It's hard to know where to start with
With the fact that he believes that he has a good chance of living for ever? He just has to stay alive "long enough" to be around for when the great life-extending technologies kick in (he's 66 and he believes that "some of the baby-boomers will make it through"). Or with the fact that he's predicted that in 15 years' time, computers are going to trump people. That they will be smarter than we are. Not just better at doing sums than us and knowing what the best route is to Basildon. They already do that. But that they will be able to understand what we say, learn from experience, crack jokes, tell stories, flirt.
But then everyone's allowed their theories. It's just that Kurzweil's theories have a habit of coming true. And, while he's been a successful technologist and entrepreneur and invented devices that have changed our world - the first flatbed scanner, the first computer program that could recognise a typeface, the first text-to-speech synthesizer and dozens more - and has been an important and influential advocate of artificial intelligence and what it will mean, he has also always been a lone voice in, if not quite a wilderness, then in something other than the mainstream.
And now? Now, he works at
But it's what came next that puts this into context. It's since been revealed that
And those are just the big deals. It also bought Bot & Dolly, Meka Robotics, Holomni, Redwood Robotics and Schaft, and another AI startup, DNNresearch. It hired
There are no "ifs" in
But then, he has other things on his mind. The future, for starters. And what it will look like. He's been making predictions about the future for years, ever since he realised that one of the key things about inventing successful new products was inventing them at the right moment, and "so, as an engineer, I collected a lot of data". In 1990, he predicted that a computer would defeat a world chess champion by 1998. In 1997,
His critics point out that not all his predictions have exactly panned out (no US company has reached a market capitalisation of more than
When Kurzweil first started talking about the "singularity", a conceit he borrowed from the science-fiction writer
"My book The Age of Spiritual Machines came out in 1999 and that we had a conference of AI experts at
"And today, I'm pretty much at the median of what AI experts think and the public is kind of with them. Because the public has seen things like
And yet, we still haven't quite managed to get to grips with what that means. The Spike Jonze film, Her, which is set in the near future and has
But then he predicts that by 2045 computers will be a billion times more powerful than all of the human brains on Earth. And the characters' creation of an avatar of a dead person based on their writings, in Jonze's film, is an idea that
he's been banging on about for years. He's gathered all of his father's writings and ephemera in an archive and believes it will be possible to retro-engineer him at some point in the future.
So far, so sci-fi. Except that Kurzweil's new home isn't some futuristic MegaCorp intent on world domination. It's not Skynet. Or, maybe it is, but we largely still think of it as that helpful search engine with the cool design. Kurzweil has worked with
And it's the
I first saw Boston Dynamics' robots in action at a presentation at the
And the woman who headed the
Kurzweil's job description consists of a one-line brief. "I don't have a 20-page packet of instructions," he says. "I have a one-sentence spec. Which is to help bring natural language understanding to
Language, he believes, is the key to everything. "And my project is ultimately to base search on really understanding what the language means. When you write an article you're not creating an interesting collection of words. You have something to say and
The most successful example of natural-language processing so far is
Kurzweil says: "Computers are on the threshold of reading and understanding the semantic content of a language, but not quite at human levels. But since they can read a million times more material than humans they can make up for that with quantity. So
And once the computers can read their own instructions, well. . . gaining domination over the rest of the universe will surely be easy pickings. Though Kurzweil, being a techno-optimist, doesn't worry about the prospect of being enslaved by a master race of newly liberated iPhones with ideas above their station. He believes technology will augment us. Make us better, smarter, fitter. That just as we've already outsourced our ability to remember telephone numbers to their electronic embrace, so we will welcome nanotechnologies that thin our blood and boost our brain cells. His mind-reading search engine will be a "cybernetic friend". He is unimpressed by Google Glass because he doesn't want any technological filter between us and reality. He just wants reality to be that much better.
"I thought about if I had all the money in the world, what would I want to do?" he says. "And I would want to do this. This project. This is not a new interest for me. This idea goes back 50 years. I've been thinking about artificial intelligence and how the brain works for 50 years."
