ITS Hosts Ray Kurzweil Visit

On February 7th, Pomona College ITS hosted a series of events with leading inventor, author, and futurist Ray Kurzweil. As an inventor, among his many accomplishments, Mr. Kurzweil is noted for his work in creating the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first charge-coupled device, the Kurzweil K250 musical synthesizer, and the first print-to-speech reading machine, the last of which was a major quality-of-life breakthrough for the blind. As a futurist, Kurzweil has a track record of over 30 years of accurate predictions in the field of technology, perhaps most significantly among them the creation and subsequent boom of the World Wide Web, which he also predicted would be hosted by largely wireless connections by the beginning of the 21st century. 

Kurzweil’s visit on campus started out with a Master Class at The Hive where a group of 5C students with interests in computer science, technology, and media studies had the opportunity to hear more personal insights on the topics that he would focus on in his public talk later that evening as well as to ask him extensive questions about his life and work. Many of these students then attended a dinner with Kurzweil that was also joined by members of the 5C administration, faculty, and alumni. The evening culminated with a talk at Bridges Auditorium, introduced by Pomona College President David Oxtoby, in which Kurzweil laid out his overarching vision for our near future. This vision focuses on the three overlapping technological revolutions that Kurzweil sees happening now—the revolutions of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR for short) that he predicts will change every aspect of our quality of life and intelligence capabilities. In genetics, he sees us beginning to understand biology as an information technology through which we will be able to learn to reprogram what he terms the “outdated software” of our genes, effectively slowing aging, extending life, and preventing disease. On the nanotechnology front, he sees us developing the ability to build mechanisms atom by atom. The result of the creation such tiny devices would be computation capabilities a trillion times more powerful than what we have available today. This technology would also allow for the existence of medical nanorobots that could work within our bodies to bolster our immune system and repair damage at a cellular level. Finally, Mr. Kurzweil’s “robotics” really represents artificial intelligence (AI). In his view, advancements in AI will not only augment our intelligence through our external interactions with it, but we will ultimately merge with AI to vastly expand our access to information, understanding of the universe, and problem-solving capabilities within our own consciousness. In Kurzweil’s view, all of these changes will ultimately result in a healthier, longer-living, happier, and more peaceful human populous. 

The talk also highlighted just how quickly Kurzweil sees many aspects of these revolutions occurring—fundamental to his worldview and the art of his predictions is what he terms “The Law of Accelerating Returns”, that is, the exponential nature of technological advancement. Kurzweil argues that while human understanding of progress is intrinsically linear, technological progress moves in an exponential manner. There are plenty of examples of this kind of growth; Kurzweil often cites the example that the price performance of computers doubles every year from what it was the year before. Through gathering these data points and applying to them mathematical models of exponential growth, Kurzweil has been able to create often highly precise projections of where a kind of technology will be within a certain span of time. He predicts many of the advancements highlighted in his GNR revolutions will occur within the next 10-20 years. 

If you are interested in viewing a recording of the Master Class held at the Hive, SD and HD formats are available via a publicly joinable Sakai site: “Ray Kurzweil Master Class.” To join the site and access the videos:

  1. Log in to your Sakai account and then, under “My Workspace” select the “Membership” tab from the left hand side menu. 
  2. Select the button “Joinable Sites” at the top of the page. This will bring you to a list of all of the publicly joinable sites within Sakai but a search box to the top right will give you the option to narrow your results. Entering the search term “Kurzweil” will bring up the master class site.
  3. Select the blue “Join” button directly underneath the site name. You may need to refresh your browser, but the site should now show up in your top menu of sites. 
  4. Navigate to the left hand tab “Master Class Video” within the site and select the right hand “Download” button for the quality version that you prefer.  
  5. If you wish, you may then remove yourself from the site by returning to “Membership” under “My Workspace.” Locate the course under the list “My Current Sites”, select the box next to “Ray Kurzweil Master Class”, and hit “Unjoin” at the bottom of the page. 

Vice President and Chief Information Officer William Morse has said that one of his favorite things about the work of Mr. Kurzweil is his optimistic view of our future with technology. All too often lately it may feel as if we face an increasingly uncertain future. Here at ITS we hope that Kurzweil’s vision can provide our community not only with a strong argument for hope, but also inspiration for creativity and innovation as we consider our relationship with the technology that supports and augments our life experiences.