On my last warm spring day in Austin, I got to see artificial intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil speak at SXSW. I’ve been a fan for years, ever since reading Bill Joy’s classic April 2000 Wired magazine treatise, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” in which Joy recounts debating the odds of artificial intelligence dooming our species with Kurzweil over a drink at a bar. Beyond AI, Kurzweil has other claims to fame. Now 70 and leading Google’s machine learning program, over the past 50 years he has invented much of the stuff that makes our modern technology work: the flatbed scanner (fax machines, printers, the iPhone screen), speech-to-recognition (Siri and Alexa, your new car’s dashboard), and music synthesizers (all those little beeps). But rather than riff on the future AI singularity in which we merge with machines, Ray was surprisingly optimistic about our species today.
Here’s what Kurzweil said:
We live in the best moment in all of human history. War is at an all-time low. Your risk of dying from bodily injury caused by another is minimal. Poverty and disease have declined around the globe. Literacy is at a record high. Fewer people are dying from hunger. We thrive in a generation of peace.
The problem we have, Kurzweil said, is modern communication. Humans are wired to listen for potential threats, the rustle in the leaves indicating a snake may be there, the bump in the night. So while in the past the village just over the mountain could burn to the ground and we wouldn’t hear about it for months, today we get news updates in seconds, via modern communication networks, about violent outbreaks 10,000 miles away. Being so wired to listen, we hear trouble every day.
We are empathic human beings, so we perk up, worry, and feel pain. Protestors say wrong words, and we grow upset. A politician makes a bad decision, and we shout a response. The communication networks we’ve built give us the illusion that the world is on fire, when really we just see every spark so far away.
But the global pain is really lessening as our species progresses. The very sensitivity we have in response continues to push societal momentum for more peace and less aggression, more human health and less human sickness.
The lightning of the networks that connect us is compressing the darkness we find so troublesome.
It was a beautiful talk. I hope Kurzweil is right.