The Observer, Saturday 22 February 2014 16.00 EST
Computers will be cleverer than humans by 2029, according to Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering.
The entrepreneur and futurologist has predicted that in 15 years’ time computers will be more intelligent than we are and will be able to understand what we say, learn from experience, make jokes, tell stories and even flirt.
Kurzweil, 66, who is considered by some to be the world’s leading artificial intelligence (AI) visionary, is recognised by technologists for popularising the idea of “the singularity” – the moment in the future when men and machines will supposedly converge. Google hired him at the end of 2012 to work on the company’s next breakthrough: an artificially intelligent search engine that knows us better than we know ourselves.
In an interview in today’s Observer New Review, Kurzweil says that the company hasn’t given him a particular set of instructions, apart from helping to bring natural language understanding to Google.
“My project is ultimately to base search on really understanding what the language means,” he said. “When you write an article, you’re not creating an interesting collection of words. You have something to say and Google is devoted to intelligently organising and processing the world’s information.
“The message in your article is information, and the computers are not picking up on that. So we would want them to read everything on the web and every page of every book, then be able to engage in intelligent dialogue with the user to be able to answer their questions.”
Kurzweil’s prediction comes hot on the tail of revelations that Google is in the throes of assembling the greatest artificial intelligence laboratory on Earth. The company has bought several machine-learning and robotics companies, including Boston Dynamics, the firm that produces lifelike military robots, for an undisclosed sum; and the smart thermostat maker, Nest Labs, for $3.2bn (£1.9bn).
This month it bought the cutting-edge British artificial intelligence startup DeepMind for £242m and hired Geoffrey Hinton, a British computer scientist and the world’s leading expert on neural networks.
Kurzweil is known for inventing devices that have changed the world – the first flatbed scanner, the first computer program that could recognise a typeface, and the first text-to-speech synthesiser. In 1990 he predicted that a computer would defeat a world chess champion by 1998 (in 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov), and he predicted the future prominence of the world wide web at a time when it was only an obscure system that was used by a few academics.
For years he has been saying that the Turing test – the moment at which a computer will exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to that of a human – will be passed in 2029. “Today, I’m pretty much at the median of what AI experts think and the public is kind of with them,” he adds. “The public has seen things like Siri [the iPhone’s voice-recognition technology], where you talk to a computer. They’ve seen the Google self-driving cars. My views are not radical any more.”
Kurzweil had been working with Google’s co-founder, Larry Page, on special projects over several years until Page offered him a job. “I’d been having ongoing conversations with him about artificial intelligence and what Google is doing and what I was trying to do,” he notes.
“And basically he said, ‘Do it here. We’ll give you the independence you’ve had with your own company, but you’ll have these Google-scale resources.'”
In 2009 Kurzweil co-founded the Singularity University, partly funded by Google, an unaccredited graduate school devoted to his ideas and the aim of exploring exponential technologies.