Gazing into the Future with Ray Kurzweil

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About This Episode

Where is humanity going, and what will we be like when we get there? Do we really have less than 15 years before computers match the intellectual and emotional capabilities of humans, and less than 30 years before artificial intelligence surpasses humanity? Join us for the Season 7 premiere of StarTalk Radio as Neil deGrasse Tyson examines futurist Ray Kurzweil’s predictions about “the Singularity” with the help of guest neuroscientist Dr. Gary Marcus and co-host Chuck Nice. Find out why Ray thinks that we’ll be able to directly link our neocortexes to the cloud, yielding an increase in brainpower the likes of which we haven’t seen since humans developed our frontal cortex millions of years ago. Ponder the possibilities of nanobot computers the size of blood cells, preloaded with information, that can enter our brains through capillaries and make us smarter. Throughout the episode, Prof. Marcus plays devil’s advocate, reminding us that Ray’s predictions are often at odds with mainstream projections of scientific and technological achievement. Finally, explore the potential benefits of advancements in biotechnology and find out about a company that is already using 3D printing to create human organs that are being “installed” into animals with some measure of success.

NOTE: All-Access subscribers can listen to this entire episode commercial-free here: Gazing into the Future with Ray Kurzweil.

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  • Mars

    But it won’t BE you. 😉

    • Maximilian

      It may if you interface with the machine first. If it’s possible for our brains to assimilate electronic processes (rather than the other way round) then you could transition your cognitive abilities to the computer just as the brain does after serious injuries that damage tissue.

  • Tervuren

    Sorry guys. I cannot stand Kuzweil. I will skip this episode.

    • You may want to listen anyway, especially because our other science guest, Dr. Gary Marcus, raises numerous objections to Ray’s predictions.

      • Michael

        It’s a nice gesture, but I question this as potentially misleading. It implies equal authority to each of Kurzweil and Dr. Marcus’ input here.

        edit: I personally view Kurzweil as someone who acts not just distastefully but exploitatively in his presentation of “futurism”. It is one thing to explore interesting science-fiction-inspired thought experiments, but it is another altogether to charge people in various methods for “how YOU could live forever!”. Kurzweil has a long history of the second one.

        • Benjamin Cevantis Xavier

          Even if it’s something he sincerely believes?

        • Mister Soul

          No one is implying equal authority, and no one knows what you think you’re talking about claiming that Ray rips people off claiming he can make them live forever… you’re one of those people who is a little TOO “concerned”… what you don’t like Ray because he sells vitamins?

          • Michael

            Ray literally authored a book subtitled “Live long enough to live forever”, it’s on Amazon today. It was also the thesis of multiple of his private subscription-only newsletters years before that. I completely forgot that he sells vitamins. That’s a whole other concern.

            Why do you speak for others with e.g. “no one knows what you think you’re talking about”? If you don’t understand you can always ask for clarification without being so dismissive.

          • Mister Soul

            Ray is an honest person who you simply do not agree with. You have provided no evidence or rational argument that he has acted “exploitatively” or explained what “distastefully” means, as the saying goes that which is stated without evidence can be “dismissed” without evidence. Now I’m speaking for other people lol, as opposed to pointing out that no one reading can hope to understand what your point is. Personally I am skeptical of his claims and have not bought his vitamins but I wouldn’t go around telling people he’s exploiting people when the guy is beyond rich and is simply obsessed with helping people live healthier. I have spent a lot of my life energy campaigning against the truly exploitative and truly pseudo-scientific and Ray is simply an extremist who tries hard to verify his claims and doesn’t offer guarantees.

          • Benjamin Cevantis Xavier

            Isn’t that book about using current methods to stay healthy as long as possible? The goal being to make it to when technology will be adding a year to your life expectancy for every year that goes by. If the book contains sensible advice, like how to eat and exercise, supplements that might help with whatever conditions you have, and how to have the most productive relationship with your doctor, then it’s hard to see how it’s exploitative if in particular he sincerely believes those advances are coming. And it would appear he does when you consider the lengths he goes to himself to try to stay healthy, and a few other things – for example he has collected as much records about his passed father as he can because he thinks an AI will be able to create a very accurate approximation of him one day. He has a room full of artifacts about his father. Even mundane things like notes written by him. So I don’t think anyone can confidently say that the title of his book is designed solely to get people to buy his book and supplements. Maybe since he saw the supplement market is unregulated, he wanted to establish a place for others to get the real stuff. I do believe I heard him once say that he wanted to make his own supplements for himself to ensure their purity and quality. And if other people benefit from that, effectiveness claims aside, by not buying fillers and crap, sounds like a force of good to me.

