Renowned futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil shares his bold predictions on virtual environments for marketing, the effects of an accelerated technological pace, and how information will transform communications.
iMedia Connection: As a renowned futurist and inventor, your areas of focus have been in fields as diverse as speech recognition technology to artificial intelligence to healthcare and lifestyle issues. How did you become interested in the ways technology touches the marketing industry?
Ray Kurzweil: My area of expertise is in pattern recognition, which is part of the artificial intelligence field. In this field we teach computers to recognize patterns. It turns out that pattern recognition is what the human brain does well. We're actually not very good at logical thinking, and computers already outpace us in that area. I developed the first omni-font (any type font) optical character recognition (OCR) and the first commercially marketed large vocabulary speech recognition, both of which represented classical problems in pattern recognition at the time. I also invented the first CCD flat-bed scanner so that I could combine that with the OCR to create the world's first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind. The Kurzweil OCR was used to build the first major databases, such as Nexus and Lexus. All of these technologies have become foundations for the information age and have enabled us to communicate information which is, of course, what the marketing industry is all about.
Ray Kurzweil is a futurist, one of the leading inventors of the modern age, and author of "The Age of Spiritual Machines."
iMedia: What current technology do you think will have the greatest impact on digital marketing? Are there any technological advances that you are particularly excited about -- or wary of -- in this space?
Kurzweil: We have already seen the rise of targeted advertising, which provides about $20 billion a year of revenue to Google. People often resent ads and commercials because it wastes their time. Who wants to sit through a diaper commercial if you are no longer buying diapers? (It is true, however, that advertising to future diaper purchasers makes sense to establish brand recognition early.) On the other hand, if I have just done a search for some new health supplement or a new type of software then I appreciate seeing ads for products in these categories. Targeted advertising today is based entirely on keywords, but in the future it will be based on a deeper understanding of the specific personality, desires, and needs of each consumer.
Another important trend is the increasing realism of virtual and augmented reality. Augmented reality has just started with a few iPhone apps in the last several months. In the future we'll be online all the time, the electronics will be in our belt buckles and woven in our clothing, and images will be superimposed on the real world through our lenses. This will create virtual displays (which can be three-dimensional), full-immersion virtual reality environments, or augmented reality. In terms of the latter, just seeing (with little pop-ups) what people's names are would be very helpful. There will also be a variety of ways to include the tactile sense. So reality will be greatly expanded to include fantastic imaginary worlds.
Unlike today's cartoon-like worlds such as massively multi-player games and environments such as Second Life, these virtual environments will be limited only by our imagination. Already, we see extensive marketing campaigns in Second Life and other virtual environments. After all, these environments are intended as communication mediums. We will ultimately be spending most of our time in a blend of virtual and real reality, so the opportunities for marketing communication will be greatly enhanced.
iMedia: Marketers often fancy themselves innovators, building their own tools when currently available ones don't suit their particular needs. What advice can you give to those who are looking to develop their own tools or platforms, rather than tailoring their offerings to commercially available options?
Kurzweil: There is an advantage to building you own solution -- you just might create the next Facebook. Speaking of which, Facebook was created by Harvard undergraduates so that they could see pictures of freshmen who they might want to date. They were basically just putting online the "face books," which were printed books of pictures of all the freshmen. So they were building their own tool because the available ones did not meet their very specific needs. That was 2004, and today Facebook has 400 million users and is worth tens of billions of dollars.
iMedia: You will be giving the keynote address for the iMedia Breakthrough Summit. What can the audience expect from your presentation?
Kurzweil: I will provide a broad perspective on how the exponential growth of information technology will transform communications in the decade ahead and beyond. This exponential growth is remarkably predictable, belying the common wisdom that you cannot predict the future. The price-performance of computing, for example, has been growing at a smooth exponential pace going back to the 1890 American census. Exponential growth is also very explosive. Taking 30 steps exponentially (2, 4, 8, 16... ) gets us to a billion, whereas 30 steps linearly (which reflects our intuition about the future) gets us to 30. That is why people's imagination about the future is often very limited compared to what happens.
iMedia: You've proposed that exponentially advancing technology may be advancing too quickly for people to keep up with. And indeed, marketers are already struggling with consumers adopting technology more rapidly than they can plan campaigns around. Any advice you can offer to help marketers manage this accelerated technological pace and deliver innovative solutions for their clients?
Kurzweil: The trend so far is that communications technology is moving closer to us rather than forcing humans to become more like the classical notion of a machine. When I was a student at MIT, you did have to be an engineer to use the computer, and I had to use my bicycle to get to the one computer on campus. Today, I have a computer on my belt, and I am able to access virtually all human knowledge with a few keystrokes. And, already, 5 billion people have these mobile devices in their pockets. The technologies that succeed in the marketplace are the ones that meet our basic human needs to communicate and socialize.
Within 20 years, computers will match human intelligence and pass the "Turing test," in which they will be indistinguishable from human intelligence. But this will not be an alien invasion of intelligent machines to compete with us and displace us. We will use these machines as we have always used our tools -- to extend our own reach. We will put these machines inside our bodies to keep us healthier, and in our brains to make us smarter. We will send these computers, which will be the size of blood cells, into our brains noninvasively through the capillaries. If it sounds futuristic to put computers in our brains, I would point out that Parkinson's patients do this already, and the latest generation of this FDA-approved neural implant allows new software to be downloaded into the computer in the patient's brain from outside the body. That's today, and in the future we will all be doing this with millions of such computers in a noninvasive fashion. So we will need to merge with our technology in order to keep up with it.
But my advice for the decade ahead is to consider basic human needs that go back millennia. It was by serving those needs that current technologies such as the cellphone and social networks have been able to succeed.
iMedia: Through your work, you have been able to accurately predict the internet's content explosion, and the ubiquity of wireless communications (on devices that are ever decreasing in size). What current breakthrough platform do you find most compelling? And which ones do you expect to see in the next few years that will transform the landscape of interactive media?
Kurzweil: Every device we handle will become intelligent and part of the ever pervasive network. We will be online all the time with a seamless blend of real and virtual/augmented reality. Our everyday reality will essentially be one encompassing interactive media.
Jodi Harris is senior editor at iMedia Connection.