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SXSW Preview: Damon Lindelof Interviews Ray Kurzweil About What Hollywood Gets Wrong (Q&A)

The "Lost" writer-producer chats with the preeminent futurist on what Hollywood can learn from him about sci-fi and time travel in advance of his SXSW keynote.

Damon Lindelof Ray Kurzweil Split - H 2012
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Damon Lindelof and Ray Kurzweil

This story first appeared in the March 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Ray Kurzweil, the 64-year-old futurist, will appear at SXSW Interactive for the first time March 12 to take part in a keynote conversation. An MIT graduate and subject of the 2009 doc Transcendent Man, he has developed groundbreaking speech-recognition programs, advanced music synthesizers and artificial-intelligence investment software through his Wellesley, Mass.-based Kurzweil Technologies. His fans range from Stevie Wonder, who challenged him to create Kurzweil Music Systems, to Roland Emmerich, who sought his advice on the sci-fi script Singularity he is developing.

To preview what’s on Kurzweil’s mind, Damon Lindelof, co-creator of the mind-bending series Lost and co-writer of Fox’s June sci-fi release Prometheus, conducted an exclusive interview for The Hollywood Reporter.

Damon Lindelof: I’m interested in how your ideas connect to what we do here in LaLa Land. What kinds of things do we get wrong most often?

Ray Kurzweil: There's an issue in portraying the future, which, if you follow my reasoning, will be very different in every dimension. And as soon as you introduce even a single change, you've got to explain what it is. Spielberg's A.I. [Artificial Intelligence] had human-level cyborgs, but otherwise it was a 1980s reality: The coffeemaker was 1980s; the cars were no different; there's really no virtual reality to speak of. Nothing changed except he introduced this new concept, and then you had some dramatic tension about people's relationships with this new thing. There's actually a reason for that and it takes cinematic storytelling time to explain what the heck is this new concept. If he introduced 15 new concepts, you're bogged down. I've also remarked how little content you can feed into a movie. The experience I've had with a couple of small indie movies and working now on a couple of Hollywood projects, there's actually very little content in the script. You know, it's 100 pages with very thick margins, there's not a lot of content you can put in there. I think actually we now have more opportunity and freedom to tell a richer story about the future because we don't have to explain what virtual reality is. People have seen it in The Matrix, you can just go with it. You don't have to explain what artificial intelligence is or nanotechnology or nanobots or swarm intelligence. I mean people have seen these in one treatment or another, and you could put all these ideas together now and really do a more realistic portrayal of the future. So that's one issue.

Another is a predilection for dystopian visions, which feeds into a general negative perspective on technology, that technology is making the world worse and that it's got malevolent intent. So in most A.I. movies, the A.I.s are not friendly, and it's really remarkable how much negative perspective people have about, is the world getting better or worse, and to what extent is technology responsible for it getting worse? Because in reality we have much better knowledge and information about what's wrong with the world. So there's a battle in Fallujah or a starving child in Nigeria and we hear about it, and being an empathetic species, we want to do something about it. We can't always do that, so we feel things are going awry. It's not like these problems didn't exist centuries ago. I think it would be useful if the movies portrayed a more realistic view of technology. I'm not utopian about it either. I mean, fire cooked our food and kept us warm, but also burned down our villages, and technology's been a double-edged sword. People now are actually interacting with technology, talking to their phones and having conversations and seeing the other side of it, they see how dependent they are. Look at how dependent we are on all these brain extenders we have. They're going to grow exponentially in power, and we're getting more integrated with them.

Lindelof: You mention "dependent," and it's very easy to graft a negative implication onto that idea — certainly the idea of oil dependency is looked at as a bad thing, or drug dependency …

Kurzweil: Right. But here's the contrast: Oil is a scarce resource. I've actually grown up with a history of scarcity — and wars and conflict come from scarcity — but information is quite the opposite of that. Because of the law of accelerating returns, the availability of information and information resources, bandwidth and computing and memory and communications is doubling. Approximately once a year these information technologies double in power, and today you can get an entire human genome for a few thousand dollars. The first one was a billion dollars. The computer I'm talking to you on right now is several thousand times more powerful than the computer that cost tens of millions of dollars that we all shared as students in MIT and took up half the building. People don't appreciate the radical implications of exponential growth. Our intuition about the future is linear, that's hardwired in our brains. That's the key difference between myself and most of my critics, in that they look at the current reality and they say, "Well, there's no way you're going to get where you're saying you're going to get to in these kinds of time frames" because they're thinking linearly. Halfway through the genome project, seven years into the 15-year project, the critics were declaring a failure, because one percent had been finished. They said, "Well, look, seven years, 1%, it's going to take 700 years." My reaction was, "No, we're almost done, because it's an exponential progression. Once you get to 1% you're only seven doublings from 100%," and indeed it continues to double every year. But our intuition is not exponential, so that's my key message.

Lindelof: What is it psychologically about us as a species that digs in and feels like they need to be negative about the future or cling on to these ideas?

