Ray Kurzweil

An interview with director Barry Ptolemy on his intimate portrait of futurist Ray Kurzweil and the coming Singularity.

IN THE FUTURE, humans will live forever. This is the promise of the coming Singularity, as predicted by futurist Ray Kurzweil. The charismatic and prolific inventor has dedicated his life to accelerating intelligence. Called “the rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” he is also:

the principal developer of the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition.

After reading his most recent book, “The Singularity is Near,” filmmaker Barry Ptolemy approached Ray to shoot a documentary on his life and the future of humanity. The result: Transcendent Man, a film spanning 2 years and five countries.

I caught up with the director/producer for his thoughts on Ray’s personal life, the difference between intelligence and wisdom, and the fusion of human and machines.

BNT: First off, what is the singularity? 

BARRY: The Singularity is a point in time in the near future when technology will be accelerating so fast that we’ll have to merge with it in order to keep up.

What drew you to make a film about Ray Kurzweil? 

There is no one else like Ray in all of human history. He came around at the right time with the right skills to reveal the destiny of our human machine civilization. He is the first person in history to do that. In my mind this makes him one of the most fascinating people in the world.

What struck you as most profound about the Ray you gradually uncovered, as opposed to Ray the public figure? 

He’s known publically as being this super genius, but you can’t see how deep that well of intelligence runs until you spend a lot of time with him. He’s also a very compassionate and loving person with a great deal of wisdom. It’s profound to spend time with him on an ongoing basis.

Director/Producer Barry Ptolemy

Ray says “the most important phenomena in the universe is intelligence.”  How do you define intelligence and how is that different than wisdom?

It would appear that intelligence resides within patterns of information. A pattern of information could be a hydrogen atom, a redwood tree or a Shakespearean poem. We happen to live in a universe that wants to evolve these patterns of information in an iterative process, moving always towards more complexity and more order. This has been happening since the big bang.

Recently, in the last few hundred thousand years, the level of complexity and order has become so great that the universe produced its greatest invention — the human brain. The human brain is the most cutting edge form of intelligence in the universe that we know of, but it is now on the cusp of creating a new higher form of intelligence. This has been called Artificial Intelligence, but both Ray and I agree that there is nothing artificial about it. It will simply become a more complex and ordered form of intelligence.

Wisdom, on the other hand, is an application of intelligence that utilizes our memories and experiences for better quality of life – to make better choices. So in this way you could call wisdom a branch on the tree of universal intelligence.

Ray refutes the idea that “the purpose of life is to accept death,” and sees death as a profound tragedy. Yet in his own life, attempting to overcome death appears to have driven all of his passion into technology.  In a future without death, what would fuel our passions? Where would we derive meaning? 

I think Ray is driven by the uniquely human quest to transcend our limitations. He sees death as one of those limitations. Blindness is another. Gravity another. Etc. There are an infinite number of limitations that we face and there will always be new challenges for us to overcome. I think we will always be passionate about breaking through barriers and transcending limitations. This is why I called my film Transcendent Man.

Ray says we have skyrocketing rates of obesity because of a limitation of our DNA (how we process food). He believes the solution is to engineer new pills that allow our habits to continue, without having the adverse effect on our bodies.  Yet this “adverse effects” often serve as barometers on how to live our lives – is there a danger to looking to change our “bodies” as opposed to say, the system that serves us unhealthy food? 

The system we live in is still designed around a biological body that evolved millions of years ago when we walked around in a world of extreme scarcity. Having Big Macs that serve us 1000 calories per sitting would have seemed ideal to our ancestors, but we have too much of a good thing today and don’t realize it.

I enjoy eating. I am programmed to enjoy it. But I would prefer to enjoy a meal and for it not to have any deleterious side effects on my body. Since there can still be unhealthy consequences to eating even a healthy meal I think we need to reprogram our biology away from these consequences. Eventually as we transcend our biology we will overcome our need for consuming calories and take energy in a more direct way, like from the sun.

Ray sees his father’s death as a profound tragedy, that he was never able to express his musical gift – therefore the “point” of his life was never fulfilled. But what if the point of his life wasn’t to fulfill that role, but many other roles instead?  Could his “role” have been to push Ray to be the person he became? 

