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By Ray Kurzweil


[By 2009, computers will be embedded in our clothes. By 2019, they'll be hidden in our bodies. By 2099, human and machine intelligence will have merged.]


It is said that people overestimate what can be accomplished in the short term and underestimate this changes that will occur in the long term. With the pace of change continuing to accelerate, we can consider even the first decade of this twenty-first century to constitute a long-term view. With that in mind, let us consider the evolution of computers and their impacts over the long term and this very long term to the end of the next century.







It is now 2009: A $1,000 personal computer (in 1999 dollars) can perform about a trillion calculations per second. Supercomputers match at least the hardware capacity of the human brain- 20 million billion calculations per second.


Individuals primarily use portable computers, which have become dramatically lighter and thinner than the notebook computers of 10 years earlier. Portable computers are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes and are commonly embedded in clothing and jewelry such as wristwatches, rings, earrings, and other body ornaments.


People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies, which are networked using "body LANs" (local area net- works). These computers provide communication facilities similar to cellular phones, pagers, and Web surfers; monitor body functions; pro- vide automated identity (to conduct financial transactions and allow en- try into secure areas); provide directions for navigation; and perform a variety of other services.


For the most part, these truly personal computers have no moving parts.  Memory is completely electronic, and most portable computers do not have keyboards.


Rotating memories (that is, computer memories that use a rotating platen, such as hard drives, CD- ROMs, and DVDs) are on their way out, although rotating magnetic memories are still used in server computers where large amounts of information are stored. Most users have servers in their homes and offices where they keep large stores of digital objects, including their software, databases, documents, music, movies, and virtual-reality environments (although these are still at an early stage).


Cables are disappearing. Communication between components, such as pointing devices, microphones, displays, printers, and the occasional keyboard, uses short-distance wire- less technology.


Computers routinely include wire- less technology to plug into the ever- present worldwide network, providing reliable, instantly available, very-high-

bandwidth communication. Digital objects such as books, music albums, movies, and software are rapidly distributed as data files through the wireless network and typically do not have a physical object associated with them.


The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition (CSR) dictation software, but key- boards are still used. CSR is very ac- curate, far more so than the human transcriptionists who were used until a few years ago.


Computer displays have all the display qualities of paper igh resolution, high contrast, large viewing angle, and no flicker. Books, magazines, and newspapers are now routinely read on displays that are the size of small books.


Computer displays built into eye-glasses are also used. These specialized glasses allow users to see the normal visual environment, while creating a virtual image that appears to hover in front of the viewer. The virtual images are created by a tiny laser built into the glasses that projects the images directly onto the user's retinas.


Computers routinely include moving-picture cameras and are able to reliably identify their owners by their faces.


In terms of circuitry, three-dimensional chips are commonly used, and there is a transition taking place from the older, single-layer chips. Sound-producing speakers are being replaced with very small chip- based devices that can place high- resolution  sound  anywhere  in three-dimensional space. This technology is based on creating audible frequency sounds from the spectrum created by the interaction of very- high-

frequency tones. As a result, tiny speakers can create very robust three-dimensional sound.


Translating telephone technology (where you speak in English and your Japanese friend hears you in Japanese, and vice versa) is commonly used for many language pairs. It is a routine capability of an individual's personal computer, which also serves as a phone.


"Telephone" communication is primarily wireless and routinely includes high-resolution moving images. Meetings of all kinds and sizes are common among geographically separated participants.


There is effective convergence of all media, which exist as digital objects (that is, files) distributed by the ever-present high-bandwidth, wireless information web. Users can instantly download books, magazines, newspapers, television, radio, movies, and other forms of software to their highly portable personal communication devices.




Students typically have a computer of their own, a thin, tablet like device weighing under a pound, with a very-high-resolution display suitable for reading.


* Learning materials are accessed through wireless communication


* The traditional mode of a hu- man teacher instructing a group of children is still prevalent, but schools increasingly rely on software approaches. Teachers primarily attend to issues of motivation, psychological well-being, and socialization.




* At least half of all transactions are conducted online.


* There is a strong trend toward the geographic separation of work groups. People are successfully working together despite living and working in different places.


* The average household has more than 100 computers, most of which are embedded in appliances and built-in communication systems.


* Household robots have emerged but are not yet fully accepted.




* Telemedicine is widely used: Physicians examine patients using visual, auditory, and haptic (tactile) examination from a distance.


* Computer-based pattern recognition is routinely used to interpret imaging data and other diagnostic procedures.


* Lifetime patient records are maintained in computer databases.




* The computer screen is the medium of choice for visual art, which is becoming a collaboration between human artists and their intelligent art software.


* Technology allows nonmusicians to create music, such as cybernetic music-creation systems ad software to create music from a person's brain waves.


* Writers use voice-activated word processing and style-improvement software.




* Haptic technologies are emerging that allow people to touch and feel objects and other persons at a distance. The online chat rooms of the late 1990s have been replaced with virtual environments where you can meet people with full visual realism.


