Security,, February 24, 2011, byAndy Greenberg  —  Ray Kurzweil may be the world’s most prominent techno-optimist. The 63-year old futurist and artificial intelligence guru believes, famously, that by 2045 humans will build a computer capable of replicating and storing the human mind–what he calls the “singularity”–essentially allowing our mental selves to live on indefinitely.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that Kurzweil takes an equally sunny view of cybersecurity,  in contradiction to the prevailing gloom around the threat of cyberwar and the futile arms race against cybercriminals. In fact, Kurzweil believes that the information security industry should serve as a model for addressing the sort of pandemic diseases that may result from our globalized society and the looming problem of bioterrorism. Just as the antivirus industry constantly detects new threats, takes them apart, and distributes a “cure,” he argues that our biological antivirus systems need to work in the same networked fashion at a comparable speed.

While interviewing Kurzweil last week about topics closer to his usual fare–immortality and the progress of artificial intelligence–I slipped in a question about this information security idea, which Kurzweil mentioned in passing at a talk promoting the singularity-focused film Transcendent Man earlier this month in New York.

Here’s what he told me:

If we sat back and hoped no one put out a destructive software virus, the Internet wouldn’t last very long. We have a system between all the security protocols and the antivirus software and cybersecurity companies where we’re constantly scouting for new threats. When one’s found, it’s reverse engineered, partly with human intelligence and partly witih computer intelligence, an antidote is coded, and it’s distributed virally, getting the patches to the antiviral programs. The whole system gets more sophisticated in parallel with the predators, the viruses.

It’s never something we can cross off our list. We’ll always have computer viruses. But despite the negative perception of Internet security, it’s something that works very well. No one’s taken down the Internet for any meaningful period of time.

We need a system for biological viruses that can do the same thing. And we’re working on putting one into place. I’ve been on the Army science advisory group, and involved in this issue. The U.S. Army is responsible for bioterrorism protection. They protect us from anthrax, from small pox. But what about the specter of a bioengineering lab that engineers a new virus, adds some genes to the flu virus to make it deadlier, more communicable, more stealthy?

Today we have some techniques to deal with this like rapid sequencing. We can sequence a virus in a day, while HIV took us five years. We can create an RNA-interference medication or a antigen-based vaccine very quickly. It can be tested in-silico if the FDA accepts that sort of testing. There are these ideas that could go into a rapid response system. It would never be finished. The risks would get more and more sophisticated. But thats’ the approach.

On the Internet, a virus can spread in seconds. It’s a little easier in the biological world. It takes days or weeks to spread in a meaningful way, as we saw with swine flu. That could give you time to ship these [antidotes] around the world, just as we ship the antivirus update around the Internet.

It’s a system that’s not in place yet, but it’s feasible.

Here’s the edited interview: Ray Kurzweil and Andy Greenberg…………..

For 30 years Ray Kurzweil has been preaching the artificial intelligence gospel. As computers drive cars and play Jeopardy!, are we on track to reach his cybertopia?

Andy Greenberg: You’ve predicted that by 2045 accelerating progress in technology means we’ll build a computer–the so-called singularity–powerful enough to let us upload and replicate our brains, essentially becoming immortal. Are we on schedule?

Ray Kurzweil: With regard to artificial intelligence, we’re very much on schedule. Just look at the actual tasks that AI is performing that weren’t possible three years ago. Driving a car in a busy urban situation with no driver: Google’s driverless cars have logged 140,000 miles.

IBM’s Jeopardy!-playing supercomputer Watson plays at about the level of the best human players. I predicted in the early ’80s that a computer would defeat the world chess champion by 1998. It happened in ’97. Now people say, “Of course computers can play chess. But they’ll never be able to do something as human as understand language.” Watson is harder to dismiss.

AG: You also predicted we’d have a computer capable of 20 petaflops of processing by 2009, and we’re still less than a tenth of the way there.

RK: That computer is being built now. In 2011 there will be a 20 petaflop computer, the IBM Sequoia. So on that point we’re slightly behind schedule.

AG: What do you think about the fact that China, not the U.S.,has the fastest supercomputer in the world currently?

RK: I’m not overly concerned. It’s not a zero-sum game. We all benefit from the advance of knowledge.

AG: You talk about a certain inevitability of progress toward the singularity. What drives that progress? Is it business?

RK: Money plays an important role. It’s an enabling factor, like clay to a sculptor. But we’re programmed by biological evolution to innovate. Technological innovation just continues a process that started with biological evolution.

AG: So you’d say innovation drives business more than business drives innovation?

RK: That’s definitely true.

AG: You’ve been accused of unscientific optimism.

RK: The curve of computational progress that I’ve charted since the 1890 census until now is amazingly smooth. World War I and II, the Great Depression and the recent recession, none of these things can perturb it. That’s a powerful argument, both theoretically and empirically. But optimism is more than just an attitude about the future, it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy.

AG: You’re 63, and I’ve read you take more than 200 pills a day to extend your life in hopes of reaching the singularity. Do you still believe you’ll live forever?

RK: Well, it’s tough to ever win that bet and say, “I’ve lived forever.” It’s never forever. But we’ll get to a point fairly soon, within 15 years, where we’ll reach a tipping point, what [gerontologist] Aubrey de Grey calls “longevity escape velocity.” Life expectancy will increase faster than time passes. I’d be irrational to say that I’m sure I’ll get to the stage where I can back myself up, which is the key point that one would need to reach to live forever. That’s maybe four decades away. In general, life expectancy is a statistical phenomenon. You can still be hit by a truck tomorrow.


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