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November 24, 2006

Ray Kurzweil Dazzles Crowd at SC06

by Helen Thomson, HPCwire

Described as 'the restless genius' by the Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes, Ray Kurzweil is not only a visionary, an author and an inventor, he is truly representative of this year's Supercomputing 2006 theme: 'Powerful Beyond Imagination.'

Having been honoured from numerous professional bodies, Kurzweil is specifically noted for winning the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize — the world's largest prize for innovation. In 1999, he also received the National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honour in technology, from President Clinton. When he wasn't receiving his 12 honorary doctorates, Kurzweil has also found time to write five best selling books, reproduced in nine different languages. Addressing SC06 as the keynote speaker, Kurzweil explained to a packed auditorium where he believes technology will lead us in the future.

He began his speech by prophesising that the 21st century will see 20,000 years of progress at today's current rate, and that we are already seeing the effects of this progress. “You used to have to be a big government agency or a highly specialized lab to make an influential piece of software or produce a movie. Today kids can invent something that is worth 100 million dollars from their room.”

He emphasised that our pace of progress is also accelerating. “A lot of scientists don't take this into consideration,” he said. “When we predict what will happen in the future, most people use the last 50 years as a model of the next 50 years.” But, he said, a linear prediction creates over-pessimistic expectations.

Although Kurzweil conceded that this type of exponential growth cannot go on forever — “each paradigm comes to an end eventually” — he also believes that each paradigm creates research pressures to create the next paradigm. So where does this all end? “There are limits,” he admitted, “but they're just not very limiting.”

No one can predict the future, but Ray Kurzweil makes a pretty good attempt. “I can't tell you what the stock level will be in 50 years; specific projects are hard to predict. But the overall impact of technologies are remarkably predictable.” He likened this to our knowledge of matter, “If you have a large dynamic chaotic system like gas, is it possible to predict the direction of individual particles? No. Can we predict the qualities of the gas as a whole? Yes.”

He spent much of his keynote speech detailing the specific projects that are at the forefront of today's technology. He highlighted the influence that shared processing power and advanced computer technology is having in the biomedical communities, helping humans to fight disease. “We are transforming everything we care about. It used to be hit or miss with medical drugs. The tools used were crude. Now, with today's technology we can have an overwhelming effect on every area of the medical industry.”

Kurzweil went on to explain the incredible possibilities of reverse engineering the brain. “We will see scientists recreating the computational capacity of the human brain in the next 50 years,” he stated. “People forget that our brains are a million times slower than computers, they use chemical messengers to transfer information.” Kurzweil told us that his most conservative estimate of 10^16 calculations per second –- the amount of computation required to simulate the brain, will be possible in 2010. 

Interestingly, he mentioned the famous quotation of Lyall Watson, “If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn't.” Then, quietly suggested, “this is no longer true.”  He reminded us that our brain develop from a genome, which we have now mapped. “Our brains are formed from only a few genes. It's a self-organizing design which is the beauty of it,” he said.  “It is possible to recreate it.” He added, “I'm not saying its simple –- it doesn't come with documentation!”

Kurzweil payed a great deal of attention to the intersection of biology with IT, “our ability to turn off one gene, and turn on another, for example.” He specifically noted our ability to 'shrink' technology at an exponential rate. “In 20 years we'll build artificial blood cells –- we're already doing it in animals.” These blood cells, he said, will allow an Olympic sprinter to run for 15 minutes without taking a breath, or to sit at the bottom of a pool for four hours. He highlighted cancer, diabetes and Parkinson's disease as just a few of the illnesses that we will cure through a hybrid of biological and non-biological technologies.

Having left the audience in awe at the many implications of recreating the human brain, curing disease and incorporating miniature robots inside our bodies, Kurzweil moved on to demonstrating his new print-to-speech reader for the blind. With a captive audience watching his every movement on four large screens, he placed the reader over his notes, took a snapshot, and after a moment's tense silence, a voice emanated from the small box, repeating the printed text out loud –- word-for-word. With Kurzweil modestly acknowledging the applause that arose from around the room, he joked, with a hint of relief, “it's always fun to do a live demonstration.” On a more serious note he mentioned, “how gratifying it has been to see people walking around with these devices,” also acknowledging how helpful it had been to predict when technologies will become available in order to prepare for them.

Listening to Kurzweil was both enjoyable and inspiring, particularly his summary of the greatness of human achievement. After all he has to tell us about the future of technology, it is easy to see how together, we are indeed, powerful beyond imagination.