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Transcendent Man

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By Hunter Rothwell
Inventor, computer scientist, futurist, multi-millionaire entrepreneur, and best-selling author
Ray Kurzweil first gained national attention in
1965 when he appeared on the CBS television
program, I’ve Got a Secret, at age 17. A talented
pianist, he performed a short piece of classical
music; a remarkable feat because it was composed
in full by a computer Kurzweil engineered and
built himself. That same year he received first
place in the International Science Fair and was
congratulated in a White House ceremony by
President Lyndon B. Johnson. Not too shabby for
a high school student from Queens, New York.

Now 63, Kurzweil can look back on a life of
tremendous achievement. The MIT graduate has
founded more than 10 successful companies,
written five bestselling books, holds 24 patents
for his inventions, was awarded the National
Medal of Technology in 1999 from President
Clinton, was inducted into the National Inven-
tors Hall of Fame in 2002 and has received 17
honorary doctorates from some of the world’s
most prestigious universities. These are only a
glimpse of the accomplishments of a man touted
as the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison.”

In the recent feature-length documentary Transcendent Man, director Barry Ptolemy guides
the viewer on a journey through the life and
sophisticated mind of the man technology giant
Bill Gates refers to as “the best in the world at
predicting the future.” Ray Kurzweil accurately
predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union as a
side effect of the rise of communications technology. He described the rise of the Internet and
foretold the year in which a computer would
beat a chess champion (IBM’s Deep Blue defeated
Garry Kasparov in 1997).

Kurzweil’s studies are based on “the Law of
Accelerating Returns,” which describes techno-
logical evolution’s exponential increase in sophistication and capacity. One does not have to be a
scientist in order to recognize the exponential
growth of technology in our day-to-day lives.
Just think of the first video game, “Pong” [1972],
and compare that level of technology with the
highly realistic video games of today. Nobody
knew what a cell phone was 20 years ago. Computers over the past 40 years have gone from the
size of a building at a cost of millions of dollars,
to something that fits in our pockets and is affordable for all.

People thought Kurzweil was crazy
when he made predictions of this
technology phenomenon back
in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But this
is trivial compared to his
vision of the future:
“In the next 25 years
we’ll go from something
that fits in your pocket, to
something the size of a blood
cell,” he says in the fi lm. This,
he predicts, will enable mankind to overcome disease, aging
and even conquer death.
Kurzweil sees the implications of
nano-technology [microscopic computers] where we will be able to control
the information processes in our biology,
as well as the rise of artificial intelligence
interacting within human society. In his
world, the Matrix and Terminator could
foreshadow uncomfortable realities
of human destiny.
But Kurzweil’s vision of
the future is optimistic,
and he is positive humans
will solve problems that
we cannot now fix and
thereby advance the human
race for the future.
Transcendent Man
focuses heavily on
Kurzweil’s international
speaking engagements
where he presents arguments
from The Singularity Is Near, his book that
is a scientific description
of “the story of the destiny
of the human-machine
Boldly, he predicts by 2029 the entire human
brain will be mapped, and artificial intelligence will be able to match and surpass human
intelligence. Beyond that, Kurzweil imagines
that humans will have the ability to download
“programs” directly into the brain and be able to
back up the whole consciousness onto a computer hard drive for storage. If you need to access
the internet, just think about it. Apparently,
we will be able to access Wikipedia cerebrally.
Technology experts and scientists interviewed
in the documentary agree to different extents
on the future of technological advancement, but
most disagree with Kurzweil’s aggressive time-
frame. Several of these highly respected science
professionals said that “Ray is a bit more of an
optimist than is warranted by reality” and “Ray
is a modern day prophet that’s wrong.”

In our current reality, all of Kurzweil’s predictions are science fiction. However, all science
is born in philosophy and is labeled as a fiction
until it is proven fact. Consider Copernicus and
Galileo, who discovered that Earth was not the
center of our Universe and were prosecuted for
their “radical” ideas. In a universe that is 13.75
billion years old, the human race has been technologically advanced a mere 100 years. How-
ever, there is little argument that Kurzweil has
been very accurate thus far.

Transcendent Man is highly entertaining and a
must-see documentary. Viewers are certain to
learn something new of technology and sociology. Kurzweil explains, “The real promise of
nano-technology is to have a table top device
[where] you can take an information file and you
can turn it into a physical object. You can print
out a blouse, or you can email someone a toaster,
or the toast, or a module from which you can
build a house. From very inexpensive input materials, we’ll create everything we need.”
Star Trek gave us our first look at the cell phone
in those early television episodes. With future
hindsight, we might be surprised at what Kurzweil has shown us today about our future.

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