Make it to the year 2045 and you can live forever, the controversial futurist claims. So how’s his personal quest for immortality going?
FOR Ray Kurzweil, it’s all about patterns. The IT guru and futurist became famous across the US while still in high school by developing a computer program that extracted the gestalt of a composer’s style and created new music à la Mozart or Brahms. Later, as an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he sold his first company, built around a program that best matched a student to a college. Kurzweil went on to pioneer optical character recognition, text-to-speech synthesis, musical synthesizers and speech recognition, and has written best-selling books predicting the shape of things to come.
The ultimate pattern that preoccupies him is the human brain. Kurzweil believes the exponential growth of artificial intelligence, biotechnology and nanotechnology means that before 2050 the full intricacy of his brain – and, he hopes, his consciousness and identity – can be copied and uploaded into a non-biological substrate. His goal – obsession, if you will – is to surf the accelerating high-tech tsunami long enough to transcend biology and achieve the dream of immortality.
All this flows from Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, a generalisation of Moore’s Law, which predicts ongoing exponential growth of key technologies. What this means, Kurzweil writes, is that “…we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate)”.
If he’s right, before 2050 all information-based technologies will be millions of times more advanced and AI will far outshine the power of all human brains combined – development so explosive it is best described as The Singularity, a term he borrowed from other futurists but made his own.
For someone widely described as “the ultimate thinking machine”, in person Kurzweil is remarkably empathic, balanced and, yes, human. He doesn’t back away from his predictions. Rather, he patiently puts them into context. He’s not just arguing a theory, he’s living it, and has thought it all through.
Kurzweil famously traces his quest to live long enough to live forever to his father’s death from a heart attack at the age of 58, when Kurzweil was 22. “It was my first direct experience with the tragedy of death,” he says. “It becomes much less of an abstraction, a polite philosophical issue.”
That loss left him with the feeling of a cloud darkening his own future. Yet he also inherited a profoundly optimistic belief in the transformative power of ideas. “It was my family’s philosophy, but personalised to ‘You, Ray, can find ideas to overcome any challenge’.”
The challenge became even more personal when Kurzweil developed type 2 diabetes at just 35. At first he accepted treatment with insulin, but reading the literature convinced him that the underlying problem was insulin resistance, which the treatment made worse. “You’re bludgeoning your blood sugar levels down. It’s a bad strategy.”
Instead, he came up with an alternative: “reprogramming” his biochemistry through nutrition, exercise and aggressive supplementation. Kurzweil claims that the data he provided to New Scientist (see diagram) shows that this regime has erased the biochemical signs of diabetes, for example, driving his fasting glucose level from 185 milligrams per decilitre in 1985 (well into the diabetic range) down to a healthy 95 today. “I’ve had no indication of diabetes for over 20 years now,” he says, “although if I stopped my programme, my genetic predisposition to insulin resistance would return.” He’s since done the same for his cardiovascular risk factors, he says.
Kurzweil claims his regime has erased the biochemical signs of type 2 diabetes. Encouraged, Kurzweil went into partnership with Terry Grossman, a medical doctor and homeopath, to implement and continually fine-tune his anti-ageing campaign. But his longevity approach is not for the faint-hearted – exercise, meditation, lots of sleep, caloric restriction (1500 calories and less than 80 grams of carbohydrates per day), swallowing 150 supplements daily, plus weekly intravenous infusions. “I spend a lot of time doing procedures that are tedious and repetitive,” he says, “but I’ve well programmed my body to do these things, so I’m free to think creatively while I exercise and so forth.”
Just as Kurzweil doesn’t expect today’s technology to vault to The Singularity in one leap, he doesn’t expect to transcend his biological limitations in a single step. Instead, he envisions three “bridges”. He’s currently traversing Bridge 1, cherry-picking the most promising biomedical findings. Some of the regimen is scientifically uncontroversial: a large body of research supports a low-calorie, low-carb diet, exercise and lots of sleep. Other interventions raise eyebrows, such as 10 glasses of highly alkaline water a day to rid his body of toxins, and weekly intravenous infusions of vitamins, chelating agents and various other pharmaceuticals.
Kurzweil is adamant that Bridge 1 is working well. As well as blood tests, he has measured other correlates of ageing such as lung capacity, reaction time, sensory acuteness, memory and decision speed. “On these tests, I haven’t moved much. I’ve maybe gone from age 40 to 42 over the last 20 years – and it matches how I feel.”
Bridge 2, Kurzweil foresees, will exploit the accelerating biotech revolution to bring true enhancement at the cellular and genetic levels. He envisions the increasing use of gene therapy, stem cells, therapeutic cloning and replacement cells, tissues and organs. Within a few decades, he says, these will even allow him (and us) to turn back our biological clocks.
Most controversial, however, is Kurzweil’s Bridge 3, flowing from merging nanotech and AI. This will allow swarms of specialised, programmable, communicating nanobots to replace old-fashioned neurons and blood cells with more efficient units that can destroy infections, reverse degenerative changes and rewrite genetic code. Right now this looks fantastical, but he is sure the key technologies will develop on schedule. “The fundamental measures of information technology proceed at predictable and exponential rates and this continues to be the case.”
A body vastly enhanced through biotech and nanotech may suffice to extend life spans indefinitely, but the ultimate leap is to transcend biology entirely. Before 2050, Kurzweil predicts that AI and nanotech will have advanced so far that his brain, with its memories, capabilities and characteristics, can be reduced to pure information and rebooted in a non-biological substrate, be it a supercomputer, a bespoke real or virtual body, or a swarm of nanobots.
Will the essence of Ray Kurzweil make that transition? “Consciousness and identity are philosophical issues, not scientific ones,” he says, “and people have different leaps of faith when it comes to them. My leap is that identity comes from a continuity of pattern. In the 2040s, the non-biological proportions of our beings will be powerful enough to completely model and simulate the biological part. It will be a continuum, a continuity of pattern.” If he is right and he makes it to 2045, many people reading this will also be alive to recognise the distinctive pattern known as Ray Kurzweil.