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We Are “Eight Doublings Away” from Meeting All the World’s Needs with Clean Energy

An Encounter with ‘Transcendent Man’ Ray Kurzweil

SOURCE: Courtesy: Transcendent Man. Ray Kurzweil is a futurist and inventor who studies "the law of accelerating returns." The above is a clip from a new documentary about his work, 'Transcendent Man.'

Lisbeth Kaufman caught up with futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil at the Washington, D.C. premier of his film “Transcendent Man.” You can listen to the short interview here.

Some dismiss Ray Kurzweil as a quack. His predictions of a future sound like plotlines from the nuttiest sci-fi films. According to Kurzweil’s theories, by around 2029 information technology will become more sophisticated than the human brain, and by 2045 what he calls “the Singularity” will occur—information technology will have advanced to the point at which people can become immortal by downloading their consciousness onto nanobots, which can race around the world and infuse other bodies or inanimate objects with human consciousness.

Kooky sounding indeed. Last week, however, at the D.C. premiere of ‘Transcendent Man,’ hundreds of people gathered to hear Ray Kurzweil and see a documentary about him and his theories. While this may sound more like science fiction than actual science, the man did invent the musical synthesizer, created a device that uses optical character recognition to help blind people read, predicted the year and month in which a computer would defeat a human at chess, and has 17 Ph.Ds. Kurzweil has even received the National Medal of Technology, the highest medal the president can bestow for pioneering new technologies, from three separate U.S. presidents. So let’s not dismiss him just yet.

Kurzweil has studied the progression of information technology since the dawn of time, noticing that the rate of technological innovation tends to proceed in an exponential fashion. Based on Moore’s Law, named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, Kurzweil’s studies find that the capacity and speed of information technology has doubled about every two years and he believes it will continue to do so. Adding to this, Kurzweil notes how many industries, from retail to genomic medicine to manufacturing, are beginning to function more and more like information technologies.

For example, scientists working in labs across the world can email whole genomes back and forth, and then “print” them out using ever-cheaper, ever-faster DNA sequencers. With the rise of 3D printing, Kurzweil asserts that the day is not far off when one can simply download a blouse or a solar panel from the Internet and “print” it out at home. With exponentially accelerating information technology influencing innovation in so many fields, Kurzweil posits that technological advancement will accelerate at asymptotic speeds, so fast that the human mind will be incapable of understanding it.

But Kurzweil’s theory is centered around the human relationship to technology only. It is unclear how these speculative technological changes would affect the human relationship to nature. If nanobots will be able to repair our bodies from within so that humans do not have to age or get sick or get fat or starve, does it even matter if global warming and environmental degradation destroys ecosystems and warms our planet to the point of disrupted food chains and massive environmental disasters?

When I spoke with Kurzweil last week, I asked him about this, specifically how climate change and the environment fits into his theory. (You can hear the whole interview at the link here.) He responded that stopping climate change matters because many millions of people will suffer if we don’t. He continued:

I have a whole thesis on resources. … it’s really only these exponentially growing information technologies that have a scale to address problems like energy and the environment. … right now solar energy is actually a half of a percent of the world’s energy but it’s doubling every two years and has been for 20 years, so it’s only eight doublings away … which is 16 years, from meeting 100 percent of the world’s energy needs. … do we have enough sunlight to do that? Yes, we have 10,000 times more than we need.

Kurzweil’s theories are rooted in a fierce optimism. For him technology is the answer to the world’s most difficult challenges, namely suffering and death, and as demonstrated by his answers to my questions, climate change and environmental degradation. But his rhetoric and discussion are maybe too optimistic and too easy. He is concerned with the what, namely what happened with technology development in the past and what will happen in the future. But he glosses over the how. It is precisely the how that we need to concentrate on now.

Technology will not just double itself. As Bracken Hendricks and I have written in a report on clean energy deployment for the Center for American Progress:

It is critical to remember that Moore’s Law is not a law of physics. It is a law of markets. Capturing this opportunity to make clean technology cheap requires a clear assessment of the real barriers in the market today. … the combined public and private investments [in communications technology, for instance] created tremendous public value while giving birth to a brand new industry. Predictability in the market made this possible. That is just what is missing for clean energy today.

Like Moore’s Law, Kurzweil’s concept of exponential technological development is not a law of physics. I am also optimistic about the potential of clean technology but it will not develop in a vacuum. If technology is to solve our energy and climate problems, it will require massive amounts of capital from the private and public sectors to accelerate innovation and scale up clean energy deployment. This is why the United States needs a concerted and cohesive clean technology innovation policy effort that provides policy incentives to help clean energy projects attract private investment.

We must pick up where Kurzweil’s theory leaves off and look into the mechanics of how public policy can be used to build an American economy that runs on clean energy. This means enacting policies to eliminate market barriers that prevent clean energy technologies from competing fairly with incumbent fossil technology, and ending perverse subsidies for ancient, outdated, and environmentally destructive industries like coal and oil. You can read a more detailed list of policy proposals to accelerate clean energy deployment in a Center for American Progress report, “Cutting the Cost of Clean Energy 1.0.

We live in a time in which premature deaths are accelerated by pollution and environmental degradation, and global climate change threatens the very future of all mankind. If these trends continue, we face a potentially dismal future. It may be a stretch to say technology innovation alone will solve these problems. Kurzweil is right, however, in that our ability to use clean technology will be crucial to solving climate change and our energy challenges, and will relieve many millions of people of suffering along the way.

Kurzweil’s vision for the future reminds us that, unhampered by market externalities, regulatory barriers, and competition from the entrenched infrastructure of the past, the clean energy economy has the potential to grow exponentially and meet our needs. With the right policy incentives, Kurzweil’s unrelenting optimism should inspire us to believe that a future free of climate change and fossil-fuel addiction is well within our reach.

Lisbeth Kaufman is Special Assistant for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the report, “Cutting the Cost of Clean Energy 1.0.” A version of this article also appears on Pluck Magazine, a great new online magazine featuring young adult voices on the changing of culture, society, and career paths in the 21st century.

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