Amidst the ever intensifying competition between Google and Apple, Google made an intuitive leap into an uncertain future by hiring noted futurist Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil represents many different things. For those who don't know, Ray Kurzweil is often referred to as "the rightful heir to Thomas Edison."
Kurzweil's curriculum vitae includes being the principal inventor of the flatbed scanner, the first optical character recognition (OCR) system capable of recognizing any font, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments to such fine detail that trained musicians could no longer discern the difference, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition. If that were not enough, Kurzweil has also written 7 books -- 5 of which are national best sellers.
The Obvious Reason
Apple and Tim Cook were roasted in the press for the supposed premature replacement of Google Maps on the iPhone 5. Any product or marketing professional would have seen it as the only reasonable choice Apple could have made. The Google Maps product for the iPhone had become stagnant and was a liability when compared to the superior offering available on Android smartphones. The lack of turn-by-turn navigation itself was enough to warrant the replacement of the maps product. This little drama is but one shot in a war being fought on the fronts of voice recognition, speech processing and artificial intelligence.
Kurzweil is the man most synonymous with both one and all of these technologies and Google has now brought his brilliance in this space to bear.
A Little Less Obvious…
Upon hearing the news of Kurzweil's hiring, I was not surprised. Why should one be surprised given his pioneering status in areas being bitterly fought over? What has surprised me is the complete lack of coverage and commentary on the philosophical implications of Kurzweil's hiring.
Outside of the AI, voice, speech processing and text recognition breakthroughs made by Kurzweil, he is also known for his views on the future and his coining of the law of accelerating returns.
The law of accelerating returns is an observation that extends the more familiar Moore's law. Kurzweil has likened the progress of technological advancement to the progress of biological advancement. The pace of change in technology is, in Kurzweil's view, exponentially increasing. Additionally (or should I say exponentially) the exponential pace of acceleration is itself increasing exponentially because the returns from each advance grows along with the rate of advancement and is also used to build the next advance.
Kurzweil has notably applied this perspective to make many specific predictions about the future. Two notable ones were when Kurzweil correctly went against the grain related to the pace of mapping the human genome and when Kurzweil defended Bill Joy's prediction in Wired of the inevitable near term future where self-replicating nano-machines were common place.
When others were dissuaded because only 1% of the genome was mapped and linear extrapolation indicated that the original goal would not be reachable for many decades, Kurzweil reminded them of the exponential model which showed that they were right on track given that only 7 doublings of their progress would be required for completion. We now know that Kurzweil was correct and the genome project made its goal a year early.
When people dismissed Joy's predictions as more than 100 years away given the state of technology and its then current rate of advancement, Kurzweil again spoke up for exponential growth rates and showed that the current rate of advancement could not be considered static. When accounting for exponential acceleration, self-replicating nano-machines were at most 25 years away.
Kurzweil's view of the future is one of inevitability. Kurzweil not only believes self-driving cars are possible -- he believes they are inevitable. With this orientation, the only question left is a matter of choice. Said differently, given that a world with self-driving cars is inevitable, the question is: "Are we going to decide to be the team that makes them a reality?"
When appropriately understood, this perspective shows that Google has hired its own version of Steve Jobs -- a man with a vision so clear that it at times looks like a complete denial of the reality that others choose to live in.
Even Less Obvious...
The differences between Android and the iPhone, Google and Apple are rife. Many of them can be boiled down to a single distinction: Google makes products that answer the question: "what can this do for me?" Apple makes products that answer the question: "what is this to me?"
This is quite possibly the difference between Kurzweil and Jobs as well, with one interesting nuance. When the singularity that Kurzweil predicts becomes a reality and the event horizon that we cannot currently see beyond moves into our collective rear view mirror, it is possible that the two fundamental drives: "to do" and "to be" might paradoxically become one.
Editor's Note: We look forward to more musings from Stephen in 2013. Worth a look back, check out We Are Not Builders. We Are Gardeners.