Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ray Kurzweil revisits his 1999 predictions for 2009

In 1999 inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil published the book "The Age of Intelligent Machines" in which he made rather daring predictions for years 2009, 2019, 2029 and 2099.

Kurzweil is a considered to be one of the most accurate forecasters of technological advancement, which is the reason why today, in the beginning of 2009, it is extremely interesting to see how well his predictions have stood the test of time.

Most of Kurzweil's predictions are actually astoundingly accurate. Such predictions as "Individuals primarily use portable computers" and "rotating memories are on their way out" seem highly in place considering the extreme surge of notebook and flash memory sales have seen in recent years.

A prediction such as "There are services to keep one's digital objects in central repositories, but most people prefer to keep their private information under their own physical control" also seem to reflect the shifting paradigms occurring today with services such as Google Docs, Flickr and YouTube which exceedingly enable users to keep their digital objects online.

"Digital objects such as books, music albums, movies and software are rapidly distributed as data files through the wireless network and typically do not have a physical object associated with them" also sounds just right. So too do "Documents circa 2009 routinely include embedded moving images and sounds" and "learning at a distance is common place" and "virtual partners are popular as forms of sexual entertainment, but they're more gamelike than real".

However some of the Kurzweil's other predictions still seem a while ago. In June 2008 I interviewed Kurzweil for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and asked him to comment on some of his predictions which still seem a while away. Here is what he had to say regarding chosen quotes from his book.

Kurzweil's Response to his 1999 predictions

"People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their clothes" (p. 189)

KURZWEIL: Consider someone sitting at their desk. In their pockets there may be a cell phone, a digital camera, an IPOD, a Bluetooth headset, their electronic car keys, each with one or more computers. On their desk is their desktop or notebook computer, a printer, various communication devices, each with one or more computers. So that's close to a dozen computers typically right now. With the advent of multiprocessor architectures, these devices are starting to have 2, 4, 8... computers each in them, so we'll exceed a dozen computers "on and around their clothes" by the turn of the decade.

"Cables are disappearing" (p. 190)

KURZWEIL: There is already increasing use of Bluetooth, WiFi and other wireless technologies to eliminate physical cables. There is technology emerging that allows wireless communication between pocket devices such as cell phones and cameras and desktop devices such as printers and desktop computers. This technology is becoming more ubiquitous. People are increasingly using notebook computers and pocket sized computers and using one form of wireless communication or another to communicate with printers and other devices.

"The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition" (p. 190)

KURZWEIL: People are migrating to pocket sized computers, but these devices do not provide satisfactory keyboards, so this is now starting to create the need for effective large vocabulary speech recognition. Up until recently hand held devices such as cell phones have not had adequate computers to support large vocabulary speech recognition but that is now changing. New cell phones such as the Blackberry Bold from RIM have computers that are fast enough and with enough memory to support effective speech recognition for text creation. We will see speech recognition used in a widespread way on such pocket computers within the next couple of years.

"three dimensional chips are commonly used" (p. 190)

KURZWEIL: Chips in the latest high cell phones are already three-dimensional with multiple layers of circuitry. The number of layers will continue to increase.

"a 1,000 personal computer can perform about a trillion calculations per second" (p. 191)

KURZWEIL: There are many ways of achieving a teraflop for about a thousand dollars around 2009:

* Today, a NVIDIA Tesla C870 with .5 Teraflop peak computation is about $1,000, but computing is coming down in price by half every year.

* NVIDIA's GTX280, coming out the summer of 2008, is 933 GFLOPS peak for about $500 (adding the rest of the computer is about another $500).

* NVIDIA's GeForce 8800 Ultra provides about .5 Teraflops for about $500 (the rest of the computer is another $500).

* ATI's 4870X2 (2x480), coming out the summer of 2008 is 2 Teraflops peak for about $500.

* AMD FireStream 9170 board with .5 Teraflop is now coming out at around $2,000.

Supercomputers are expected to be built from boards such as the above.

Game computers is another approach, and supercomputers have been constructed from multiple game computers. The Playstation 3 provides 160 GFLOPS for about $300 which is about .5 Teraflops for $1,000 today. Price-performance doubles every year so that's about 1 Teraflop for $1,000 in 2009.

"Translating Telephone techonlogy is commonly used for many language pairs" (195)

KURZWEIL: We have two kinds of "translating telephone" technologies already from our company. We have a cell phone that can capture print documents in seven languages and then translate the documents into any of the seven languages. We are adding more languages. The cell phone that can capture print documents in the seven languages is already a shipping product, and the translation feature has been demonstrated at shows and will ship in a couple of months.

We also have a prototype of this technology that can capture speech with speaker-independent large vocabulary speech recognition and then translate to another language with voice output. This will be a shipping product in the next 1-2 years.

We are talking to multiple cell phone companies about building this technology into their cell phones.

