Are cyborgs near?

Raymond Kurzweil, inventor and futurist, predicts that by the 2030s, it will be possible to upload your mind, experience virtual reality through brain implants, have experiences beamed into your mind, and communicate telepathically. Just to name a few predictions.

Kurzweil, as he himself recently noted on On The Media, has a track record of successful predictions over the past three decades. Past performance being the best predictor of future performance, this leads people to at least pay attention to his arguments. Nonetheless, as the mutual funds folk say, past performance is a predictor, not a guarantee.

Exponential Progress

I suspect that Kurzweil is right about many things, but I’m not sure about the telepathy. When I have heard him speak, his primary argument for his predictions is telepathy only seems like a distant achievement because we think technology moves at a linear rate, but in fact knowledge and capability increases exponentially. This has clearly been the case in terms of computing speed.

Fair enough. The problem is that we aren’t sure exactly how hard the problems we are facing are. There is a famous anecdote about an early pioneer in Artificial Intelligence assigning “vision” as a summer project. This was many decades ago, and as anyone in the field knows, machine vision is improving rapidly but still not that great.

A more contemporary example: A colleague I work with closely built a computation model of a relatively simple process in human language and tried to simulate some data. However, it took too long to run. When he looked at it more carefully, he realize that his program required more cycles to complete than there are atoms in the known universe. That is, merely waiting for faster computers was not going to help; he needed to re-think his program.

The Distance

In short, even if we grant Kurzweil that computers improve exponentially, somebody still needs to program them. Our ability to program may also be improving exponentially, but I’m unconvinced that we know how far we have to go.

Suppose I wanted to walk to some destination 1,000 miles away. I walk 1 mile the first year. If I keep going at the same rate, it’ll take 1000 years. But if my speed doubles each year, it will take less than 14 years. Which is a lot faster!

But we don’t know — or at least I don’t know — how far we have to walk. We may well be walking to the other side of the universe (>900,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles). In which case even if my speed doubles every year, it’ll still take almost 80 years. Which granted is pretty quick, but not as fast as the 14 years.

Of course, notice that by the 79th year I’ll be traveling at such a velocity that I’d be able to cross nearly the entire universe in a year (or, 156 billion times the speed of light), which so far as we know is impossible. The growth of our technology may similarly eventually hit hard limits.

That said…

I wouldn’t terribly mind being proved wrong. Telepathy sounds neat.


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