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Language key to making computers smarter than humans by 2029: Ray Kurzweil

Tuesday, 25 February 2014 | By Yolanda Redrup

Siri may already have all the answers, but in 15 years’ time the chances are she’ll know what you’re thinking too.


Renowned futurist, scientist and artificial intelligent expert, Ray Kurzweil’s latest prediction is that machines will be smarter than humans by 2029.


In a wide-ranging interview with The Observer,Google’s director of engineering tipped machines will be ‘conscious’ in the next 15 years, as he gave details of his current work at Google.


“I don’t have a 20-page packet of instructions,” he says.


“I have a one-sentence spec, which is to help bring natural language understanding to Google…how they do that is up to me.”


Kurzweil has been called by Microsoft founder Bill Gates the “best person [he knows] at predicting the future of artificial intelligence”.


The key to unlocking artificial intelligence, Kurzweil believes, rests in language.


“My project is ultimately to base search on really understanding what the language means. When you write an article you’re not creating an interesting collection of words. You have something to say and Google is devoted to intelligently organising and processing the world’s information,” he told The Observer.


“The message in your article is information, and the computers are not picking up on that. So we would like to actually have the computers read everything on the web and every page of every book, then be able to engage an intelligent dialogue with the user to be able to answer their questions.”


The predictions sound like something out of a sci-fi film, but Kurzweil was positive about how the advances can benefit humans.


Kurzweil calls the future mind-reading search engine a “cybernetic friend”. Computers will be able to make and understand jokes, although their intelligence is likely to come from their ability to read billions of pages, rather than an innate understanding.


Some of Kurzweil’s previous predictions have already come true. In 1990 he said a computer would be capable of beating a chess champion by 1998 and in 1997 this was achieved by IBM’s Deep Blue computer.


Kurzweil, now 66, also predicted in 2012 that immortality was only 20 years away. He believes some of the baby boomers will make it and, according to The Observer, he currently takes around 150 pills a day and is injected with vitamins on a weekly basis.


Technology expert Paul Wallbank told SmartCompany the technological advances will disrupt traditional industries.


“We’re going to have a lot more information at our finger tips. We’ll be able to make decisions quicker with more information,” he says.


“For example, in plumbing, technology will allow plumbers to work out where the problems are and what type of problem, leading to more accurate quotes. Eventually there will also be a situation where plumbers will be able to check into homes remotely and figure out what’s wrong with the water system or toilet, or be told by the system itself when it’s about to explode.”


This view is also held by GE chief economist Marco Annunziata, who says in the future there will be no need for planned machinery maintenance.


Wallbank interviewed Annunziata, who said machines will be able to tell their owner when maintenance is needed.


“The idea of the industrial internet is that by gathering so much data from these machines themselves – plus having the software to analyse this data – you will have information that flags to you when intervention is needed.”


Wallbank says 15 years is an accurate timeline for Kurzweil’s predictions and believes artificial intelligence technology will be particularly prominent in the automotive industry and be used to create basic household appliances.


Already new cars are able to park themselves, slow down if the car gets too close to the one in front and control their own speed.


“Computers are now so powerful and so cheap we’ll see them applied to really basic household and business equipment. We’ll have smart coffee pots, smart rubbish bins and even smart toothbrushes,” Wallbank says.


This article first appeared on SmartCompany.