  • Larry Horany

    You need to give Dr. Marcus a whole show, or his own show. He’s great!

    • brnpttmn

      Yeah, give him his own podcast. He was the most interesting part of this show. Which, ironically, will probably be the last time I listen to Startalk because of NDT’s BS attitude toward Dr. Marcus. Unprofessional and unscientific.

      • johnny79

        Same here – NDT tends to talk over his guests, and with this episode it finally hit me how obnoxious it is! In this case I really wanted to hear Dr. Marcus’s POV, but he seemed to be dismissed from the get go. Really poor form.

  • Louis Cuchiara

    It is said our memories and personality are really what make us who we are. That said, If our thoughts, memories, personality, even our decision making is uploaded to a computer, but we die, as far as I’m concerned, I’m dead. Give me a more borg style solution so that “I” am still alive, even if my brain is the only thing left intact.

  • Louise Kriek

    An awesome episode, as usual! I love the dynamics between hosts in this one. My only grievance is with Kurzweil’s predictions – disease eradicated by 2030; poverty eliminated by 2020? That is just a few years from now. It doesn’t seem viable, as nature is so unpredictable and the degree of evolution micro organisms might go through until then is erratic and (excuse the esoteric-sounding comment) unknowable. And have we not been working to eliminate poverty ever since the term has been understood? Both are amazing ideals to work towards, but let’s take it one step at a time. Is it possible that not all parts of this field are quantifiable?

  • Matías Marceillac


  • Bill McDonald

    It’s always interesting to hear Kurzweil’s ideas on the “singularity” and the older I become the more I chant, “I want my android body now!”, but equally as interesting is Jaron Lanier’s view of this immortality discussion.
    The game of intellectual tennis between these two has been going on for years: The Age of Spiritual Machines followed by One Half a Manifesto followed by…you get the gist.
    It would be interesting for StarTalk to interview Jaron Lanier (or better yet have both of them on the show) to get a bit of symmetry on the subject.
    Great show.

  • GoldenBoy

    Ugh, I can’t stand Kurzwell and his bloated sci-fi ideas and his super-exact and exaggerated dates.

    • Tal

      its incredible to me that Kurzweil is so easily treated as just a sci-fi novelist or a scammer of some sort, he has years of correct predictions(including the time tables) hes a celebrated inventor(20+ world changing patents) and brings an immense amount of data to backup his ideas.
      what he says about linear thinking and exponential thinking is absolutely on the spot, all you negative nancy types better prepare a hat for the coming years because you will have to eat it.

  • LuciusCezar

    from when is this?

  • We were in the studio on Oct. 20.

  • anaveragedude

    Is it just me or was Dr. Marcus being attacked slightly? It seems he had to be on the defensive most of the interview. I can see why Mr. Tyson would want to believe Mr. Kurzwell but Dr. Marcus seems to have science on his side.

  • drokhole

    Enjoyed Dr. Gary Marcus’ tempered input. And, while Kurzweil’s wild speculations can make for fun sci-fi fodder, they at their core tell us more about ourselves than the technology/”A.I.” as such (see: AMC show Humans). That said, on AI as a whole:

    Computers aren’t “thinkers,” they are – if anything (being very generous here) – “rememberers.” They cannot take information and transform it into immediate, active realities (which is one of the reasons you see this current crisis of an overload/avalanche of data with no real idea what to do with it). There was an article that spoke of artificial “idiocy” that touched on it well:

    “Every single byte of data on earth was made, not found. And each was manufactured according to methods whose biases are baked into their very being.”

    In other words, all computational processes depend upon the prior reality of intentional consciousness (i.e. ours). Not only in what’s considered important enough to collect and quantify, but how it is interpreted. On this factor alone, it should go without saying, but the data-map is not the territory.

