Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 8 (August 2000)

Merging Human and Machine

By Ray Kurzweil

At this year's Siggraph conference, renowned technologist Ray Kurzweil delivered a keynote entitled "The Human-Machine Merger: Why We Will Spend Most of Our Time in Virtual Reality in the 21st Century." The following time line, highlighting the technological developments he believes will occur in the near and distant future, was adapted from his latest essay, "The Evolution of the Mind in the 21st Century," on which his keynote address was based. -Editor's note

  • Personal computers with high-resolution visual displays come in a range of sizes, from those small enough to be embedded in clothing and jewelry, up to the size of a thin book.
  • Cables are disappearing. Communication between components relies on short-distance wireless technology. High-speed wireless communication provides access to the Web.
  • Visual and auditory virtual reality is built into eyeglasses and contact lenses (which paint images directly onto the retina) and equally discreet auditory devices. These virtual reality experiences and environments are available from the Web. People can enter virtual environments at any time, and can be in real and virtual environments simultaneously. These are primarily limited to visual and auditory virtual reality, but early-stage technology to interact through the tactile sense is also available.
  • The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition. Also ubiquitous are language user interfaces.
  • Most routine business transactions (purchases, travel, reservations) take place over the Web between a human and a virtual personality.
  • Pocket-size reading machines for the blind and visually impaired, "listening machines" (speech-to-text conversion) for the deaf, and computer-controlled orthotic devices for paraplegic individuals result in a growing perception that primary disabilities do not necessarily impart handicaps.
  • Accelerating returns from the advance of computer technology have resulted in continued economic expansion. Price deflation, which had been a reality in the computer field during the 20th century, is now widespread outside the computer field. The reason for this is that virtually all economic sectors are deeply affected by the accelerating improvement in the price-performance of computing.
  • Bioengineered treatments for cancer and heart disease have virtually eliminated mortality from these diseases.
  • The neo-Luddite movement is growing. (Luddites are anti-technologists inspired by early 19th-century weavers who destroyed labor-saving machinery in protest.)

  • A $1000 computing device (in year 2000 dollars) is approximately equal to the computational ability of the human brain.
  • Computers are now largely invisible and are embedded everywhere-in walls, desks, chairs, clothing, jewelry, and bodies.
  • Three-dimensional virtual reality displays, embedded in glasses and contact lenses, as well as "auditory lenses," are ubiquitous and are the primary interfaces for communication with other persons, computers, the Web, and virtual reality.
  • Most interaction with computing is through physical gestures and spoken communication.
  • Web-based high-resolution, three-dimensional visual and auditory virtual reality, and realistic all-encompassing tactile environments enable people to do virtually anything with anybody, regardless of physical proximity.
  • Blind persons routinely use eyeglass-mounted reading-navigation systems. Paraplegic and some quadriplegic persons routinely walk and climb stairs through a combination of computer-controlled nerve stimulation and exoskeletal, robotic devices.
  • The vast majority of transactions are conducted over the Web and include a simulated person.
  • Most meetings take place in virtual reality over the Web.
  • People are beginning to have relationships with virtual personalities and use them as companions, teachers, caretakers, and lovers.
  • There are widespread reports of computers passing the Turing test, although these tests do not meet the criteria established by knowledgeable observers.

  • A $1000 unit of computation (in year 2000 dollars) has the computing capacity of approximately 1000 human brains.
  • Direct neural pathways have been perfected for high-bandwidth connection to the human brain. A range of neural implants (implemented through nanobots in the blood stream) are becoming available to enhance visual and auditory perception and interpretation, memory, and reasoning.
  • Virtual reality is now based on nanobots, which reside in the capillaries of the brain, and provide completely convincing virtual environments.
  • Automated agents are now learning on their own, and significant knowledge is being created by machines with little or no human intervention. Computers have read all available human- and machine-generated literature and multimedia material.
  • The majority of communication does not involve a human. The majority of communication involving a human is between a human and a machine.
  • There is almost no human employment in production, agriculture, or transportation. Basic life needs are available for the vast majority of the human race.
  • There is a growing discussion about the legal rights of computers and what constitutes being human.
  • Computers routinely pass apparently valid forms of the Turing test, but controversy persists about whether machine intelligence equals human intelligence in all its diversity.
  • Machines claim to be conscious. These claims are largely accepted. Some philosophers demur, saying that you cannot be conscious unless based on DNA-guided protein synthesis.

  • The common use of nanoproduced food, which has the correct nutritional composition and the same taste and texture of organically produced food, means that the availability of food is no longer affected by limited resources, bad weather, or spoilage.
  • Nanobot swarm projections (clouds of trillions of microscopic-size intelligent robots) are used to create visual-auditory-tactile projections of people and objects. This technology brings to "real" reality the environment morphing qualities of virtual reality.

  • There is a strong trend toward a merger of human thinking with the world of machine intelligence that the human species initially created.
  • There is no longer any clear distinction between humans and computers.
  • Most apparently conscious entities do not have a permanent physical presence, but use distributed computing on the Web.
  • Machine-based intelligences derived from extended models of human intelligence claim to be human, although their brains are not based on carbon-based cellular processes, but rather electronic and photonic equivalents. Most of these intelligences are not tied to a specific computational processing unit. The number of Web-based software humans vastly exceeds those still using native neuron cell-based computation.
  • Even among those human intelligences still using carbon-based neurons, there is ubiquitous use of nanobot-based neural implant technology, which provides enormous augmentation of human perceptual and cognitive abilities. Humans who do not utilize such implants are unable to meaningfully participate in dialogs with those who do.
  • Because most information is published using standard assimilated knowledge protocols, information can be instantly understood. The goal of education, and of intelligent beings, is discovering new knowledge to learn.
  • Life expectancy is no longer a viable term in relation to intelligent beings.

Ray Kurzweil is the principal developer of the first omni-font optical character recognition, large-vocabulary speech recognition, the charged-coupled device flat bed scanner, the text-to-speech synthesizer, and the orchestral music synthesizer. In 1999, he was awarded the National Medal of Technology. He is the author of The Age of Spiritual Machines.