* People have sexual experiences at a distance with other people, as well as virtual partners. But the lack of a "surround" tactile environment has thus far kept virtual sex out of the mainstream.


* Phone sex is a lot more popular now that phones routinely include high-resolution, real-time moving images of the person on the other end.






The computational capacity of a $1,000 computing device (in 1999 dollars) is approximately equal to the computational capability of the human brain (20 million billion calculations per second).


Computers are now largely invisible. They are embedded everywhere in walls, tables, chairs, desks, clothing, jewelry, and bodies.


People routinely use three-dimensional displays built into their eye- glasses or contact lenses. These "direct eye" displays create highly realistic, virtual visual environments overlaying the "real" environment. This display technology projects images directly onto the human retina, exceeds the resolution of human vision, and is widely used regardless of visual impairment.


In addition to the optical lenses, there are auditory "lenses," which place high-resolution sounds in precise locations in a three- dimensional environment. These can be built into eyeglasses, worn as body jewelry, or implanted in the ear canal.


Keyboards are rare, although they still exist. Most interaction with computing is through gestures using hands, fingers, and facial expressions and through two-

way natural-language spoken communication.  People communicate with computers the same way they would communicate with a human assistant, both verbally and through visual expression.


Typically, people do not own just one specific "personal computer," although computing is nonetheless very personal. Computing and extremely-

high-bandwidth communication are embedded everywhere. Cables have largely disappeared.


Rotating memories and other electromechanical computing de- vices have been fully replaced with electronic devices. Three-dimensional nanotube lattices are now a prevalent form of computing circuitry.


The majority of computer computations are now devoted to massively parallel neural nets and genetic algorithms.


Significant progress has been made in the scanning-based reverse engineering of the human brain. It is now fully recognized that the brain comprises many specialized regions, each with its own topology and architecture of interneuronal connections. The massively parallel algorithms are beginning to be understood, and these results have been applied to the design of machine-based neural nets.


A new computer-controlled optical-imaging technology using quantum-based diffraction devices has replaced most lenses with tiny devices that can detect light waves from any angle. These pinhead-sized cameras are everywhere.


In 2019, you can interact in any way with anyone, regardless of physical proximity, thanks to easy-to-use technology.


"Phone" calls routinely include high-resolution three-dimensional images projected through the direct- eye displays and auditory lenses. Three-dimensional holography displays have also emerged. In either case, users feel as if they are physically near the other person. The resolution equals or exceeds optimal hu- man visual acuity. Thus a person can be fooled as to whether or not someone else is physically present or is being projected through electronic communication. The majority of "meetings" do not require physical proximity.


Routinely available communication technology includes high-quality speech-to-speech language translation for most common language pairs.


Reading books, magazines, news- papers, and other Web documents; listening to music; watching three-dimensional moving images (for example, television, movies); engaging in three-dimensional visual phone calls; entering virtual environments (by yourself, or with others who may be geographically remote); and various combinations of these activi- ties are all done through the ever-present communications Web and do not require any equipment, devices, or objects that are not worn or implanted.


[2019: "Most adult human workers spend the majority of their time acquiring new skills and knowledge."]




* Most learning is accomplished using intelligent software-based simulated teachers.


* Human teachers are often not in the vicinity of the students and are viewed more as mentors and counselors than as sources of learning and knowledge.


* Students continue to gather to exchange ideas and to socialize, although even this gathering is often physically and geographically remote.


* Most adult human workers spend the majority of their time acquiring new skills and knowledge.




* Rapid economic expansion and prosperity has continued.


* The vast majority of transactions include a simulated person; often, there is no human involved, as a human may have an automated personal assistant to conduct transactions with other automated personal assistants.


* Household robots for performing cleaning and other chores are now ubiquitous and reliable.


* Smart roads and automated driving systems are highly reliable and eliminate most driving by humans. Efficient personal flying vehicles using microflaps have been demonstrated and are primarily computer controlled. There are very few transportation accidents."




* Many of the life processes encoded in the human genome, including the mechanisms underlying aging and degenerative conditions such as cancer, are well understood. The expected human life-span has substantially increased to over 100 years.


* Computerized health monitors built into watches, jewelry, and clothing, which diagnose both acute and chronic health conditions, are widely used. In addition to diagnosis, these monitors provide a range of remedial recommendations and interventions.




* Cyberart collaborations between creative machines and human visual artists, musicians, and authors is emerging and increasingly taken seriously.


* The type of artistic and entertainment product in greatest demand continues to be virtual-experience software, which ranges from simulations of "real" experiences to abstract environments with little or no corollary in the physical world.




* The all-enveloping tactile environment is now widely available and fully convincing. Its resolution equals or exceeds that of human touch and can simulate (and stimulate) all of the facets of the tactile sense, including the sensing of pressure, temperature, textures, and moistness.


* The "total touch" haptic environment requires entering a virtual-reality booth. These technologies are popular for medical examinations, as well as sensual and sexual interactions with other human partners or simulated partners. In fact, it is often the preferred mode of interaction, even when a human partner is nearby, due to its ability to enhance both experience and safety.