    Ascribing the very phrase “artificial intelligence” to computational processes has spellbound us as a society. It would be one thing if it were a harmless figure of speech. But images/metaphors shape not only the way we conceive the world, but the way we perceive it (and one should not mistake our ways of seeing the world for the world as it truly is…Geoge Lakoff’s work on cognitive psychology is greatly informative here). We have imposed the metaphor of an artificial mind on computers and then reimported the image of a thinking machine and imposed it upon our minds.

    This subject is covered at length in a book by David Bentley Hart that not be named lest it be immediately dismissed by the average StarTalk listener. And, to my mind, he makes a pretty convincing case as to its faulty philosophical premises and ultimate shortcomings. It would be impossible for me to properly represent it (since it exists within a much greater philosophical/phenomenological context), and to do it justice at that, but here’s one such excerpt:

    (begin excerpt)

    “Neither brains nor computers, considered purely as physical systems, contain algorithms or symbols; it is only as represented to consciousness that the physical behaviors of those systems yield any intentional content. It is in the consciousness of the person who programs or uses a computer, and in the consciousness that operates thorough the physical apparatus of the brain, that symbols reside.

    We speak of computer memory, for instance, but of course computers recall nothing. They do not even store any ‘remembered’ information – in the sense of symbols with real semantic content, real meaning – but only preserve the binary patterns of certain electronic notations. And I do not mean simply that the computers are not aware of the information they contain; I mean that, in themselves, they do not contain any semantic information at all. They are merely silicon parchment and electrical ink on which we record symbols that possess semantic content only in respect to our intentional representations of their meanings. A computer no more remembers the files stored in it than the paper and print of this book remember my argument to this point.”

    (end excerpt)

    Even if an “artificial intelligence” were to ostensibly perform actions resembling semantic understanding, it will still depend on the programmers who have, through their intelligence and creativity, written programs that allow external forces to affect and alter the functioning of the automata that run those programs. And that still says nothing of an inner “felt”/private experience of these events. A computer may identify a “cat,” but that says nothing of what it is like to experience that sensation. Knowledge – regarded as rote recall, pure imagery identification, and cross-referencing – is not intelligence (Jiddu Krishnamurti offers great insight on this topic). Rational thought – understanding, intention, will, consciousness – is not pure computation.

    Again, David Bentley Hart makes a much better (and more thorough) case for this in his book. Worth quoting at length:

    (begin excerpt)

    “Computational models of the mind would make sense if what a computer actually does could be characterized as an elementary version of what the mind does, or at least as something remotely like thinking. In fact, though, there is not even a useful analogy to be drawn here. A computer does not even really compute. We compute, using it as a tool. We can set a program in motion to calculate the square root of pi, but the stream of digits that will appear on screen will have mathematical content only because of our intentions, and because we – not the computer – are running algorithms. The computer, in itself, as an object or a series of physical events, does not contain or produce any symbols at all; its operations are not determined by any semantic content but only by binary sequences that mean nothing in themselves. The visible figures that appear on the computer’s screen are only the electronic traces of sets of binary correlates, and they serve as symbols only when we represent them as such, and assign them intelligible significances. The computer could just as well be programmed so that it would respond to the request for the square root of pi with the result ‘Rupert Bear’; nor would it be wrong to do so, because an ensemble of merely material components and purely physical events can be neither wrong nor right about anything – in fact, it cannot be about anything at all. Software no more ‘thinks’ than a minute hand knows the time or the printed word ‘pelican’ knows what a pelican is. We might just as well liken the mind to an abacus, a typewriter, or a library. No computer has ever used language, or responded to a question, or assigned a meaning to anything. No computer has ever so much as added two numbers together, let alone entertained a thought, and none ever will. The only intelligence or consciousness or even illusion of consciousness in the whole computational process is situated, quite incommutably, in us; everything seemingly analogous to our minds in our machines is reducible, when analyzed correctly, only back to our own minds once again, and we end where we began, immersed in the same mystery as ever. We believe otherwise only when, like Narcissus bent above the waters, we look down at our creations and, captivated by what we see reflected in them, imagine that another gaze has met our own.


    …when a believer in artificial intelligence claims that the electrochemical operations of a brain are a kind of computation, and that consciousness arises from that computation, he or she is saying something utterly without meaning. All computation is ontologically dependent on consciousness, simply said, and so computation cannot provide the foundation upon which consciousness rests. One might just as well attempt to explain the existence of the sun as the result of the warmth and brightness of summer days.”

