Inventor Ray Kurzweil, 61, has received numerous honors for his work in artificial intelligence. Over the past decade, he has focused on sharing his ideas of the future in books like The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and in talks he has given around the world. Kurzweil is the subject of a new documentary called Transcendent Man.
In the film Transcendent Man, Ray Kurzweil says he decided he would be an inventor when he was five. He began pursing that dream at a young age, appearing on a television quiz show at 16, performing a piano piece that was composed by one of his inventions.
Later, he developed the first reading machine for the blind and the first keyboard synthesizer that could duplicate the sound of a grand piano, or any other instrument for that matter.
Despite those successes and Kurzweil's publication of several books, filmmaker Barry Ptolemy believes Kurzweil is still relatively unknown. "Our hope is that we are introducing Ray to a mainstream audience," says the director/producer of Transcendent Man. "I think 90 to 95 percent of the people out there will be introduced to Ray for the first time."
A vision of immortality through artificial intelligence
The central theme of Transcendent Man is Kurzweil's belief that death will not always be final.
"I don't think 'immortal' would be the word that Ray would use," Ptolemy says, "but he believes that he can catch a bridge to a bridge to a bridge, and that is the metaphor he has created."
Kurzweil is already reprogramming his biochemistry with supplements; he takes about 200 pills a day. He believes advances in genetics, nanotechnology and intelligent robotics - or artificial intelligence - will eventually lead to a race of beings that are part human and part machine, or AIs.
"There is nothing in our biological bodies and brains that we won't be able to recreate and, in fact, enhance," Kurzweil says in the film. "We will create AIs that are real people." Kurzweil refers to the time that will happen as "the singularity."
"There are those who would say it is ridiculous that we can predict what will happen with artificial intelligence one way or the other," Ptolemy says. "I think Ray makes a pretty good case that if we continue to practice and look upon our better angels that these AIs will become who we are."
Transcendent Man does present opposing views, including that of Dr. William B. Hurlbut, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University. "We shouldn't just arrogantly think we have transcended the wisdom of thousands of years of human experience," Hurlbut says. As a practicing Christian, he adds, "death is conquered spiritually."
Hugo de Garis, a professor of computer science in China, presents another point of view in Transcendent Man. De Garis is working on an artificial brain himself, but he believes Kurzweil is naïve. "His reason for living is to create inventions to help humanity," de Garis says. "For him to hear somebody like me say these inventions may end up causing the worst war that humanity has ever had, freaks him out. He doesn't want to hear such things."
"I think Ray is naturally an optimist, and I think he does have to work at seeing the downside of technologies," says Ptolemy.
Kurzweil himself makes that quite clear in the documentary. "People imagine destructive, dystopian scenarios," he says, "but in fact technology has been the only thing that has enabled us to overcome problems."
A father and son story
Kurzweil sees technology as his path to a very specific goal. He states quite simply: "I do plan to bring back my father."
"Ray is not talking about bringing back his father in a Frankensteinian way," says Ptolemy. "What he is talking about is a virtual reality model, where his father would exist in a virtual simulation."
Kurzweil's father, Frederic, was a composer. He died of a heart attack when Ray was 22. Kurzweil kept his father's letters, music manuscripts, photos, even financial records - 50 boxes of documents. "With all of that information," Kurzweil says, "I believe an AI would be able to create someone who would seem very much like my father."
"At its core I think the film is a father and son story," says Ptolemy.
Although driven by a personal longing for his father, Ray Kurzweil wants everyone to know "the singularity is near." He has shared his beliefs through books, lectures, and now Barry Ptolemy's documentary, Transcendent Man.