"Human musicians routinely jam with cybernetic musicians" (p. 196)

KURZWEIL: There are many software packages that will accompany you with rhythm tracks that adjust to your playing, walking bass lines, and other accompaniments. Such software is also built into home digital keyboards.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Psychedelic University

The article was originally published on the Reality Sandwich magazine.

Most sincere and mindful people would not dispute that the use of psychedelics can, under certain circumstances, have positive outcomes. Psychedelics, after all, have played a crucial role in human culture for millennia and continue to be a part of many cultures, even today.

The recreational use of LSD and other mind altering substances during the psychedelic sixties is one of the main factors that frightened society away from the exploration of psychedelic realms. As long as researchers and psychologists kept their experiments with LSD confined to their laboratories and clinics, everything was fine. But the widespread use of psychedelics among large sectors of society, with many people having no knowledge about how to work with psychedelics, led western society into a state of media frenzy and paranoia regarding all forms of consciousness expansion. Psychedelics were rashly demonized and then outlawed without any further discussion -- a fact which has been lamented ever since by psychedelic advocates from fields such as psychology, theology and philosophy.

There's been little movement since the sixties toward the legalization of these substances. Yet it seems that society's willingness to consider positive applications of psychedelics has grown lately. Psychedelic research has finally begun to get back on its feet after being put on hold for decades, and the public discussion of psychedelics seems to be somewhat less ill informed than it had been in recent decades, as was noted in Daniel Pinchbeck's article on the future of psychedelics.

Those who can go beyond the veil of propaganda and misinformation that cloaks the entire territory can discover that, unlike many other perfectly legal and accepted substances (such as coffee, alcohol or nicotine), psychedelics are actually non-addictive, non-toxic drugs which in the long term have no adverse side effect on body and brain functions.

When handled with care and in a knowledgeable, respectful manner, psychedelics can have many desirable personal, psychological, philosophical, spiritual and creative results. These facts are well known to the societies in which psychedelics have been a part of the culture and religion for millennia.

The question of psychedelics

But despite the many merits they possess, psychedelics continue to have a highly ambivalent reputation in our society and are prohibited in most countries.

The reasons behind this global paranoia about psychedelics are complex, but can be summed up in the sentence: Psychedelics aren't dangerous, but careless, ignorant use of psychedelics is.

Even Holland, which has the most liberal drugs laws in the world, is currently in the process of banning the selling of magic mushrooms in local "smart shops." The reason is, as it has been in the past, the occasional tragic cases in which newcomers to the field of psychedelics (usually tourists, usually young people) experiment with psychedelic drugs without much prior knowledge about their effects, the importance of set and settings, and how they interact with other drugs (usually alcohol), etc.

Such blind sighted encounters with psychedelics are quite likely to lead to disaster. And so we have the occasional jumping out of a window, or different forms of freak-outs. It doesn't matter that the number of annual cases of this sort is less than a dozen, while cigarettes kill 400,000 people a year.

Such unfortunate encounters with psychedelics are a side effect of modern society, and are avoided by indigenous societies using psychedelics thanks to the ceremonial manner in which psychedelics are consumed. This is because indigenous societies partake in psychedelics at specific dates and times, in a religious context, and in the company of shamans. The recreational use of such substances is almost unheard of. Thus the ceremonial use of psychedelics is considered safer, more "dignified," and has been legalized in many parts of the world.

Movements advocating the use of psychedelics in a religious context have indeed seen a great surge in recent years, among them the Native American Church use of peyote, and ayahuasca use by the Santo Daime and Uniao de Vegetal religions. Such religions have managed thus far to eschew the stigma shed upon psychedelics by society. Their existence is indeed very positive, but while people might have safer access to psychedelics in these contexts, they do not support the use of psychedelics for creative, psychological and philosophical purposes. These religious uses, as well as psychotherapeutic uses of psychedelics, sacrifice the individual's freedom to pursue psychedelic exploration in favor of being part of certain religious or psychological institutions.

Society doesn't know how to handle psychedelics, and since we live in a capitalistic society the choice about psychedelics has been reduced to: sell them or ban them. It's not relevant that treating psychedelics as consumer products might not be a good idea from the psychedelic perspective. Since our society is capitalistic, we quite automatically apply the model of consumerism to anything that comes along. However, psychedelics aren't your average consumer product. Far from it. And when the choice is between selling them or banning them, most countries choose what they consider the safe path: prohibition.

So, in an attempt to reverse the inertia associated with the image and legal status of psychedelics, those who do believe that psychedelics can be put to good use and benefit society have to find an alternative way to regulate them.

Various thinkers in the history of psychedelic thought have been aware of this issue. Many of them believed that psychedelic substances need not be distributed in a mass-consumption, capitalistic manner. Except perhaps for Ken Kesey, nearly every major psychedelic advocate has also called for strategies to make sure that psychedelics are properly handled and intelligently used.