    (end excerpt)

    Also, it’s worth mentioning that Gary Kasparov (mentioned in the book) played Deep Junior (the successor to Deep Blue) to a draw in 2003. And Kasparov never faced an intelligent entity called “Deep Blue,” but, to again quote Dr. Hart, “the conscious intentions of its programmers, who used its circuitry to run algorithms that were largely the distillation of a vast archive of past chess matches, some of them Kasparov’s own; the computer was merely the alembic through which the distillate flowed.” And it was that sort of narrow specialization as pointed out by Dr. Marcus.

    As far as “extending” our own intelligence/cognition and the such, I think there is certainly something to the idea of machine/computer/network-aided thinking and activity. That is, something along the lines of of “Augmented Intelligence” – meaning, by connecting us more widely and readily with each other (and broadening the tasks we’re able to perform), computers and networks have allowed us to increase/enrich/augment our own understanding and ability. Breathing life into to the notion:

    “Nobody knows everything, everybody knows something.”

    Other stuff like improvements in performing and the understanding of transcranial/magnetic stimulation of the brain might lead to further interesting advancements, but the idea of nanobots in the brain and all that jazz I’m a little less optimistic about. Cognition is embodied, in the words of cognitive scientists, and as such it isn’t limited to only the brain as if it were in a vat (only now are researchers beginning to also appreciate the effects of the gut and gut microbes on our psychological/mental state, going so far as to call it the “second brain”).

    All in all, though, an enjoyable listen!

  • Scrappy

    The singularity will have a snowball effect on human beings and space exploration. With overpopulation and the need for new resources, we will be forced to colonize other planets. Having robot bodies would make space exploration possible and so much more easier.
    Having said that, my favorite line from this episode is from Chuck: “COMPUTE THIS MOTHERFU****”

  • Cosmic Rogue

    “Even poor people have smartphones. ”
    Haha, nope.
    Thanks, Neil. Now I feel SAD and poor.

  • Carl Torgrimson

    but transcendence was not about an AI that went rogue. transcendence was a movie about an uploaded consciousness that was only trying to improve the world. he was only healing the planet and people involved in it. that movie was about the humans destroying something amazing because they couldn’t understand what it was. it was about us being destroyers because of our fears.

  • Cinekpol

    “If Siri would show up 40 years ago your mind would explode”

    No, it wouldn’t. Here’s an argument why: In 1976 we were already past the original series of Star Trek (ended 1969), several notable sci-fi movies featuring human-alike robots were already done (just to remind you: Metropolis – 1927) and one might fully expect an AI with a capability to interact with humans much like humans do with each other – something similar to HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey – released in 1968). Meanwhile Siri is basically an elaborate answering machine (offered in US since 1949).

    Yes, ability to recognize speech Siri has is above anything you could buy in ’70s, but it’s nothing that would blow your mind. If anything – you would be DISAPPOINTED that this time traveller that brought you that futuristic device to see has just a box that can answer X questions without any real chance for a conversation. Back in a day (and actually: still) people hoped that AI will be very much human-alike in terms of interaction. Sure, they might be missing human emotion, and AI logic might be deadly, BUT back in a day people hoped to see the AI that you can freely converse with as early as year 2001. 😉 Meanwhile we’re 15 years later and Siri still doesn’t have that capability…

    One thought:
    When looking into the future we tend to overestimate the speed of growth and progress.
    When looking into the past we tend to underestimate the hopes we had for today.

  • Brin

    We’re talking about something as interesting as artificial intelligence…but instead of an interesting conversation let’s make lots of sexist jokes! “As long as they program them not to be jealous because I’m having three.” “Male sex robot totally useless, all males are sex robots.” “Otherwise you’re just going through the motions, and that’s called marriage.”
    Ugh. So frustrating.

  • David Longley

    I normally do not comment on ANYTHING, but this episode made me actually uncomfortable. Neil and Chuck were constantly interrupting Dr. Marcus. It was was very poor form.

    • johnny79

      100% agree. Incredibly obnoxious. Dr. Marcus is owed an apology.

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