Assigning meaning to the life of someone who has passed has been the human justification for death for thousands of years. We had no choice but to accept death and find ways to rationalize it. I don’t believe Ray is implying that his father’s life had no meaning because he wasn’t able to fulfill his musical potential. But, rather, there is no benefit in losing the memories, experiences, relationships and beauty of a human life.

So while his father had a meaningful and worthwhile life and everyone who ever knew him may have had a meaningful experience with him, it is a profound tragedy that that intelligence and creative life force had to die.

One scary scenario saw the future as a battle between those who preach AI (Artificial Intelligence) as God, and those that feel the risk is too great.  What is the wisdom in setting ourselves up for this war? Is it inevitable?

There are a couple of things to understand before jumping to the conclusion that AI’s will ever be in a position to conquer humans. The first point is that as computers become more powerful they are conversely becoming smaller at a rate of 100X volume per decade. So as these computers start to become aware they will also be a part of us, literally. They’ll go in our brains starting in the next 25 years by the billions and interface with every inter-neural connection. So there will be no “us” and “them.” We will be one human-machine civilization.

The second point is that we enter our society when we are born and must come to terms with the rules and laws that came before us. The same will be true of the millions (and then billions) of emerging AI’s. They will have to live by the laws and rules of our civilization. They will have many human qualities (since we reverse engineered our own brains to create them) like ambition, creativity, love, etc. And to be able to get things done in this human-machine civilization they will learn that they need to cooperate with each other and with other humans. And we will want to get things done.

I don’t anticipate any war-like scenario after the birth of AI. I think we’ll enter into a world of much greater harmony since we’ll all be communicating with one another more than at any other time in our history and also because our interests will be more aligned with each other than at any other time. I actually believe our future AI’s will love us more than we love each other today.

Happiness, as my studies and practices of Eastern philosophy have led me to believe, is not dependent on external conditions.  It lies in our own interconnectedness with the universe, and the ability to tune into the timeless moment. Yet Ray, and other futurists, appear obsessed with manipulating external conditions. Do you believe we can ever achieve this happiness? 

It is true that happiness is a relative condition, but I don’t think one could achieve it without one’s biological needs taken care of. Like Maslov’s Heirachy of Needs the more we move up the pyramaid the more we can create our own self-actualization. I think creativity is where our happiness comes from and I think Ray is describing how we can get all 7 billion of our inhabitants able to participate in that self-actualization.

In regard to the environmental crises, Ray adheres to the belief that “technology will save us.”  The great irony is that we are becoming aware just how much the application and development of technology has destroyed our planet. Charles Eisenstein, author of The Ascent of Humanity, sees this worship of technology as the ongoing and misguided attempt to separate ourselves from nature.  What are your thoughts on this dichotomy between nature and technology? 

I don’t think Ray suggests that technology will save us but rather we can use technology to overcome the greatest challenges we face today. Ray is supremely aware that technology is a double edged sword and always has been, however history has revealed that we used fire primarily to heat our homes and cook our food and not to burn down the next village.

People say the world is going to hell in a hand basket, but that is not at all what we are seeing. All the important indicators, like money spent on education, longevity, infant mortality, eradication of disease, poverty are all going in the right direction. Even violent crimes in the U.S. are at 60 year lows. We have a front row seat with 24/7 cable news networks as to all the bad things happening in the world, but this is a good thing because when we see something bad happen, like the Gulf oil spill, or a group of miners stuck in a Chilean mine we immediately use technology to solve that problem.

You don’t have to go back very far in our own history to see how hopeless life was without technology. It was short, disease filled and disaster prone. Ask someone who has a loved one on their death bed and who has the choice between using technology to save that person or to relinquish what we know and allow a loved one to perish. Only technology has the scale to address the challenges our world faces today. We will very quickly do away with dirty 19th century technologies and see our world become as pristine as the day we walked off the African plains. 

What were your own beliefs about technology going into the film, and how, if at all, did they change afterward? 

I’m more hopeful today then ever before. Despite all of our shortcomings, I believe we are going in the right direction. I have faith in this universe we inhabit. It’s been evolving in order and complexity for a long, long time and I believe our generation will see that order and complexity used for the ultimate step in our human evolution.

Visit Transcendent Man to learn more and watch the film.

What do you think about Ray Kurzweil’s ideas? Share your thoughts in the comments!