Ray Kurzweil sees a radical evolution of the human species in the next
40 years. The merger of man and machine, coupled with the sudden
explosion in machine intelligence and rapid innovation in gene research
and nanotechnology, will result in a world where there is no
distinction between the biological and the mechanical, or between
physical and virtual reality.
We stand on the threshold of the most profound and transformative
event in the history of humanity, the “Singularity.”
What is the Singularity? From my perspective, the Singularity
is a future period during which the pace of technological change
will be so fast and far-reaching that human existence on this planet
will be irreversibly altered. We will combine our brain power—the
knowledge, skills, and personality quirks that make us human—with
our computer power in order to think, reason, communicate, and create
in ways we can scarcely even contemplate today.
This merger of man and machine, coupled with the sudden explosion
in machine intelligence and rapid innovation in the fields of gene
research as well as nanotechnology, will result in a world where
there is no distinction between the biological and the mechanical,
or between physical and virtual reality. These technological revolutions
will allow us to transcend our frail bodies with all their limitations.
Illness, as we know it, will be eradicated. Through the use of nanotechnology,
we will be able to manufacture almost any physical product upon
demand, world hunger and poverty will be solved, and pollution will
vanish. Human existence will undergo a quantum leap in evolution.
We will be able to live as long as we choose. The coming into being
of such a world is, in essence, the Singularity.
How is it possible we could be so close to this enormous change
and not see it? The answer is the quickening nature of technological
innovation. In thinking about the future, few people take into consideration
the fact that human scientific progress is exponential: It expands
by repeatedly multiplying by a constant (10 to times 10 times 10
and so on) rather than linear; that is, expanding by repeatedly
adding a constant (10 plus 10 plus 10, and so on). I emphasize the
exponential-versus-linear perspective because it’s the most
important failure that prognosticators make in considering future
Our forebears expected what lay ahead of them to resemble what
they had already experienced, with few exceptions. Because they
lived during a time when the rate of technological innovation was
so slow as to be unnoticeable, their expectations of an unchanged
future were continually fulfilled. Today, we have witnessed the
acceleration of the curve. Therefore, we anticipate continuous technological
progress and the social repercussions that follow. We see the future
as being different from the present. But the future will be far
more surprising than most people realize, because few observers
have truly internalized the implications of the fact that the rate
of change is itself accelerating.
Exponential growth starts out slowly and virtually unnoticeably,
but beyond the knee of the curve it turns explosive and profoundly
transformative. My models show that we are doubling the paradigm-shift
rate for technology innovation every decade. In other words, the
twentieth century was gradually speeding up to today’s rate
of progress; its achievements, therefore, were equivalent to about
20 years of progress at the rate of 2000. We’ll make another
“20 years” of progress in just 14 years (by 2014), and
then do the same again in only seven years. To express this another
way, we won’t experience 100 years of technological advance
in the twenty-first century; we will witness on the order of 20,000
years of progress (again, when measured by today’s progress
rate), or progress on a level of about 1,000 times greater than
what was achieved in the twentieth century.
How Will We Know the Singularity is Upon Us?
The first half of the twenty-first century will be characterized
by three overlapping revolutions—in genetics, nanotechnology,
and robotics. These will usher in the beginning of this period of
tremendous change I refer to as the Singularity. We are in the early
stages of the genetics revolution today. By understanding the information
processes underlying life, we are learning to reprogram our biology
to achieve the virtual elimination of disease, dramatic expansion
of human potential, and radical life extension. However, Hans Moravec
of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute points out
that no matter how successfully we fine-tune our DNA-based biology,
biology will never be able to match what we will be able to engineer
once we fully understand life’s principles of operation. In
other words, we will always be “second-class robots.”
The nanotechnology revolution will enable us to redesign and rebuild—molecule
by molecule—our bodies and brains and the world with which
we interact, going far beyond the limitations of biology.
But the most powerful impending revolution is the robotic revolution.
By robotic, I am not referring exclusively—or even primarily—to
humanoid-looking droids that take up physical space, but rather
to artificial intelligence in all its variations.
Following, I have laid out the principal components underlying
each of these coming technological revolutions. While each new wave
of progress will solve the problems from earlier transformations,
each will also introduce new perils, but each, operating both separately
and in concert, underpins the Singularity.
The Genetic Revolution
Genetic and molecular science will extend biology and correct
its obvious flaws (such as our vulnerability to disease). By the
year 2020, the full effects of the genetic revolution will be felt
across society. We are rapidly gaining the knowledge and the tools
to drastically extend the usability of the “house” each
of us calls his body and brain.
Nanomedicine researcher Robert Freitas estimates that eliminating
50% of medically preventable conditions would extend human life
expectancy 150 years. If we were able to prevent 90% of naturally
occurring medical problems, we’d live to be more than 1,000
We can see the beginnings of this awesome medical revolution today.
The field of genetic biotechnology is fueled by the growing arsenal
of tools. Drug discovery was once a matter of finding substrates
(chemicals) that produced some beneficial result without excessive
side effects, a research method similar to early humans’ seeking
out rocks and other natural implements that could be used for helpful
purposes. Today we are discovering the precise biochemical pathways
that underlie both disease and aging processes. We are able to design
drugs to carry out precise missions at the molecular level. With
recently developed gene technologies, we’re on the verge of
being able to control how genes express themselves. Gene expression
is the process by which cellular components (specifically RNA and
the ribosomes) produce proteins according to a precise genetic blueprint.
While every human cell contains a complete DNA sample, and thus
the full complement of the body’s genes, a specific cell, such
as a skin cell or a pancreatic islet cell, gets its characteristics
from only the fraction of genetic information relevant to that particular
Gene expression is controlled by peptides (molecules made up of
sequences of up to 100 amino acids) and short RNA strands. We are
now beginning to learn how these processes work. Many new therapies
currently in development and testing are based on manipulating peptides
either to turn off the expression of disease-causing genes or to
turn on desirable genes that may otherwise not be expressed in a
particular type of cell. A new technique called RNA interference
is able to destroy the messenger RNA expressing a gene and thereby
effectively turn that gene off.
Accelerating progress in biotechnology will enable us to reprogram
our genes and metabolic processes to propel the fields of genomics
(influencing genes), proteomics (understanding and influencing the
role of proteins), gene therapy (suppressing gene expression as
well as adding new genetic information), rational drug design (formulating
drugs that target precise changes in disease and aging processes),
as well as the therapeutic cloning of rejuvenated cells, tissues,