July 06, 2012
The Cool But Creepy Futuristic World of Ray Kurzweil

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ED NOTE: The following post is the second in a series of reports from the World Innovation Forum by Idea Champions' take-no-prisoners-tell-it-like-it-is Director of Training, Val Vadeboncoeur.

"Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell; more human than human is our motto." -- Dr. Eldon Tyrell (from the 1980 Ridley Scott film, Blade Runner) discussing the business of producing replicant humans.

First, a caveat. I attended only the second day of the two-day 2012 World Innovation Forum so I didn't get the full picture of what was presented. From what I understand, the first day's speakers talked more about the "human side of innovation" -- a subject I can easily warm up to.

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The second day, which I DID attend, was focused much more on technique, process, tools, and technology and the unbridled enthusiasm for same.

I'm guessing that the Forum was purposely organized around these two themes. But, for me, on the second day, it was a bit like watching a competition of state of the art salesmen and could have been titled "America's Got Technology."

Don't get me wrong. The presenters were all excellent -- knowledgeable, articulate, and well-prepared. But I wasn't buying what they were selling and got the sense that many of my fellow attendees weren't either.

I'm also guessing it was because everyone in the hall had just come in from an outside world that is threatening to unravel in about a thousand different places at once and is, at the same time, more technologically awesome than it's ever been.

If our technology is so wonderful, then why is it being accompanied into the world by so much that is undesirable?

Second, a confession: I'm a tough sell when it comes to new technology.

I'm old enough to have read McLuhan when he first came upon the scene in the 60's and I view technology somewhat through his eyes -- in particular, his notion that every new technology represents a trade-off; it gives us something as well as it takes something away.

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The automobile gave us the capability to travel much more extensively than before. It also took away our legs. Now, we have to schedule regular exercise to find them again.

The television gave us dreams and fantasy. But they were someone else's dreams and, as such, took away part of our ability to dream and fantasize.

As the 1950's era story goes, when a little girl was asked if she preferred the new medium of television over radio, she said, "Radio... because the pictures are better."

In addition to this give and take, every new technology shapes us in its image whether we are aware of it or not. That is, it makes us a little more like itself the more we use it.

The use of technology even affects the way we think about life, ourselves, and the universe we live in.

To the ancients, the Universe was a Living Being. To the people of the Industrial Age, it was a big machine with gears and levers. To us, in the 21st century, it's a massive computer -- and we're now trying to reprogram its software.

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Of course, in reality, it's all of those things and none of them. In each of these cases, what we're really seeing is ourselves -- our own level of consciousness and understanding reflected back to us.

I admit that I can't quite shake off my inherent distrust of the latest technology and of those who extol its virtues -- especially those who neglect to mention the trade-offs.

One phrase from my favorite presenter of the day, Andrew Winston, stuck with me. While describing the experience of having one's movements on the Web tracked by search engines and subsequently being offered products and services in connection with those movements, Winston said that it felt "cool, but creepy."

That about sums up what the entire second day of presentations at the World Innovation Forum felt like to me -- a vision of the world that lacked warmth, projecting the image of something just out of sight, just around the corner, just out of hearing range, and definitely out of the ability of our five human senses to notice, let alone moderate. New technology as Nosferatu.

The one and only defense against new technology that I'm aware of is consciousness itself -- the idea that the more technology evolves the more I am called upon to become more of a conscious being.

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I'm not the first person to notice that we are in a very important race at this point in our evolution -- one between consciousness and technology.

The question we are all facing?

"Can our consciousness and understanding of who we are keep up with our rapidly-expanding technology?" -- a technology that is changing us and life on the planet at warp speed.

And if it can't, are we not in very great danger?

Which brings us to Ray Kurzweil -- scientist, inventor, businessman, and technology salesman.

It's difficult to even process his concept of "The Singularity" -- Kurzweil's catchphrase for the point-of-no-return in the very near future (say, 2029) when the trans-human species replaces the human -- let alone write about it. But here goes.

Kurzweil discussed the exponential growth of computer power (Moore had a Law, don'cha know) complete with one chart after another that followed the same suspiciously exact, and extremely hopeful arc of accelerating information and data.

In Kurzweil's rosy scenario, in a very short time, technology will be a billion times more powerful than it currently is and this exponential growth will lead to miraculous breakthroughs that seem impossible to us today.

Kurzweil went on to discuss technological progress in medicine and what the mapping of the human genome could mean -- customized medical cures for each human being based on each person's particular DNA -- how biology is now an information process and how 3-D printers will materialize physical objects (such as a violin) sent by nothing more than an e-mail.

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Soon, explained Kurzweil, we'll be able to email a bus or a house via 3-D printers, or, at least, all the parts of a bus or a house.

But that's nothing compared to the nano-technology that's on its way.

Kurzweil sang the praises of self-replicating nano-bots that could increase our intelligence, cure us of any "defect" in our DNA and keep us living, well, forever!

