Forbes | Ray Kurzweil on using exponential thinking to predict the future

November 10, 2012

Next week’s Techonomy conference in Tucson, AZ, will feature Ray Kurzweil, a leading thinker, inventor, and futurist known for his track record of accurate predictions. On November 13 Kurzweil is releasing a new book, How to Create a Mind, which applies neuroscience research to the possibilities of super-intelligence. In this video, recorded in Kurzweil’s office near Boston, he talks to Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick about how his exponential perspective of the future is different than the typical linear perspective. Thinking exponentially, Kurzweil says, has allowed him to predict the future of information technology.

Kurzweil: The biggest difference between myself and either pessimists or critics is the linear versus exponential perspective.

Kirkpatrick: Exponential was a word in my next question to you.

Kurzweil: Because if I looked at the current situation, and then applied a linear expectation to it, and that is our intuition. That is what’s hired into our brains; that is what generally speaking my critics looks at. They don’t even express that point of view. It’s so obvious it doesn’t even need to be said, according to these critics. They look at the current situation—like my prediction that we would have a world wide web with hundreds of millions of people, that that would emerge in the late 1990s.

I made that in the early 80s, and people said, “That’s ridiculous. Look, it takes the entire defense budget to tie 2,000 scientists together. There’s no way you’re going to do that.” If a linear perspective was correct, they’d be right. But a linear perspective is not correct when it comes to information technology, and information technology is not only influencing, but encompassing, one area after another. And now most recently health and medicine, which didn’t used to be an information technology. So that’s the principal difference between my perspective and a common person’s perspective, because it’s actually hardwired in our brain to have a linear perspective.

Thirty steps linearly, that’s our intuition, gets us to 30. Thirty steps exponentially—2, 4, 8, 16—gets us to a billion. And it’s not an idle speculation about the future. I mean this [pulls out smartphone] is several billion times more powerful per unit currency, standard, unit currency, that the computer I used when I was a student at MIT. And it’s also a thousand times smaller.

And if you were to say that something thousands of times more powerful than the one computer that thousands of us shared at MIT would fit in your pocket, people would think you were crazy.