Editor's Note: Ray Kurzweil is a best-selling author, inventor, futurist, and Director of Engineering at Google. He has been described as "the restless genius" by The Wall Street Journal, and "the ultimate thinking machine" by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the "rightful heir to Thomas Edison." PolicyMic editor Michael McCutcheon recently spoke with Ray Kurzweil about how technology and artificial intelligence can and should be used to address climate change and save the planet. Read their interview below.
Michael McCutcheon (MM): What are the possibilities for using technology to address climate change that people aren't talking about?
Ray Kurzweil (RK): Larry Page (cofounder and CEO of Google) and I were asked by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering to review all of the emerging energy technologies and recommend a policy for the United States. We focused on solar energy because its use is growing exponentially. It is becoming increasingly cost effective as we apply nanotechnology to the design of solar panels. The cost of solar energy is coming down rapidly and is now at parity with energy from coal and oil in several parts of the world.
According to a recent report by Deutsche Bank, "The cost of unsubsidized solar power is about the same as the cost of electricity from the grid in India and Italy. By 2014 even more countries will achieve solar ‘grid parity.’" The total amount of solar energy produced in the world is now about 1% of our energy needs but is doubling every two years. So, it is only 7 doublings from meeting all of our energy needs. This means we can meet all of our energy needs with solar energy in less than 20 years and that it will be much less expensive than energy from current techniques and, of course, completely non-polluting. It is also decentralized and therefore not subject to disastrous events such as the Gulf oil spill. Once solar is meeting all of our energy needs, we will only be using one part in ten thousand of the sunlight that falls on the earth, meaning we have 10,000 more in sunlight than we need to do the job. Our conclusion is that within two decades, we will be able to produce all of the energy we need at lower cost and with no negative effect on the environment.
MM: Are humans built to be able to tackle problems that are global in nature like climate change? Are politicians?
RK: Due to increasingly pervasive communication, we are now in much closer touch with problems than ever before. When I tell people that we are now in the least violent period of human history, people react with astonishment and ask whether I am in touch with the pervasive news of constant violence in the world. But that is the key point – we have much better knowledge of problems in the world than ever before. If there is a battle in Damascus, we are there. A hundred years ago, if there was a battle in the next village, we didn’t know about it.
Steven Pinker’s new book The Better Angels of our Nature points out that the chance we will be killed by violence (of any type – interpersonal or state sponsored) is 500 times less than it was a few centuries ago when there was extreme scarcity of resources. I wrote in the 1980s that the Soviet Union, which was then going strong, would be swept away by then emerging decentralized communication – the social network of that day, which was early forms of email over teletype lines. People thought it was ridiculous that this mighty nuclear superpower would be swept away by a few clandestine hackers with teletype machines, but in the 1991 coup against Gorbachev that ended the Soviet Union, that is exactly what happened. So while the world may seem chaotic, people today have far greater knowledge and power to shape events and respond to problems.
MM: Is there a way we can use AI to help us make policy decisions about problems that are outside many people’s grasp, like climate change? How do we use AI to guide people to better behavior?
RK: We are already smarter today than we were, say, a decade ago because of all the brain extenders we have at our fingertips, such as search engines and Wikipedia. During that one day SOPA strike (in which Wikipedia, Google, and other online services went on strike for one day to protest pending legislation that would have limited online access to information), I felt like a part of my brain went on strike. These tools do deploy AI to help us access useful information. A kid in Africa today with a smart phone has access to more instantly available information than the President of the United States did 15 years ago. I am now at Google as Director of Engineering to help develop smarter AI to continue this process.
MM: Is the destruction of the planet inevitable (before the implosion of the sun)? Should we be putting more resources into planning how to live on a planet other than Earth, rather than saving the environment on this planet?
RK: I mentioned above an emerging energy technology that is environmentally friendly. There are similar emerging technologies for such resources as water, food, housing, and other material needs. We should focus our efforts on applying these 21st century technologies to solving the grand challenges of humanity.