Evolution Is a Spiritual Process: An Interview With Ray Kurzweil

08/08/2011 05:06 pm ET | Updated Oct 08, 2011

As I stepped off the NYC subway on my way to interview Ray Kurzweil, a woman bumped into me and my iPhone (in what seemed like bullet time) fell, bounced, and then dropped down into the tracks of the 1 train. People looked on in horror as if a puppy had just died. Seeing no police officers, I jumped down off the platform, grabbed my phone, climbed back up, and with a proud smirk, told a couple onlooking kids "Don't ever do that."

Walking to Lincoln Center, where I was to meet Ray, I thought about how interconnected I already was with technology. My smart phone is a literal external hard drive for my brain, it allows me to communicate nearly telepathically, I get access to almost all of human knowledge and it does hundreds of other things better than my biological brain. Even more mind blowing perhaps, is that just 40 years ago a device with similar processing power would have taken up a city block and cost billions of dollars -- tonight Kurzweil would explain how in just 20 years, this capability will cost pennies and be housed in the something the size of a red blood cell.

For the uninitiated, Ray Kurzweil is a modern day Thomas Edison, with an exhaustive body of work ranging from the Kurzweil electric keyboard to a hand held device that reads books to the blind. Along the way, he became interested in the pattern of exponential growth that he was noticing in technology. He began to study this phenomenon and it enabled him to predict things with an uncanny accuracy. Things like predicting ten years in advance the year a machine would beat a human world chess champion. His models also predict some very fantastic things -- like a near future in which all of our energy needs are met by solar power, laptops that are smarter than humans, and the eventual merging of humans with machines.

Kurzweil is one of history's most prolific, controversial and often misunderstood inventors. His work has consisted in part of taking very conservative, accepted data sets and running them through very conservative, accepted predictive models, and the results end up being very startling to most humans since, as Kurzweil sees it, we are hard wired to think linearly vs. exponentially.

The evenings agenda included a talk by Kurzweil followed by a panel including Deepak Chopra, director Barry Ptolemy, Michio Kaku, Dean Kamen and Tan Le. The event was being simulcast to theaters around the world in honor of Barry's new film, Transcendent Man: The Life and Ideas of Ray Kurzweil.

Before Ray took the stage, we were able to share some time together and discuss his thoughts on the film, the future of technology and how evolution is an inherently spiritual process. What follows is the full transcription of our conversation.

Anthony David Adams: What did you love most about the film?

Ray Kurzweil: I think it's a beautiful film, just the attention to detail, the cinematography. When it's talking about life and death, Barry zooms in on a frail butterfly with a religious Christian symbol behind it. I still don't fully understand it actually, but it's a beautiful metaphor. Because the butterfly is very frail and it's alive and it seems to be struggling. So it's full of delicate details like that that really raises it to being a brilliant movie. Aside from that, it captures my ideas accurately. That doesn't go without saying because lots of presentations don't. It did a good job of balancing point and counter point and also articulating the critical points of view. And then it captured my personal story in a way that I thought was insightful where I learned something about myself and I was comfortable with it. But that's not to say it didn't delve into some uncomfortable or personal areas.

ADA: What was uncomfortable about it for you?

RK: Well just to have this public vehicle delve into my personal life, which it did in a genuine way. But I felt good about it, and did learn some things about myself, like the relationship to my father and how that influenced me personally and professionally. And how that relationship actually spanned those two areas of my life. So there was kind of a revelation.

ADA: Your relationship with your father as an influence in your work is so apparent when you watch the film. It seems that it's such a clear connection... Is that something that wasn't as apparent for you?

RK: It wasn't as apparent. It wasn't even that apparent until after the movie was shot. I didn't see it until a few weeks before it premiered at the Tribeca film festival. Barry had taken 200 hours of footage and interviewed 80 people and spent years with me following to something like 30 cities and 5 countries. So I didn't know, and I don't think he knew either when he finished shooting, what the movie would be. So I think he did a brilliant job of forging this movie from all that footage. And that was sort of a delightful aspect that I discovered these aspects of my personality.

ADA: You had mentioned that Barry did a good job articulating the points and counter points and criticisms. What would you say is the strongest criticism of your ideas?

RK: The strongest criticism that is voiced in the movie, and it's so subtle that it almost doesn't need articulation, is "well, I just don't see the precursors of what Kurzweil is talking about." And I completely agree with that, I would not see the precursors either if I thought progress was linear and not exponential. And that by the way is people's intuition and that intuition is actually hardwired. Because we have predictors, in our brain, in fact that is why we have a brain. So that we can predict the future, so I can say "oh that animal is going to intercept my path, I better take a better path" that's the value of intelligence, but those built in predictors are linear, not exponential and so that is our intuition. So these scientists who have not studied technology trends look at what's going on, they take the current pace or progress and it's just obvious it's going to take hundreds of years. I mean for example, half way through the genome project, 7 years into a 15 year project we had finished 1 percent. And the critics that were in the main stream said "I told you, this is going to take 700 years." My response was "no, we are almost done, 1% in a geometric progression is only 7 doublings from a 100%." And indeed it continued to double every year and was done 7 years later, but it's not intuitive. But Kevin Kelly says that "well the precursors, I just don't see them, they aren't here." He's thinking linearly, that's the primary difference. Invariably it gets expressed in different ways but people just intuitively looking at reality taking the current pace of progress it's obvious it doesn't even need to be said that it's going to continue at the current pace. That is perhaps the most pervasive and the most insidious criticism because you don't even have to make the argument you just sort of ridicule the assumptions. The only way to respond to that is with a great deal of empirical evidence which I assembled in Singularity is Near and have been building ever since, but then people don't bother looking at it.

ADA: Well it's a pretty thick book for a lot people.

