Kurzweil is an American inventor, author and "futurist," which means he's famous for making predictions about the future. Not too much unlike the sort of thing a science-fiction author might do.
In our interview, which is up on CBC, we talked about one of his latest projects - Blio, which is an e-reading application that you can download for your computer (and Apple & Android devices soon) that preserves the formatting of the original book. That means all those really nice graphical books, like cookbooks, travel books etc., will look the same on your electronic device as they do on paper.
The meat of our conversation, however, centred on the stuff Kurzweil is more known for - namely, his predictions of the Singularity and a coming future that will almost literally blow our minds.
The Singularity isn't exactly easy to explain, but it essentially refers to a point in the near future where computer intelligence meets and surpasses the level of human intelligence. The two will merge, Kurzweil predicts, to form a super-intelligence that will make us capable of things we can only dream of right now. This will include making many science-fiction ideas real, like immortality and deep-space travel. A big part of this super-intelligence will come from reverse engineering the human brain, including figuring out how emotions work, which he predicts will happen by 2029. Here's a video of him explaining it:
Not surprisingly, Kurzweil has his share of critics, who believe he's smoking the crack. Some brain scientists, especially, say he knows nothing about how the brain works and that we will probably never understand it fully. Predictions about being able to replicate our entire personality into a computer file, which could then live on in a robot or virtual world (hello Battlestar Galactica and !) are way off base, they say.
The thing I like about how Kurzweil approaches his predictions is that he bases them on something he calls the "law of accelerating returns," which quantifies the exponential growth of technology over time. I think anyone who covers technology eventually comes to this conclusion on his or her own - I certainly did - that the speed at which new technology becomes available is increasing. This is because if someone over here invents Technology A and someone over there invents Technology B, those are both pretty neat inventions. But when you put them together, you obviously get Technology C, and perhaps D and E and F, and so on.
Technology therefore stacks upon itself, which is why it seems like there are more and more new discoveries and gadgets unveiled every day. It's not an illusion or an accident - there are more and more every day.
Kurzweil brought up an excellent example in our interview. When the Human Genome Project was started in 1990, people weren't very optimistic that it would ever get done because so little was known. Lo and behold, the project ultimately took only 10 years to complete, surprising everyone. As Kurzweil explains:
People thought [the Human Genome Project] was crazy in 1990 because only 1/10,000 of the genome had been sequenced by that time. But it kept doubling every year. Half way through the project only one per cent had been collected so the skeptics were going strong, but that was actually right on schedule. One per cent is only seven doublings from 100 per cent.
The other observation I've come to is that scientists, while often incredibly intelligent (far more so than me), are generally quite myopic and conservative in their views. They're afraid of or unwilling to make predictions about where their work can lead, which is pretty much why science-fiction authors exists. Someone's got to do that job, after all.
It's also one of the ways in which Kurzweil counters his critics: "A scientist may be sophisticated in his own field but he may not have studied technology progression and he may just apply his linear intuition to his own work."
Ultimately, those two facts - the exponential growth of technology and the often narrow view of scientists - is why I tend to agree with Kurzweil's predictions. I recommend reading the interview and if you really want to have your mind blown, check out his latest book The Singularity is Near.