Ray Kurzweil, the Abundant Future, and How 'AI Eats Data For Breakfast'
"There’s one thing about the future that’s remarkably predictable, and it’s this: I call it the law of accelerating returns: the price performance and capacity of Information Technology, basically its power, grows exponentially. It doubles every period of time, roughly every year.” - Ray Kurzweil, inventor, futurist and author.
We were a few minutes into Ray Kurzweil’s wide-ranging talk at the 2017 Cannes Lions Festival, a presentation entitled 'Merge – the Closing Gap Between Technology and Us.' Over half an hour, Kurzweil mapped out a vision of the coming decades that left his audience awe-struck. He offered up a startling portrayal of what he called the Singularity, a period when “the invention of artificial super intelligence abruptly triggers runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilisation.” The implications of this forecast are far reaching, and will inevitably transform the prospects of all the professionals who made the pilgrimage to Cannes to get a line of sight on what the future holds. Are Ray Kurzweil’s predictions science fiction? It’s debatable, but certain facts are not: we are living through an age of exponential technological growth that has and will usher in profound shifts. As tech looms ever larger in all our lives, and gets increasingly smarter, it’s clear that we’ve only just begun to grasp its impact on our societies and ourselves.
For fifty years Ray Kurzweil has been at the forefront of the information technology revolution, a prescient and charismatic figure whose astonishing career has spanned a multitude of disciplines and fields. As a pioneering force in applied computer science, Kurzweil’s work and ideas loom larger every year in the collective imagination, as the path technology has taken has hewed to the course he predicted it would follow back when personal computing was still in its infancy. Since 2012, Kurzweil has been a Director of Engineering at Google. He is perhaps the world’s best known futurist, and no industry with an eye to growth can afford to tune out where he says we’re headed.
Kurzweil’s vision for the 21st century revolves around the imminent arrival of widespread and affordable Artificial Intelligence, which he believes will serve as the driving force for humanity’s rapid evolution. He believes that the spread of this type of AI will coincide with the advent of a new era of human-machine collaboration, which will soon usher in technologically-infused hybrid life forms. Where his predictions once made him an outlier, Kurzweil is now part of a growing mainstream global consensus regarding AI’s role as a catalyst for major civilisational transformation. Not everyone sees the same future as Kurzweil, but everyone has noted the trends. The data is clear. The underlying science behind these predictions, which was once exclusively the realm of specialists, is now accesible to laymen.
But haven’t we been talking about AI for decades? Why is AI finally primed to succeed now, after countless fits and starts in its past? What’s different today is that the infrastructure for Artificial Intelligence to thrive finally exists. In previous eras, computing relied on mainframe devices to store and process information. The new era of cloud computing allows for data to be stored and processed on the internet, as opposed to having information exclusively in one place and housed on one machine. This fundamental shift means AI can live and operate in the cloud.
Another reason why AI is viable today revolves around the robust global data ecosystem that has rapidly developed over the last decade. More data has been generated in the last two years than in all of human history prior to that. We are witnessing an exponential growth of data, caused by many things, including the ubiquity of the internet, the rise of accesible smart phones, and the arrival of smart, connected machines and the Internet of Things (IoT). In the past, data was painstakingly gathered by people, and then supplied to computers for analysis, in an incredibly inefficient process coloured by human error and plagued by gaps in information. Now software has streamlined this process, and through machine learning, data can now be collected, analysed, and processed rapidly. This data then becomes the diet fuelling AI. In the words of one presenter at Cannes Lions 2017, “Artificial Intelligence eats data for breakfast.” By constantly feeding our nascent AI systems with new data streams, they will evolve and get smarter at an exponential pace.
All of this supports what Ray Kurzweil has been saying for decades: we are on the verge of a fascinating future. Within a decade, AI will begin to reshape our economies by finding efficiencies to exploit and hidden growth opportunities. It will alter our jobs and our relationships. It will have a profound effect on what we understand as the human experience. In the face of these imminent changes, we must deal with pressing questions of how we as human beings evolve alongside the machines, and how we must learn to work in concert with them.
At Publicis Groupe, we are asking these questions while investing in our future, and designing platforms and programs that will help our teams to embrace AI as both a partner and a tool. We believe AI will help spur our own growth and will help us to safeguard and enhance the business of our clients. As Mark Holden said in his introduction of Ray Kurzweil at Cannes Lions, “Successful technology unshackles. It allows us to move one step further on a journey to abundance. Abundance of experience, information, and connection.”
That is the future that we believe awaits us in partnership with AI.
Fuad Ahmad is the Director of Creative Resources at Publicis One