Damon Lindelof & Ray Kurzweil

The writer-producer here interviews preeminent futurist Ray Kurzweil on what Hollywood can learn from him about sci fi and time travel in advance of his SXSW keynote.

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. 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. If he introduced 15 new concepts, you're bogged down. 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. 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.

LINDELOF: What is it about us psychologically as a species that feels like we need to be negative about the future or cling to those 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.

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. Is there a line?

Kurzweil: I don't think there's any line, but technology is a double-edged sword. 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, protect intellectual property and give 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. 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: That idea of the worldwide web, this functioning interconnectivity of ideas, proves there are geniuses everywhere with incredible outside-the-box ideas who had no way to share them before. Now it becomes this 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: 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. So I'm really looking forward to that dialogue -- 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 Oct. 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.


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Fri., March 9, 3:30-4:30 P.M.

The most successful recent brands have grown organically, fostering strong (bordering on rabid) online communities, from Twi-hards to Gleeks. This panel addresses how they come alive.

Hacking YouTube: Science & Secrets of Viral Videos
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Backplane's Managers Hack
Sun., March 11, 2-10 P.M.

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Times Are a'Changin: Digital Storytelling Today
Mon., March 12, 12:30-1:30 P.M.

Panelists such as Yahoo's Erin McPherson and Generate's Jordan Levin will discuss how digital storytelling is changing with the shift to smartphones and tablets.

Birth of Interactive Entertainment: Avatar to Bjork
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