How do you know when your new book is a success? When Google promptly offers you a plum job as soon as the book is on the stands.
That's the pleasant turn of events that Ray Kurzweil, 64, is enjoying. His most recent book, his sixth, is How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. His new job at Google is director of engineering. Google made the announcement in December. Kurzweil has many fans. The Wall Street Journal once described him as "the restless genius" and Fortune said he was "a legendary inventor with a history of mind-blowing ideas." Time put him on its cover, and Forbes called him "the ultimate thinking machine."
He also has many detractors. Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, once said that Kurzweil's books are "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."
Kurzweil spends most of his time thinking about the inevitable unification of man's brain and computers, an event he described in detail in his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near. The term "singularity" was coined by mathematician John von Neumann in the mid-1950s. He wrote that artificial intelligence was only a matter of time, but that once mankind is fused with machine, it was impossible to predict what would happen.
Kurzweil notes that "right now we're giving machines more and more intelligence, and in the end, the machines will always win." He points to IBM's Watson computer as a hint of things to come. Watson was able to defeat the world's two best Jeopardy players. It did this by ingesting all the information on Wikipedia and other encyclopedias.
The Jeopardy challenge was designed to capture publicity, but IBM is now putting Watson to more valuable work: diagnosing human ailments. The computer is reading every book published about medicine, as well as the thousands of new journal articles and blog postings that come out every week. No human doctor or team of doctors can possibly keep as up to date. Dr. Watson will pose questions to a doctor about a patient's symptoms, family history and so on. It will then print out the list of possibilities, along with each ailment's probability. It will cite the material it drew upon in making up its mind. Kurzweil envisions clinicians consulting with Dr. Watson on their smartphones.
The thesis of How to Create a Mind is that the human brain itself is the most powerful thinking machine available today, so it is logical that we look to the brain for guidance on how to make devices smarter. He outlines a theory he calls "the pattern recognition theory of mind (PRTM)," which he says "describes the basic algorithm of the neocortex (the region of the brain responsible for perception, memory and critical thinking)." By reverse-engineering the human brain, we will be able to "to vastly extend the power of our own intelligence."
What will we do with this new intelligence? First, we will better understand the brain itself and develop superior treatments for the brain's ailments, such as psychiatric disorders. Second, we will use our expanded intelligence to solve the many problems that confront mankind. Finally, we will use the intelligence to teach us how to be smarter.
I have written often about today's smartphones evolving into digital co-pilots, our constant companions that will help us get through the day. Kurzweil sees such devices shrinking to microscopic size and residing within our bodies. Will we have tiny computers in our bloodstream, ever alert for something amiss? These devices will be our links to what is now called the cloud, the vast computing power of the Googles, the Amazons, the Apples and the IBMs of the world.
It is easy to scoff at Kurzweil, because what he describes sounds so fantastical. But the reality is that humans tend to overestimate the speed of technological development in the short term, but seriously underestimate it in the longer term. I recall the derisive snorts telephone company executives would give me in the mid-1990s when I said their fabulously lucrative long-distance services would evaporate. Today, we have Skype. Television executives did the same thing when I said they shouldn't worry about the so-called 500-channel universe, that soon there would be a million-channel universe. Today, we have YouTube.
When asked about his new job at Google, Kurzweil said he hoped to "combine my 50 years of experience in thinking about thinking with Google-scale resources (in everything – engineering, computing, communications, data, users) to create truly useful AI [artificial intelligence] that will make all of us smarter."
I wish him well.
Don Tapscott's recent e-book is Radical Openness: Four Unexpected Principles for Success, co-written with Anthony D. Williams.