RAY KURZWEIL is an American scientist, health guru and futurologist. He is known for his invention of the flatbed scanner, for the 200 pills he eats every day to prolong his life, and above all for “The Singularity is Near,” a bold and controversial prediction of a not-too-distant future in which artificial intelligence will overtake the human brain in processing power, leading to a merging of man and machine, and an irreversible transformation of our being in the world.
BJARKE INGELS is a precocious Danish architect. Six years ago, aged 30, he won the Golden Lion in Venic with his then partner Julien de Smedt. Shortly after, he opened his own office, BIG, in Copenhagen, and more recently in New York, and published his architectural manifesto “Yes Is More” in comic book form. Ingels has since taught at Harvard and Columbia, and is currently working on buildings in Mexico, Azerbaijan and China, where BIG was responsible for the Danish Pavillion in Shanghai’s EXPO 2010. The building does justice to the mantra “Better city – better life” in the form of a giant bicycle loop, at the heart of which the Little Mermaid of Copenhagen presides over a pool of water taken from the Danish capital’s harbor.
INGELS founds his work on a utopian spirit not seen since the decades immediately following the last world war. Yet he is determined not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors. One of the strategies of his “pragmatic utopian architecture” is not to rely on ideologies, but simply on the best available research. Frustrated with the timid and backward-facing spirit of contemporary architecture and urbanism, Ingels turns outside of his own field for hints of what the future – as it is being built today – might look like. Nobody offered a vision as simultaneously daring, methodological and researched as Ray Kurzweil.
JOERG HAENTZSCHEL: Of all the thinkers, Ray Kurzweil is the one that has influenced you most, you say. Yet he hardly says anything about architecture.
BJARKE INGELS: No, but there is no one else who offers such a methodical exploration of the future. Since architecture and urban planning operate on a timeframe that often reaches 15 or 20 years into the future, a lot of what is being planned now will become a reality in conditions that Kurzweil describes. He is focussing on two areas: one is the exponential increase of available data processing power and how this will help to achieve artificial intelligence and robotics. The other is the human body: how we will augment our bodies, achieve longevity and interface with machines. I’m interested in aligning Kurzweil’s theories with architecture – what is the potential of breakthroughs in other fields for what we are doing? How can they be translated into urbanism?
Apart from the occasional radical building there is not much enthusiasm for the future among architects and urbanists.
One reason is the inevitable uncertainty of what this future will look like. The other is the failure of the heroic modernist projects from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. The urbanists got scared of making big plans and placing big bets on the future. They look at the organic city: it’s diverse, it grew over hundreds of years. So urbanists say, if we make something that looks as if nobody planned it, it’s going to be good. That’s why urbanism is so stuck in regressive obsession with petrifying the existing conditions.
Are you trying to channel Kurzweil in your projects already?
Yes. We are working on two projects that rely on technology that isn’t really available yet but will be. They’re both good examples of how the explosive growth in technological progress could affect our living environment. One is for Audi; the premise is that cars will soon be able to behave intelligently and autonomously. As soon as a car enters the city it will begin exchanging information with the rest of the traffic in order to optimize its collective flow. The problems we have with congestion now could be relieved, but you also get a much more dynamic urban space. You don’t have to send a cop out to direct the traffic, you don’t have to put up barriers. The cars will simply know where to go. The city will know where people are going and will disperse the traffic. Without any architecture, without a single new building, the use of the urban space could change dramatically.
The other project is “Loop City”. It will improve the connection of 10 municipalities around Copenhagen with each other. It started with a circular train line that was planned for 10 Danish cities in the Copenhagen region. But then they said instead of making 10 separate plans, why don’t we do one big plan to get some synergies across the city limits. Once we went into that study we found out that by extending the train line just a few kilometers on both ends and building a bridge to Sweden we could fuse Eastern Denmark and Southern Sweden into one binational metropolitan region.
During our planning we cooperated with the innovation consultancy ReD Associates. A few years ago ReD worked with Samsung. They looked at all the options and decided that flat-screen TVs would be the most promising product for them in the future. So Samsung sank incredible resources into their development. Now they’re the leader in that market. Denmark did the same thing in the Fifties and Sixties with wind generators. They subsidized these windmills and made Denmark number one in this industry. For “The Loop“ we also identified 10 “big bets”. Everything in this master plan is geared toward these 10 biggest challenges and the biggest chances of urban Denmark in the future.
