July 1, 2009


One futurist says technology will make us healthier and wealthier.

Ray Kurzweil is a futurist and inventor as well as a pioneer in the fields of omni-font optical character recognition—enabling computers to identify text written in any normal font—and speech-recognition technology. He also is the author of several books on, among other topics, artificial intelligence, health and futurism, including The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence and The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

Forward asked the New York City native for his views on the future of health care and information technology and what it all might mean for the metals industry.

How will the merging of IT and biology affect the work force, in particular health and the cost of health care?
Health and medicine have just become an information technology. We have the human genome, which is the software of life. And we now have the means of changing this software in a mature individual. RNA [ribonucleic acid] interference [the system within living cells that controls which genes are active] can turn selected genes off. New forms of gene therapy can add new genes. We can now design biological interventions on computers and test them on biological simulators, as opposed to just finding substances that happen to work. We are in an early stage of applying these developments, but now that biology is an information technology, it will grow in capability exponentially, basically doubling in power every year.

So these capabilities will be a thousand times more powerful in a decade, a million times more powerful in two decades. This will usher in a new era of being able to reprogram our bodies away from disease and aging processes. It will result in far greater health, and ultimately at lower cost, for the entire population.

Will our wealth be greater or less as a result of the technological developments?
Despite the fact that information technology has a 50% deflation rate—you can buy twice as much of it each year for the same cost—it has nonetheless grown over the past 50 years by 18% each year in constant dollars. The reason for this is that, as price-performance reaches certain levels, entire new applications become cost effective. And information technology comprises a larger and larger part of our economy. As I mentioned, medicine, which comprises about 20% of our GDP, has just become an information technology. It is information technology, in fact, that has been driving economic growth as a measure in constant currencies in recent decades. The World Bank reported that poverty in Asia is down more than 50% over the last decade due to information technology and will fall by another 90% over the next decade.

We run a backup server operation in Greeley so that if we have a problem with technology in one place, we can immediately switch to another so that customers never notice the change. Everything is totally redundant. In Iowa last summer we lost some functionality because of the floods, so we simply switched to Norfolk and kept deliveries going.

So ultimately our wealth will be greater due to the exponentially greater powers of information technology despite continuing swings between recessions and boom times. Not only will we ultimately be wealthier, but our money will go further. Apple’s second iPhone was twice as capable yet cost consumers half as much as the first model, and that is basically the story with all information technology.

If people are going to live longer, how will we accommodate a dramatically increased population of healthy “older” people who are still productive?
The same technologies that will enable us to overcome disease and aging will also greatly increase our resources. Take energy. As we apply nanotechnology [production of molecule-sized devices] to solar panels, the cost of solar energy is coming down. [Google co-founder] Larry Page and I devised the energy plan for a blue-ribbon panel of the National Academy of Engineering. We based it on solar energy. The total amount of solar energy being produced is doubling every two years, and has been doing this for the past 20 years. It is now only about eight doublings away from meeting 100% of the world’s energy needs. We have 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to power our global society.

There are other emerging decentralized technologies with similar potential in the area of food—for example, hydroponically grown vegetables and in-vitro cloned meat, all produced in computerized factories—and water.

As for the concern that older people are not retiring, thereby blocking leadership positions for the young, we can already see that the world’s “leadership” positions are hardly static. The “young” simply create new organizations, like Microsoft and Google. Remember that Google was the dorm room project of two college students done on their thousand-dollar laptops. They were not waiting for older people to retire.

Where will our wealth come from? Will machines and computers do all the work? And if so, what will humans do?
We create new wealth with our ideas and technologies. Google is worth $100 billion even with the current lower stock market. That wealth was not taken away from others—it is new wealth based on new ideas. The basic role of machines, including computers, is to extend our reach. Ever since we picked up a stick to reach a higher branch, we have used our tools to extend our reach, physically and now mentally. We are going to merge with our computers and make ourselves smarter. We do that already. The fact that I can take a device out of my pocket and access all of human knowledge with a few keystrokes makes me smarter.

Your book, The Singularity Is Near, talks about the theoretical future point of unprecedented technological progress. Which industries will first feel the effects of the Singularity—the belief that accelerating technology will create smarter-than-human intelligence in machines? How will those effects manifest themselves, and what should we be looking for?
Exponentially growing information technologies—which is the force behind the Singularity—are already affecting all human activities and industries. Computers already deeply affect every industry, including the metals industry, as executives use computers to keep track of their inventories and customers, and make intelligent decisions affecting future planning.

What should metals executives do now to prepare for these changes? How do you prepare a company for the magnitude of what will happen?
Consider where technologies that affect the metals industry will be in four or five years’ time and prepare your company for these changes. There will be new manufacturing technologies emerging over the next decade or so—for example, applying nanotechnology to create more intricate metals products. Look at how sophisticated the metals industry is today compared to a few decades ago. Computer forecasting methods will become more sophisticated, so that executives can better plan their resources and marketing programs.

What worker skills might be in the highest demand? What skills will be next to useless?
Continuing education is of critical importance. The era where a worker learned one trade and just practiced that for a lifetime is already gone. Education is the key to keeping one’s skills relevant. We’ve already gone from an era in 1900 where a third of American workers were farmers and a third were factory workers to an era today where those numbers are 3% and 3%. So keep learning new skills.

Why should a business executive read your work?
I make the point that we can make reliable predictions about what information technology will be capable of doing at future points in time, and that these progressions are surprising because they are exponential, not linear. Our intuition about the future is linear and that is hard wired in our brains. The historical reality of technology is that it progresses exponentially. If I take 30 steps linearly (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 …), I get to 30. If I take 30 steps exponentially (2, 4, 8, 16, 32 …), I get to a billion. It makes a huge difference. That is why the future will be very different than what our intuition tells us. That is the primary point of my writings.