Ray Kurzweil is a fascinating man. He's an author, a computer scientist, an inventor, and he's currently serving as a Director of Engineering at Google. That's a big position for anyone to fill, seeing that Google has been on the forefront of developing new technologies since 1999. The tangible achievements and developments led by Kurzweil, such as the voice-recognition technology responsible for enabling Google Now to process your spoken requests, are impressive and innumerable, but it's Kurzweil's futurist predictions that have heads truly spinning.
Kurzweil has published multiple bestsellers, including The Age of Spiritual Machines and the somewhat terrifyingly titled The Singularity Is Near, all focused on some aspect of the future development of the relationship between humans and machines. In a general context, the technological singularity (which Kurzweil refers to often in his work) is the moment at which machines become more advanced thinkers than humans, creating some level of unpredictability or chaos in the world. But this assumes that humans and machines remain separate, almost competing entities. According to one of Kurzweil's latest assertions, humans and machines may become indistinguishable from one another, in a relationship he calls hybrid thinking.
How Hybrid Thinking Works
First, Kurzweil stresses the importance of how the mind currently operates. His book, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, explains the brain as a functional unit composed of different modules, each of which can perform some function with a pattern. Modules can learn patterns from observation or repetition, remember those patterns, and then respond to those patterns accordingly. Groups of modules are then lumped together in what Kurzweil describes as "hierarchies," with simpler processes--such as recognizing a piece of pizza in front of you--at the bottom and more sophisticated processes--such as determining whether your boss is being sarcastic--at the top. More sophisticated processes require higher hierarchies and more groups of interrelated modules because they deal with more variables.
While this model of the brain has come under scientific scrutiny, if it is the way the brain operates, it's really no different than a machine--it's just exponentially more complicated. Think about the process of computer programming. Developers rely on individual processes, and in this case you can call them modules, which can execute specific actions based on a given input. When working together, complex modules can form interpretations about various pieces of data--forming a kind of artificial intelligence. Theoretically, it would only be a matter of time before our top computer scientists can produce a hierarchy of modules similar enough to the human brain to mimic that level of thinking. Already, we have machines capable of complex language recognition and interpretation--just think about Google's "Hummingbird" semantic search update or the Jeopardy! champion-beating Watson.
Kurzweil estimates that search engines will begin to evolve even further. Rather than interpreting your search query and trying to find what it has already indexed that matches your intention, as it does today, a search engine could become an active participant in your life. For example, you could search for a taco restaurant one week, and if a new taco restaurant opens, the search engine could flag the press release for it and actively recommend it to you, giving you a summary of the menu and explaining why it might fit your interests. Under this model, search engines--and computers in general--would become artificial brains.
In another generation, scientists could perfect nanobots, which are essentially tiny machines that execute specific functions. These nanobots would theoretically enter your bloodstream, navigate the modules of your own organic brain, and connect your human brain to the artificial one. You wouldn't need a web browser to find online information, nor would you need a mobile device. You would be able to think your way to the cloud and retrieve any information you wanted. Search engines would cease to exist because our active brains would be functional search engines.
This is the model of hybrid thinking that Kurzweil proposes: a future where the lines between human intelligence and artificial intelligence ceases to have meaning. It's creepy to think that one day we would be incapable of distinguishing between our own conclusions and the conclusions of a connected algorithm, but it certainly seems plausible.
When Could Hybrid Thinking Enter Mainstream Society?
After reading this description, you may be under the impression that this futuristic development is hundreds of years away. It seems like something out of a movie, and a particularly inventive movie at that, so it's hard to imagine it developing within our own lifetimes. But Kurzweil is suggesting just that. Recently, he suggested that his "hybrid thinking" model might be as little as 30 years away. Others agree.
If that still seems far-fetched to you, consider the fact that this man predicted, in the 1990s, that by 2009 we'd all be using mobile computers, and that there would be wearable eyeglasses capable of projecting a computer-like interface. He also thought that self-driving cars would be a reality by 2009--but even then, he was only off by a few years.
Whether or not Kurzweil's model of the brain or suggestions about the future of human/technology interfaces are entirely accurate is debatable. What's not debatable is that our world is changing faster than most of us can adequately understand. It's a strange, exciting time to be a technology user, and it's only going to get more interesting from here.