"A man or woman unable to walk 10 miles at a stretch will be regarded as a weakling," Watkins wrote. "There will be no C, X or Q in our everyday alphabet."
As science advanced through the 20th century, the future morphed accordingly. When scientists figured out how to culture animal cells in the early 1900s, some claimed such cells would let us live forever. In the 1940s the success of antibiotics led some doctors to declare an end to the age of infectious diseases. The engineers who founded NASA were sure that within a few generations we would build cities on the moon, perhaps even Mars. And as scientists began to develop computers and the programs to run them, they began to predict that someday—someday soon—computers would gain a human intelligence.
Their confidence grew not only from their own research, but from research on the brain. Neuroscientists were discovering that they could apply the concepts of computer science to the brain. It seemed logical we would someday be able to translate the neural code, build computers that process information similarly and even join brains and machines together.
In 1993 the science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge wrote an essay on this particular kind of future. He entitled it "The Coming Technological Singularity," borrowing a term astrophysicists use to describe a place where the ordinary rules of gravity and other forces break down. "Within 30 years we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence," he wrote. "Shortly after, the human era will be ended."
By the late 1990s Kurzweil emerged as the leading champion of the coming end of life as we know it. He started as a tremendously successful computer scientist, having invented print-to-speech machines for the blind, music synthesizers and a host of other devices, and in 1990 he published his first forward-looking book, The Age of Intelligent Machines. He argued that within a few decades computers will be as intelligent as humans, if not more so.
As the years passed, Kurzweil's predictions grew more extreme. In his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, he imagined life in 2099. "The number of software-based humans vastly exceeds those still using native neuron-cell-based computation," he wrote. In 2005 Kurzweil brought Vinge's term to wide attention in The Singularity Is Near, in which he bemoans how hobbled we are by feeble neurons, bones and muscles. "The Singularity," he writes, "will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological brains and bodies."
At Singularity Summit Kurzweil came onstage to offer the latest iteration of his case. When he appeared, the audience broke into fierce applause. A few people stood and pounded their hands in awestruck slow-motion. Kurzweil was, as ever, sharply dressed, wearing a tailored blue suit, an open striped shirt and narrow glasses. (Back in 1984 a writer for Business Week noted he "wears expensive Italian suits and a gold Mickey Mouse watch.")
Kurzweil launched into his talk, leaning back on one foot as he spoke, his small frame angled diagonally to the audience, his eyebrows softly raised, his entire body seemingly caught in a perpetual shrug. Rather than slamming the audience with an infomercial pitch, his languid body language seemed to be saying, "Look, I don't care if you believe me or not, but these are the facts."
He talked about everything from quantum physics to comas to speech recognition, but at the heart of his talk was a series of graphs. They showed an exponential growth in the power of technology, from the speed of DNA sequencing efforts to the power of computers to the growth of the Internet. This exponential growth has been so relentless that Kurzweil has dubbed it the law of accelerating returns.