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Accelerating intelligence at Google.

According to the latest numbers on Google's 2012 Financial Tables page, the company has 53,546 employees. In December, one of the new hires on that list attracted a lot of attention: Raymond Kurzweil, inventor, futurist, and the man called the "restless genius" by The Wall Street Journal, joined the Mountain View company as a director of engineering "to work on new projects that involve machine learning and language processing."

Kurzweil's AI (Artificial Intelligence) credentials are world class, and his experience goes well beyond the theoretical. He builds the things he thinks up. Founder of a number of companies--Kurzweil Computer Products, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, Kurzweil Music Systems, and the Medical Learning Company--he has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame and was awarded the prestigious MIT Lemelson Prize for innovation. His inventions include the Kurzweil Reading Machine for the blind and a line of Kurzweil Music Synthesizers. His most recent project was Blio, an e-reader software platform. His website,, covers AI and general technology, but for Kurzweil, the AI has come to stand for Accelerating Intelligence, not Artificial Intelligence.

Now that he's moving from Cambridge, Mass., to Mountain View, Calif., the question resonating on both coasts is "What's he going to do at the Googleplex?" Although the Google Voice platform seems a reasonable place for him to land, somehow that doesn't cover all the speculation surrounding the move. Ray Kurzweil is days away from turning 65 years old, and restless geniuses aren't likely to move cross-country just to incrementally add to what they have already done with text-to-speech language recognition and AI. When you factor in the likelihood that a company like Google has more than a few projects they might want to keep close for the time being, and that Google is wildly diverse in its interests--everything from cloud offerings to cars that drive themselves to computers you wear like glasses--and the possibilities for a Raymond Kurzweil seem to widen. Add in the main theme of Kurzweil's recent writings (what will happen when computers exceed human intelligence), and you can come up with some really interesting speculations about how he might be used.


Three of Kurzweil's most recent books are The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence; the Amazon best-seller The Singularity Is Near, which covers some of the same ground and then builds on it; and, finally, How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed. Of that work, Rafael Reif, president of MIT, says, "Ray has a way of tackling seemingly overwhelming challenges with an army of reason, in the end convincing the reader that it is within our reach to create nonbiological intelligence that will soar past our own. This is a visionary work that is also accessible and entertaining." This idea of a nonbiological intelligence has been evolving over the span that produced these three books, and Kurzweil recently has focused in on when we will reach that tipping point.

Evidence of resonance for these same notions at Google has already surfaced. Rick Smolan, the creator of The Human Face of Big Data--both the book and the app--had a conversation with his friend Marissa Mayer (current CEO of Yahoo!) back when she was an engineer at Google. They were discussing the reach of big data, and Mayer said, "Rick, it's like our planet is developing a nervous system."

Satellites and fiber networks are already in place and expanding exponentially, so will these systems serve a planetary intelligence that can accept human nodes into its wiring, all of it forming a mega PC (planetary computer)? And will that planetary intelligence be able to be directed?


As a futurist, Kurzweil frequently makes predictions about where we're going. Two of his more famous guesses about the positions of human and machine intelligence involve grandmaster chess and the Turing Test.

In the mid-1980s, he predicted that a computer would be able to beat world chess champions by 1998. In 1997, IBM's Big Blue defeated the Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov in a six-game match. Previously, Kasparov had the highest rating of any player in the history of the game. The defeat actually moved the grandmaster to abandon the game and to wander off into the wilderness of Russian political life.

An interesting footnote to this prediction is the oft-forgotten second half of Kurzweil's guess. Chess traditionally was seen as the most intellectualized human contest. That was why some very smart people thought a machine would never defeat a human champion. Kurzweil predicted that once a machine achieved preeminence, the notion of chess as the ultimate intellectual endeavor would be abandoned. He was right.

The Turing Test, in a roundabout way, gets to the question of whether machines will ever be able to think. The game is simple. A human sits in one room communicating with two other beings, hidden from his view in other rooms. One is a person, and the other is a computer. When we reach the point where the human can't tell the difference between the computer and the person, the test is over. Machine and human intelligence at this point will be indistinguishable.

In February 2011, when IBM's Watson defeated the human champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, in the Jeopardy Challenge, some thought we had witnessed proof sufficient to declare the Turing Test unnecessary. It wasn't because Watson had read 200 million pages of content and remembered it all. It was because it could understand the language of the questions and answers along with the nuanced ironies, puns, and idioms that make English, or any language, a lifelong study.

Kurzweil predicted in his 1998 book Spiritual Machines that the Turing Test will be aced by a computer by 2019. That's six years from now, yet meanwhile Watson is being retrained in the vocabulary and knowledge base of medicine in order to teach and to become a marketable diagnostic machine. If the test is passed on or before the 2019 date, it's likely the convergence of the two species of intelligence will be met while Kurzweil is still employed at the center of one the management systems for a great planetary nervous system.

How will Raymond Kurzweil fare at Google? Well, he'll be at a company that's willing to make serious investments in areas of research that stretch the company and take risks many others would avoid. Google has abandoned some rather expensive experiments, and it doesn't seem to have flattened the pioneering spirit there. And Raymond Kurzweil is the kind of restless genius who might comfortably settle in there for a while.

By Michael Castelluccio, Editor
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Title Annotation:TECH FORUM
Author:Castelluccio, Michael
Publication:Strategic Finance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2013
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