both his big ideas and his proven ability to apply existing technology.

Long term – and that’s how Kurzweil likes to think – Google could be entering the big leagues when it comes to shaping the future of technology.

[Images from Transcendant Man (Docurama, 2009); Shutterstock/ agsandrew]

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