Can you give an example?
One of them is developed by Better Place, a car battery company. The big problem with electrical cars is not just the limited range of one charge, but the charging time. As we know from cell phones, charging a battery takes longer than fueling a car, and in urban places like Manhattan you can’t just run a cable into your apartment. Better Place proposes a system where you borrow a charged battery that is put in your car and swapped with a charged one at a Better Place station once it’s empty. You just buy the power. They want to introduce this in Denmark, Israel and New York. What we’re planning is to distribute refueling stations along the train line which will double as a huge power spine.
We all know that our current way of living will change dramatically. Why then are people so reluctant to listen to bold ideas about the future?
Speculating about the future is seen as a childish science-fiction obsession. That’s why Kurzweil is so important: his vision has an almost metaphysical scope but it is based on facts and research.
Still even the most open-minded people have a hard time with his radicality. Everybody loves their iPhones and they can’t wait for iPhone 5, 6, 7 and 8, but if you’re telling them iPhone 9 will be implanted in their brain, they’ll be shocked.
If you only read the conclusion to “The Singularity Is Near“, where Kurzweil talks about how the universe will be saturated with intelligence and expand at the speed of light, it is shocking. But when you go through all the charts of exponential development it is very convincing. I like science fiction in general. What we try to do in architecture is very related to Philip K. Dick’s idea of science fiction. Dick says science fiction is not a space opera. It’s not a story from the future. It is a story where the plot is driven by a specific technological, social or cultural innovation that makes the world different than it is today. The story is an intellectual exploration of the potential of that innovation. That is what we try to do in architecture. When we work on a new project we try to analyze the status quo. If it is a school we try to see how the pedagogical methods have developed. Where is the innovation, where is the new habit, where is the paradigm change that hasn’t translated into the physical environment. And once you’ve identified that all you have to do is explore the potential of this new ingredient.
All art for me that is interesting somehow expands my perception of things. Let’s say you hear an interesting piece of music: it expands your perception. Once you’ve heard it you will be able to identify sounds that before you would have edited out as noise. A photograph makes you discover ways light falls or discover faces in the city that you would otherwise have ignored.
It’s the same in architecture. Whenever you design a building it becomes an opportunity to take a snapshot of what life and society are today. You make visible what was before invisible: immaterial structures in society, new behavioral patterns, and once you accommodate them in a building they become visible and as a result you start a feedback loop, where life again reacts to what you do, and you accelerate this development.
Kurzweil believes a lot of the environment that we will inhabit in the future will be virtual reality, so the built world will have less relevance. The architect could be an engineer of dreams, while we might be somewhere underground or on the 200th floor out in the desert.
I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. All things considered, we’ll get wealthier when machines start inventing new things constantly at an infinitely high pace. I think it will be as in the novels of Iain M. Banks where work becomes almost voluntary. We already have some of that in Danish society, where social welfare almost matches what you make in a low income job. You almost work more for your personal satisfaction than for the money.
Isn’t that an idea that died with the bursting of the internet bubble 10 years ago and with the rise of China and India? Didn’t we have a decade of almost no progress for the largest parts of the population, especially in our generation?
I don’t agree. I remember growing up in Denmark. It was like in the Soviet Union. Compare that to the amazing possibilities we have now. The Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg wrote a book called “The Skeptical Environmentalist“ where he disputes the conventional view of the world as going to hell. Despite all the problems, he says, things are generally getting better and better. What he says is, if you want to do good, you should base your actions on hard facts and make sure you have the right priorities. You can throw $1bn on filters for power stations but maybe you can achieve much more spending the money for something else. The reason I mentioned him is, I really believe progress is good if it is really understood and incorporated correctly.
Kurzweil is confident that people will happily adopt this radical change he envisions. But when you look at the resistance against things as small as Google Street View or as big as nuclear power you might wonder …
I think it’s important to look at the risks of what’s coming, but we shouldn’t forget what we left behind thanks to technological progress. About a century ago one of the biggest problems in a fast-growing metropolis like New York was the huge amount of horse shit that those cities were drowning in. It was smelling, it was full of bugs and rats. They didn’t know where to put it. Another problem were dead horses. Every year 10,000 horses were dying in New York and had to be removed from the streets before they were decomposing. And then there were the deadly accidents when horses ran wild. The cure came in form of the automobile. What we see as the biggest problem in the city today was hailed as a solution to an even worse problem.
