On Monday afternoon author and inventor Ray Kurzweil took the stage at SXSW for an interview session with frequent Time Magazine contributor Lev Grossman. Kurzweil, somewhat of a controversial figure in the tech community, was there to discuss his radically optimistic views on technology, human consciousness, and evolution.
The session began with Kurzweil delivering a short slide presentation about his predictions on how technology will impact culture in the coming decades. Kurzweil’s belief in this is based on an idea he calls, the Law of Accelerating Returns, a term he coined for his 1999 book the Age of Spiritual Machines. This law states that technological change is exponential rather than linear, meaning rapid advancement in technology begets more rapid advancements in technology. Kurzweil believes that because improvements in technology are developing so rapidly, we are quickly approaching a time when human beings will merge with technology and evolve to a kind of post-human state. Kurzweil refers to this event as the Singularity.
Though it might sound like science-fiction, Kurzweil supports his argument with sound historical reasoning. He spoke at length about how the fields of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics are making advancements at a rate nearly in pace with common computing, and how if the past is any indicator, this is likely continue for some time. In Kurzweil’s mind, the Singularity isn’t a wild prediction, it’s merely the logical conclusion of an ongoing trend.
But even if this is true, are the kind of techno-biological enhancements Kurzweil is talking about something we will want to accept? “Most of us,” the author pointed out in his talk, “are already enhanced.” He’s right. We carry super-computers in our pockets in the form of smartphones. We use Google as a kind of collective cloud-based memory. And we are increasingly using things like birth control, steroids, and hormones to achieve greater mastery over our bodies. These inventions augment our everyday lives in ways that would be unimaginable to those who lived in previous centuries. Just as unimaginable are the kinds of augmentations Kurzweil believes the future has in store for our species.
Science-fiction author William Gibson is famous for saying “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” The topic of this uneven distribution was brought up during Kurzweil’s discussion with Grossman. He asked if Kurzweil was concerned that the kinds of developments he is predicting will only be available to the wealthiest members of society. Kurzweil brushed the issue aside pointing out that most of the technologies that we use every day started out being available to only the very wealthy. Computers, the internet, and mobile phones are all examples of this. “A kid in Africa has access to more information than the president of the United States did 15 years ago.” Kurzweil reminded the crowd.
Kurzweil’s presentation at SXSW followed as predictable a trend line as Moore’s Law. For those who were familiar with his writing there really wasn’t anything new to be learned from the talk. But for those who weren’t familiar with the author’s ideas, the session raised some interesting ethical questions and exposed them to some of the most radical ideas out there regarding the ways in which technology might disrupt our future.