Ray Kurzweil on Augmented Reality

Ray Kurzweil on Augmented Reality

November 11, 2007 (Computerworld) -- Ray Kurzweil is a futurist and author whose book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking Adult, 2005) predicts advances in computing technologies and biological research over the next four decades, culminating in the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence. Kurzweil is also a prolific inventor who has developed hardware and software for optical character recognition, speech recognition and electronic music.

At the heart of your book is the idea that technology advances exponentially. Can you explain? Technology, particularly if we can measure the information content, proceeds exponentially, not linearly. And a lot of people don’t realize that, and that’s one of the reasons long-term forecasts generally fall substantially short of the ultimate reality.

If we look at information technology, we see this reflected in an exponential growth in the power of those technologies. The price/performance for computing is literally doubling every year. Information processes are revolutionizing every industry, every area of technology. And so [areas] like health and medicine, which used to be hit-or-miss, are now becoming information technologies and will be subject to what I call this law of accelerating returns.

How will hardware technologies evolve over the next 10 years? If you go out 10 years, computers are not going to be these rectangular objects we carry around. They’re going to be extremely tiny. They’re going to be everywhere. There’s going to be pervasive computing. It’s going to be embedded in the environment, in our clothing. It’s going to be self-organizing.

We’re going to solve this dilemma we have now with displays. On the one hand, people like 50-inch screens, and they’ll spend thousands of dollars on them. On the other hand, they like watching movies on a 1- or 2-inch screen, but that’s really not a satisfactory experience. We are going to solve that by putting the displays in our glasses, which will beam images to our retinas. This will create very high-resolution virtual displays that can hover in the air. And it can also completely overtake your visual field of view in three dimensions, creating full-immersion visual/auditory virtual reality. [Editor's Note: That's Microvision, gang.]

We’ll also have augmented real reality. The computers will be watching what you watch, listening to what you’re saying, and they’ll be helping. So if you look at someone, little pop-ups will appear in your field of view, reminding you of who that is, giving you information about them, reminding you that it’s their birthday next Tuesday. If you look at buildings, it will give you information, it will help you walk around. If it hears you stumbling over some information that you can’t quite think of, it will just pop up without you having to ask.

What’s your definition of artificial intelligence? Artificial intelligence is the ability to perform a task that is normally performed by natural intelligence, particularly human natural intelligence. We have in fact artificial intelligence that can perform many tasks that used to require — and could only be done by — human intelligence. There are hundreds of examples today, and they are deeply embedded in our economic infrastructure.

All communication is governed by intelligent algorithms that route and connect the information. Programs are embedded into computer-assisted design systems. AI flies and lands airplanes, guides intelligent weapons systems, places billions of dollars of financial transactions each day.

These examples are narrow AI, in that they are performing specific tasks, very often sophisticated tasks that required human experts to perform.

What could slow down the arrival of strong AI, or of the “smarter than human” technologies you call the Singularity? There are really two areas to think about. One is hardware and one is software. There’s a strong consensus that the hardware will be available. So, the key issue is how long it will take to get the software and science. I make the case that a 20-year horizon is a conservative estimate, based on the exponential progress we’re making in reverse-engineering the human brain.

In one of your earlier books, The Age of Spiritual Machines, you have a chapter titled “2009.” And you nailed quite a few technologies pretty well. But one technology that didn’t seem to fulfill the promise that you anticipated was speech recognition. Well, first of all, this isn’t 2009 yet. We need exponential progress in computation to get linear gains in speech recognition accuracy, because we are making exponential gains in computing. And a lot of people’s impressions of speech recognition are based on having tried it three, four, five years ago. It’s actually improved a great deal.

Language translation is quite good, particularly now that we have these large Rosetta Stones of matching text in different languages, so the statistical approach of doing language translation with very large Rosetta Stone text to train on, using pattern-recognition techniques, gets very excellent results.

You have also discussed an intriguing invention that you call the “Document Image and Storage Invention,” for long-term storage of computer files. But you have concluded that it really wouldn’t work. Why? Software formats are constantly changing. Try resuscitating some information on some PDP-1 magnetic tapes. Even if you could get the hardware to work, the software formats are completely alien, and nobody is there to support these formats anymore.

I think this is fundamentally a philosophical issue. I don’t think there’s any technical solution to it. Information actually will die if you don’t continually update it.

— Interview by Ian Lamont

Name: Ray Kurzwell
Title: Founder and CEO, Kurzweil Technologies Inc.
Invention He's Most Proud Of: "The Kurzweil Reading Machine for the blind. What's exciting for an inventor is to have your inventions be used and actually have a benefit for their users. So the kind of feedback I've gotten from bilnd students and blind people, who say they couldn't have held their jobs without the Kurzweil Reading Machine, has been the most gratifying."
Web Sites Visited Every Day: Slashdot.org, Foresight.org and Singinst.org
Favorite Musical Work: "I like artists from many genres, ranging from Carrie Underwood and Alanis Morissette to Eminem. For classic rock, I like the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane. My favorite classical composer is Beethoven."


  1. "We’ll also have augmented real reality. The computers will be watching what you watch, listening to what you’re saying, and they’ll be helping. So if you look at someone, little pop-ups will appear in your field of view, reminding you of who that is, giving you information about them, reminding you that it’s their birthday"
    Thank God!
    All my life I had to deal with the embarrassment of forgetting a name in minutes. When I would be called back to work after a long layoff I would be asked what are my children's birthdates. I know this should be a non issue but, bring this tech on line...

  2. Ben, you know anything about the laservideophone.com website? It's referencing Microvision. Is that just refering to a phone that projects laser video, or a cell phone that allows for video conferencing (which would be pretty sweet).

  3. haven't seen that yet, thx for sending!


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