RK: Yes, well a lot of critics don't bother to read the evidence and they make de novo criticisms as if nothing has ever been said about these issues. But that's the most pervasive one because that is our untested intuition.

ADA: After coming into contact with your work, I've been not only trying to see things from a technology standpoint as a geometric progression, but I've also been looking for opportunity to simply advance projects at an exponential rate. For example, with my One Toy Spaceship Project, I've seen the value of each trade increase by an astounding amount -- this isn't due to technology, but I made a conscious effort to seek "geometric opportunity." Have you noticed similar patterns with your work?

RK: Well there is no question I have seen the evidence of this in my own work because I can have work groups of 3 people in a few weeks do what used to take 50 or 100 people a year or two. I've been organizing work groups to do tasks for 45 years or more and it's just extraordinary what you can accomplish now with small groups. The resources you have and the resources that everybody has. I have a strong interest actually in bringing this type of entrepreneurship into high schools and junior high schools we see college kids, Zuckerberg, Page, creating revolutions with $1,000 laptops. That could happen in high schools and junior high schools -- these kids are very savvy, they are hip, they understand solutions, but they aren't given the freedom to change the world. We've got this idea that we must suck up every minute of their time keeping them busy so that they can be educated when they don't need to have there heads stuffed with facts, that's what we have these things [motions to his hip holstered smart phone] for. They need to learn how to solve real world problems, which doesn't mean starting a company, it could mean starting a dance troupe or starting a theater company. But doing real world projects is, I think, the best way to learn and also to engage the world and find out what the world is all about. But I do think we will see future Facebooks coming from high school kids and junior high school kids.

ADA: We see that the economy is rapidly changing, students are graduating college with tremendous debt, they are doing these post graduate internships, basically working for free. Given your view of the landscape of the future what would your advice be for young folks, high school and college age kids, that are interested in starting something; -- what might that look like, and where should they be poking around?

RK: They should find a problem they are passionate about and go about trying to solve it. You can solve a problem like hunger in Nigeria. To pick a problem and do a project that is ambitious and organize your friends, or let your friend organize you, and you'll definitely learn something and some of these projects actually will take off. That's what we do here at Singularity University [motions to lapel pin]. Half of the curriculum is all these team projects, these are graduate level college students who get together and do team projects, where the goal is to affect a billion people positively within 10 years. So these projects are ongoing, some started several years ago, and they've raised money and they are launching projects or NGO's and taking on real world problems like water and housing and the environment. That is the best way to learn and actually do some good at the same time.

ADA: What stays the same? You predict a lot of radical change not only for technology but how humans experience reality, how humans experience each other, humans merging with machines, what persists through all of that?

RK: Some people say, "Gee, if we merge with machines where does the human stop and the machine start? When do we lose our humanity?." In my mind we don't lose our humanity. That is what stays the same. Our technology, our machines, is part of our humanity. We created them to extend ourselves and that is what is unique about human beings. We are the only species on the planet that extends our reach that transcends. We didn't stay on the ground, we didn't stay on the planet, we didn't stay within the limits of our biology. What other species does that? So as we change ourselves we are staying the same. Which is to say we are the transcendent species we are the species that transcends our limitations. And we are going to keep doing that, we are going to keep changing ourselves. So I don't like the term trans-humanist, meaning we are going beyond our humanity, the future is trans-biological. We are going to beyond the limits of our biology and keep our humanity. That's the goal anyway.

ADA: Do you see technology helping us to better understand ourselves and our purpose?

RK: I'm writing a book right now called How the Mind Works and How to Make One. Seeking to understand and explain the mind. And I actually have a thesis, a theory as to a unifying principal around which the brain is built. I talk about how that reflects itself in many different ways. But that has been the goal of the arts and the sciences, which is to understand ourselves. And as we do that we can better ourselves, we can change ourselves, we can use biologically inspired methods to create better machines. We will use those machines to enhance our own existence and understanding ourselves is the goal of technology, that's why we have it.

ADA: How do you see these developments impacting our ideas and experience of love?

RK: There are several different perspectives on love. One is that it is a high level concept of which our cortex is capable of. We have different pattern recognizers some will recognize that a capital A has a cross bar, those are kind of at the bottom of the conceptual hierarchy, and then some are recognize things like "oh that's funny," or "that's ironic," "she's pretty," or "I love that person" -- these are very high level concepts. When I say that computers will match human intelligence, I'm really talking about those concepts, because if you're talking about the logical ones, computers are already better then we are. But those are actually the cutting edge of human intelligence. And you can view it in an evolutionary perspective that there is actually value in us connecting to each other, because it leads to better protection of the species if we actually create communities based on love and act as a super organism as opposed to every individual for him or herself, which is actually not a good strategy overall.

So there is an evolutionary reason why love evolved. But I think that as we enhance ourselves through our technology and ultimately actually merge with it, we are going to be more capable of being more loving and capable of representing what that means. That is the epitome of what evolution is trying to achieve and in that regard, I consider evolution to be a spiritual process because it moves towards greater levels of intelligence, beauty, creativity, knowledge and love. All of which are attributes that god has been called, without limit, god is infinite in these qualities, an evolutionary process even the singularity which will be an explosion of these attributes that doesn't reach infinite levels, although there is some debate about that, that's my position anyway.

My view is it just grows at a doubling exponential rate, so it gets to pretty fantastic levels, but it doesn't become infinite, it may appear that way, from sort of our lowly vantage point. But it's moving in that direction, so we are becoming more godlike. So it is a spiritual process.

ADA: Which Burning Man Camp are you at this year?

RK: I've actually never been, but it sounds like people having a transcendent time.


Anthony David Adams is an activist, entrepreneur and visionary currently trading his way to outer-space in the name of science education at