The keynote speaker and Monday’s highlight was Ray Kurzweil, the scientist, futurist and author, who Forbes called “the ultimate thinking machine.” For the last 40 years, Kurzweil has been right most of the time in his predictions and even when he’s not, he’s not far wrong. (He predicted we’d be using self-driving cars by now and while the technology exists, we’re only just beginning to experiment with their use.)
Kurzweil advised several thousand people listening to his talk to hold on to their health, because it will only be about 15 years before medical technology will be able to significantly extend our lives. “Health and medicine is now an information technology,” Kurzweil noted. And like all information technology during the last 100+ years, health and medicine will experience exponential growth.
The mapping of the genome is one example, where it took a bit longer than expected to map the first one percent and then things took off – resulting in scientists completing the genome mapping project early.
And “every other aspect of biology is scaling exponentially,” he said. “The technology will be 1000 times more powerful in 20 years and a million times more powerful in 30 years. So just hang on.”
He said our ability to manipulate genes holds massive promise and pointed to scientists already having re-engineered a gene that controls obesity in rats. These genetically modified rats were then able to eat and eat and never gain weight. “That’s just one of the 23,000 genes we’d like to go about changing,” he said. Kurzweil referred to the human gene as software and said “We’re walking around with out-dated software in our bodies.” There’s no question that breakthroughs in genetic engineering will help us treat or eliminate a whole range of diseases.
Kurzweil’s talk, “Expanding Our Intelligence Without Limit,” was based on the idea that technology is simply an extension of the human brain, the neocortex. He said nanotechnology has created chips as small as human blood cells, or nanobots, that can be implanted to repair our bodies from the inside out. But whether the technology is inside our bodies or out is a “distinction without a difference” since they all serve the same purpose – to extend our capabilities. Looking at existing technologies such as smart phones, the cloud and Wikipedia, Kurzweil said these have freed up the valuable computing power of our brains to do more creative things.
It was an exciting and optimistic – if a little unsettling – view of the future.
Photo Credit: Michael Lutch