Computers will be able to understand our language, learn from experience and outsmart even the most intelligent humans in less than 20 years from now, according to Google’s director of engineering Ray Kurzweil.
One of the world’s leading futurologists and artificial intelligence (AI) developers, 66-year-old Kurzweil has previous form in making accurate predictions about the way technology is heading.
In 1990 he said a computer would be capable of beating a chess champion by 1998 – a feat managed by IBM’s Deep Blue, against Garry Kasparov, in 1997.
When the internet was still a tiny network used by a small collection of academics, Kurzweil anticipated it would soon make it possible to link up the whole world.
Now, Kurzweil says than within 15 years robots will have overtaken us, having fulfilled the so-called Turing test where computers can exhibit intelligent behavior equal to that of a human.
Speaking in an interview with the Observer, he said that his prediction was foreshadowed by recent high-profile AI developments, and Hollywood films like Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix.
“Today, I’m pretty much at the median of what AI experts think and the public is kind of with them,” he said.
“The public has seen things like Siri (Apple’s voice recognition software), where you talk to a computer. They’ve seen the Google self-driving cars. My views are not radical any more.”
Though credited with inventing the world’s first flat-bed scanners and text-to-speech synthesisers, Kurzweil is perhaps most famous for his theory of “the singularity” – a point in the future where humans and machines will apparently “converge”.
His decision to work for Google came after the company acquired a host of other AI developers, from the BigDog creators Boston Dynamics to the British startup DeepMind.
And the search engine giant’s co-founder Larry Page was able to convince Kurzweil to take on “his first actual job” by promising him “Google-scale resources”.
Kurzweil summarized his Google job description in one succinct line: “I have a one-sentence spec. Which is to help bring natural language understanding to Google. And how they do that is up to me,” he told The Observer.
Understanding human semantics, he says, is the key to computers understanding everything.
But here is where the new advances in artificial intelligence become not only murky, but potentially sinister: “Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it, he says. It will have read every email you’ve ever written, every document, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself.”
With the company’s unprecedented billions to spend, and some of humanity’s greatest minds already on board, it is clearly only a matter of time before we reach that point when robots can joke, learn and yes, even flirt.