In December, Google hired as its director of engineering Ray Kurzweil, 64, the "grand prophet" of something called “the Singularity”—the moment when machines will overtake human intelligence to such a level that “human life will be irreversibly transformed.”
A graduate of MIT and a National Medal of Technology recipient, Mr. Kurzweil’s technological predictions and proclamations have invited praise and scorn. He says he seeks to “transcend biology,” “live long enough to live forever,” bring his deceased father back to life, and reshape the contours of human evolution and existence through technological innovation. This all may sound kooky, but make no mistake: Mr. Kurzweil is serious and influential.
“Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence,” says Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. And Fortune has called him “a legendary inventor with a history of mind-blowing ideas.”
What will the future Mr. Kurzweil envisions look like? A universe where immortality is achievable and religion less relevant:
There are people who can accept computers being more intelligent than people... But the idea of significant changes to human longevity — that seems to be particularly controversial. People invested a lot of personal effort into certain philosophies dealing with the issue of life and death. I mean, that's the major reason we have religion.
To promote his vision of the Singularity, Mr. Kurzweil and X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis created Singularity University, which is hosted by NASA. Mr. Diamandis contacted Kurzweil after reading his book, The Singularity Is Near, to spearhead the school.
Diamandis says critics of Kurzweil and the Singularity fear the immortality and power it will usher forth: "There are many life forms on the planet that live for hundreds of years, and there's no reason we can't," says Diamandis. "These technologies can topple major companies, even governments. All these ideas are about empowering the individual."
But not everyone shares Kurzweil’s dream of a technologically-driven utopia. University of Minnesota biology professor P.Z. Myers calls Kurzweil “one of the greatest hucksters of the age.” Furthermore, Professor Myers has said he’s "completely baffled by Kurzweil's popularity, and in particular the respect he gets in some circles, since his claims simply do not hold up to even casually critical examination."
The Singularity, says Professor Myers, is “a New Age spiritualism—that's all it is. Even geeks want to find God somewhere, and Kurzweil provides it for them."
Others have pointed out that several of Mr. Kurzweil’s predictions have proven “wildly, laughably wrong.”
But Google’s newly hired director of engineering isn’t laughing. He’s serious, (im)mortally so. "I find death unacceptable," says Mr. Kurzweil. "Natural selection isn't significant anymore. Technological change is the cutting edge of evolution."
Image credit: Terasem Motion Infoculture/The Singularity is Near