Solar energy may be meeting only 1% of world energy needs today, but wait just 16 years. Then it will meet 100% of global energy needs, predicts inventor Ray Kurzweil, who forecast the worldwide interpersonal communications we know now as the World Wide Web. Kurzweil bases this and many other predictions on exponential computations and the widespread use of information technology.
“We’ve been making predictions and expectations about the future using linear computations, but information technology is happening exponentially. It makes a profound difference,” he says. Kurzweil repeatedly told a Vero Beach, Fla. audience, “It’s really amazing how predictable this (exponential computation) is. You really can predict where these technologies will be in (future) years.”
Doubters need only go back to the start of the Internet, notes Kurzweil. When it was used by only 1% of the population, people dismissed it, not realizing how soon it would become ubiquitous.
People may react similarly to his solar use forecast, he notes. However, since information technology is doubling every two years, our knowledge about and capability to utilize solar energy is “only eight doublings away from meeting 100% of our energy needs,” explains Kurzweil. Not only the U.S., but also countries like Germany, China, and Israel are actively pursuing solar energy systems.
Last fall Kurzweil discussed solar energy plans with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Israeli Presidential Conference. As a result, Israel set a goal to have practical, clean, efficient substitute solar energy systems operating even more quickly—in 10 years, he says. No need to worry about running out of energy, Kurzweil added, solar light is 10,000 times greater than our need.
Kurzweil is the holder of 18 honorary doctorates, developer of omni font optical character recognition, flatbed scanners and speech-recognition systems, inventor of the first music synthesizer and founder of several companies including Kurzweil Technologies. He holds the National Medal of Technology award and is recipient of the MIT-Lemelson prize for innovation. An author of many books, his latest is “Transcend, Nine steps to living well forever.”
But his Florida speech was given as a futurist. Using exponential computation and charts, Kurzweil made predictions about health and longevity, the Medicare and Social Security programs, eyeglasses, global warming and much more.
CHANGING HUMAN SOFTWARE
Disease eradication or control will occur within our lifetime, he said, because medical scientists now use information technology to research disease activity. He told the audience of largely senior citizens but much younger people as well, about respirocytes—nano-engineered blood cells that have already cured diabetes in rats. Diabetes researchers have turned off a gene in animals that then lived 20% longer, he said. Cancer researchers, using information technology, now understand why cancer comes back. Chemotherapy not only kills the cancer cells, but also creates good conditions for growing the stem cells responsible for cancer metastasizing, says Kurzweil, comparing it to killing the worker bees but not the queen.
Pea-sized technological devices in Parkinson’s patients replace disease-destroyed cells with new ones, he added. “That is today. Take what we have today, and in 25 years it will be a billion times more powerful. We will reprogram these diseases if we can understand the mechanisms. We have tools to do it. I am very confident that in a decade or decade and a half, we will overcome these diseases or make us able to live with them.”
He often compares the human body to a computer. “We have outdated software running in our bodies,” says Kurzweil, explaining that our “fat receptors” were developed because maybe tomorrow our food-hunting trip would not successfully capture a wild bird or boar. “We have the means to change our outdated (human) software. We now have technology that can turn off a gene. New gene therapy can add new genes.”
The resulting longer life spans, though, will not overburden Social Security and Medicare, claims Kurzweil. “Health technology will become less expensive and people will be healthier. We will rethink Social Security. Eighty years of age will be the new 40. For today, this is an exaggeration, but not in the future. Ultimately, there will be very inexpensive ways to keep people healthy because of information technology.”
STOCKS AND BUSINESS SUCCESS
One type of prediction Kurzweil backed off on making. When asked by an audience member if he could predict what stocks to buy, Kurzweil refrained. Even though he has a software program for selecting stocks, called FATCAT, he admitted it’s not much better than 50%. “Predicting which company will succeed is not predictable,” he told a disappointed audience.
Other technological advances and social situations he does predict are:
• Housing: will become cheaper because 3D printers will print modules used for housing construction.
• Global warming: “Assuming it’s all from human activity, we have plenty of time with these technologies (e.g. solar energy). Within two decades we can eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and damage the environment at every stage of use. The new technologies will be very environmentally friendly. We will be able to address the use of fossil fuels and all these problems within a couple of decades, and that will be soon enough.”
• Human brain: “We’re developing working modules of brain regions. We now understand the mathematics behind catching a fly ball. The point is to understand how the human mind works to give us a better insight into how to fix the brain and a better means of creating more intelligent machines to make us smarter.”
• Smart phones: Frequently referring to his Blackberry, Kurzweil said, “virtually everyone will have a smart phone in three years and it will be a very powerful computer.” Phones will automatically translate languages so people can talk directly with everyone.
• Eyeglasses: By 2029 they will have tiny computers to remind us of someone’s birthday or show us if there is a Starbucks inside a building. It will flash images onto our retinas to put us in a virtual reality.
• Poverty and population growth: “Information technology has reduced poverty in Asia 70% according to the World Bank.” As countries become prosperous, their population growth declines because they don’t need a lot of children to support the family. Cost of technology “comes down by one half every year and more and more things are becoming information technology based.”
• Democracy: The Internet is very democratizing. “It’s decentralized communication. Gorbechev said this is what happened in Russia. Democracy is fueled by the World Wide Web.”
• Education: It grows exponentially. We need people who are “thoughtful, innovative, willing to take risks, be creative and be entrepreneurial. It is outdated to stuff facts like battle dates into people. We need to train students to think critically and creatively. We need to keep learning.”
• Peace: The Web does encourage peace. We see all the world’s problems, but that is good. “Because when we see them, we tend to do something about it. The world actually is more peaceful.”
• Humanity: “It’s not a utopian vision. There are down sides. The answer is we have to prepare and defend ourselves using the same technologies. Ultimately, as humans we create tools to extend our reach, to change who we are and make it a better world. We are expanding our human potential; we are becoming funnier, we are becoming more loving, we are becoming more creative.”
Kurzweil spoke as part of The Celebrated Speakers Series, presented by the Public Programs Committee of the Emerson Center, which is owned and operated by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach, Fla.