10 Big Breakthroughs: A History Of Accelerating Technology Innovation3:00 PM EST Tue. Nov. 13, 2012
Ray Kurzweil, the renowned inventor, author and technology futurist, has correctly predicted one mind-boggling breakthrough after another from the explosive growth of the Internet to Human Genome Project advances. In a special ComdexVirtual keynote, Kurzweil, whose new book, "How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed," is being released this month, says the disruptive, exponential growth of information technology is accelerating. Here are 10 big breakthroughs that Kurzweil has chronicled as part of his saga of accelerating technology innovation.
All of the accelerating current technology trends have their roots, says Kurzweil, in "historical" developments including early communication. The first human invention, says Kurzweil, was language. "It took a few hundred thousand years for that to catch on," he says. From there, language evolved to "written language," says Kurzweil, who gave a speech last year commemorating the 500th anniversary of the University of Basel, which opened its doors 20 years after Guttenberg invented the printing press.
The telephone, an early prototype developed by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, was adopted much more quickly than written communications advances. "It took [the telephone] only 50 years to reach a quarter of the U.S. population," says Kurzweil. "The cell phone did that in seven years."
Moore's law, named after legendary Intel co-founder and scientist Gordon Moore who popularized the maxim that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years, is one of many examples of the exponential growth of accelerating technology, says Kurzweil. "I was excited in 1968 when you could buy a transistor for a dollar," says Kurzweil. "I used to pay $50 for a relay, which is slower and bigger. Now you can get billions [of transistors] for a dollar and they are better because they are smaller. The cost of a transistor cycle has been coming down by about half every year."
Kurzweil raised more than a few eyebrows when he predicted the rise of the internet at a point where it was called Arpanet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), a packet switching network for universities and researchers funded by the US Department of Defense. "To the casual observer, it looked like the World Wide Web came out of nowhere, but you could see it coming if you looked at the exponential progression," he said.
Pointing to the smartphone, Kurzweil says, devices like the iPhone are 100,000 times smaller than the computer that he used as an MIT student. "It is also several thousand times more powerful," he says. "It is a million times cheaper. That is a several billion-fold increase in price performance." Technology is being reduced at a rate of "100,000 in 3-D volume per decade," says Kurzweil. "That is another predictable exponential trajectory, so computers of this capability will be blood-cell size in 2030."
Driven by a new wave social applications like Facebook and Twitter, social networking took only three to four years to reach a mass audience, says Kurzweil. "Innovation is happening faster and faster, and what is driving that is the exponential growth of information technology, which is extraordinarily predictable and uniform," says Kurzweil. Of course, timing is key in exponential progression. "Why didn't social networks take off until about before four years ago?" asked Kurzweil. "Is it because [Facebook Co-Founder Chairman and CEO] Mark Zuckerberg or his equivalent didn't come around? No, it just was not cost effective."
One of Kurzweil's most outrageous predictions was related to the international scientific Human Genome Project aimed at mapping the sequencing of the entire 20,000 - 25,000 genes of the human genome. Skeptics pointed to the slow early progress of the Human Genome project, which was started in 1990, as evidence that it would take some 700 years to finish the project. Kurzweil was confident that the laws of "exponential progression" would prevail and the project would be completed by 2003. Kurzweil was right. He says skeptics were looking at linear progression rather than taking into account the accelerating laws of innovation.
Kurzweil has chronicled the rise of medicine as an information technology with DNA and cells within our body as software that can be reprogrammed. That concept of human biology as an information technology, Kurzweil says, is leading to breakthroughs in the ability to treat diabetes and heart disease. "We can now take stem cells and reprogram them to rejuvenate your tissues and organs," says Kurzweil.
The age of 3-dimensional printing of physical objects, including violins and guitars, is on the horizon, says Kurzweil. That breakthrough has been made possible by 3-D printers that at one time cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and now cost thousands of dollars. With 3-D printing soon reaching the sub-$1,000 and sub-micron level, Kurzweil says, it will soon revolutionize manufacturing. "We can already print out some very exciting things," he says. "An airplane was printed out which flew!"
In his book "How To Create A Mind," Kurzweil details the advances that are taking place in the human brain's neocortex combined with cloud computing. "Ultimately we are going to put computers inside our bodies and our brains, which will also be connected to the cloud," he said. That is not as "futuristic" as it seems, he says. "There are people with computers connected to their brains today, like Parkinson's patients," he says.