columnfor | Business 2.0Dear PC: RIP

by Ray Kurzweil
August 1, 2021


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~ column | by Ray Kurzweil

publication: Business 2.0
section: in-depth
column title: Dear PC: RIP
author: by Ray Kurzweil
date: September 2000

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Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the post-PC future includes nano-bots and fully immersive virtual reality.

Dear PC: RIP
by Ray Kurzweil

An introduction.

Many long-range forecasts of technical feasibility dramatically under-estimate the power of future tech because they’re based on what I call the ‘intuitive linear’ view of technological progress rather than the ‘historical exponential view.’ It’s not the case that we’ll experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century. Instead, we’ll witness on the order of 20,000 years of progress — at today’s rate of progress, that is.

The rate of progress isn’t constant.

Careful consideration of the pace of technology shows that the rate of progress isn’t constant, but it’s human nature to simply adapt to the changing pace. So the intuitive view is that the pace will continue — at the current rate. Even for those of us who’ve lived through a long period of tech progress — to experience how the pace increases over time — our unexamined intuition still provides the impression that progress changes at the rate we’ve recently experienced.

One reason for this is an exponential curve approximates a straight line when viewed for a brief duration. So even though the rate of progress in the very recent past (i.e. this past year) is far greater than it was 10 years ago — let alone 100 or 1,000 years ago — our memories are dominated by our very recent experience. It’s typical even for sophisticated analysts, when thinking about tomorrow, to extrapolate the current pace of change over the next 10 years or 100 years. That’s why I call this way of looking at the future the ‘intuitive linear’ view.

Technology progress is exponential.

But any serious look at history shows that technological change is at least exponential, not linear. There are many examples of this — the exponential growth of computing is just one. You can examine data on a wide variety of technologies, on many different time-scales, and see (at least) double exponential growth — following a path that I call ‘the law of accelerating returns.’

This observation doesn’t rely on the continuation of Moore’s law. It’s based on a rich model of diverse technological processes. What it clearly shows is that tech advances (at least) exponentially — since the advent of evolution on Earth. Most technology forecasts ignore this ‘historical exponential view’ of tech progress. Instead, they assume ‘the intuitive linear view.’

That’s why people tend to over-estimate what can be achieved in the short term — because we tend to leave-out necessary details. But under-estimate what can be achieved in the long term — because we ignore the fact of exponential growth. This also applies to paradigm-shift rates — currently doubling (approx.) every decade. So tech progress in the 21st century will be equivalent to what would require — at today’s rate of progress — 20,000 years. In terms of the growth of computing, the comparison is even more dramatic.

The acceleration of computing power didn’t start with Moore’s law.

When we apply the law of accelerating returns to the genesis of Moore’s law, I put 49 famous computing devices over the past century on an exponential graph. This showed that the acceleration of computing power didn’t start with Moore’s law at all — that’s an insight regarding integrated circuits. But it has continued through multiple paradigm-shifts: electro-mechanical calculators, relays, vacuum tubes, transistors, and finally integrated circuits.

So Moore’s law was not the 1st — it was the 5th fifth — paradigm to provide exponential growth in computing. The 6th paradigm will involve computing in 3-dimensions, instead of the 2-dimensions in today’s flat chips. That will lead to computing at the molecular — and ultimately sub-atomic — level. The acceleration of computing will survive the anticipated demise of Moore’s law.

There are comparable exponential trends underlying a wide variety of other tech. For example: communication speeds (both wired + wireless) are doubling every 12 months. This is (again) a double-exponential trend, because 2 decades ago, it was only doubling every 36 months. Human brain scanning speeds are doubling every 26 months. And brain scanning resolution (per unit volume) is doubling every 12 months. And human genetic scanning is doubling every 12 months — with DNA sequencing costs falling from $12 per base pair, to less than 1 cent, in the past decade.

Miniaturization is another pervasive trend. We’re currently shrinking technology (both electronic and mechanical) at a rate of 5.6 per linear dimension per decade. The math models I’ve developed over the past few decades — to describe these trends resulting from the law of accelerating returns — predict the developments we’ve seen in the 1990s. Judging by these models, I believe we’ll see continued exponential growth in tech in the future.

These trends interact with each another in profound ways. We’re currently seeing exponential trends in computation, communications, and miniaturization —- through the explosion of mobile, wireless, web-connected smart-devices. It’s ironic that Microsoft is being cited for a monopoly in ‘personal computing’ operating systems just as the PC era is coming to a close. The main growth now in computing is in web-servers + mobile devices, and they’re not dominated by Windows.

By year 2009, computers will disappear.

Because these devices aren’t large enough to provide a full keyboard, we’ll see a strong trend toward communicating with our machines through voice + language tech. Talking is how we prefer to communicate with people. And the broad trend in computing — since its inception — has been for machines to become more like people. Instead of for people to become more like machines.

In the next few years, a legion of virtual assistants will emerge with sufficient intelligence to converse in natural language within limited task domains. For example: conducting e-commerce transactions, making reservations, and finding information. When a display is available — even a small one — these virtual personalities will have a human-like visual presence. And without a display, they’ll work entirely using two-way voice dialogues.

