Ray Kurzweil. If you don’t know his name, you soon will. He is one of two individuals who proved to be agents of my ‘landing’ (the second to be revealed in my next post).
As I undertook my scan of techno-trend literature last year, I became aware of a quickening pace of change that was greater than the also astonishing breadth and depth of it. It was the speed. Then I remembered a name I kept coming across, and the shoe dropped.
Ray Kurzweil first was seen on Fred Allen’s ‘I’ve Got A Secret‘ TV show in 1965, when at the age of 17, he built a computer that convincingly authored classical music. Within a decade or so he was the inventor/driver/catalyst of the optical character recognition (OCR) and voice recognition suite of technologies – and the inventor of the first music synthesizer able to mimic grand pianos and other instruments. By the 1980’s Kurzweil was one of America’s most successful inventors/entrepreneurs, and the accolades have since only accelerated (click here for his detailed wiki-bio). He was also then, and remains today one of the world’s most controversial futurists.
I suspect and intend that through the life of this blog, we will repeatedly explore the detail of Kurzweil’s work. However, for our purposes today there are 3 points worth illuminating. The first is that Kurzweil conceived of the Law of Accelerating Returns, a POV that stated that as technological capability doubled every X time increment, its cost halved – and that critically, the time increments kept halving in exponential fashion, from 100 years to fifty, to 25, to 12.5 and so on. As he is wont to say, if you take 30 linear steps you get 30 steps, if you take 30 exponential steps (2,4,8,16…) you get to a billion. There is a tremendous amount of substance (and controversy) to consider in this ‘law’ but the bottom line is that information processing speed, bandwidth and storage capacity, all of which have been significant inhibitors to our businesses over the last two decades of the Internet, are about to – for all practical purposes – become free/unlimited.
With staggering consequence.
To illustrate, the cost of processing a gigaflop (a thousand million calculations per second) of data cost (in inflation-adjusted dollars) $8.3 trillion in 1961 vs. $0.12 in December of 2013 (yes – that’s 12 cents). Likewise, over the last 20 years the speed of our most powerful computers has increased from 124.5 gigaflops in 1993 (124,500 x 1,000,000) to 34 petaflops (34,000 x 1,000,000,000,000). More to the point, the doubling/having is accelerating, meaning that the application of information processing is expanding into every facet of our life – from ubiquitous instant facial recognition to the Internet of Things. Indeed, Kurzweil argues that by 2015 we will have a computer that will surpass the ‘brainpower’ of a single mouse, and that by 2023 (eight years later) it will surpass that of a single human, and that by 2045, that of ALL humans of ALL time.
Here’s where it gets ‘odd’. For when a computer has the capacity to access all human knowledge of all time, Kurzweil argues that transcendence will occur – that is the machine will become sentient and self-aware, and arguably, much more than the sum of our human parts. This point in time is know as ‘The’ Singularity – the pivot point where Man becomes something much more than Man – very, very, VERY quickly (remember that exponential trillion times a trillion kind of gains?), with the not-unimportant consequence that humans will achieve immortality. Needless to say, there is fierce debate about the likelihood of such an event or its timing (or of course the ‘rightness’ of it). But curiously, I have not found a pervasive view that argues much against the ‘fact’ of change up to the event. Certainly, amongst the digerati there are those that argue passionately that X won’t happen until Y, but the delta is very rarely materially different from Kurzweil’s prognosis.
The second point worth noting is who Kurzweil works for (or perhaps more accurately, with). As of 2012 Kurzweil became Google’s Director of Engineering. It seems a misnomer because he really seems to be the Director of Singularity for the most powerful company in the world. It is evident that Kurzweil has at minimum been a catalyst for Google’s acquisitions of late – evidence that Google expects to take a commanding lead in such areas as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and healthcare (focus on ‘longevity’ – remember the immortality thing?) to name a few. This is not a conspiracy theory. Many very smart and well intentioned people have placed a very big bet on Kurzweil’s vision of the future. There is even Singularity University, a Kurzweil initiative co-founded with Peter Diamandis, billionaire inventor/entrepreneur in his own right (and founder of the Xprize), and supported by Google, Genentech, Autodesk, Nokia and CISCO, with its campus located on NASA’s Ames Research campus in Silicon Valley.
The question to ask one’s self is – what do they know/suspect/intend that you/we don’t? I think that a view of the future is forming and is being made real that is quite literally not understood or appreciated by the great, vast majority of the rest of us. A community is coalescing that see’s the next 20-40 years as being the evolutionary pivot point for Personkind – a period that will thereafter see the course of evolution set possibly forever. I think though that the debate over The Singularity is a BIG red herring. I believe its more helpful to focus on the Pre-Singularity – the time leading up to the pivot point that most thoughtful observers more or less agree on. THAT world promises so much change and disruption that to prepare for just that seems almost impossible beyond our reckoning. But it must be. In this very fragmented and rapidly empowered and empowering world, not changing is not an option – especially if one expects to be at the leading edge of change rather than a consequence of it.
Which takes me to my third and final point. The discussion guiding the Pre-Singularity age rests almost entirely in the hands of the scientists and engineers who are making it possible. They are joined by a business elite who for the most part employ a worldview and leadership style that is the result of the post war/cold-war era. An elite who for sure are responsible for much of what we have to be thankful for, but also who must bear responsibility for many of our collective shortcomings. Just as I am convinced of the inevitability of an Age of Pre-Singularity, I am equally convinced that a new leadership style MUST emerge to both direct and to the extent possible, manage our transit to and through it. A cohort of leadership who manage to, by example, literally leverage the best that free(r) markets can and should provide, building businesses who are literally enablers of a greater society. The learning labs for this new mindset are to be found within the millions of businesses seeking to find their North Star for the coming times.
They just need a little help. I think I know where to find it.