A $1,000 unit of computation (in circa-1999 dollars) has the computing capacity of approximately 1,000 human brains (2 x 1019 calculations per second).


The vast majority of computations of nonhuman computing is now conducted on massively parallel neural nets.


Much of this computing is based on the reverse engineering of the human brain, but the machine-based nets are substantially faster and have greater computing and memory capacities and other refinements, compared with their human analogs.


Displays are now implanted in the eyes, with a choice of permanent implants or removable implants (similar to contact lenses). Images are projected directly onto the retina, providing the usual high-resolution three-dimensional overlay on the physical world. These implanted visual displays also act as cameras to capture visual images and thus are both input and output devices.


Cochlear implants, originally used just for the hearing impaired, are now ubiquitous. These implants provide auditory communication in both directions between the human user and the worldwide computing network.


Direct neural pathways have been perfected for high-bandwidth connection to the human brain. This allows bypassing certain neural regions (for example, visual pattern recognition, long-term memory) and augmenting or replacing the functions of these regions with computing performed either in a neural implant or externally.


A wide variety of neural implants are becoming available to enhance visual and auditory perception and interpretation, memory, and reasoning. Computing processes can be personal (accessible by one individual), shared (accessible to a group), or universal (accessible to everyone), at the user's option.


In addition to the ubiquitous, three-dimensional virtual environments, there has been significant refinement to three-dimensional holographic-display technology for visual communication. There is also projected sonic communication for precisely placing sounds in three- dimensional space.




* Learning now constitutes the primary focus of the human species.


* Human learning is accomplished using virtual teachers.

* Learning is enhanced by widely available neural implants, which improve memory and perception but cannot yet download knowledge directly.


* Automated agents are learning, on their own without human assistance. Machines can now create significant new knowledge with little or no human intervention; unlike humans, machines easily share knowledge structures with one another.




* The basic necessities of food, shelter, and security are available for the vast majority of the human population, which has leveled off at about 12 billion.


* Human and nonhuman intelligences focus primarily on creating knowledge in its myriad forms.


* There are significant struggles over intellectual property rights, including ever-increasing levels of litigation.


* There is almost no human employment in production, agriculture, or transportation. The largest profession is education. There are many more lawyers than doctors.




* Progress continues in understanding and ameliorating the effects of aging. Life expectancy of humans has now reached 120 years, prompting significant new attention to the psychological ramifications of a substantially increased life-span.


* Research in bionic organs expands, including portions of the brain.


* Nanobots are used as scouts in the bloodstream and, to a limited extent, as repair agents and as building blocks for bionic organs.




* Cybernetic artists in all of the arts -- music, visual arts, literature virtual experiences, and other arts no longer need to associate them selves with humans. Many of the leading artists are machines.




* With the development of three-dimensional holographic visual and sound communication, much of what is seen and heard is virtual and has no physical counterpart. Thus, family members can be sitting around the living room enjoying one another's company without being physically proximate.


* There is extensive use of communication using direct neural connections. This allows virtual, all-enveloping tactile communication to take place without entering a "total touch enclosure."


* The majority of communication does not involve a human. The majority of communication involving a human is between a human and a machine.






Human thinking is merging with the world of machine intelligence that the human species initially created.


The reverse engineering of the human brain appears to be complete. The hundreds of specialized regions have been fully scanned, analyzed, and understood. Machine analogs are based on these human models which have been enhanced and ex tended, along with many new massively parallel algorithms. These enhancements, combined with the enormous advantages in speed and capacity of electronic/photonic circuits, provide substantial advantages to machine-based intelligence.


Machine-based intelligences derived entirely from these extended models of human intelligence claim to be human, although their brains are not based on carbon-based cellular processes, but rather electronic and photonic "equivalents." Most of these intelligences are not tied to a specific computational processing unit (that is, piece of hardware). The number of software-based humans vastly exceeds those still using native neuron-cell-based computation. A software-based intelligence is able to manifest bodies at will: one or more virtual bodies at different levels of virtual reality and nano- engineered physical bodies using instantly reconfigurable nanobot swarms.


Even among those human intelligences still using carbon-based neurons, there is ubiquitous use of neural implant technology, which provides enormous augmentation of human perceptual and cognitive abilities. Humans who do not utilize such implants are unable to meaningfully participate in dialogues with those who do.


There are a multiplicity of ways in which these scenarios are combined. The concept of what is human has been significantly altered. The rights and powers of different manifestations of human and machine intelligence and their various combinations represent a primary political and philosophical issue, although the basic rights of machine-based intelligence have been settled.


About the Author


Ray Kurzweil, an award- winning inventor and high-tech entrepreneur, developed the world's first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first music synthesizer capable of  recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and other leading-edge technologies. His address is Kurzweil Technologies, Inc., 15 Walnut Street, Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts 02481. Telephone 1-781-263-0000; email; Website

This article is adapted from his latest book, "The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence" (Viking, 1999), which is available from the Futurist Bookstore for $25.95 ($23.95 for Society members), cat. no. B-2255.