Conversations in Management: Ray Kurzweil

We have to give very high priority to managing the downside.

 Ray Kurzweil

RobotBy 2045 nanobots the size of blood cells will be zipping through our biologically reprogrammed brains and connecting us to the cloud the way smartphones do today.  Our synthetically extended neocortexes will make us a billion times smarter. Everything we do will be a billion times better—better decisions, better solutions, better opportunities and, one can only hope, better movie sequels. This last “better” may not matter as our modified brains will be able to experience virtual reality which trumps anything the Hollywood crowd could come up with. Probably the best news is that we’ll all be better looking too. Those nanobots will be zipping through our bodies fighting back against pathogens that our current UNIVAC-era immune systems couldn’t dream of taking on. What’s more, with tissue regeneration and cranking out new body parts on our 3-D printers (installation extra) our life expectancy will exponentially increase. Simultaneously technology will answer the age old question, “Do I really want to live to be 300 if I can’t have my twenty-year-old body?” The terrific news is you can have that twenty year-old body (a billion times enhanced) with no fears of having to spend 280 years as an old person. Now that’s progress!

This is all pretty exciting but it’s still thirty years off. Not to worry says tech genius and futurist Ray Kurzweil. Though it will take until 2045 for artificial and human intelligence to achieve “singularity” and make everything a billion times better, a lot of the nanobots stuff will be well under way by the 2030s. Kurzweil, when he’s not envisioning extraordinary futures for us all, is working for Google on the more mundane task of getting computers to recognize natural speech. (This is a lot more complicated than it sounds as any devotee of Siri can tell you.) The bugs should all be worked out by 2030—which seems like a long time—and around the same time that computers start showing emotions. The idea of an emotional computer isn’t as far-fetched or far-off as you might think. Scientists at the University of Hertforshire have built a robot that droops his shoulders and looks down when he’s (its?) sad, lifts his arms for a hug when he’s happy and cowers when frightened. The robot, dubbed Nao, develops bonds with people depending on how he’s treated. Nao functions at the level of a one year old and responds to both facial cues and touch. Soon he’ll be dating.

Thrilling as this is, it does pose serious problems for supervisors and HR departments. HR, which has a policy for everything including hiring extraterrestrials (develop a training program, heighten supervisor’s sensitivities to interplanetary differences, etc., etc.) will now need policies for dealing with computers. Supervisors need to know how to handle issues that arise when your PC is too hot and your laptop is too cold. What happens when Android devices claim that you’re showing favoritism toward more attractive Apple products? And what do you do when IT tells you to replace your computer? Are there issues of age discrimination?  Who knows? What we do know is that the future is coming at us faster than a Ferrari on the Bonneville Speedway and we’d better be ready. We can start by assessing the potential of incremental technological changes without waiting for the “next big thing.” At that point we can only react and try to catch up. We can stay ahead of the future by thinking about it today. How can we control it without it controlling us? How can we use it without be used by the developers? There’s more to say, but my iPhone’s feeling neglected.  —Ebert

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