Cyberpunk come true

Weekly Read highlights Ray Kurzweil’s 2001 essay, The Law of Accelerating Returns. It’s a lengthy read, but it boils down to this: computational power is growing at an exponential rate while transistors are shrinking at an exponential rate. Socio-political trends such as education, ecommerce and GDP expenditures are also growing exponentially.

In light of these trends, Ray extrapolates that humankind will continue to advance technologically faster and faster; according to his math, for example, he predicts we will:

  1. Achieve one Human Brain capability for $1,000 in 2023.
  2. Achieve one Human Brain capability for one cent in 2037.
  3. Achieve one Human Race capability for $1,000 in 2049.
  4. Achieve one Human Race capability for one cent in 2059.

Quite the aggressive timetable, you might say. Ray believes humanity will reach Vinge’s Singularity – a point where human innovation and intelligence will accelerate to a near-infinite pace!

The seemingly insane part of this is, Ray’s calculations indicate that we will reach this Singularity within our present lifetimes.

By the second half of this next century, there will be no clear distinction between human and machine intelligence. On the one hand, we will have biological brains vastly expanded through distributed nanobot-based implants. On the other hand, we will have fully nonbiological brains that are copies of human brains, albeit also vastly extended.

I am reminded by the current trend in Olympic records. That is, at every Olympics, athletes have become stronger and faster and invariably break existing records. Optimists believe this trend will continue endlessly, and someday humans will run the 100m sprint in less than a second. Others believe that record-breaking will begin to slow down and stop due to some physical limitation the human body (and human health sciences) have yet to reach.

Ray’s hypothesis has merit assuming:

  • The accelerating rate of energy research exceeds that of the rate of resource consumption: In other words, we discover alternative energy sources to consume before we exhaust our current ones.
  • The accelerating rate of intelligence exceeds the rate of weapon research: That is, when we have the capability to create the Bomb to End All Bombs, we’ll have the intelligence not to use it and blow us all up.
  • Financial incentives for innovation increases in a locking step with said innovative breakthroughs. Gotta keep the economy flowing.

Even Ray admits there can’t be infinite growth in a finite universe: he sees this trend continuing “at least until we ‘saturate’ the Universe with the intelligence of our human-machine civilization, but that will not be a limit in this coming century.”

How do we know we won’t hit some inverse Condon curve of innovation down the line, and human achievement will stagnate? I want to believe him, though.