January 16, 2013

Famous Futurist Ray Kurzweil Joins Google

Tiffany Trader

It’s the ultimate pairing. American inventor and renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil has joined forces with Google. As Director of Engineering, Kurzweil will lead an “ambitious” artificial intelligence project that will seek to both understand intelligence and recreate it.

Kurzweil announced the new position on his website, and shared additional details in an interview with Singularity Hub.

While Internet innovator Google has famously reorganized the world’s information, this information has semantic content that remains largely elusive to computers, notes Kurzweil.

The primary goal of the Kurtzweil-led Google project is to develop and apply machine learning advances to Google’s core efforts: “search, question and answering, and getting to know you.”

When asked about specific product plans, Kurzweil paints a picture of a “cybernetic friend” that understands your needs and responds to them with very little input – like Apple’s Siri on steroids.

“It will know at a semantically deep level what you’re interested in, not just the topic…[but] the specific questions and concerns you have,” explains Kurzweil.

As for how this lines up with Google’s agenda:

“I envision some years from now the majority of search queries will be answered without actually you asking. It’ll just know this is something that you’re going to want to see,” said Kurzweil.

The size of the new team is unclear at this point, but Kurzweil is confident that he will have the resources he needs, and he expects the group to expand as the project evolves.

Kurtzweil has authored seven books, including bestsellers The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near. His latest work, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, explores the potential of reverse-engineering the human brain.

What Kurzweil is after is not your usual brute-force algorithm-based machine intelligence, but some kind of “real” understanding that is closer to human cognition. If this sounds impossibly  far-fetched, the stuff of science fiction, there’s a reason for that.

Like other Singularity supporters, Kurzweil contends that when it comes to the kind of exponential returns that technology confers (like computers that are roughly 1000x faster ever 10 years), human intuition breaks down. There’s a built-in tendency to vastly underestimate the forward march of technical progress.

Kurzweil responds to such skepticism in his employment announcement:

“In 1999, I said that in about a decade we would see technologies such as self-driving cars and mobile phones that could answer your questions, and people criticized these predictions as unrealistic. Fast forward a decade – Google has demonstrated self-driving cars, and people are indeed asking questions of their Android phones. It’s easy to shrug our collective shoulders as if these technologies have always been around, but we’re really on a remarkable trajectory of quickening innovation, and Google is at the forefront of much of this development.”

The video is only 10-minutes long, but jam-packed with interesting tidbits from one of the greatest thinkers of our time.