Futurist (and current director of engineering at Google) Ray Kurzweil has made a lot of predictions about the future--and many of them have come true. In his 1990 book The Age of Intelligent Machines, Kurzweil foresaw things like the internet's fast and widespread adoption, wearable devices, the cloud, and the ability of artificial intelligence to beat the world's best chess players by 2000. (It happened in 1997.) Overall, Kurzweil claims to have an 86 percent accuracy rate on his predictions from that book.

Kurzweil's daughter, Amy, is a cartoonist and children's book author, and the two shared a stage at South by Southwest on March 13 to discuss the future of art, storytelling, and creativity in general. Here are four predictions the elder Kurzweil made about where those things are going.

1. A.I. will be able to create art as well as or better than humans.

Computers are already writing stories, composing music, and painting pictures. It's only a matter of time, Kurzweil says, until it can do those things like humans can. Recently, one A.I. system was given paintings by a number of distinct painters, and then told to redraw them in a different artist's style--like van Gogh's Starry Night reimagined by Edvard Munch. The results were surprisingly spot-on. "Five to six years ago, A.I. couldn't tell the difference between a dog and a cat," Kurzweil said. "Now it can tell the difference between those and can understand thousands of other categories."

Before A.I. can get there, though, it will have to be able to reason and draw conclusions the way humans can. Kurzweil points out that if a computer were shown a picture of a dog charging at a man, followed by a photo of that man laying on the ground, the system would not be able to infer that the dog had toppled him over. "It's so obvious to us, but computers can't make these inferences," he said. "We're making progress, but we're not there yet."

2. We'll improve our language skills by connecting to the cloud.

Already, Kurzweil says, our smartphones make us millions of times smarter than humans were 20 years ago, due to the seemingly endless amounts of calculations and data it can provide. Someday, there won't be a handheld device--a chip in our brain's neocortex will connect us directly to the cloud. "We're going to make ourselves more intelligent by merging with A.I.," Kurzweil says. "We'll have more potential ways of sharing language." (Imagine being able to instantly access Dictionary.com or Thesaurus.com.)

Kurzweil believes that's not too different from what we have now--it's simply removing the middleman by placing the device inside our heads. "That's not an important distinction," he says. To each his own.

3. We'll be able to experience stories as the characters.

When virtual reality becomes more realistic and immersive, Kurzweil says, it will add a whole new dimension to storytelling: We'll be able to put on a headset and live life through the eyes of the protagonist. A narrator will dictate the story to us while we experience whatever is happening within it.

Whether that's a good or a bad thing is up for debate. Kurzweil recounted a case in which a woman entered a virtual world in which she could jump from ledge to ledge. Out of nowhere, she was chased down the side of a mountain by an avatar and promptly ripped off her headset. "That experience stayed with her for a long time," he said. "These are real experiences. You can turn off the headset and hang up on them, but you still felt those things." That could have the added effect of changing the way we think about who we are. "Our sense of identity, I think, will become more flexible," he said.

4. Dead people will be "resurrected" as avatars.

People won't die--they'll just become virtual reality characters. By feeding an A.I. system photos, videos, and audio recordings of a person, as well as their letters, journal entries, emails, bills, and anything else that might offer a clue into their personality, we'll be able to create avatars of them. Strapping on a headset will let us interact with them within a virtual reality world. Kurzweil says he's already building an avatar of his father, who passed away decades ago. "This will be a way to bring him back," he says. "Even if it isn't fully realistic to bring these people back in A.I., it'll be close."

Published on: Mar 15, 2017