By Efren Salinas
For Reporting Texas
What does the future hold? It depends on who you are and how you look at it.
Two vastly different sorts of visionaries elaborated on their approaches in Austin recently. One has borrowed a trend from semiconductor technology and imagined the results it would produce in such fields as nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. The results are fantastic, even world-changing, though the proof of his imagining remains 20 years away. Another visionary, a generation younger than the first, has exercised his imagination by borrowing bits and pieces from existing technologies to produce products that are fantastic right now.
Famed futurist Ray Kurzweil uses elaborate mathematical projections that produce a picture of what theoretically may be coming down the pipe, while Austin’s William Hurley takes existing technology to innovate new products and ideas.
Kurzweil, a keynote speaker at South by Southwest Interactive in March, is responsible for many inventions, including the technology behind print-to-voice scanners that allow blind people to read. Before attending MIT in the early 70’s, Kurzweil, 64, built the first computer software capable of synthesizing new piano music by analyzing the structure of famous musical compositions.
Most of Kurzweil’s fame comes from his predictions. In his first book, “The Age of Intelligent Machines,” published in 1990, he correctly predicted that emerging, primitive social networks would cause the fall of the Soviet Union and estimated that a computer would beat man in the game of chess in 1998. In fact, IBM supercomputer Deep Blue beat the world’s then-reigning champion chess player, Garry Kasparov, in 1997.
Moore’s Law states that computers and devices continue to shrink and double in computational power roughly every two years; in 1999, Kurzweil adapted this paradigm to his research and created the Law of Accelerated Returns (LOAR), which plots the exponential growth of fields such as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and bioengineering, to name a few. It has yielded wild predictions.
Having reached a nigh prophet status, Kurzweil draws massive crowds wherever he speaks. The keynote speech at SXSW, moderated by journalist Lev Grossman, was no exception. Dressed in a suit, with no tie and a ring on almost every one of his fingers, Kurzweil walked on stage with the confidence of a heavyweight champion.
“I’m from the ’60s generation, and we sort of invented the counterculture,” Kurzweil said. “I’ve always felt that the hippie movement morphed into the Silicon Valley movement.”
In the not-too-distant future, according to LOAR, advancements in nanotechnology will allow us to inject robotic blood cells into our bodies that will grant us the supernatural ability to stay at the bottom of swimming pools for eight hours, for example. Or how about literally downloading our brains into a computer and then fusing it with a Terminator-like cybernetic vessel? And for those who think they would never submit themselves to these radical physical alterations, Kurzweil argues that whether it was the calculator or today’s smartphone, humankind has a long history of augmenting itself.
Pointing to his phone, Kurzweil explained that we have reclaimed some of our brain’s capacity by relying on what he calls “brain extenders” like Google, Wikipedia, digital planners and the all-powerful social network that stores and pushes information. He reminded the audience that just 25 years ago, the largest supercomputer was no comparison to what we carry around in our pockets today – all evolutionary changes that can be plotted by LOAR.
“Within the next 25 years,” Kurzweil told the Austin Convention Center audience of thousands, “this phone will be the size of a blood cell and will be another billion times more powerful.”
Hurley, in contrast to Kurzweil, stressed the importance of using the existing technology when he recently visited a University of Texas class.
“You guys are living in this amazing time where there is technology just lying around,” he told a multimedia journalism class. “Twenty, 30 years ago not even world superpowers had this kind of access.”
Hurley, better known as “Whurley,” wears his trademark thin-rimmed glasses and sports a neatly trimmed chin strap beard – think nerd chic with a cocksure attitude to match. He has worked in research and development for Apple and was a Master Inventor for IBM before co-founding Chaotic Moon Labs in 2010.
Based in Austin, Chaotic Moon works toward turning ideas into apps, assessing their viability and holding the inventor’s hand through to completion. Chaotic Moon claims on its website that its engineers are smarter and more creative than you and are able to make you more money. In reality, it is hard to pigeonhole the company.
When Chaotic Moon launched, Hurley knew the company needed to get people’s attention. The team at Chaotic Moon dreamed up the Board of Awesomeness, a self-propelled skateboard that uses existing technology, like the motion-sensing video game peripheral Kinect and a motorized skateboard, to create a brand new form of transportation. Even more impressive is its successor, the Board of Imagination, which forgoes motion sensing and reads the rider’s brain waves, letting him or her imagine where to go and how fast to get there.
Though originally intended as a publicity stunt, the board brought even more press than expected.
“I thought, ‘This’ll be good, and we’ll talk to a few reporters about it,’” Hurley said about the Board of Awesomeness, “but we’ve done hundreds of thousands of interviews and licensed the video to 16 different national news organizations.”
“It’s” — he said pausing for dramatic effect — “ridiculous.”
At the end of the day, Kurzweil and Hurley are two different types of futurists. One envisions a far-off future of inspiring innovation, and the other builds a future with parts from the present.
“You know what Kurzweil is trying to be, right?” Hurley asked rhetorically. “He wants to be the next Jules Verne.”
In this case, one man’s predictions of the future is another man’s science fiction.