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GDC 2008: Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the future

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

On Thursday, I attended Ray Kurzweil‘s keynote entitled “The Next 20 Years of Gaming“. For reference, here’s the GDC description of the session:

The paradigm shift rate is now doubling every decade, so the 21st century will see 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate. Computation, communication, biological technologies (for example, DNA sequencing), brain scanning, knowledge of the human brain, and human knowledge in general are all accelerating at an even faster pace, generally doubting price-performance, capacity, and bandwidth every year. By 2020, full-immersion virtual reality will be a vast playground of compelling environments and experiences. Initially VR will have benefits in terms of enabling communications with others in engaging ways over long distances and featuring a great variety of environments from which to choose. By the late 2020s virtual environments will be indistinguishable from real reality and will involve all of the senses, as well as neurological correlation of emotions. As we enter the 2030s there won’t be a clear distinction between human and machine, between real and virtual reality, or between work and play. Intelligent nanorobots will be deeply integrated in the environment, our bodies and our brains, providing full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses, experiences “beaming,” and enhanced human intelligence.

The session, while inspiring and informational, seemed to be one that he has given numerous times before – and managed to insert a few token comments here or there that loosely linked it to the game industry. That was rather distracting at times.

His main theme, as usual, was the expansion of no only the processing power (a la Moore’s Law) but the “processing power” of the human mind and society as a whole. From a mathematical standpoint, I loved his use of logarithmic graphs and even double logarithmic graphs to show what amounts to constant rates of change as straight lines. He applied this to so many different things, e.g. the growth of life and intelligence, the power of supercomputing, the power over cost of computing, etc.

The crux of this issue is that people have a tendency to think linearly rather than exponentially and especially logarithmically. That means that we tend to mis-project future trends. One way that this hurts us in the technology arena is that, given production times that are getting to 3 or 4 years (Duke Nukem Forever is an outlier), we tend to undershoot the capabilities of the systems that are available by the time that we release our products.

The endpoint, of course, is his much publicized “countdown to singularity” wherein our computing power will match our mental capabilities. A couple of key predictions in this arena (which are kinda creepy in a way):

2010: Computers disappear

  • Images written directly to our retinas
  • Ubiquitous high bandwidth connection to the Internet at all times
  • Electronics so tiny it’s embedded in the environment, our clothing, our eyeglasses
  • Full immersion visual-auditory virtual reality
  • Augmented real reality
  • Interaction with virtual personalities as a primary interface

(A great quote: “Real reality will continue to be irksome for a few years.”)

  • 2029: An intimate merger
    $1,000 of computation = 1,000 times the human brain
  • Reverse engineering of the human brain completed
  • Computers pass the Turing test
  • Nonbiological intelligence combines
  • the subtlety and pattern recognition strength of human intelligence, with
    the speed, memory, and knowledge sharing of machine intelligence
  • Nonbiological will continue to grow exponentially whereas biological intelligence is effectively fixed

One entire section of his talk was dedicated to the advances and future of nanobiology. While this seemed to be a lull in the relevancy to the game industry, there was a connection there. He actually said that, due to nanotechnology and nanobiology, we would eventually be able to reprogram our bodies the way we reprogram our games. After spending Monday and Tuesday at the Serious Games Summit where the theme was taking game and game programming technology beyond the entertainment world, I couldn’t help but think that some of the techniques, especially those related to AI, would map over into some of the genetic and biological applications that he was talking about. Interestingly, this is somewhat related to things I have been reading in the book “A Beautiful Math: John Nash, Game Theory, and the Modern Quest for a Code of Nature“.

One of the main interests for me and the people that I attended with was that he was often speaking largely to the AI programmers. One of his comments was that “AI is the next frontier in passing the “uncanny valley” such as it is in games. While hardly a news flash to the game world, I hope that made our stock as AI designers and programmers go up somewhat.

All in all, it was an inspiring speech if not directly relevant to today’s game world… but there I go thinking linearly again. I can tell you, however, that his keynote kept coming up in roundtables, conversations, and at the AI Programmers dinner that week – every time a technique of handling prohibitively large numbers of calculations came up, his name was invoked as giving us hope that we could soon be able to handle it.

For more on Kurzweil and all of the above, check out the web site KurzeilAI.net. You can also get his slides from the keynote (9 MB .ppt file) which is where the above shots and images come from.

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