Albert Hofmann cautioned against the recreational use of psychedelics and believed that their importance lies "in the possibility of providing material help to meditation." Aldous Huxley wanted to give psychedelics to a small intellectual elite. He spoke about the development of "a technique of applied mysticism" -- a technique for helping individuals to get the most out of their transcendental experience and to make use of the insights from the "OTHER WORLD" in the affairs of "This World." Timothy Leary wanted psychedelics to be distributed to small groups of people in a psychological or religious context. Even Terrence McKenna admitted that not everybody in a psychedelic society has to actually take any drugs.

Yet the question remains, how will society determine which people it deems fit to experiment with psychedelic substances? Religious and psychological systems are, as mentioned above, unsatisfactory forums for tapping the full potential of psychedelic exploration in modern society. At the same time, selling psychedelics as a standard consumer product has its own disadvantages, which is why we have prohibition.

The Psychonaut License Model

These questions and the need to advance the field of psychedelics have led me to develop an alternative model for the regulation and use of psychedelics in society. I refer to it as the Psychonaut License Model. This model, as I have recently found out, was actually already proposed by Leary in the Sixties. But for some reason or another it seems to have been forgotten for all these years. Here I would like to offer a variation of this model for your consideration.

Our society has mechanisms for the handling of objects which it deems both helpful as well as dangerous. In order to drive a car or a plane, for example, you need a license. What if we would have a psychonautic license? A license for exploring your mind. A license that would ensure that use of psychedelics is guaranteed to those who are willing to approach them knowledgably and responsibly.

A person would receive such a license after taking part in a psychedelic course. Such a psychonautic course could consist of 10-15 meetings, or a concentrated term of 7-10 days. Each course would educate the aspiring psychonaut about a specific substance, such as LSD, Magic Mushrooms, Ayahuasca, Mescaline, Cannabis, etc.

Classes would deal with key questions about psychedelics, such as: the role of psychedelics in culture, the history of psychedelics, psychedelics and ecology, the chemistry of psychedelics, the medical aspects of psychedelics, psychedelic psychology (how to psychologically deal with the various aspects of a psychedelic trip), psychedelic theory and psychedelic spirituality. Thankfully our community is not suffering from a lack of valuable psychedelic knowledge.

The teachers would be cutting-edge experts from the various fields of psychedelics: psychedelic thinkers, shamans, medical doctors, historians of psychedelics and psychedelic psychologists.

Each course would also include 2-3 carefully built, practical psychedelic ceremonies, guided by knowledgeable individuals. These teachers would strike the balance between allowing the freedom for individual exploration, while ensuring a structured (at least partly structured) psychedelic learning experience.

I believe that such a carefully guided tour through the psychedelic world might be a modern version of ancient initiation ceremonies. It would allow for potential explorers of the psychedelic realms to start their journey in safer, more stable surroundings, setting the stage for more individualized psychedelic experiences in the future.

Such a solution could also set the stage for the reintegration of psychedelics into the social fabric in a way which would be better accepted by society. It would also build the basis for a stronger psychedelic community and allow for the growth of psychedelic research and techniques.

The Psychedelic University

The establishment of such a psychonaut license would of course demand the establishment of a stable, professional institution. Hence, the idea for the Psychedelic University, a nonprofit foundation devoted to spreading unbiased knowledge about psychedelics, and supporting individuals seeking safe, informed and inspirational access to psychedelic substances.

The establishment of such an institute demands a tolerant legal environment. To the best of my knowledge, such an environment exists in only one place in the world at the moment. So the Psychedelic University should be located in Amsterdam, Holland where it can act in total agreement with the Dutch law.

The Netherlands has been looking for various ways to regulate the use of psychedelics. While Holland has been tolerant of psychedelics, recent tragedies have weakened its liberal stance. Since the country continues to reform its drug laws every few years, it seems that Dutch authorities are still looking for a sensible solution regarding the regulation of psychedelics. The Psychedelic University and the Psychonautic License model respond to the need for such models, and offer an alternative that enables a safe, responsible and yet imaginative introduction into the world of psychedelics.

The purpose of the Psychedelic University is not to polemicize, but to make an example of the psychedelic movement, displaying its radical commitment to the responsible and constructive use of psychoactive substances. Referring to the future of the psychedelic movement, Terrence McKenna said, "Pointing back to my notion that the responsibility always rests on us and that you don't want to go out and really form a movement to change those guys or that bureau -- I think the thing that should be done is: people who are involved in psychedelics should live life of such examplitude and impeccability that the notion that there was anything shay or wrong or curious about this phenomenon would be ludicrous." Making sure that psychedelically inclined individuals get the best drug education would be a first step in that direction.

While the Psychedelic University will not in any way seek to become a governmental institution, its success might encourage the Dutch government and other liberal governments to consider the implementation of this model elsewhere in the world. Such a university would also, in time, become a center for psychedelic research, collaborating with institutions such as MAPS in the furthering of psychedelic knowledge

Our dream is to enable any person on the planet legal and safe access to these sacred substances, which we value so highly, and to help in the distribution of psychedelic knowledge.

While the criminalization of psychedelics has been seen as nearly irrevocable for decades, new possibilities are also emerging. Legalization and the creation of a new path are not a dream.