April 28, 2009 / 8:45 PM / 10 years ago

Tribeca film reveals U.S. inventor's bionic vision

NEW YORK (Reuters) - American inventor Ray Kurzweil predicts that in only a few decades, humans will merge with machines, changing life as we know it irrevocably.

A new documentary, “Transcendent Man,” which premiered on Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival, presents Kurzweil’s life, his prediction that aging and death will become obsolete, his motives and his critics.

It explains his use of the mathematical term “singularity theory” to support a prediction that by 2045 technology will be changing so profoundly that humans will have to enhance themselves with artificial intelligence to keep up.

It features more than 20 interviews, including ones with former secretary of state Colin Powell, fellow inventor Robert Metcalfe, top scientists and professors around the globe, as well as musician Stevie Wonder, who benefited from Kurzweil’s 1976 invention of a reading device for the blind.

“For a man to be as successful as he is and then to say I am going to step into this firing squad of criticism ... it almost pains me because he is out there so much by himself and I found that to be very inspiring,” Barry Ptolemy, the film’s director, told Reuters.

Ptolemy trailed Kurzweil for the past two years after reading his 2005 book “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.”

Besides a shelf full of awards, including his field’s highest prize — the 1999 National Medal of Technology, which was presented by former U.S. President Bill Clinton — and big-name supporters, Kurzweil also has past predictions on his side.


Among other things, he correctly predicted the rise of the Internet and that a computer would become world chess champion by 1998 — an event that occurred in May 1997.

In saying that by 2029 computers will be able to match human intelligence in every area, he points to how fast technology has changed since he was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where at that time one computer took up half a building.

“The computer that used to sit in that building, that now sits in my pocket, will fit in a blood cell in 25 years and this is very predictable,” Kurzweil, who says in a few decades humans will have cell-sized brain-enhancing robots circulating in the bloodstream, told Reuters.

Combining machine intelligence with human intelligence “will be a very powerful combination,” said Kurzweil. “And the machines will continue to grow exponentially in capability.”

Kurzweil believes that such artificial intelligence will be used to cure disease and poverty rather than for war and the ultimate destruction of human beings. Academics in the film question that optimism and say Kurzweil’s predictions will occur much later if at all.

It also explores other critics’ assertions that Kurzweil, who is 61 and pops more than 200 supplement pills a day, is a radical driven by a desire to put off his own death as well as bring his dead father back to life.

But Kurzweil, who is currently advising the U.S. Army on a rapid response system for new biological viruses, says he welcomes criticism and that one of his goals is to incite public debate on the inevitable advancement of technology.

“Ever since we picked up a stick to reach a higher branch we have extended our reach with machines,” he said. “People talk about killer robots and killer artificial intelligence and that is a real danger but there are things we can do about it ... it’s something that has to be a high priority for humanity.”

Editing by Eric Walsh

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