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Impact 2010: Ray Kurzweil and the magic of the exponential

At IBM Impact 2010 last week in Las Vegas, amid a wee bit of hoopla about a smarter planet, there was a bit of an old-time technology revival that took place, led by Ray Kurzweil—inventor of the CCD flatbed scanner, the text-to-speech synthesizer and the Kurzweil K250, the latter a very major step forward in the evolution of electronic synthesizers. Let me tell you: Kurzweil is a fellow who can drum up some excitement about raw technology.

The focus of his presentation was on the mysterious power of exponential technological growth. According to his estimates, it underlies the general technology flowering that has occurred over time. It is a bit like the familiar Moore’s Law (which, he points out, is linear rather than exponential).

Over time, this exponential factor almost magically aligns. “If you look at MIPS-per-dollar, it’s a smooth curve,” he said. “You can predict this aspect of the future,” Kurzweil maintained.

Technologies do encounter limits, he admitted, but these are usually forestalled by newer technologies. Looking ahead, he seems to expect nano technology to come in where silicon falters.

It starts with technology but it reaches out to alter culture and change the business landscape. Grad students with laptops can reverse engineer the links of the Web to create powerful advertising systems. Undergrads with laptops can turn freshman year facebooks into massive social networks. I will stop there. You can check out Kurzweil’s Impact keynote for yourself on YouTube, a Web site that allows you to upload, view and share videos on demand without using either cable or broadcast television systems.

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