What thinking approach does one of the most prolific inventors of our generation attribute to his success?

 Mike Gillam, 21 April 2015

Ray Kurzweil is credited with inventing the first flatbed scanner, the first optical character recognition system, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first speech-to-text translator, and the first piano synthesizer whose sound was indistinguishable to musician’s ears from a real piano. Kurzweil is an author, scientist, inventor and futurist who has been described by the Wall Street Journal as a “restless genius” and by Forbes as the “ultimate thinking machine.” Inc. magazine called him “Edison’s rightful heir.”

How has the inventor been the first in so many different areas?

Kurzweil attributes a major factor to his success: exponential thinking.

Kurzweil attributes exponential thinking to his success.

Kurzweil shares how exponential thinking helped him predict successes where others were seeing failure. During the 15 year human genome project, only 1% of the human genome had been identified when the project was already half over. Many predicted the project would fail given the progress. Given linear progress, one would expect that only 2-3% would be completed. Kurzweil noted that the project had been doubling in price-performance and capacity every year and that it was only seven doublings away from 100%. He predicted that the project would finish successfully. Not only did the human genome project finish on time – but a second company, Craig Venter’s Celera genomics, stepped in “late into the game” and completed sequencing the human genome even before the NIH.

Kurzweil also applied exponential thinking to predicting that in the mid to late 1990s there would be a worldwide communication system tying most of the world together. It was scoffed at in the 1980s when ARPANET was only a few hundred notes – but Kurzweil had noted its exponential growth. Today, the breadth of the Internet is global.

Kurzweil shared an anecdote at Singularity University on his invention process. When Kurzweil directed his team to build the world’s first reader for the blind, his team said “it is going to be too big – it is not going to portable!” He saw the trends in computation and directed them to pursue the project despite their predictions. Sure enough, five years later they had their first version and it was the size of a college dorm refrigerator. “See – we were right. It’s too big!” they noted. Kurzweil directed the team to continue and said that the trends in hardware speed showed that they were within a couple of years of it fitting in a pocket. The team shook their heads and went back to work. In 2006 just a few years later, Kurzweil’s team released the first pocket sized reader for the blind. Kurzweil said that no one on the team, or him, knew *how* they were going to accomplish the task, he just knew based on the trends that new technologies would emerge to make it possible.

How and where might we see and apply exponential thinking to healthcare to bring revolutionary change and improvement to healthcare? Comment below.

Mike Gillam, MD, FACEP 2015

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