Google's Ray Kurzweil on the computers that will live in our brains

Ray Kurzweil.

Shares of Google closed at $845.72 in New York today, up almost 2 percent. It's been a pretty big week for the company. Google Now, a voice-activated search assistant, launched on iPhone this week. And the wearable computer Google Glass has been getting a lot of press.

Pretty much everything Google's doing is changing the way we think about and get our information. What's all that searching doing to us?

"I think we're going to ultimately move beyond these little devices that are like looking at the world through a keyhole," Futurist Ray Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google, says. "You'll be online all the time. Google Glass is a solid first step."

Unlike Google's board of directors, Kurzweil doesn't focus as much on generating revenue on a daily basis from that technology. But he believes that when consumers find something valuable, the business model will follow. He cites as an example the company's current advertising model. 

"The goal is to be a win-win," Kurzweil says. "Like if I see a television commercial for baby diapers, I'm annoyed by it because I stopped buying baby diapers 30 years ago. But if I get an ad for something I really care about, some new supplement let's say, then I actually appreciate the ad."

But Kurzweil is thinking far beyond Glass, to devices even smaller and more powerful than tiny text ads. Really small. 

"Ultimately these devices will be the size of blood cells, we'll be able to send them inside our brain through the capillaries, and basically connect up brain to the cloud," Kurzweil says. "But that's a mid-2030's scenario."

In Kurzweil's vision, these advances don't simply bring computers closer to our biological systems. Machines become more like us. "Your personality, your skills are contained in information in your neocortex, and it is information," Kurzweil says. "These technologies will be a million times more powerful in 20 years and we will be able to manipulate the information inside your brain."

As that data locked up inside our brain becomes searchable, inimitable human qualities suddenly become easier to emulate. Kurzweil denies that the searching and backup up of the brain itself is a bloodless pursuit, depleted of human emotion. "When I say that computers will reach human levels of understanding by the 2030s, I'm specifically talking about emotion. I'm talking about getting the joke, and being funny, and being sexy, and being loving."

He has a particular message for those who fear increasing sophisicated artificial intelligence.

"When computers can achieve these things it's not for the purpose of displacing us it's really to make ourselves smarter," Kurzweil says. "And smarter in the sense of being more loving... Really enhancing the things that we value about humans."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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A local school district recently had it's computer network maliciously hacked. All the files on the network were overwritten, and teachers have lost over 5 years worth of lesson plans, tests, resources, etc etc. Of course, the district had been urging the teachers to "stop wasting paper" by printing things out, because this system was absolutely secure and hack-proof. They are now all scrambling to reinvent the wheel from scratch.

yeah...I'm really looking forward to having my brain connected to the cloud. What could possibly go wrong?

This interview introduced this generation's "Dr. Strangelove" to the NPR audience. At a time when long-term un- and under-employment is becoming a problem for college graduates, not just high school dropouts, Kurzweil tells us we can look forward in two decades to computers with human levels of understanding, a good sense of humor and that are sexy -- and they will also probably have your job. Kurzweil believes these new computer capabilities will make humans "smarter" and "more loving." And he sounded almost gleeful in saying "we will be able to manipulate information inside your head." Wow. Not to mix fictional analogies, but Google's Dr. Strangelove is telling us the Borg is only two decades away.

I am not sure how this is a good thing for anyone one other than those few who control the technology. It does not sound like a way to grow wealth and opportunity for most of the population. What really surprised me was that Marketplace presented Dr. Strangelove's comments without any commentary of its own. But then a few minutes later, we all heard the broadcast was sponsored by the new book on the digital future by Google's own Eric Schimdt and Jared Cohen. So perhaps the brain manipulation has begun.... Not one of Marketplaces finest moments.

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