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Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil's vision of human-machine synthesis stirs worldwide interest, and fear.
SAN FRANCISCO — Inventor Ray Kurzweil has become the foremost proponent of a future in which humans and machines merge, thus transcending biological evolution.
A technical genius with a flair for showmanship, Kurzweil believes human consciousness will one day be uploaded into electronic systems, allowing people to achieve a form of virtual immortality. His epic-length 2005 book, “The Singularity is Near,” won him a small coterie of fans and critics in global technology circles. Now a forthcoming documentary, “Transcendent Man,” showcases this complex man and his heady notions in an 85-minute biography accessible to a broader audience.
The documentary, which will debut at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in April, was directed by Los Angeles filmmaker Barry Ptolomey. His crew spent two years following the 61-year-old Kurzweil around the world. The result: A sympathetic, but not uncritical, depiction of Kurzweil's theory that scientific advances will result in a human-machine fusion within mere decades. As a technology reporter who has long followed Kurzweil's career, I appear briefly in the documentary to suggest that, like him or not, Kurzweil's track record as an inventor and futurist demand attention.
Kurzweil first achieved fame in 1976 when he hooked an optical scanner to a voice synthesizer, creating a device that could read text aloud to the blind. The first Kurzweil Reading Machine was the size of a washing machine and cost $50,000. It made a splash on television when then-CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite used it to read aloud his famous sign-off line, “And that's the way it was.”
Ever since, Kurzweil — who has been likened to a modern Thomas Edison — has focused on gadgets with some prosthetic purpose. Among his recent inventions is a $1,600 software program that can be loaded onto a camera-equipped Nokia cell phone. The device, called the kReader Mobile, allows users to snap pictures of printed documents and hear an audio playback — it's a handheld version of his original reader.
Kurzweil's gift has been his mastery of pattern recognition: writing programs that imitate the way the human brain makes sense of the world.
Beginning in 1990, he started devoting his skills toward anticipating the future. In a series of books that have been translated into several languages, Kurzweil tells the global technology community that the brain is not the end of evolution. Rather, he says, it's a step toward the synthesis of biological and machine intelligence into something trans-human.