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An Oral History Interview with Ray Kurzweil, Part 2 of 4

Listen to Kurzweil Interview, Part 2

Tony Candela: What is, is there a typical day in your life right now? We're in the early evening and we are still working here. Is this a typical day for you?

Ray Kurzweil: I don't have typical days. I do spend, I'd say, 40% of my time with what I consider communication projects, communicating ideas. For example, writing, I have written a number of books. This new book that's just come out this week, and I have another book called The Singularity is Near as humans transcend biology. It should come out next spring.

And I write articles. I give speeches. We have a website and we have a staff of about ten people called and it's a collaborative site. We have about five hundred articles from a hundred big thinkers. We have a lot of discussion boards. We have a daily newsletter that's free. You can sign up on the home page and we maintain people's e-mail in confidence. And there's a discussion board associated with each news item. We have about half a million readers. That's a big project.

And I enjoy sharing ideas, developing ideas about technology trends, the impact of technology on society, the future of disabilities technologies and issues like that.

Recently, health technology has really sort of merged with that interest.

60% of my time is still on developing technology and running technology-related businesses. And I have a lot of really good people who work with me so I can leverage my time effectively.

I spend a fair amount of time on sort of triage in terms of sorting out the best speaking opportunities and things like that.

Tony Candela: Are you able to put in twelve hour days without feeling ill effects because I'm going to guess that's what you do?

Ray Kurzweil: I don't put in twelve hour days. I do spend time with my family.

I do my most creative work, literally, sort of in bed, a lucid dreaming process. It's actually a mental discipline that I've done for a long time.

Before I go to sleep I assign myself some problem and it can be any kind of problem. It can be a business challenge, a decision or some business issue. It could be a math problem. It can be how to design a particular invention or it could be a writing problem: how do I organize material to express a certain thought.

And I try not to solve the problem, because obviously that will cut off any further creative thought about it. But I do try to reflect on what to do. I know about this? What would a solution look like? What would a solution look like and what's the background knowledge I have related to this.

And then I go to sleep and then I will dream about it and if I wake up in the middle of the night I will find myself dreaming about something having to do, in a strange way, with this problem. And there's a couple of interesting characteristics of our dream thinking process. Censors are relaxed in dreaming. We allow ourselves to think about things we don't allow ourselves to think about. That's why dreams very often will deal with social taboos and things we don't allow ourselves to think about or at least talk about during the day.

But also, there are professional taboos that are relaxed. Taboos like, "You can't solve a signal processing problem that way," and "you don't use that technique for linguistics," and we have all these ways that professionals learn that you are supposed to solve problems and those are relaxed as well so you begin to think in creative new ways.

Something else not functioning in your dream life is your rational faculty. So you really are actually unable to evaluate ideas at that time. That's one of the reasons why strange things will happen in your dreams and what's strange about those, like say an elephant will come through the wall, what's strange about it is not just that the elephant came through the wall but the fact that you don't think it's strange in the dream.

It happens and you don't say, "My God, the elephant came through the wall. How did that happen?" [You say,] "Okay, the elephant came through the wall. Nothing strange about it."

It's because our rational faculties are not working. What you really would like to do is have this ability to make new connections, a sort of relaxation of the professional restrictions on our thinking, but also have our rational faculties.

Well there's a stage of in between dreaming and being awake. Kind of a lucid dreaming period. It generally happens in the morning. You are kind of vaguely aware that you're in bed. You could, for example, formulate the rational thought, "Gee, I've got a lot to do today. I'd better get out of bed and get up. That is, in fact, what most people do at that time.

But if you stay in bed instead, and let the dream process continue, cause you still have sort of access to the dream process, but now you're sufficiently conscious that your rational critical faculties are also working.

And I'll come back to the problem I assign myself when I went to sleep and invariably I'll have really dramatic new insights into that problem. Very often a solution, new ways of thinking about it.

If I have an important decision that I'm really not sure about, you know, what strategy should I use for this business problem, or should we hire this person or do this business deal or how would I solve this technical problem, I will use this technique and generally that's how I will solve these few problems.

