Ray Kurzweil joins The Cycle to discuss can we teach machines to think like humans?
We’re going a bit Sci-Fi today. Author Ray Kruzweil joins The Cycle to discuss his book How To Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. The book focuses on reverse engineering the human brain. The futuristic idea starts by mapping out every spec of the human brain and ends with designing a machine to replicate, and ultimately replace it. Think of it as artificial intelligence on steroids.
Ray Kruzweil is a controversial futurist whose work examines emotional and moral intelligence as well as the radical possibilities of merging humans with the technology we create.
Be sure to tune in at 3:40 p.m. for the full conversation and check out an excerpt from his book below.
The story of evolution unfolds with increasing levels of abstraction.
Atoms— especially carbon atoms, which can create rich information structures
by linking in four different directions— formed increasingly complex
molecules. As a result, physics gave rise to chemistry.
A billion years later, a complex molecule called DNA evolved, which
could precisely encode lengthy strings of information and generate organisms
described by these “programs.” As a result, chemistry gave rise to
At an increasingly rapid rate, organisms evolved communication and
decision networks called nervous systems, which could coordinate the
increasingly complex parts of their bodies as well as the behaviors that
facilitated their survival. The neurons making up nervous systems aggregated
into brains capable of increasingly intelligent behaviors. In this way,
biology gave rise to neurology, as brains were now the cutting edge of storing
and manipulating information. Thus we went from atoms to molecules
to DNA to brains. The next step was uniquely human.
The mammalian brain has a distinct aptitude not found in any other
class of animal. We are capable of hierarchical thinking, of understanding
a structure composed of diverse elements arranged in a pattern, representing that arrangement with a symbol, and then using that symbol as an
element in a yet more elaborate configuration. This capability takes place
in a brain structure called the neocortex, which in humans has achieved a
threshold of sophistication and capacity such that we are able to call these
patterns ideas. Through an unending recursive process we are capable of
building ideas that are ever more complex. We call this vast array of recursively
linked ideas knowledge. Only Homo sapiens have a knowledge base
that itself evolves, grows exponentially, and is passed down from one generation
Our brains gave rise to yet another level of abstraction, in that we have
used the intelligence of our brains plus one other enabling factor, an opposable
appendage— the thumb— to manipulate the environment to build
tools. These tools represented a new form of evolution, as neurology gave
rise to technology. It is only because of our tools that our knowledge base
has been able to grow without limit.
Our first invention was the story: spoken language that enabled us to
represent ideas with distinct utterances. With the subsequent invention of
written language we developed distinct shapes to symbolize our ideas.
Libraries of written language vastly extended the ability of our unaided
brains to retain and extend our knowledge base of recursively structured
There is some debate as to whether other species, such as chimpanzees,
have the ability to express hierarchical ideas in language. Chimps are capable
of learning a limited set of sign language symbols, which they can use
to communicate with human trainers. It is clear, however, that there are
distinct limits to the complexity of the knowledge structures with which
chimps are capable of dealing. The sentences that they can express are limited
to specific simple noun- verb sequences and are not capable of the
indefinite expansion of complexity characteristic of humans. For an entertaining
example of the complexity of human- generated language, just read
one of the spectacular multipage- length sentences in a Gabriel García
Márquez story or novel— his six- page story “The Last Voyage of the Ghost”
is a single sentence and works quite well in both Spanish and the English
The primary idea in my three previous books on technology (The Age
of Intelligent Machines, written in the 1980s and published in 1989; The Age
of Spiritual Machines, written in the mid- to late 1990s and published in
1999; and The Singularity Is Near, written in the early 2000s and published
in 2005) is that an evolutionary process inherently accelerates (as a result
of its increasing levels of abstraction) and that its products grow exponentially
in complexity and capability. I call this phenomenon the law of accelerating
returns (LOAR), and it pertains to both biological and technological
evolution. The most dramatic example of the LOAR is the remarkably predictable
exponential growth in the capacity and price/ performance of information
technologies. The evolutionary process of technology led
invariably to the computer, which has in turn enabled a vast expansion of
our knowledge base, permitting extensive links from one area of knowledge
to another. The Web is itself a powerful and apt example of the ability
of a hierarchical system to encompass a vast array of knowledge while preserving
its inherent structure. The world itself is inherently hierarchical—
trees contain branches; branches contain leaves; leaves contain veins.
Buildings contain floors; floors contain rooms; rooms contain doorways,
windows, walls, and floors.
We have also developed tools that are now enabling us to understand
our own biology in precise information terms. We are rapidly reverse-engineering
the information processes that underlie biology, including
that of our brains. We now possess the object code of life in the form of the
human genome, an achievement that was itself an outstanding example of
exponential growth, in that the amount of genetic data the world has
sequenced has approximately doubled every year for the past twenty years. 2
We now have the ability to simulate on computers how sequences of base
pairs give rise to sequences of amino acids that fold up into three-dimensional
proteins, from which all of biology is constructed. The complexity
of proteins for which we can simulate protein folding has been
steadily increasing as computational resources continue to grow exponentially.
We can also simulate how proteins interact with one another in an
intricate three- dimensional dance of atomic forces. Our growing understanding
of biology is one important facet of discovering the intelligent
secrets that evolution has bestowed on us and then using these biologically
inspired paradigms to create ever more intelligent technology.
There is now a grand project under way involving many thousands of
scientists and engineers working to understand the best example we have
of an intelligent process: the human brain. It is arguably the most important
effort in the history of the human- machine civilization. In The Singularity
Is Near I made the case that one corollary of the law of accelerating
returns is that other intelligent species are likely not to exist. To summarize
the argument, if they existed we would have noticed them, given the
relatively brief time that elapses between a civilization’s possessing crude
technology (consider that in 1850 the fastest way to send nationwide information
was the Pony Express) to its possessing technology that can transcend
its own planet. From this perspective, reverse-engineering the
human brain may be regarded as the most important project in the universe.