Futurist Ray Kurzweil made a thought-provoking presentation at the Cleveland Clinic's recent Innovation Summit. It dealt with the rate of technical progress, predicting the future, and the human life span. Let's start with one of his predictions — man-made red blood cells. The natural versions perform less than optimally because they are only made of proteins. Kurzweil says, “We can reengineer them as MEMS devices to be so effective that one analysis says replacing a portion of your blood with robotic red blood cells would let you, for example, run an Olympic sprint without taking a breath.”

His main contention is that all technology fields double their store of information annually. That means each grows a 1,000-fold in 10 years, and a 1 billion-fold increase in 30. More significantly, the rapid growth of data accelerates the paradigm-shift rate. So an evolutionary process accelerates because capabilities that develop tend to snowball and build momentum.

The first paradigm shift in biology, for instance, was the evolution of DNA. That took about a billion years. Nature then used DNA to produce all plants and animals in about 10 million years. Ensuring shifts evolved higher cognitive functions that let homo sapiens evolve in only a few hundred thousand years.

Telephones are a more recent example of the increase in the paradigm-shift rate. It took 50 years for about one fourth the population to adopt phones. Cell phones did that in about seven years. Medical technology is transitioning just as fast, and from a preinformation era to one that is information based. You see the transformations most easily in computers. The first ones were designed with pen and paper. Now computers design computers. In the 1950s, a computer filled a whole room, cost $11 million, and ran at about a quarter MIP. That's less powerful than your cell phone.

Now think of your brain. Estimates put its compute speed at 1014 to 1016 transactions/sec. If computer power doubles every year, 1014 transactions/sec will be available in a supercomputer by 2010, and in a $1,000 computer by 2020. But Kurzweil isn't sure if there will be software to mimic the brain even by then.

He insists that technology trends are remarkably predictable regardless of the technology. But how can you predict the expansion of technology if all companies are working independently? “In the same way thermodynamics explains gas behavior. Each molecule behaves in a random manner, but collectively, the gas is predictable,” he says.

Some insist that trends cannot go on forever, but Kurzweil says they can. Every time a paradigm ends, such as vacuum tubes, it leads to research that produces the next paradigm - in this case, transistors. From the current perspective, it looks as if 2022 might be the end of Moore's law, but it won't be the end of this exponential progression. “There are limits but they are not very limiting,” he adds.

Kurzweil says we should see some things coming. For one, nanotechnology will spawn blood-cell-sized devices to perform therapeutic functions inside your body. For instance, an MIT lab has devised a device the size of a blood cell that can detect antigens on the surface of cancer cells. “When it detects the antigens, it burrows inside the cell, releases toxins destroying the cancer cell, and then destroys itself. It works in vitro and is being tested in animals,” says Kurzweil.

Now get your head around this prediction: According to his models, in just 15 years we'll be adding more than a year of life expectancy every year. So if you live that long, your life expectancy will outpace your age.

The implication is not for quite immortality, but it raises the possibility of outliving our retirement funds. Maybe we should abandon the idea of a retirement age.