During the day I'm just sort of carrying out these dream decisions. I don't rush out of bed and I don't work twelve-hour days, but I try to be efficient. My mind is always thinking about these things so depending on what you mean by work, I am constantly thinking and my work is mental work. I'm dealing with ideas, whether I'm doing technology development, business development, or I'm doing these communications projects in terms of writing. It's all the world of ideas.

Tony Candela: I will confess, the image I had was physically in motion, twelve hours a day. Actually up and walking, being seated, standing, talking.

Ray Kurzweil: If you make the right decisions. I don't claim that I make the right decisions. You can be very efficient. When you think about how many times, we all do this, you're in a big hurry, you're trying to get something done and you're working very hard and you do it, but it doesn't work right. So you start over, you have to do it over again and then people are constantly cleaning up messes they have made earlier.

So if you can really put effort into trying to make the right decisions and creative decisions, you can make very efficient use of your time.

Tony Candela: Again, my spies tell me that you are a prolific reader and absorber of information. What image do you have of yourself as an absorber of information? Do you sense that you are beyond the average person in that or do you just think of yourself as you, nothing unusual at all? Do you have a sense of your own prolific capability?

Ray Kurzweil: Well, I do have a fascination with information and knowledge, and actually always did. When I was a child, being fascinated with any kind of source of knowledge.

I had this deck of cards that had a... there was one for each date and another deck there was one for each country. And it gave you facts about all kinds of different things. What they exported and imported and the population and their flag. A lot of interesting knowledge.

And I felt that this was so precious, all of this knowledge that had been organized about every state in the country and every country in the world. So I always had a fascination with information and knowledge. And I am continually driven by curiosity, finding patterns. Patterns are really the key organizing principle in my work. My field of interest and expertise is pattern recognition, teaching machines to recognize patterns like printed letters or speech sounds.

And I do have a broad curiosity, I mean I have over the last twenty years been particularly interested in patterns of technology, and tracking technology trends. That started, actually, as a practical concern with being an inventor because I realized that the hardest thing in being an inventor is not so much getting the project to work. If you read business plans of a company, they claim they're going to do this and 90% of the time, they will do exactly what they say they're going to do, in terms of the technology.

They generally will get it to work. But 90-95% of the time the company will fail, not because they couldn't get the technology to work, but because the timing was wrong, because all the enabling factors, outside of what they were doing, were not in place and so they didn't catch the wave at the right time.

I became an ardent student of how technology evolves, because you can look around and see what the world is like today. But what's the world going to be like three or four years from now, when your project is finished? That's really what you need to target.

So I became an ardent student of technology trends, and that's taken on a life of its own. I have a team of ten people that helps me gather and keep data about technology trends and we develop mathematical models.

And one thing that's interesting is that you actually can make predictions about certain things quite reliably. It's difficult to predict which company is going to succeed two years from now or to answer which communications standard will be prevalent. Will CDMA or YMAX or G3 be the next wireless standard for communications? That's hard to answer.

But, if you ask, "What will the cost be of a method of computing, two years from now, or how much will it cost to transmit one bit of data wirelessly, how much will it cost to sequence a base pair," those types of questions can be answered very reliably.

We have these graphs, exponential graphs on logarithmic scales that are remarkably smooth and predictable.

So a book I wrote in the 1980s, my first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, has hundreds of predictions about the 1990s and the early 2000s, based on these models. And they're really quite accurate.

And I've continued that and been developing more sophisticated mathematical models of how these different technologies could evolve. And that, really, you can predict.

These trends, for example, the exponential improvement of price performance computing goes back a century, long before Moore was born, before we had transistors. So it's actually an inexorable result of an evolutionary process. Technology competition is a form of evolution and evolution accelerates because we always use the latest tool to create the next set of tools.

So today we can use very powerful computers to design computers. Fifty years ago we designed them with pencil on paper. So that's why technology evolves in this exponential fashion.

Tony Candela: The compelling question I'd like to ask you is, what do you think will happen if some of the predictions, especially about life prolongation, actually come true, in terms of the world population and things of that nature? Do you work on those types of questions?

