Futurist Ray Kurzweil was booked into a room far too small for the enormous crowd who wanted to see him speak at SXSW. Even after the Hilton Austin room was full, many hundreds were turned away in the hallway. Hopefully this will not prevent them from achieving the immortality Kurzweil was predicting.

He predicted 25 years ago that computers would reach human-level intelligence by 2029. With the current wave of artificial intelligence breakthroughs, including Chat GPT, it appears that may very well come to pass within 5 years. Kurzweil is not just any futurist who peddles in eye-catching predictions to sell a book: in 1999 he was warded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the highest honour the United States bestows in tech. He has more honorary doctorates (21) than most people have credit cards. With a career of 60 years in the computer field, Kurzweil is the voice many regard as the ultimate authority.

With regard to his 2029 prediction, Kurzweil explained it is not precise. “We are going to have people claiming that the test has been passed with Chat GPT4. It’s going to be like 2-3 years where people start claiming, and then they continue to claim, and finally everybody will accept it.”

He dismissed the significance of the Turing Test, which establishes when a computer can pass as a human being. “What’s much more important is AGI (Automatic General Intelligence) which means it can emulate any human being in one computer, and it can do anything any human being can do. That will also happen in 2029.”

If you think that is farfetched, he said consider any “large language model (LLM) today. Ask it anything and it  can answer you pretty convincingly. No human being can do all that, and it does it very quickly. You can ask it to write an essay, and 15 seconds later ask it to write another essay. No human being can perform at that level. So to perform a convincing Turing Test, you have to dumb it down!” Yes, we have already left Turing in the dust!

As a measure of progress, he showed a graph of the price performance of computation from 1939 to the present. It’s essentially an exponential curve. The figure doubles every 1.4 years. “This is the reason computers are exciting, but it actually affects every type of technology.”

Talking about a LLM with Chat GPT4, “once we get the connections up to a certain point it matches what the brain does which is about a trillion connections. It will perform kind of like the brain, and we are almost at that point. GPT4 is 400 million, the next one will be a trillion or more.”

He gave a direct answer to a critical question: “Do you think there is anything that happens in the brain that cannot be captured by computation or by math?” His answer was “NO!” This astonishing assertion generated waves of concern in the audience, ranging from acceptance to disbelief. He continued: “Consciousness is very important but it’s actually not scientific. Why am I me? How come what happens to me I’m conscious of, but I’m not conscious about what happens to you? These are deeply mysterious things. It’s not something we’re ignoring because there is no way to tell if something is conscious.” He jokingly admitted that “some humans are conscious, but how about animals? There is no way to prove that.” His devotes many pages in his latest book, The Singularity is Nearer, to giving different arguments about what consciousness means.  


“If you’re going to talk about longevity, we’re going to get to a point where we have Longevity Escape Velocity, and it’s not that far away. If you are diligent, you’ll be able to achieve that by 2029. Right now you go through a year and use up a year of your longevity, but you get back through scientific progress about 4 months. Since progress is on an exponential curve, it’s going to speed up every year, and by 2029 you’ll use up a year of longevity but you’ll get back a full year. Past 2029 you’ll get back more than a year.” He then moved on to the great Singularity he has been writing about for years.

“You will be able to capture everything in your brain by the Singularity in 2045. At that point you can actually go inside the brain, capture everything in there. Your thinking is going to be a combination of the amount you get from computation, which will add to your thinking, and that’s automatically captured. The connections that we have in the brain that we start with will be captured by 2045, so we will capture the entire brain, which will be backed up. So even if you get wiped out by a bomb, for example, we can actually recreate everything that was in your brain.”

Immortality? “You never actually get to the point where we absolutely guarantee that you will live forever but most of the things that right now would upset capturing that will be overcome. If you live until 2029, you will likely live to be 500 years old.”

It is unfortunate more people were not able to hear Kurzweil, as I regarded this as the most important talk at SXSW 2024.

By Dr. Cliff Cunningham

Dr. Cliff Cunningham is a planetary scientist, the acknowledged expert on the 19th century study of asteroids. He is a Research Fellow at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia. He serves as Editor of the History & Cultural Astronomy book series published by Springer; and Associate Editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage. Asteroid 4276 in space was named in his honour by the International Astronomical Union based in the recommendation of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Cunningham has written or edited 15 books. His PhD is in the History of Astronomy, and he also holds a BA in Classical Studies.