Kurzweil: Well, first of all, linear thinking is actually hardwired in our brains. I have a book on the brain coming out called How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, and the reason we have brains is to predict the future. But those predictors are linear, and that's actually useful for survival. So when we apply that to problems for which it wasn't designed, it's really not intuitive. When our brains evolved we weren't exposed to exponential phenomena. We've been trying to study why some people can readily understand exponential growth and some people can't, and you might think it has something to do with intelligence, but it really doesn't. Because there are Nobel Prize winners and sophisticated people who can't seem to get their mental arms around it, and conversely you have children or people who are not intellectuals who grasp it readily.

Lindelof: Maybe when we start putting chips in our brains it will be easier to grasp.

Kurzweil: Perhaps. We also fear the unknown. People have adopted certain philosophies, or they have this religious philosophy that explains to them their purpose, rationalizes death. I mean, we can actually talk reasonably now and debate when this will happen, but relatively few sophisticated people think this will never happen. I get into debates about whether it's 15 years away or 50 or 100, in terms of being able to radically extend human longevity. But that's today. Go back 100 years, 50 years, there's no real rational way to have a strategy to live significantly beyond a normal life span. So we do the next best thing and rationalize, "oh, this terrible tragedy, this loss of everything you care about, that's really a good thing," and we develop these elaborate philosophies. It's really a primary motivation for religion, and people then get very attached to that. It gives them meaning and protects them from the horror of this looming tragedy. People don't give that up very easily, even if there's a rational basis now through a different philosophy.

Lindelof: One of the recurring themes of the classic, early science fiction films from the 1950s involves the idea that scientists are taking things one step too far — there is a line that should not be crossed by mankind, and if we cross it, it will be our undoing. Is there a line?

Kurzweil: There are ancient myths about this, like Icarus flying too close to the sun. I don't think there's any line, but technology is a double-edged sword. Bill Joy and I years ago wrote an article opposing the National Institutes of Health posting the genome of the 1918 flu virus, which killed tens of millions of people, on the web, because that could be a blueprint for a weapon of mass destruction. So I think there are limits and important ethical issues. There are existential risks, meltdown scenarios. There are also more subtle issues that are important, like being able to maintain privacy, protecting intellectual property, also giving free access to information. If we get these things wrong, it could be quite disastrous. But that being said, I think things are definitely getting better. We're empowering the individual to create a high definition movie with your iPhone. Of course, people are creating pretty good independent movies with very little equipment other than their own passion. A kid in Africa with a smartphone has access to more knowledge and information and capability than the president of the United States did 13 years ago.

Lindelof: Peter Diamandis gave a very interesting TED talk this week where he was talking about how at the University of Washington they had computers folding proteins, but they realized that this was actually a job better performed by humans because it required a certain degree of creativity. So they sort of open-sourced their protein access to anybody who wanted to log on to their server and fold proteins. And lo and behold, this middle-aged woman in Manchester, England with no Masters degree or fancy education turned out to be the world's greatest protein folder. And I think that idea of the world wide web, this functioning inter-connectivity of ideas, [proves] that there are geniuses everywhere having incredible outside-the-box ideas, but had no way to share them before. Now it becomes this sort of global think tank.

Kurzweil: Absolutely. You've got collaboratives, such as patients with a particular disease, where you'll have certainly all the motivation in the world to cure that disease, and to have the skills and tools to do it, you're going to see a lot of issues like that get solved. And it's not stopping, I mean, the web is gonna go inside our bodies, and they'll put our brains on the web ultimately.

Lindelof: You’re a futurist. You're able to predict not just emerging technologies, but absolute world events, like the dissolution of the Soviet Union. So I would love to know, has there been an event or a technology where you were just completely and totally surprised by it?

Kurzweil: If you read my books, starting with The Age of Intelligent Machines, which I wrote in the mid-‘80s, and then The Age of Spiritual Machines I wrote in the mid-to-late-‘90s, and then Singularity is Near, and then the book that is coming out later this year about the mind, you'll see a growing appreciation for biology as being an information process and a technology that was really reprogrammed the same way you download new software to your phone. That wasn't so clear to me initially.

Lindelof: What is the last great piece of fiction that you either read or watched?

Kurzweil: My favorite recently read piece of fiction would be Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's such an ebullient display of language, which I think is the epitome of human intelligence — our ability to think hierarchically, which is embodied in language. And he writes these sentences that are like a page long or more, they're beautiful, poetic sentences, but they make sense on many levels. So it's a great display of human intelligence. I'm actually writing a novel called Danielle. It's about my imaginary daughter, and it's also about intelligence. Because this girl Danielle is a superheroine, but she doesn't melt steel with her eyes, she melts problems with her intellect.

Lindelof: Have you been to the SXSW Interactive festival before?

Kurzweil: It's my first time. I've certainly heard a lot of buzz about it. The keynote conversation should be true to the spirit of SXSW. [Moderator and Time senior writer] Lev Grossman’s a very thoughtful guy. I've enjoyed the dialogues I had with him when he was writing the Time cover story. He had very penetrating questions. So I'm really looking forward to that dialogue, it should be really interesting — not the usual, sort of elementary, discussion that I often get into. We'll want to talk about the book that I have coming out October 2, about the mind. It's something I've been thinking about for over 50 years. I remember at age 12 thinking, “I'm going to try to figure this out.”

Lindelof: At age 12, I was thinking about boobs a lot.

Kurzweil: There's a connection there, I think.