Volume 1, Issue 3 
3rd Quarter, 2006

How We Can Manage Our Way Through the Intertwined Promise and Peril of Accelerating Change

Ray Kurzweil

This article was adapted from a lecture given by Ray Kurzweil at the 1st Annual Workshop on Geoethical Nanotechnology on July 20, 2005 at the Terasem Retreat in Lincoln, VT.

Ray Kurzweil, a noted inventor and futurist, is author of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology and co-author of Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, and four other books; and has won numerous awards, including the 2001 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the world's largest in invention and innovation; and received the 1999 National Medal of Technology from President Clinton. He argues that while technology brings significant perils, we can't simply relinquish it. The key, he believes, is in understanding and learning to harness the accelerating progression of technology.

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A key question facing us to today is: How we can manage our way through the coming challenges, emphasizing the promise while avoiding the peril? We did not manage to avoid all the peril of technology in 20th Century. Fifty million people died in World War II, which is only one out of hundreds of wars in this century.  Nevertheless, all of this conflict and thesee major events did not have any effect in inhibiting the pace of progress. If anything, it accelerated the ongoing progression of technology. Yet we can still clearly see that there is promise and peril. 

I have some ideas about strategies on containing the perils. I believe this issue is the fundamental challenge facing human civilization. As powerful as 20th Century technologies were, 21st Century technologies are immensely more powerful. They will enable and multiply both our creative and destructive impulses. 

One of the biggest issues I try to communicate is to distinguish the intuitive linear view of history from what I call the exponential view. It is remarkable how many otherwise very sophisticated people have a linear view of the future. 

Frequently, I've been peered with Bill Joy as optimist and pessimist respectively, but I invariably end up defending Joy on the feasibility of the dangers. For example, in one recent dialogue, a Nobel Prize winning biologist said, "Oh, we're not going to see self replicating technology for 100 years."  I said, "Well, where do you get that from?" He said, "It's hard to measure, but my intuition is that we've solved 1% of the problem over the last year." I said "That's actually my intuition also, and it will take 100 years at today's rate of progress. But the rate of progress is not a constant; it's accelerating." 

This is not just a casual observation. I have been measuring this. I actually have a team of ten people that gathers key data, key measures of technology in many different areas, and we build mathematical models. I got into this because of my interest in being an inventor. I realized that my inventions had to make sense when I finished the project and the world is a very different place. Most projects fail, not because the R&D team cannot get it to work. Today, as I read business plans from people, 90% of those teams will do exactly what they say if they're given the resources. Yet 90 to 95% of those projects will still fail because the enabling factors needed for market success are not in place.  Thus, I became an ardent student of technology trends. 
This brings up a key issue, can you predict the future? The common refrain is that you cannot predict the future. It turns out that certain things are hard to predict. For example, will Google stock be higher or lower than it is today three years from now?  That is hard to predict. What will the next wireless standard be: WiMax, 3G, CDMA? 

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