By year 2009, computers will disappear. Visual information will be written directly onto our retinas by devices in our eyeglasses and contact lenses. In addition to high-resolution virtual monitors appearing to hover in space, these intimate displays will provide full-immersion visual virtual reality. We’ll have ubiquitous high-bandwidth wireless connection to the web, all the time. ‘Going’ to a website will mean entering a virtual reality environment. At least for the visual + auditory senses — where we’ll meet other real people.

There will be simulated people as well, but these virtual personalities will not be up to human standards — at least not by 2009. The minuscule electronics powering these developments will be invisibly embedded in our eye-glasses + clothing. So we won’t be searching for our misplaced mobile phones, Palms, notebooks, and other gadgets. And we won’t have to deal with the mess of wires that now entangle our lives. We’ll be plugged-in all the time. We can have any type of interaction with anybody, regardless of physical proximity.

Any sort of communication, that is, except for touching. Tactile virtual reality devices are already emerging, but will remain cumbersome until virtual reality enters our bodies and brains. By 2029, as a result of continuing exponential trends in miniaturization, computation, communication, and neural scanning, we will have billions of nanobots–intelligent robots the size of blood cells or smaller–traveling through the capillaries of our brain communicating directly with our biological neurons.

Nanobot technology will provide fully immersive, totally convincing virtual reality in the following way. The nanobots take up positions close to every interneuronal connection coming from all of our biological sensory receptors (e.g., eyes, ears, skin). We already have technology for electronic devices to communicate with neurons in both directions that requires no direct physical contact with the neurons. For example, scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, have developed “neuron transistors” that can detect the firing of a nearby neuron, or alternatively, can cause a nearby neuron to fire or suppress it from firing. This amounts to two-way communication between neurons and the electronic-based neuron transistors. The institute’s scientists demonstrated their invention by controlling the movement of a living leech from their computer.

When we want to experience nonvirtual reality, the nanobots will just stay still (in the capillaries) and do nothing. If we want to enter virtual reality, they will suppress all input coming from the real senses, and replace them with the signals that would be appropriate for the virtual environment. You (i.e., your brain) could decide to cause your muscles and limbs to move as you normally would, but the nanobots again intercept these interneuronal signals, suppress your real limbs from moving, and instead cause your virtual limbs to move and provide the appropriate movement and reorientation in the virtual environment. Of course, your virtual body will not need to have the same appearance and other characteristics that it has in real reality–we could have different bodies for different partners and situations.

The Web will provide a panoply of virtual environments to explore. Some will be recreations of real places, others will be fanciful environments that have no “real” counterpart. Some would be impossible in the physical world (perhaps, because they violate the laws of physics). We will be able to “go” to these virtual environments by ourselves or we will meet others there, both real people and simulations. Of course, ultimately, there won’t be a clear distinction between the two.

Just as Webcams showing people’s intimate lives are popular today, during the fourth decade of this century, people will “Web beam” their lives, and you will be able to share the full sensory experience and even emotional response of others through the Web, similar to the plot concept of the movie Being John Malkovich, except that these experiences can include emotional levels beyond just the five senses. Particularly interesting experiences will be archived and can be relived at any time.

Nanobot technology will be able to expand our minds in almost any imaginable way. Our brains today are relatively fixed in design. Although we do add patterns of inter-neuronal connections and neurotransmitter concentrations as a normal part of the learning process, the current overall capacity of the human brain is highly constrained, restricted to a mere 100 trillion connections. Brain implants based on massively distributed intelligent nanobots will vastly expand our memories and otherwise improve all of our sensory, pattern recognition, and cognitive abilities. Since the nanobots are communicating with one another over a wireless local area network, they can create any set of new neural connections, can break existing connections (by suppressing neural firing), and can create new hybrid biological-nonbiological networks, as well as adding vast new non-biological networks.

Using nanobots as brain extenders is a significant improvement over the idea of surgically installed neural implants, which are beginning to be used today (for people with disabilities and medical conditions such as deafness and Parkinson’s disease). Nanobots will be introduced without surgery; they will be injected or swallowed. People will have the power to direct them to leave, so the process will be easily reversible. The bots would be programmable, in that they could provide virtual reality one minute, and a variety of brain extensions the next. They could change their configuration, and alter their software. Perhaps most importantly, unlike surgically introduced neural implants that can only be placed in one or at most a few locations, these nanobot-based implants will be massively distributed and therefore can take up billions or trillions of positions throughout the body.

Oh, and one more thing: We’ll live a long time. The expanding human life span is another one of those exponential trends. In the 18th century, we added a few days every year to human longevity; in the 19th we added a couple of weeks each year; and now we’re adding almost a half a year every year. With the revolutions in rational drug design, genomics, therapeutic cloning of our own organs and tissues, and related developments in bio-information sciences, we will add more than a year every year within 10 years. So take care of yourself the old-fashioned way for just a little while longer, and you may actually get to experience the remarkable century ahead.

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from: Wikipedia

profile | Moore’s law
profile | Microsoft
profile | Windows ~ by Microsoft

profile | nano-bot

— notes —

PC = personal computer

nano = nano-meter
nano is colloquial for small-sized

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