You’ve probably heard of Ray Kurzweil, the remarkable inventor/futurist. Among other things, Kurzweil, a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, developed the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind.
Listening to Kurzweil in a recent television appearance, the thought crossed my mind how geniuses like him appear to be able to transcend the dispersed-attention garbage that you and I allow to saturate our brains day in and day out, e.g., dumbed-down infomercials … round-the-clock sports on TV … childish global-warming proclamations … the theatrical ramblings of politicians … news flashes about wacky Hollywood celebs who weigh in with their low-information views on topics they know nothing about.
Further, most of the things people think about, fret about, and argue about don’t really matter much in the long run. Over the past century, we’ve survived a rash of bad presidents and criminal politicians, unthinkable natural disasters, the Great Depression, and world wars (along with a few little skirmishes like Vietnam). Yet, through it all, humankind has stubbornly found ways to keep pushing forward.
I believe that one of the biggest reasons for mankind’s penchant for surviving is that those on the leading edge of civilization tend not to be distracted by the nonsensical stuff that mesmerizes the masses. Of course, when I say we’ve survived, I’m talking only on a macro basis. But on a micro basis, those who happen to be living in the wrong place at the wrong time can suffer a great deal of pain and suffering.
The Soviet Union is the best recent example of this. It was only a matter of time until the lie of communism collapsed under its own weight, but for 70 years hundreds of millions of people suffered and tens of millions died.
The same was true of Hitler’s Germany, Saddam’s Iraq, Mao’s China, and now Assad’s Syria. But what’s interesting is how, notwithstanding government’s best efforts to slow human progress, the best and the brightest keep moving mankind forward.
As a result of the exponential progression of information technology, Kurzweil says that the acceleration in the rate of progress itself is now doubling every decade. In fact, he believes we will experience thirty-two times as much technical progress in the next fifty years as we’ve seen in the last century! It’s difficult for a guy like me, whose neurons shut down at the thought of learning how to load an app onto my iPhone, to wrap my mind around such a mind-boggling statement.
Kurzweil says that when he first came to MIT, the school had only one computer. It took up an entire floor and cost more than $10 million. Now, the computer in a $50 cellphone is thousands of times more powerful than that MIT dinosaur. Which is why he believes we will see a billionfold — that’s right, billionfold — improvement in information technology over the next twenty-five years … and then, in the years that follow, we’ll see it again … and again … and again.
I could go on and on about Ray Kurzweil’s amazing inventions, knowledge, and insights into the future, but the biggest of all his predictions is that due to advances in nanotechnology, we will soon be able to produce highly efficient, lightweight, inexpensive solar panels. As a result, he is all but certain that solar power will provide 100 percent of the world’s energy needs within 20 years — easily and inexpensively. He points out that the sun provides us with 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to accomplish this.
If Kurzweil is right, it not only will put a damper on draconian save-the-planet ideologies aimed at increasing control over people’s lives, it will actually change the balance of political power worldwide. It will also mean that millions of hours have been (and will be) wasted on debating whether or not to drill through the hides of caribou or dig up our trillions of tons of coal and convert it to oil.
All this reminds me of something that another great futurist, the late Alvin Toffler, said in his landmark book Future Shock. Toffler believed that at any given time in history, about 90 percent of the population thinks in terms of the past, 7-8 percent are focused on the present, and 2-3 percent are focused on the future. And it’s this 2-3 percent that keeps mankind marching relentlessly forward, while there average person has no clue.
When you look back on just the past 10,000 years, the evidence is clear: Human progress accelerates, notwithstanding little inconveniences such as famines, disease, natural disasters, and asteroids periodically paying their respects to Planet Earth.
In the coming decades, I believe the United States will be a totally different place than it is today. It may even have to go through a dictator or two … perhaps even a couple of revolutions. But the scientific brains and futuristic thinkers don’t seem to pay much attention to politics and social upheaval. They just keep moving forward as though nothing were going on around them. (Think Albert Einstein.)
Nevertheless, the big question that is the same one that has challenged mankind throughout human history: What good does human progress do in fields such as computer technology, medicine, and energy if there continues to be no human progress in the areas of morality and goodwill?
Worse, glowing futuristic predictions aside, the thought of ever-greater technology joining forces with ever-greater malice (Putin, Assad, Isis, Kim Jung-un, et al) makes it pretty difficult to envision a happy ending to the history of the human race. Of course, if there were a way to rid the world of those who are hell bent on trying to control the thoughts and actions of others, I’d be a lot more optimistic.