Ray Kurzweil and Exponential Growth

Ray Kurzweil and Exponential Growth

Russell Steinberg

July 22, 2014

Ray Kurzweil and Exponential Growth

Seven and a half years into the Human Genome Project, scientists announced they had decoded only 1% of our genetic code. The project was budgeted for only 15 years. Skeptics said it wouldn’t work; it would take a century to complete.  Ray Kurzweil—inventor, philosopher, futurist—had a different reaction. He said the genome was practically solved. And indeed the mapping was completed in another seven years. The amount of data sequenced each year practically doubled.


Ray Kurzweil has spoken regular for decades about this phenomenon and why he thinks it’s important for us to understand its implications for the future of humanity. We are hard wired to think linearly. This is our intuition about prediction. Whether predicting the speed and direction of a ball to make a catch, the time it will take for clothes to dry, or the number of years to save money for a project, or to pay off our mortgage, we assume a linear progression.  That works well with many things in the physical world.


But information technology follows an exponential pace. Our assumption of linear progression won’t work. And we do live in the Information Age, so we require a different intuition to make meaningful predictions and sense of the world. When things double every two years, as they do with Moore’s law (that states the exponential growth of computing processing power), then we can’t assume that we will be interacting with the world in the same way now as we will five years from now. That means we have to make very dramatic extrapolations for the future—things that seem crazy now will become the norm not so long from now. Watching how in just the past 5 years our entire species has gone from walking with hands out our sides to walking with both hands clutching a small rectangular block of metal and glass is simply the most obvious example.


Kurzweil goes from this point of accelerating growth to talking about artificial intelligence and his prediction that by 2029 computers will outstrip human intelligence, that by 2049 nanomachines will “assemble” food, controlling its production at the molecular level, and that by 2099 all distinctions between humans and machines will cease to exist. We will, for all intents and purposes, become immortal.


What do you think of these predictions? And more to what you may be thinking, what would any of this have to do with classical music?


My gut feeling is that serious music also follows this exponential pattern. I can absolutely attest that the creative process is not linear. I don’t compose music measure by measure at a particular pace (although film composers under tight deadlines try hard to do so). Instead, I go through a sketching process of many dark alleys and U-turns before I understand the shape a piece will take. Composer George Crumb once told me his most difficult task is pre-composition, the planning of the work. What he means by this is he might spend a considerable amount of time—days, months, even years—with little music to show for his efforts. But once the shape becomes clear, then the music follows very quickly. That is an exponential pattern for sure. The curve seems almost flat for a long time and then zooms up. 


Many of my colleagues share the same psychological phenomenon—a sense that nothing is happening despite spending so much time trying to compose. And then, Boom! With experience, artists become used to this pattern and learn to have faith each time they begin a new project.


We observe the same phenomenon with music practicing. Angst-filled sessions of little or no progress (sometimes even backwards progress!) ensue before a “breakthrough” that dramatically improves a skill—be it playing octaves, trills, scales and arpeggios, etc. All that time of “failure” is actually the learning process, building the neural pathways that lead to the next level of improvement. This follows an exponential pathway, not a linear one. The problem is that we have linear expectations. That’s why many people become frustrated practicing and quit playing an instrument.


And I have observed the same phenomenon with music listening. It takes many times listening in confusion with Mahler symphonies or Beethoven quartets before clarity and understanding transport our aesthetic appreciation to a new level. When I have given classes in the symphony to general listeners (in other words, very bright people who are not musicians), I have noticed it usually takes until the sixth of ten sessions for students to have that first “aha” moment where they really and truly hear the harmonic move to the dominant. Once they hear that, it opens a gateway to a new experience of listening they have the rest of their lives. But it takes patience to go through the time where they don’t seem to be “getting it,” to achieve that new level.


I don’t know about all of Ray Kurzweil’s predictions. But I do believe he makes a strong point that it is to our benefit to adopt a psychology that opens us to exponential patterns in a world being increasingly defined by them. If any of you have ideas about ways that can train our expectations to go beyond the linear, please share them!


Video: Ray Kurzweil On The Singularity


Russell July 23, 2014 @01:49 am

Very interesting points. I find our general immediate unconscious adoption of technology that so radically alters our behavior to also be unsettling. But what you bring up—the antagonism against the "other," the "different"—that continues to be an intrinsic part of our nature that transfers seamlessly to the virtual world we are creating. In the videos I watched, he addressed the exponential growth of information technology as continuing extensions of our power, not any sense of psychological improvement. Did I miss that?

Ken Goerres July 23, 2014 @12:08 am

Russell, Thanks for sharing this. I read Ray's book "The Singularity is Near". I both have the utmost respect for him, and think he is a little crazy. One subject that he does not address is how, in the midst of the incredible advances, how many people cannot even accept the difference between black and white, Jew and Palestinean, Croatian and Serb, and on and on. This is a serious issue which cannot be ignored if we have a hope of the elite being able to continue on the exquisite path. The problem in learning is that we do not know what we do not know. The more specifically the unknown can be specified or explained, the quicker a resolution can be made.