The future according to Richard Florida and Ray Kurzweil

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      At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver last night (October 22), urbanist Richard Florida and technologist and inventor Ray Kurzweil talked about the future.

      Florida came up with the concept of the “creative class”, a term he used to describe how the modern workforce is more creative and knowledge-based than in past generations.

      Kurzweil, meanwhile, has used mathematical modeling to predict such things as the notion that fossil fuels will be replaced within 20 years and that we can engineer human health to extend life spans dramatically.

      In conversation with CBC correspondent Amanda Lang, and appearing as part of the SFU Public Square Community Summit, the two men were asked whether innovation will save us. Kurzweil and Florida are both unabashed optimists about our future, so their answers weren’t really in question.

      Before they could answer, Andrew Petter, SFU president, gave an introduction in which he took great care to detail what he perceived to be the drawbacks to innovation: the increasing gap between rich and poor, destruction of industries and jobs being automated away, and the dangers of climate change.

      Florida spoke first, and said that innovations create a tremendous opportunity that can save us if we “build social and economic mechanisms” so that innovations benefit all of us. He believes that in the same way that factories were the place where knowledge was collected and organized in the past century, that cities will play that role in our future.

      Cities, said Florida, need to be dense and diverse, they need to be places where the creative class, which accounts for more of us all the time, can combine and recombine and fail and fail and try again. He recounted how, when Seattle was in the doldrums he was asked to visit and consult, and on a tour of the deserted downtown core, he saw a new building being constructed. Florida was told that it was a project being funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and he wasn’t surprised to learn that the massive construction was a homage to Jimi Hendrix. The Experience Music Project is, said Florida, the perfect example of what influences and motivates the creative class.

      Now working for Google, Kurzweil gave much the same presentation that he delivered when I first heard him speak in San Francisco back in 2009. The difference is that he’s got a few more data points to add to his graphs of exponential growth of information technologies. So when he says we’re only six doublings away from solar energy technologies being able to provide enough power to meet our needs, that’s significant. It may not seem like it now, but such is the misleading nature of exponential growth: things may start slow, but once they reach a critical mass, they get big in a hurry.

      The best example is the work done on the human genome. It took some seven years to sequence one percent of the human genome, and only seven more years to complete it. Now that human health is, effectively, an information technology, Kurzweil predicts that we are just a few years away from being able to radically increase life spans: stem cells are rejuvenating heart muscle in heart attack survivors, Parkinson’s patients are benefiting from a pea-sized implants in their brains that can be updated with wireless transmissions in the same way you get a text message on your smartphone.

      Florida and Kurzweil both acknowledged that innovation and technological progress aren’t without risk, but that we gain far more from them than we lose.

      The future is now

      While Kurzweil believes that technology will one day help humans live healthier, longer lives, surgeons and scientists in Europe have helped a paralyzed man to walk again.

      Darek Fidyka, a Bulgarian man paralyzed from the chest down after injuries sustained in a 2010 knife fight, is now walking with assistance after surgery to transplant cells from his olfactory bulbs in his brain to his spinal cord.



      Matt Foulger

      Oct 23, 2014 at 5:20pm

      This was an excellent event. Good on SFU Public Square for bringing Florida, Kurzweil, and Lang (who set the stage with a great introduction) to the city.


      Oct 26, 2014 at 1:22pm

      This paralyzed man was Pole not Bulgarian,big mistake.


      Nov 4, 2014 at 7:45am

      The paralyzed man was human