Things Will Change Faster Than You Think, But You'll Be Thinking Faster

I went to a screening of "Transcendent Man: A Film About the Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil" last night not exactly sure what message I'd be bringing back to marketers except to point out that any of you who offer lifetime warranties might want to rethink your parameters.

"There's nothing good about disease and death no matter how we try to rationalize it," Kurzweil said several times in different ways during the course of the evening. One of his primary goals as a scientist has been to overcome it.

"I'm not going to die," he says flatly in the beginning of the film. Later, presumably after a near-fatal heart attack in 2008, he allows that he at least expects to get to the point where his thoughts and feelings are "backed up" before his biological body succumbs to its inherent design flaws, only to have them revived as applied science catches up with his ideas. "At least I'll have some protection against the dying of the light," he says.

That, as might be expected, has proved to be the most controversial of Kurzweil's ideas, he admits. But it is not the message he stresses, nor, really, is it the one that we need to pay the most attention to as we struggle to put bread on the table. As Kurzweil says, "it's important to know what's important," and to most of us it's essential to take a few seconds to realize how fast things are actually changing. Faster even than you have imagined.



We used to joke about the old-line executive trying to hold out against the next big idea until he'd put in just enough time to get that gold watch. Well, that notion has gone the way of the gold watch.

And that hoary quote of Wayne Gretzky's about skating to where the puck will be? Stop using it. Please. That puck isn't on physical ice anymore. It's flying around in a 3D virtual reality world that will be as real to our grandchildren as a seat at Madison Square Garden was to us.

Sure, you've got to make the next deadline. But as you're planning your product's lifecycle, take into consideration that change is becoming "exponential" rather than linear. "We won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century -- it will be more like 20,000 years of progress [at today's rate]," Kurzweil says.

He knows whereof he speaks. A portal page of websites for 10 ongoing companies Kurzweil has founded can he found here. Kurzweil was the principal developer of the first CCD flat-bed 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, according the site.

That may sound dry, but watching Stevie Wonder describe how listening to a machine that read his own words changed his life in the Seventies, or looking at the joy of the blind people in a room when a cell phone-sized text-to-voice device is introduced, gave me a glimpse of the impact Kurzweil's inventions have had on so many lives.

That is not to say that he is without his doubters and critics, and they are given voice in this mostly admiring film. "He's more poet than mechanic," says Kevin Kelly, co-founder and now "senior maverick" at Wired magazine. "A modern-day prophet that's wrong."

Others accuse him of being utopian, suggesting that if artificial intelligence becomes as smart as Kurzweil predicts, humans may be seen by "them" as expendable as pesky insects seem to us. But "they" is "we," he would reply. And in a question-and-answer period after the screening, Kurzweil indicated an acceptance of genetically modified crops that, he admits, many "humanists" find troublesome.

Kurzweil maintains he is not unaware of the inherent dangers of technology, which is a double-edged sword. "Bioengineering does a lot of good," he says, "but it could also be used to create a bioterrorist weapon." And that's why he has been working with the Army on preventative measures.

Kurzweil's most recent book is The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. He defines "The Singularity" as "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history." Look for this to occur on about 2029 -- near enough for most of us.

As outlandish as some of Kurzweil's projections may seem, he claims that his 108 predictions for 2009 proved to be 86% accurate. Most new technology doesn't work very well in the beginning, he points out. But even as it gets cheaper, it gets better.

Kurzweil preempted one obvious line of questioning by mentioning a prominent AI scientist, Hugo de Garis, who points out how rudimentary the science is by saying that it "can't even walk yet." But in the two years since de Garis made that statement, Google has put 147,000 miles on a driverless car that has navigated the streets of California without incident, Kurzweil says. What's more, IBM's "Watson" computing system is ready to take on two esteemed "Jeopardy" champions, proving wrong the notion that a computer could never take on the subtleties of language. "The pace of change is happening faster and faster," Kurzweil reiterated.

"I think you have to be an optimist to be an inventor and an entrepreneur," he responded to a question about whether he was too much of an optimist. "Optimism is not an idle prediction about the future; it's actually a self-fulfilling prophecy."

And asked "what's with the Mickey Mouse watch?" he usually wears, Kurzweil replied that he'd had it for 30 years. Walt Disney's creation, he says, "shows the power of a whimsical idea.... Look at how it has grown and multiplied."

A few other random quotes from the evening:

  • "Failure is just success deferred."
  • "The religion of my family is that what is sacred is the power of ideas."
  • "The media doesn't always get it right."

I hope I have. It's a frothy, stimulating brew to digest in a few hours. But if you are a sentient being -- and whether or not you would like to remain so for eternity -- you'll definitely want to check this documentary by Barry Ptolemy, who also directed the "We Are the World 2010" video, when it is released next month.

In the meantime, I also recommend last week's Nova, "Can We Slow Aging," which has a segment on Kurzweil among other several fascinating stories including the growing of body organs such as lungs in the laboratory.

2 comments about "Things Will Change Faster Than You Think, But You'll Be Thinking Faster ".
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  1. L john Yarusi from Olive LLC, February 4, 2011 at 8:40 a.m.

    Really Great Piece - @JohnnyBoyOlive #olive

  2. Adam Hartung from spark partners, February 4, 2011 at 4:53 p.m.

    Excellent observations. But will business leaders be able to keep pace with this pace of change? Will the financiers, marketers and product development people be able to design, launch and make profitable these innovations quickly enough to really advance society? My guess is the inventors and engineers are working faster than business management can adapt - and that bodes poorly for how well capitalism will support these fantastic new innovations. Forbes magazine regularly discusses these weaknesses in managing innovation by business leaders at its web site

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