Ray Kurzweil: Yes. One mistake that people often make when looking at future trends is to take one trend and put it on today's world as if nothing else is going to change.

Okay, radical life extension, which means that people will live longer. The population will go up and my God, what's that going to do to pollution and Social Security funding and on and on. As if nothing else is going to change.

Most science futurism movies also make this same mistake. The movie AI [has] human level cyborgs but everything else is the same: the coffee maker, the cars, nothing else is changed. There's no virtual reality, no other forms of artificial intelligence.

The movie 2001 was the same way. All of these science futurism movies keep today's world and put some single change on it. It actually would be difficult for the craft of science fiction, either writing or movies, to show all the changes that are going to happen because it would take a long time to explain them all. We'd have to... sort of no common ground to recognize the situation.

But the reality is that lots of things are going to change. If we did have radical life extension and people didn't age and just stayed forty for five-hundred years, people actually would get very bored, quite aside from various practical problems that would occur. But that's not the only change.

When nanotechnology is fully formed, first of all, we'll be able to meet the material needs, physical needs of any conceivable size population. We'll be able to create any physical product just from information and very inexpensive raw materials. Anything that people need will be able to be produced for almost no cost. We'll actually have needs for supporting, given that sort of technology, a much larger population than we have.

There are other things that actually constrain population, the population bomb, so to speak, did not happen as was expected. As societies got wealthier they actually tended to curtail their populations.

But in terms of the issue of will we get bored? These technologies will also lead to radical life expansion. We'll be sending billions of nanobots into our brain, not specifically to communicate with our biological neurons but to actually enhance human intelligence. We'll be able to have virtual reality from within the nervous system. We'll be able to expand human thinking, instead of being limited as we are today to one-hundred trillion interneural connections, we could multiply that by a thousand or a million. The new connections can operate a million times faster, probably at the speed of light, not at chemical switching speed.

We'll be able to have intimate connection to powerful new forms of non-biological intelligence. And we really will expand human intelligence.

One can argue that we've done that already, even if the computers for the most part are not inside our bodies and brains. They're still very close to us. We're certainly routinely doing intellectual feats that would be impossible without our computers. And they're getting closer to us, in our pockets and then they will start weaving them in our clothing. And they ultimately will make their way into our bodies and brains.

And there already are people who have computers in their brains. Basically to replace tissue destroyed by disease, like an implant for Parkinson's disease.

But ultimately we'll be able to do this non-invasively and it won't just be to get back to where we were before we got sick and we'll actually be able to expand human potential

So given that, we won't get bored. We'll be expanding human potential. In my mind, we should not define human beings by our limitations but rather by the fact that we are the species that seeks to go beyond our limitations. We didn't stay on the ground, we didn't even stay on the planet. We're not staying with the limitations of our biology. We are already moving way beyond that.

Human life expectancy was thirty-seven in 1800, fifty-five in 1900. It's close to eighty today and it's going to keep expanding and we're going to expand human potential.

Tony Candela: Clearly you are a futurist. Do you consider yourself, to some extent, a utopian idealist? Do you see, in your mind, a society where these changes now having occurred, a lifestyle difference for us, how we exist as people on this earth, etc.? A kind of global utopian view?

Ray Kurzweil: My view of the future stems from the study of technology trends and I have a whole theory as to why technology accelerates. I've articulated a little bit about it.

Each new generation of tools gives us more proper tools to create the next generation. That's why there is this inexorable, exponential growth and the power of these technologies.

I'm not a utopian and it's not a utopian vision. In fact, I've talked a lot about the intertwined promise and peril of technologies. It empowers our creative side and it empowers our destructive side.

There was an article, a cover story in Wired magazine, by Bill Joy, called "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" and it was actually a very pessimistic article about the destructive potential for these new technologies, that they could be used by terrorists, for example, to cause enormous destruction. So he called for relinquishing technologies like biotechnology and nanotechnology.

I don't agree with that. We've engaged in a lot of debates.

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