Crispy Gamer

Futurist Keynote Sees a Radical New Horizon

GDC Keynote: Ray Kurzweil

Ray who?

The name is Kurzweil, Ray Kurzweil.

If you?ve kept up on your Wired subscription the past 10 years, or happen to follow the latest and greatest in AI research and forecasts for the nature of the future, his name might ring a bell. Kurzweil doesn?t make games, but he has an intellectual resume that makes Will Wright look like a freshman.

With 15 honorary Ph.D.s under his belt and credit for inventing, among many other things, the flatbed scanner and optical character recognition, Kurzweil has padded his inventor?s qualifications with a string of books that have predicted everything from the rise of the Internet to the fall of the Soviet Union.
He was invited to GDC to talk about the next 20 years of gaming, but what he really wanted to talk about was the future of technology.

The core of his presentation to a packed hall of attendees was about the sort of exponential growth of technologies such as computer chips and the Internet as both a common theme across all of human existence and one that it is inherently predictable.

Showing the rocketing growth curves of the Internet, emphasizing the wisdom of Moore?s Law and its predications of chip power doubling every couple of years, and talking about the incredible speed of cell phone adoption compared to the dawn of the telephone, Kurzweil hammered example after example to illustrate the natural doubling of power and dropping of price of information technologies.

Not content to just ride the growth wave, Kurzweil wants to predict it and take advantage of it. As an example, he brought up the Kurzweil Reading Machine from 1979. A device roughly the size of a washing machine, it could read printed text and turn it into synthesized voice allowing the blind to read books. Flashing forward to today, he demoed a gadget about the size of an iPhone with similar features. But this phone packs all the power of his home appliance-sized reading machine into a device 5,000 times smaller. With a quick snapshot, the device was able to recognize and translate Kurzweil's speech from a paper on the podium into spoken words.

He explained the device was conceived six years earlier, before the technology was available. But his predications of technology growth coincided with plans to build the device. The result was, as he explained, delivered right on schedule, the future packaged to appear just when the technology arrived.

Not content to bang the drum for the same tune that played during the dot com run-up, Kurzweil also wanted to emphasize that things that don?t appear to qualify as information technologies will become information technologies. Poster child example for this concept was nanotechnology -- microscopic machines capable of turning information into matter.

Describing conversations with Google co-creator Larry Page, Kurzweil estimated that, thanks to nanotech, the cost of producing a watt of power using solar power will be cheaper than fossil fuels in the next five years. Within 20 years, he foresaw, we will largely replace fossil fuels with solar -- a credible claim from a man who confidentially predicted that computers would soon best the greatest chess grandmasters in an era when Kasparov could polish off a robot opponent with ease.

If visions of the imminent replacement of the oil economy with solar didn?t sound far-fetched enough, Kurzweil gleefully spun hypotheses about the miniaturization of computers that you can embed in your brain and even blood cells, as well as models of genetic code that provides new control over the production of drugs that take on problems like obesity by turning off the biological mechanisms that store fat.

And games as an information technology, he says, are a harbinger of things to come.

By 2020, Kurtzweil believes that realistic intelligence will enable gamers to interact with sophisticated computer-controlled opponents and partners. Advances in visualization and virtual world-building will blur the line between reality and simulation to a degree that makes "The Matrix" sound like it?s right around the corner. Games, in this view, don?t just become something people do when they want to escape from their real life; they will start to become their real life.

Bottom line: Without a clear understanding of the current game industry, Kurzweil clearly sees games as a part of the information economy that he has studied his whole life. Games will enjoy the same exponential forces that he sees driving areas as diverse as energy and health. What does that look like? He avoided getting too specific, but it sounded oddly like that Wachowski brothers movie -- massively parallel worlds full of intelligent characters and graphics with a fidelity that can completely fool the eye. To that end, he sees games as the future.

What he didn?t say, is whether this future will be any fun.