Google’s Ray Kurzweil on the moment when computers will become conscious


In 2012, Google hired Ray Kurzweil to build a computer capable of thinking as powerfully as a human. It would require at least one hundred trillion calculations per second — a feat already accomplished by the fastest supercomputers in existence.

The more difficult challenge is creating a computer that has a hierarchy similar to the human brain. At the Google I/O conference Wednesday, Kurzweil described how the brain is made up of a series of increasingly more abstract parts. The most abstract — which allows us to judge if something is good or bad, intelligent or unintelligent — is an area that has been difficult to replicate with a computer. A computer can calculate 10 x 20 or tell the difference between a person and a table, but it can’t judge if a person is kind or mean.

To get there, humans will need to build computers that can build abstract consciousness from a more concrete level. Humans will program them to recognize patterns, and then from those patterns they will need to be smart enough to learn to understand more.

People have a tendency to dismiss using artificial intelligence for specific applications like speech recognition, Kurzweil said, but he believes each new application is a part of the greater effort to develop AI.

“I like the idea of crossing the river one stone to the next,” Kurzweil said. “We do get from here to there one step at a time.”

When computers do reach the stage that they can compete with, or outstrip, humans in intelligence, Kurzweil said that he is ready to accept them as conscious beings. There is no experiment that can be run to determine if an entity is conscious, he said, but robots and computers will likely someday claim to be experiencing it. He described accepting their consciousness as a “leap of faith” that other people will take too.

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