At this moment human beings, imperiled by hunger, pollution, and global warming, are at a critical juncture. Many believe that we are closer than we’ve ever been to extinction. But we’re also in an era of abundance – and remarkable wealth – that’s fueling innovation that could enable us to fundamentally change our destiny. The enormous change we will experience in the coming decades will make life on earth unrecognizable.
More than half a century ago, Gordon Moore proposed a theory that would radically change our conception of technology. The power of microchips running our computers, he concluded, will double every two years, while their cost will remain about the same. He predicted the invention of home computers, cellphones, self-driving cars, and smartwatches – all of which would become cheaper over time. “Moore’s law” has since proven to be true.
Ray Kurzweil, a scientist, futurist and director of engineering for Google, took Moore’s law a step further, arguing that exponential growth isn’t a recent phenomenon, but something we’ve experienced for thousands of years. By the 19th century, technological change was occurring at a rate faster than in the previous 900 years combined, and included innovations such as the steam engine, the electric telegraph, and gas lighting. The first few decades of the 20th century saw more technological advancement than the entire previous century – from cars and airplanes to radio transmission.
Kurzweil makes a convincing case that the rate of global technological progress will continue to be exponential. “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century,” he says, “it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.” He predicts the next few decades will see radical technological changes straight from the pages of science fiction.
According to Kurzweil, humans will be able to cure most diseases by the end of this decade. We’ll be able to reverse-engineer the brain and use nanobots to treat debilitating illnesses, including disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. And as a result, our lifespans will increase dramatically.
His predictions about energy have equally far-reaching implications. “In 2030 we will have [total] renewable energy,” Kurzweil says, “and it will be inexpensive.” Solar energy, he maintains, will satisfy the total demand of humankind, likely meaning cleaner air and fewer wars. His most shocking predictions involve virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Kurzweil believes that by 2029, computers will exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to or indistinguishable from that of humans – including the capacity for love, romance, and humor. AI will eventually respond to the personalities and preferences of human users, and we’ll build real human-computer relationships. But this is also the moment when AI will surpass us, as machines gain the ability to conceive of ideas no human has ever thought of.
By the early 2030s, Kurzweil thinks we’ll be able to copy a human brain and reproduce it in electronic format. Humans will no longer need flesh, blood, or bones, and we won’t die in the traditional sense. We’ll just 3D print fresh organs.
Even greater changes will come by 2045, though we can hardly comprehend them, because our brains are wired to believe that the future will evolve linearly and predictably, rather than exponentially. By that year, Kurzweil posits, we’ll have achieved what’s known as singularity, a period when humans will multiply their effective intelligence a billion-fold by merging our brains with artificial intelligence. This is the point at which human civilization experiences unforeseen changes due to uncontrollable and irreversible technological growth – which will fundamentally impact how we learn, work, recreate, and wage war. “This leads to computers having human intelligence, humans putting them inside our brains, connecting them to the cloud, expanding who we are,” saysKurzweil.
That Kurzweil’s rosy predictions sound more like Star Trek: The Next Generation than The Terminator is not lost on futurists like Nick Bostrom, who believe that when singularity arrives, there’s a strong possibility that machines will enslave or destroy human beings. Bostrom envisions an AI that will “annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” The Rand Corporation, a US defense think tank, warns that the use of AI in military applications could cause a nuclear war by 2040.
Even Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, two of the most innovative 21st-century companies, has called artificial intelligence “more dangerous than nukes.” He, too, believes the rate of improvement in AI is exponential, and that it’s “capable of vastly more than people really understand.” As he once tweeted, “competition for AI superiority at a national level [is the] most likely cause of World War III.”
Whether we’re headed toward utopia or dystopia – or something in between – will rest on the decisions humanity makes over the next few years. In the coming decades, what’s next will be dictated by our growing ability to leverage exponential thinking to bring about truly extraordinary innovations that are far beyond our current imagination – technologies that will, if used for good, allow us to make the world a far better place. As Abraham Lincoln said, “the best way to predict your future is to create it.”