Last month, famed inventor, entrepreneur and futurist, Ray Kurwzeil, announced that he was joining Google as a director of engineering. In an email to TechCrunch, Kurzweil said at the time that he would be assuming a full-time position in Mountain View, focusing on “new technology development,” as well as machine learning and language processing.
Joining other giants of technology at Google, like VP, Chief Internet Evangelist and “father of the Internet” Vint Cerf, the move was not necessarily an unexpected one, especially as Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have long been fascinated by “the singularity” — the theoretical moment in time in which artificial intelligence surpasses the human brain. Beyond being credited as the inventor of the CCD flatbed scanner, the first print-to-speech reading machine, and various other speech recognition technologies and text-to-speech synthesizers, Kurzweil is one of the better known proponents of technological singularity and helped to popularize the concept.
Nonetheless, many have wondered what Kurzweil’s new position would mean for Google and the billions of people its global reach directly or indirectly touches. Would they be uploading Kurzweil’s brain into their datacenters? Become the next Skynet? Fulfill technological prophecies? Speaking at an event at Singularity University today, X Prize Chairman Peter Diamandis and Kurzweil shared in a dialogue that sheds a bit more light on just what Kurz-Google will mean.
Thanks to a post by my friend Kelly Faircloth at BetaBeat and Vivek Wadhwa’s live tweets, we learned that the futurist will be “working on advanced implementations of AI” at Google, where he will apparently have “unlimited resources.”
While it might seem odd that an independent thinker like Kurzweil would join a large corporation, given Google’s reach, enormous computing resources and talent pool (along with the presumed freedom to investigate whether or not Androids dream of electric sheep), there’s plenty of incentive to take this kind of work to Mountain View. Participating directly in innovation — arguably at one of the forefronts — likely has a bit more appeal than writing books and speaking. After all, who needs to know how to read when the robots can do that for us?! It’s likely the same impetus that drew Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig to Google, for example.
In conversation with Diamandis, Kurzweil said that he envisions his role at Google to be one in which he helps to create technology that truly understands human language and its real meaning. (At this point, Siri loudly got up and left the room.) Thanks to its many, far-reaching tentacles, Google already has an enormous amount of information about human speech, thought, and beyond; knows where we are, what we’re interested in, who are friends are; and what we’re saying in our emails. “What if Google were actually able to understand us — the user?” to paraphrase a question posed by the futurist.
In part, that’s a frightening concept. (And not really even “in part.”) It’s easy for companies to become wrapped up in defending their market positions, increasing stock price, which often seems to work against them — or at least against their presumed better, innovation-centric selves. So, while Kurzweil’s mission may be an appealing one for us armchair thinkers, the question is whether Google will be able to maintain its “don’t be evil” mantra in the face of innovation, exponential technological growth, knowing anything that happens anywhere — in minutes — and the singularity.
While it may just be food for science fiction fans, Kurzweil said that tech isn’t moving in a linear manner but toward the exponential, and it will “create abundance” as a result. At which point Diamandis chimed in to say that, in fact, “the world’s biggest problems are its biggest market opportunities,” like energy, food and water — or the scarcity thereof. Wishful thinking or not, we need more that believe this.
“We can use technology for creativity or destruction, it’s up to us,” Kurzweil said (via Wadhwa). While it may be hard for people to understand the multivariate implications of technology’s exponential growth curve, things are indeed changing quickly. Asking questions of our phones and getting answers seemed crazy just a few years ago, he said, and today we complain that it isn’t perfect. And therein lies another rub: We expect a lot, and technology has taught us to do so, yet we often give little ourselves.
Moore’s Law will run out of steam this century and will be replaced by new paradigms, Kurzweil told the crowd, as exponential technologies grow at the speed of light in fields like AI, nanotech, robotics and computational neuroscience.
Soon, we will see high school kids contributing to innovation in a meaningful way, he said. While that is an exciting (if not terrifying) notion, “soon” may be a relative term, considering that computer science classes are currently absent in about 95 percent of high schools in the U.S. Though that’s starting to change, too. Albeit slowly.
The most salient point, at least from my perspective, is that we can all benefit from remembering to “think big” — rather than the alternative. Minutiae be damned! To Google’s credit, it has the reputation of supporting and fostering this kind of thinking, and it’s exciting to think of the possibilities that Kurzweil has with access to the levers of Google resources. And, yes, that’s also somewhat terrifying.
As are some of the implications of this speculation from the singularity believer:
Check out Kurzweil’s conversation with TechCrunch’s own Colleen Taylor here.