The evidence of those 50 years is dotted all around the apartment. He shows me a cartoon he came up with in the 60s which shows a brain in a vat. And there's a still from a TV quiz show that he entered aged 17 with his first invention: he'd programmed a computer to compose original music. On his walls are paintings that were produced by a computer programmed to create its own original artworks. And scrapbooks that detail the histories of various relatives, the aunts and uncles who escaped from Nazi
His home is nothing if not eclectic. It's a shiny apartment in a shiny apartment block with big glass windows and modern furnishings but it's imbued with the sort of meaning and memories and resonances that, as yet, no machine can understand. His relatives escaped the Holocaust "because they used their minds. That's actually the philosophy of my family. The power of human ideas. I remember my grandfather coming back from his first return visit to
On his fingers are two rings, one from the
Even more engagingly, tapping away on a computer in the study next door I find Amy, his daughter. She's a writer and a teacher and warm and open, and while Kurzweil goes off to have his photo taken, she tells me that her childhood was like "growing up in the future".
Is that what it felt like? "I do feel little bit like the ideas I grew up hearing about are now ubiquitous. . . Everything is changing so quickly and it's not something that people realise. When we were kids people used to talk about what
they going to do when they were older, and they didn't necessarily consider how many changes would happen, and how the world would
be different, but that was at the back of
And what about her father's idea of living for ever? What did she make of that? "What I think is interesting is that all kids think they are going to live for ever so actually it wasn't that much of a disconnect for me. I think it made perfect sense. Now it makes less sense."
Well, yes. But there's not a scintilla of doubt in Kurzweil's mind about this. My arguments slide off what looks like his carefully moisturised skin. "My health regime is a wake-up call to my baby-boomer peers," he says. "Most of whom are accepting the normal cycle of life and accepting they are getting to the end of their productive years. That's not my view. Now that health and medicine is in information technology it is going to expand exponentially. We will see very dramatic changes ahead. According to my model it's only 10-15 years away from where we'll be adding more than a year every year to life expectancy because of progress. It's kind of a tipping point in longevity."
He does, at moments like these, have something of a mad glint in his eye. Or at least the profound certitude of a fundamentalist cleric. Newsweek, a few years back, quoted an anonymous colleague claiming that, "Ray is going through the single most public midlife crisis that any male has ever gone through." His evangelism (and commercial endorsement) of a whole lot of dietary supplements has more than a touch of the "Dr
But isn't he simply refusing to accept, on an emotional level, that everyone gets older, everybody dies?
"I think that's a great rationalisation because our immediate reaction to hearing someone has died is that it's not a good thing. We're sad. We consider it a tragedy. So for thousands of years, we did the next best thing which is to rationalise. 'Oh that tragic thing? That's really a good thing.' One of the major goals of religion is to come up with some story that says death is really a good thing. It's not. It's a tragedy. And people think we're talking about a 95-year-old living for hundreds of years. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking radical life extension, radical life enhancement.
"We are talking about making ourselves millions of times more intelligent and being able to have virtually reality environments which are as fantastic as our imagination."
Although possibly this is what Kurzweil's critics, such as the biologist PZ Myers, mean when they say that the problem with Kurzweil's theories is that "it's a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy. It's as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can't possibly figure out what's good or bad."
But then, it's Kurzweil's single-mindedness that's been the foundation of his success, that made him his first fortune when he was still a teenager, and that shows no sign of letting up. Do you think he'll live for ever, I ask Amy. "I hope so," she says, which seems like a reasonable thing for an affectionate daughter to wish for. Still, I hope he does too. Because the future is almost here. And it looks like it's going to be quite a ride.
Continued from previous page
The Terminator films (left) envisage a future in which robots have become sentient and are at war with humankind. Kurzweil thinks that machines could become 'conscious' by 2029 but is optimistic about the implications for humans.
Kurzweil suggests that language is the key to teaching machines to think. He says his job is to 'base search on really understanding what the language means'.The most successful example of natural-language processing to date is
Kurzweil has an unerring knack for predicting the future. In 1990, he predicted that a computer would defeat a world chess champion by 1998. In 1997,
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