Ray Kurzweil: The Six Epochs of Technology Evolution

Ray Kurzweil is an expert at predicting the future. In tracking our progress in the technological-evolutionary journey, Kurzweil has identified six epochs, each of which is characterized by a major paradigm shift.

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Ray Kurzweil is an expert at predicting the future. Some of his career highlights include foreseeing the fall of the Soviet Union, the invention of the Internet and a computer beating a man at chess.

So what will the coming decades hold for us? In tracking our progress in the technological-evolutionary journey, Kurzweil has identifies six epochs, each of which is characterized by a major paradigm shift.

Kurzweil describes where we came from, where we are today, and where we're going, in this video below:

What's the Big Idea?

To recap, here are the 6 epochs of Technology Evolution, as defined by Kurzweil:

Epoch 1. Physics and Chemistry

At the beginning of the universe, all information existed at the subatomic level.

Epoch 2. Biology and DNA

With the beginning of life on Earth, genetic information was stored in DNA molecules, and yet organisms takes thousands of years to evolve.

Epoch 3. Brains

Evolution produced increasingly complex organisms. The birth of the brain allowed organisms to change their behavior and learn from past experiences.

Epoch 4. Technology

Humans evolved into organisms with the ability to create technology. We are right now in the final stages of this epoch.

Epoch 5. The Merger of Human Technology with Human Intelligence

Biology and technology will begin to merge in order to create higher forms of life and intelligence.

Epoch 6. The Universe Wakes Up

Theis epoch will see the birth of super-intelligence, and with it, humans/machines expanding into the Universe.

What's the Significance?

So what does this all mean for us today and in the near-future? For one thing, it will be harder than ever before to find a distinction between human and machine. In fact, "it will be all mixed up," Kurzweil says. "The bottom line is we are one human-machine civilization. This technology has already expanded who we are and is going to go into high gear when we get to the steep part of the exponential [curve]."

Some key dates along the way: by 2020, "we’ll have computers that are powerful enough to simulate the human brain, but we won’t be finish yet with reverse-engineering the human brain and understanding its methods." That will happen by 2029, when "we’ll have reverse-engineered and modeled and simulated all the regions of the brain. And that will provide us the software/algorithmic methods to simulate all of the human brain's capabilities including our emotional intelligence. And computers at that time will be far more powerful than the human brain."

Sound both scary and liberating? It should.

Kurzweil predicts, among other things, that biotechnology will stop aging. But we'll keep having sex, and just get rid of the death part.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.