Whoa. I listened today to the 34 minute Science Friday podcast from December 23, 2005, featuring Ray Kurzweil discussing future technologies. He is the author of “The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology.” In the podcast interview, Kurzweil focuses mostly on the growth of biotechnology, where biology and technology are increasingly being wed. He predicts that by 2020 the capability of the human brain will be superseded by the power of computational technologies.

Kurzweil talks extensively about eventual brain implants: in the next decade having full immersion virtual reality where a computer writes sensory perception directly to the retina of a person (like a soldier or other “gamer”) participating in a virtual environment. This is eye opening stuff to say the least.

He says we are already putting “nano-engineered devices” into human bodies, including the brain. Parkinson’s patients TODAY can have neural implants in their brains to replace parts of their tissue, so they have a hybrid brain that is literally a combination of computer technology that interacts with their biological functions. This technology implementation may not be “the terminator” yet, but we are close to having that sort of functionality (minus time travel, however).

If we can barely begin to imagine the future we are rapidly moving into, as Kurzweil asserts, my question is how can we prepare students for success in this dynamic environment?

Kurzweil contends that the overall exponential growth in many different information technology areas will continue and not “hit the wall” because of changes in the way those technologies are created and implemented. (The move from silicon to biotechnology, for example.)

According to Kurzweil, Bridge 1 is applying today’s knowledge. Bridge 2 involves the reprogramming of biology– slowing down or even stopping the aging process itself. The third bridge is using nanotechnology to go beyond the limits of biology, which Kurzweil asserts “will allow us to live indefinitely.” Whoa.

Kurzweil observes “When the price point reaches a certain level, whole new applications for a given technology open up… adoption of these technologies gets faster and faster.” He notes that the industry of food production used to consume a third of the world’s workforce, but now that has shrunk to just three percent. (This is quantification of the Third Wave’s existence, btw.) He says within 20 years we can have nano-engineered solar panels (instead of old industrial-aged manufactured solar panels like we have today) so we’ll be able to provide for all our energy needs using solar energy and fuel cells, almost for free.

I didn’t know that Mozart and Schubert died at age 34. Kurzweil mentions this in the context of answering a caller’s question about why we should strive to extend human life expectancy. In his book “Fantastic Voyage : Live Long Enough to Live Forever” by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, the authors go into detail about their own personalized programs to extend their lives and live much healthier.

Kurzweil admits that computational speed alone does not equate to human intelligence, but argues that the more sophisticated software available and being developed will extend our ability to understand our emotional intelligence as well as cognition. So he definitely sees computers being and becoming much more than “super-calculators.”

I agree with Kurzweil’s assertion that “the Internet (decentralized electronic communication) is a democratizing technology.” (see 32:08 in the podcast.) Friedman discusses this also in “The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century,” although I don’t remember him citing Kurzweil. I think Friedman’s book is the first place I read about the major influence of information technologies (like fax machines and email) in eventually bringing down the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe.

Near the end of the podcast interview, Kurzweil addresses issues about the phenomenal RECENT changes we have seen in the ability of people to publish at will (that term is mine not his, however) and the impact this is and will have on our global culture as well as economies and lives (see minute/second mark 32:48 of the podcast for this quotation):

We have democratized the means of creation… a kid in her dorm room can command with a few hundred dollar software program and her PC the equivalent of a million dollar recording studio of 10 or 15 years ago or a multimillion dollar movie production studio for editing and so on. A blogger with a PC can reach millions of people. A couple of kids in their dorm room in Stanford just working on a casual dorm project created some software that today is worth $100 billion dollars…

So, if I can summarize, I would observe that Kurzweil’s predication is that the revolution is and will be decentralized, dynamical, and as rapid as the speed of creativity.

Hold on to your hats, folks.

To learn more about Kurzweil, check out his WikiPedia entry. And (almost) Happy New Year! 🙂

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