Daniel Tammet possesses synesthesia. Not only does he see numbers but also feels them. He is one in hundreds of millions, as he demonstrated on ABC's "20/20" this week. But when the "singularity" arrives -- that moment in history when the supercomputer capable of trillions of moves per second will have reached parity with the human brain, capable of feelings, from bereavement to passionate to anger -- countless millions of people will be like Tammet
"The Singularity is Near: A True Story about the Future," a documentary film by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, will make its world premiere debut June 12 at the Breckenridge Film Festival in Colorado. Kurzweil predicts that with the ever-accelerating rate of technological change, "humanity is fast approaching an era in which our intelligence will become trillions of times more powerful and increasingly merged with computers."
Kurzweil sees "the dawning of a new civilization, enabling us to transcend our biological limitations." Boundaries blur between human and machine, real and virtual. Human aging and illness are reversed, he says, world hunger and poverty are solved, and "we cure death."
Too late for BP and the untold billions it will have to shell (no pun intended) out to compensate hundreds of thousands of resort operators, condominium owners robbed of their beachfront retirement, men and women deprived of their livelihood at sea. But when the singularity arrives, such human miscalculations will be a thing of the past.
Bill Gates says "Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future, in which information technologies have advanced so far and fast that they enable humanity to transcend its biological limitations -- transforming our lives in ways we can only imagine" unless we have a connection at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Already, banks of coupled supercomputers have managed 1 quadrillion -- 1,000 trillion -- operations per second.
The Breckenridge documentary features Kurzweil examining the social and philosophical implications of these "profound changes and the potential threats they pose to human civilization in dialogues with big thinkers," including former White House counter-terrorism chief Richard A. Clarke; technologists Bill Joy, Mitch Kapor, Marvin Minsky, Eric Drexler, Sherry Turkle and Cynthia Breazeal; "Future Shock" author Alvin Toffler; civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz; venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and environmentalist Bill McKibben.
Kurzweil enjoys a 20-year track record of accurate predictions. Forbes magazine described him as the "rightful heir to Thomas Edison" and "the ultimate thinking machine." He holds 19 honorary doctorates and is also the recipient of awards from three U.S. presidents.
Getting from here to where Kurzweil sees us in 20 to 30 years is a formidable obstacle course with still faulty human judgment. Self-made billionaire Pete Petersen says, "We're in the throes of an animalistic, carnivorous culture of greed" that may yet prove correct Karl Marx's forecast 161 years ago when he said "capitalism will sow the seeds of its own destruction" by widening the gap between workers and "capitalists."
The $1 trillion Iraq War proved a huge distraction from the real problems of the United States, e.g., a collapsing infrastructure, from airports to air traffic control to schools to roads to bridges to water and sewage pipes (more than 100 years old in the nation's capital). With a little luck, the United States and its allies may move Afghanistan from a medieval tribal society to a more recent century but is that worth another trillion dollars?
In the mid-1990s, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (where this reporter toils) published a monograph titled "Cybercrime, Cyberterrorism, Cyberwarfare: Averting an Electronic Waterloo." The handwriting was on the electronic wall. China was already actively developing and refining the tools of 21st-century warfare. Beijing knew it could never compete with U.S. military hardware. But it also recognized the United States couldn't function as a superpower without the satellites in orbit around the planet that today pilot drones and drop bombs and missiles over enemy positions thousands of miles away -- and eavesdrops on electronic communications the world over.
Last year, the Pentagon was "attacked" or probed electronically 6 million times in one day. One of the Pentagon cybernauts said privately, "It was like a perpetual hail storm on the Pentagon cocoon." The technology still cannot pinpoint the origin of the would-be intruders. They range from a 14-year-old computer game wizard to China's military cybercommand flexing its electronic muscles, or the old Soviet FAPSI now modernized courtesy of Western high-tech firms.
Last month, better late than never, the Defense Department stood up its first cybercommand that now ranks with the other major commands at home and abroad. Taking over as the new four-star cyber uber is the old three-star NSA chief U.S. Army Gen. Keith B. Alexander who now wears both caps -- a blend of the global vacuum cleaner that can intercept and analyze the current global total of 247 billion e-mail messages a day (and whose spam detector rejects 200 billion) and both defend all government networks against intrusion and launch electronic counterattacks.
Denial of service attacks organized by FAPSI demonstrated their electronic arsenal by zapping Estonia and Georgia into electronic paralysis. Similar attacks across frontiers would have been unilateral declarations of war. International law is yet to catch up. And it won't be soon enough now that the United States has developed Star Wars technology; super lasers that can zap 50,000-watt blasts from an aircraft or satellite against ships, tanks, headquarters, enemy electronic capabilities.
Ray Kurweil's second coming still has to get from here to there.