Imagine -- red blood cell nanobots could be introduced into your blood stream to repair your body. They could even be re-programmed or given new software updates and capabilities from afar at any time. If a new flu virus epidemic strikes, these nanobots could be given the latest info of what these virus cells look like and how to deal with them.

New human organs could be grown without the use of stem cells. All that would be required is a bit of your own DNA, a blood sample, for example, to keep with our Nosferatu theme.

The human brain could be reverse engineered. And, if the "viscerally impressive" (Kurzweil's words) recent Jeopardy-winning computer is any indication, human thought could be equaled and then surpassed in a very short time.

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So, what are we waiting for? Get on the technological love train! Nirvana and eternity await.

Or do they?

Kurzweil opened up the floor to questions at the end of his talk. One gentleman acknowledged that Kurzweil had given us only the most incredibly sunny predictions of how this technology could be used and asked if Kurzweil would speak about the downside of this technology.

Kurzweil replied with his one biggest concern that "kept him up at night". Bio-terrorism.

The questioner didn't ask a follow-up question regarding WHO Kurzweil envisioned as being the most likely bio-terrorist, but since Kurzweil had already established that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a good friend and former classmate, it didn't take a great stretch of imagination to see that Kurzweil probably envisioned some Osama Bin Nano as his bogeyman, especially since he went on to talk about the need for government agencies like the FDA to become more powerful and vigilant to deal with these issues.

Really? The most likely bio-terrorist is some religious fanatic nowhere near the centers of power and nowhere near the research labs churning out this stuff? Really?

When Kurzweil uttered the word "bio-terrorist", the first word I thought of was "government". I also recalled Henry Kissinger's recent (2007) and very revealing quote, that "What we, in America, call 'terrorists' are really groups of people who reject the international system."

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A friend of mine, Michael Schacker, in 2008, published a book entitled A Spring Without Bees. In it, he correctly identified the "culprit" responsible for the world's rapidly diminishing bee populations due to "Colony Collapse Disorder" whereby bees become disoriented and fail to return to their hives.

Michael made the compelling case that the widespread proliferation of commercial insecticides containing highly-toxic neonicotinoids, which are chemically similar to nicotine, acting on the central nervous system of the bees as well as many other insects and small song birds, were responsible.

Since then, many other bee researchers have confirmed Michael's verdict.

But even though everyone pretty much now KNOWS what is going on here, the corruption of our society and of the people responsible for acting on this information is preventing anyone from really doing much of anything about it, although some European countries have now banned the stuff.

It seems that human beings are not, in the case of commercial pesticide technology, sufficiently evolved enough to safely deal with its use.

How much more dangerous is our lack of control and understanding in the case of all the technology involved with Kurzweil's "Singularity" that brings us the possibility of re-engineering human life?

One has visions of Mickey Mouse's Sorcerer's Apprentice, but with real, massive, and tragic consequences.

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Who will control this technology? What will they do with this power? What will be their goals and agendas?

Will they be people similar to the folks at the EPA blocking all progress in restoring our bee populations in the service of large multi-national corporations who produce certain dangerous, but commercially successful pesticides? The people who run the Fukushima nuclear plant who are STILL covering up a massive danger? The people who make up lies about WMDs that lead to wars that kill, injure and displace millions of people for profit? The people in a Las Vegas facility who, by the stroke of a computer key, can send a missile, fired by a flying robot drone, into the window of a family celebrating a wedding on the other side of the world?

THOSE people?

If I were Ray Kurzweil, that is what would be keeping me up at night.

When our education system continues to show decline in producing results in every cognitive skill except for, perhaps, testing for levels of obedience, when the world's wealth (and therefore, power) is accumulating in fewer and fewer hands at an increasingly rapid rate and threatening to restructure the world's economic system along the lines of Pharoanic Egypt, when weather on the planet is becoming more and more unpredictable and extreme due to man-made and/or natural warming, and when current technological advances are being used primarily to serve military, surveillance, and security purposes -- and mostly in secret and beyond the reach and control of the democratic institutions they supposedly serve -- it does make one want to root against Kurzweil's vision of a priestly scientific elite re-engineering the human species, or at least hope we can slow it down until we become a whole lot more wise, generous, and loving.

POSTSCRIPT: Some of my fellow World Innovation Forum attendees admitted, as we walked away from Kurzweil's final forum presentation, that their "heads were spinning".

Might this be because Kurzweil was, in actuality (and in Powerpoint), announcing the end of the human race and, furthermore, insisting that this end was coming soon and was inevitable?

And, could this latest technology, promising an eternal Garden of Eden of sorts, actually have a VERY dark side, indeed? Could it possibly become the ultimate terrorist act itself, and, before we realize it, end up hijacking human evolution on this planet?

Small wonder our limited, all-too-human brains were "spinning". It's surprising that they just didn't turn into rocket ships and blast off out of the Milky Way.

All this being said, perhaps the best way to regard this "cool but creepy" information is as a challenge.

I'll articulate the challenge in the form of a question:

"How can the human race become fully human before the opportunity is taken away from us forever?"

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at July 6, 2012 11:15 PM

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