GDC 2008

GDC 2008: Ray Kurzweil: The Magic Man

Russ Pitts | 22 Feb 2008 14:00
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In a more interesting world, Ray Kurzweil, GDC's guest keynote speaker for Thursday, would be the God Emperor of everything, ruling the universe from the comfort of his throne on the spice planet, predicting the future, then pulling the strings to bring about vast evolutionary changes. Sadly, we don't live in that world.

In this world he's an inventor, futurist and researcher working with companies like IBM and Intel to predict the emergence of new technologies - often to within months of when they are invented. He then times his own inventions to take advantage of these discoveries, accelerating the advance of technology even further. If you think this sounds like magic, you're not alone.

"The gaming industry really fits in well with what I like to talk about," Kurzweil said, "which is technology."

"The word 'game' is unfortunate," he said, noting that it implies what's happening in a game, or online world, isn't 'real.' He has the same problem with the term virtual reality, although he's realistic about the fact these terms aren't going to change any time soon.

Kurzweil sees virtual realities and online worlds as just another communication system. He calls the telephone "the first virtual reality." At the time the telephone was invented, he said, the idea you could have a conversation with someone across a continent was mind-bending. Now we take it for granted. But interacting over the internet, in an online world, is no different from talking on the phone. And it's real real, not virtually real.

"We're going to be spending a lot more of our time in virtual reality environments," he said, suggesting virtual reality will soon be competing with real reality, pointing to a near future date when we'll have blood cell-sized computers we can inject into our bodies that will tap directly into our nervous systems to deliver a virtual experience almost indistinguishable from the real world. And no, he wasn't kidding. One of the companies he works with is almost ready to start building such a computer.

"I've been studying technology trends for 30 years," he said. "I quickly caught that the key to being successful as an inventor was timing."

Kurzweil has a team of people who work with him who do nothing but collect and help him analyze data of all kinds, like, for example, the current state of digital camera or voice synthesis technology. He then uses that data to chart the growth (and sometimes the invention) of various technological advancements.

He says the future is unpredictable, at least as far as specific projects and people, but that technological innovation proceeds along a very stable, very predictable and very real exponential curve. And he should know, considering he predicted the development of the world wide web, down to the year.

Tapping into what seems to be an emerging theme at this year's GDC, Kurzweil talked briefly about the democratization of technology, and how, as technology becomes better, more reliable, more ubiquitous and - most importantly - cheaper, we, the people, begin using it not only to make our lives easier, but also better, freer and more independent.

Twenty years ago, only the very wealthy had cell phones, and those didn't even work all that well. As the technology improved, it also became more widely adopted. A few years ago, it became ubiquitous. Now we have phones that take pictures, record video and perform all kinds of functions, for only a few hundred dollars or less, that weren't even possible with devices costing a great deal more a couple years ago. In a few more years, we'll have produced enough mobile phones for everyone on the planet to have one in their pocket, each more powerful by an order of magnitude than the computers that used to cost millions of dollars and take up several rooms.

Factor in digital cameras and laptop computers, and practically anyone can now create and publish media. Meaning it's not just the technology that's being democratized, but the nature of creativity itself.

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