Why Ray Kurzweil's Predictions Are Right 86% of the Time
It's that time of the year again when techno pundits are once again breathlessly telling us all about the technology and innovation trends that will be big in 2013. That's great, but many of those predictions will be hopelessly wrong by the end of March. That's why it's so fascinating that Ray Kurzweil, one of the leading thinkers when it comes to the future of technology, has had such a strong track record in making predictions about technology for nearly two decades. In fact, of the 147 predictions that Kurzweil has made since the 1990's, fully 115 of them have turned out to be correct, and another 12 have turned out to be "essentially correct" (off by a year or two), giving his predictions a stunning 86% accuracy rate. So how does he do it?
The fact is, Ray has a system and this system is called the Law of Accelerating Returns. In his new book How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, Kurzweil points out that "every fundamental measure of information technology follows predictable and exponential trajectories." The most famous of these trajectories, of course, has been the price/performance path of computing power over more than 100 years. Thanks to paradigms such as Moore's Law, which reduces computing power to a problem of how many transistors you can cram on a chip, anyone can intuitively understand why computers are getting exponentially faster and cheaper over time.
The other famous exponential growth curve in our lifetime is the sheer amount of digital information available on the Internet. Kurzweil typically graphs this as "bits per second transmitted on the Internet." That means the amount of information on the Internet is doubling approximately every 1.25 years. That's why "Big Data" is such a buzzword these days - there's a growing recognition that we're losing track of all the information we're putting up on the Internet, from Facebook status updates, to YouTube videos, to funny meme posts on Tumblr. In just a decade, we will have created more content than existed for thousands of years in humanity's prior experience.
And it's not just computing power or the growth of the Internet. Chapter ten in Kurzweil's latest book, How to Create a Mind, includes 15 other charts that show these exponential growth curves at work. Once any technology becomes an information technology, it becomes subject to the Law of Accelerating Returns. Consider biomedicine, for example. Now that the human genome is being translated into a digital life code of 1's and 0's that can be processed by computers, it's also an information technology, and that means it's also subject to the Law of Accelerating Returns. When you look at the cost of sequencing a human-sized genome, the cost started dropping exponentially around 2001 and fell off the genomic cliff in about 2007 -- about the same time that Craig Venter's genome project took off.
As Ray points out in How to Create a Mind, the reason why typical pundits and prognosticators typically get it wrong year after year is that the human mind has evolved to think linearly, not exponentially. We conceive of 40 steps as a linear progression: one step after another, from 1 to 40. When Ray thinks of 40 steps, though, he views it exponentially, as 2^40, and that's 1 trillion. In fact, at a recent talk Kurzweil gave at TEDx Silicon Alley in Manhattan, he mentioned what can be called the "1% fallacy." When most people hear that only 1% of the problem has been solved, they usually give up and assume it will be years until it's fully solved. Ray thinks exponentially, though. From his perspective, if you've solved 1% of the problem, it means that you're not 1/100 of the way there (i.e. 99 tiny linear steps to go), it means you're only a few more exponential steps away. That's why Ray's latest project - reverse-engineering the human brain - is so exciting. Once we've reverse-engineered just 1% of the human brain, it means that we're just a few steps away from creating a synthetic cortex - the world's' best algorithmic Pattern Recognition Machine.
So what can we count on for 2013? Think like Ray, and use the Law of Accelerating Returns to your advantage. Figure out the scale of the problem that you're facing, figure out the computing power needed to achieve it, and then work backwards to arrive at an approximate timeline. Using this simple approach, Ray was able to predict that an artificial intelligence technology like Deep Blue would be capable of beating a chess grandmaster by 1998. He talked to a grandmaster, figured out that an AI machine would have to recognize 100,000 possible board positions at any time, and that it would have to have the raw computing chops to crunch all possible combinations of these 100,000 board positions over and over again. Once that required computing power was possible (thanks to Moore's Law), it was time to move on to the next challenge -- becoming a Jeopardy! champion. Now, with the victory of Watson, it's time to move on to the next challenge - becoming the world's best doctor.
The really exciting feature of the Law of Accelerating Returns is that it implicity assumes that one exponential technology builds on top of the next exponential technology. Something like 3D printing is an example of one exponential technology building on top of another exponential technology. In fact, 3D printing may turn out to be the ultimate exponential technology for the coming 12 months, so much so that WIRED's Chris Anderson is betting his reputation on it. So what other areas could be ripe for surprise breakthroughs next year, due to exponential leaps in computing power? If you're the type of prognosticator who enjoys rolling the dice in Vegas, this is a game where the odds are actually stacked in your favor, and you have an 86% chance of beating the house.
image: Ray Kurzweil / Wikimedia Commons
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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