Human race on the verge of a massive upgrade

Raymond Kurzweil predicts technology will allow humans settle in outer space

The exponential growth of technology will greatly expand our lifespans and eventually let humans settle in other galaxies, famous inventor and author Raymond Kurzweil said in a speech Monday.

Kurzweil has written extensively about laws of accelerating returns related to IT, and predicts that humans will eventually be able to overcome age and disease by combining artificial systems with our mortal bodies.

Life expectancy has risen greatly over the past century, and within a decade and a half medical science will be advancing so rapidly that another year will be added to the average person's life expectancy every year, he said.

"Your life expectancy will run away from you, so you can hang in there," Kurzweil said, drawing laughs from the audience.Kurzweil was speaking to a group of IT professional at Computerworld's Storage Networking World in Phoenix. Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near and other books about the future of technology and the human race, talked little about current storage technology. Instead he focused on his theories related to laws of accelerating returns, and how they could lead to technological advances that seem unimaginable today.

While Moore's Law is well known, Kurzweil says there are countless examples showing that IT progresses exponentially, rather than linearly. Examples include increasing performance of dynamic RAM memory and magnetic data storage. Kurzweil, 61, said there has been a billion-fold increase in the price-performance of computing since he was an undergraduate.

"These technologies will be a million times more powerful in 20 years," he says.

Because medicine is in many ways becoming an information technology, Kurzweil believes we will ultimately be able to reprogram our bodies to be more resistant to disease, and greatly enhance our physical abilities and brainpower. For example, he said replacing a portion of our red blood cells with lab-manufactured blood cells could let us sprint for 15 minutes without running out of breath, or sit at the bottom of a pool for hours on end.

"The software that's running in our bodies is really out of date," he said. "How long do you go without updating the software in your cell phone? The software in our bodies evolved thousands or millions of years ago."

By 2029, Kurzweil said that $US1000 worth of computation power will be equal to 1,000 times the power of the human brain. Reverse engineering of the brain will be completed, virtual reality technology will be a part of everyday life, and nanoscale devices will exist in our bodies keeping us healthy. Skeptics may scoff, he said, but even today some Parkinson's disease patients essentially have therapeutic computers inside their brains.

Kurzweil's predictions typically focus on the next few decades, but one audience member challenged him to predict whether humans will be able to escape the solar system before the Sun dies out billions of years in the future.

"Our technology will be unimaginably powerful in 50 years," Kurzweil said. "If we're talking a billion years from now, our technology will be beyond galaxy-wide and will be beginning to be universe-wide. That's the destiny of our human civilization. Humans spread out, beginning about 100 years from now."

In addition to making grand predictions about the future of the human race, Kurzweil demonstrated a technology he has developed to improve the lives of blind and Dyslexic people. Kurzweil has created a reading technology that can be installed on mobile devices and read restaurant menus, signs and other printed material to the blind. The reader works in 16 languages, can work on Nokia phones and will likely be on the iPhone within six to nine months, Kurzweil said.

While Kurzweil is generally an optimist, he did address the dangers of future technology ending up in the wrong hands."We have technology that could wipe out all of humanity," he said. "Those thermonuclear weapons are still there at a hair trigger, and we've kind of gotten used to that."

Laws of accelerating returns could also help bioterrorists engineer ever more deadly viruses to make entire populations sick and die, Kurzweil said. But we won't be defenseless against misuse of technology, he said, noting that computer scientists have largely been able to deflect the negative impact of software viruses.

"We need to give a lot of attention to keeping these technologies safe," he said, "while harnessing their potential."

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Jon Brodkin

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