As an architect, how do you work under the rapidly changing conditions that Kurzweil foresees?
I like the example of the book reader for the blind that Kurzweil invented. They said we’ll be ready to put this product on the market in three years. We know that the processor that in three years will have the size of a camera is now as big as a freezer; the first prototype of the camera was the size of a freezer. Any time you act, you have to act according to the best information available. Every time people are confronted with radical development, they regress into a kind of paralysis and say, no matter what we do, it’s going to change, it’s dynamic and unpredictable. No, at any moment you have to make your best shot and put your money on what you believe in, based on the facts that you have available, and risk to fail. Risking something with the chance of failure is much better than not risking anything and having the certainty of failure.
Interview with RAY KURZWEIL
You’re predicting that by around 2045 computers will match the collective intelligence of human brains. We will merge with the machines. And the world will never be the same. You call it “The Singularity“. Why are you looking forward to it?
The question is: do you enjoy the life you live now? Because all the things you enjoy now will be enhanced. We’re going to more intelligent and creative, we’re going to be funnier and more loving, and we will be able to solve the problems that we struggle with today. And we’ll be healthier.
And the downside?
Technology has always helped us solve problems and also introduced new problems such as the atomic bomb. But if you look at how much better today’s life is compared to that a few hundred years ago, as Thomas Hobbes described it – short, disaster-prone, poverty-filled – then I think the advantages are obvious.
Two years ago you co-founded “Singularity University”, an incubator for new ideas and a forum for emerging researchers. What exactly are you working on?
The focus is not so much on 2045. We focus very much on today’s problems and how they can be solved with the exponential growth of information technology. It’s important to realize how fast things are changing. Just a few years ago, there were no blogs, wikis and social networks. Now they’re an important part of people’s life. Imagine what we might have in five years from now!
Still, the euphoria for progress has cooled considerably in recent decades. In the Fifties and Sixties, progress was not just associated with freedom and prosperity, the risks also seemed negligible. Since then we have seen Tchernobyl, the crashes of the Concorde and the Space Shuttle and now climate change. Every innovation seems to add to the mountain of problems the world is facing.
A lot of these problems stem from the first Industrial Revolution. It was a compromise. It allowed civilization to advance in certain ways but it was very costly to the environment and to our health. On the other hand, our life expectancy has more than doubled. These new technologies that we are working on are very environmentally friendly. In the last 20 years the production of solar power has doubled every two years. If this continues it could eventually fulfill all of our energy needs.
The news tends to focus on catastrophes and ignore steady, positive improvements such as the fact that in a few years billions of people will have smartphones which will give them access to the web and vast amounts of knowledge, such as medical diagnoses. It really helps people live a better life, even in the most remote areas. The solutions to many of our problems are really in our hands. There is a new technology that could provide clean water to everybody in Africa for only $3bn! Yes, technology is a double-edged sword, but I think it helps more than it hurts.
In Western culture hybrid beings and man-machines have always created fear. The uncanniness of Golem, Frankenstein, RoboCop, The Bodysnatchers and Terminators is almost intolerable for us. And then there is the is the taboo on man’s attempt to play God. Our fear of the nuclear bomb and our reservations against genetic research are the consequences. How do you want to deal with these cultural constants?
We don’t want to merge with our personal computers today. They’re lesser than we are. What we’re discovering is that we are machines. There are machine-like computerized processes underlying biology. Biology is a set of software processes. We are going to create technology to enhance it, not to make it more crude. We’re not going to lose our humanity. On the contrary.
Still, do you think people are ready for it?
There won’t be a referendum, there won’t be a philosophical debate. It will be adopted very eagerly by the people who need it. Not in one big historic revolution, but in 50,000 small different steps. Maybe there is a nanobot that you can put in your bloodstream that protects you from cancer and major diseases and it’s been shown to be safe and effective, just like vaccines today. Why shouldn’t you have that? It comes down to a lot of very specific choices.
You’re on an ambitious health regimen and you’re taking 200 pills with vitamins and minerals every day. How long do you expect to live?
It’s a moving frontier. I’m concerned with the bridge I’m on. My goal right now on bridge one is to get to bridge two, the bridge which will bring me to bridge three. I don’t foresee that I’ll ever want to end my life. Yes, life would get boring if we had dramatic life-extension without life-expansion. But we’ll have both. Life is only going to get richer. I’m looking forward to it.
By JOERG HAENTZSCHEL, Photography by HEJI SHIN