Friday, March 18, 2011

Edison, Jobs, Kurzweil!


Some folks refer to Apple's Steve Jobs as the Edison of our age, building useful playthings and workplace tools that disrupt incumbent industries and transform popular culture. For Edison, it was the phonograph and motion picture camera that put the kibosh on the player piano and got folks off the front porch and into movie theaters on Saturday afternoons. With Jobs it was first the Macintosh, then the iPhone and iPad.

With both of those guys, what they essentially did was take a pile of already existing inventions and materials off the lab bench, bee's wax, a lathe, digital circuit boards and aluminum, and configure them in ways that provided a superior way to be entertained or to do work. Their inventions are not novel in an essential sense. But, there is a guy named Ray Kurzweil who actually has invented machines that do things that machines could previously not do, that extend Human capacities beyond what is possible, or at least too tedious to undertake with our own senses and limbs.

If you've ever used an optical character recognition program to convert printed text to digital information, you can thank Kurzweil. When you listen to Stevie Wonder play, you are hearing electronic instruments controlled by Kurweil's voice pattern recognition engines and sonic wave forms created by the circuits that he designed.

But there's more. Kurzweil has a remarkable record of predicting the future of Humanity and tech. Starting with his book, "The Age of Intelligent Machines", and then in his more recent "The Age of Spiritual Machines", he forecasts a day coming soon, when our inventions will embody characteristics that more than mimic our own capacities in dexterous thought. They will appear to us to be conscious.

Given the solid batting average that he's thus far demonstrated both in prediction and commercializing the fruits of his ruminations, despite his seemingly nutty ideas on human life extension, this fellow demands being paid attention to. We have already seen, this year, a machine named Watson, that appears to understand subtle jokes and puns. Computers are emerging from University and industry labs that can "calculate" from human facial expressions and postures the state of their user's emotions. "Androids" are being created that closely mimic the human form, right down to appearing to breathe and perspire.

Yes, do stay tuned to what this old whack job is forecasting. When the iPod is as distant a memory to civilization as rotating cylinders that seem to sing, the proceeds of Kurzweil's work may still be evolving.


Ray Kurzweil