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Friday, June 6, 2008

Exponential Technologies: Cheer Up World—We Are On the Verge of Great Things

At the recent World Science Festival in New York City, Ray Kurzweil outlined why he is certain that the future isn’t as dreary as it’s been painted, and why we are closer to the incredible than we think: Exponential upward curves can be deceptively gradual in the beginning. But when things start happening, they happen fast. Here are a selection of his predicted trajectories for these “miracles” based on his educated assessment of where science and technology is at in the present.

· Within 5 years the exponential progress in nanoengineering will make Solar power cost-competitive with fossil fuels

· Within 10 years we will have a pill that allows us all to eat whatever we feel like and never gain any unwanted weight

· In 15 years, life expectancies will start rising faster than we age

· In about 20 years 100% of our energy will come from clean and renewable sources, and a computer will pass the Turing Test by carrying on a conversation that is indistinguishable from a human’s.

Commenting on the validity of Kurzweil’s predictions, John Tierney notes in the New York Times that Kurzweil has been uncannily accurate in the past:

“It may sound too good to be true, but even his critics acknowledge he’s not your ordinary sci-fi fantasist. He is a futurist with a track record and enough credibility for the National Academy of Engineering to publish his sunny forecast for solar energy. He makes his predictions using what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns, a concept he illustrated at the festival with a history of his own inventions for the blind.

In 1976, when he pioneered a device that could scan books and read them aloud, it was the size of a washing machine. Two decades ago he predicted that “early in the 21st century” blind people would be able to read anything anywhere using a handheld device. In 2002 he narrowed the arrival date to 2008. On Thursday night at the festival, he pulled out a new gadget the size of a cellphone, and when he pointed it at the brochure for the science festival, it had no trouble reading the text aloud. This invention, Dr. Kurzweil said, was no harder to anticipate than some of the predictions he made in the late 1980s, like the explosive growth of the Internet in the 1990s and a computer chess champion by 1998.”

Kurzweil backed up his claims at the conference with charts and graphs that showed some of the exponential advancements of the past. One graph showed how computing power started with the first electromechanical machines over a century ago. Initially they doubled every three years. At mid-century, they began to double every two years, which was the rate that inspired Moore’s Law. It now takes only a year. Another graph showed technological changes going back millions of starting with stone tools working its way up to modern computers.

“Certain aspects of technology follow amazingly predictable trajectories,” Kurzweil noted. Hopefully, the popular sci-fi plot where uncontrolled science and technology dooms mankind has gotten it backwards. If Kurzweil is right, the future isn’t as bleak as many claim, and science may well turn out to be our savior.

Posted by Rebecca Sato

Original here

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