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Exploring the Future with Ray Kurzweil (Part 1)

Written by Jeff Drake
12 · 31 · 23

Introducing Ray Kurzweil

I’d like to introduce you to a scientist I’ve only recently discovered in the course of reading one of his more famous books, a 2005 publication titled, “The Singularity is Near.”

Say hello to Ray Kurzweil!

Ray Kurzweil (from Wikipedia)

I’ve got much more to say about Ray, but before I get into that, let’s take a look at his accomplishments. His resume (CV) could easily be described as “stellar!”

Ray Kurzweil is considered one of the world’s leading inventors. He’s the guy behind the scenes of famous inventions that you rarely hear about. Forbes Magazine called him, “the ultimate thinking machine.” Inc. Magazine called him, “the rightful heir to Thomas Edison.” Wow. High praise indeed!

While in high school, he corresponded with Marvin Minsky (considered the father of artificial intelligence) at MIT. He got invited to visit Minsky and later went to school there, where Minsky remained his mentor.

While a sophomore at MIT, he created a computer program that matched high school students with colleges. He later sold the app to Harcourt Brace for $100,000 plus royalties.

Some other technologies he has invented:

In 1974, he founded a company called Kurzweil Computer Products. Two years later, he introduced the Kurzweil Reading Machine, a novel device that combined three inventions: the first charge-coupled device (C.C.D.) a device that is used in phones and cameras today; the first flatbed scanner; and the first optical character recognition (O.C.R.) device. This Reading Machine device covered an entire table. Today, my flatbed scanner is quite small by comparison.

He also invented the first text-to-speech synthesizer and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the sounds of a grand piano and other orchestral instruments. It’s no surprise Ray later successfully marketed the first large vocabulary-recognition device. He seems adept at profiting off of his inventions. Good for him!

Ray’s inventions have laid the foundation for several industries we just take for granted today. For example, his work in the music industry has been so fundamental to the evolution of that industry, that he achieved a Grammy award for outstanding achievement in music and technology!

Additionally, he holds 21 honorary doctorates and has received honors from 3 US presidents. He’s also a recipient of the National Medal of Technology, was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, and he has a 30-year track record of making accurate predictions about the future and what technology will look like then.

But wait, there’s more. (I know, Ray Kurzweil is an alien). We shouldn’t be surprised that Google hired him as their Director of Engineering! He’s also found the time to write 5 best-selling books, including the one I am reading now, “The Singularity is Near,” plus the next one on my list, his “How to Create a Mind.”

Lastly, Ray co-founded and is chancellor of Singularity University, which he helped create to sharpen the next generation of great minds, and PBS has now called him “one of the 16 Revolutionaries Who Made America.”

Oh, I should mention an invention of his, more of a thought experiment, I guess, although it is one he believes in most whole-heartedly as it is backed by data. It is called the “Law of Accelerating Returns.” I need to mention this because this law, which Ray coined, is at the heart of his predictions. Put quite simply (I’ll get into this more in my next post), the law of accelerating returns refers to the rate of change within a wide variety of evolutionary systems (including the growth of technology), which does not follow a typical linear growth path. Instead, the growth of these systems is “exponential.” You’ll see why the difference between linear and exponential growth comes into play and why it’s important. In 2001, he gave further focus to this law in an eponymous essay in which he proposed an extension to Moore’s Law in which it is applied to a wide variety of technologies, and then used this to argue in favor on a technological singularity, one proposed by someone named, John von Neumann!

And he backs up his law of accelerating returns with data! Ray has his detractors, of course, people who say his predictions don’t add up and that some of his ideas are nonsense. They could well be right. I don’t know. But I do know that his track record is pretty damn good and worth considering, at least. If anything, I would say his major fault with regard to the future, is over-optimism. I think the risks are higher than he does.

Why make a point of introducing you to Ray Kurzweil? Because this guy is something else! Not only is he an acclaimed scientist, he has the reputation of being a rather deft prognosticator. As I mentioned, he is known for his predictions of the future!

Note that I said he’s a prognosticator, not a shaman or a mumbo-jumbo Nostradamus-type, which means he makes his predictions based on knowledge he possesses. He may not be right, of course, but I’ll tell you this, that according to Futurism (a highly trusted news source read by millions every month), Ray’s predictions have so far been 86% accurate. That is not too shabby! In fact, Ray even produced a report himself about the accuracy of his predictions, called appropriately, “How My Predictions Are Faring.”

In this paper, Ray analyzes the predictions he made in 3 of his books (“The Age of Intelligent Machines,” 1990; :The Age of Spiritual Machines,” 1999; and “The Singularity is Near”, 2005). Ray concludes that of the 147 predictions he made in these publications, in 115 of them he was entirely correct; 17 were “partially correct;” and 3 were “wrong.”. (When you combine “partially” and “essentially,” you come up with 86%. Biased, perhaps? For sure! But, even so, he’s still got a rather high batting average, don’t you think?

In Part 2 of my series about Ray, I will go through some of his predictions and also explain this thing he calls, “The Law of Accelerating Returns.

In the meantime, enjoy!


Let us know what you think…


1 Comment

  1. Greg Furtman

    I had not heard of Kurzweil but once you mentioned music I remembered all of the keyboards musicians use that have the name Kurzweil on them. Interesting.


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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.