Futurist Ray Kurzweil On “The Future Of Merging Man And Machine,” And His Quest To Live Forever

Futurist Ray Kurzweil On “The Future Of Merging Man And Machine,” — And, His Quest To Live Forever


Ray Kurzweil is a legend in his own time. He has been described as “the restless genius,” by The Wall Street Journal, and, “the ultimate thinking machine,” by Forbes. Forbes ranked Mr. Kurzweil number 8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him “the rightful heir to Thomas Edison. He is considered one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers, and futurists — with a 30yr. track-record of accurate predictions. Mr. Kurzweil has authored seven books, five of which have been national best-sellers. He has become especially well-known for his books on artificial intelligence, “The Age Of Spiritual Machines,” in 1999 and, “The Singularity Is Near,” in 2005. In his latest book, “How To Create A Mind,” published in 2012, Mr. Kurzweil advocates building a synthetic extension of his brain — connecting it to the cloud. He thinks that nano-bots will one day travel to our brains through our capillaries; and, that blood cell-sized computers will connect to the cloud the way our iPhones do today. In 2012, Ray Kurzweil was appointed a Director of Engineering at Google — heading up a team developing machine-intelligence; and, natural language understanding. Mr. Kurzweil sat down for an interview by Alexandra Wolfe in this weekend’s (May 31 – June 1, 2014) Wall Street Journal.

Ms. Wolfe begins her article by noting that “Ray Kurzweil is teaching computers how to read better — one more step in the march of technological progress. The 66yr. old inventor and futurist thinks that by 2030, computers won’t only be able to understand ordinary spoken language; but, will show emotions too.” Open the Bay Doors Hal! “Next to arrive,” he says, “will be “singularity,” — a term he popularized nearly a decade ago, for the point at which humans and computers merge as one,” writes Ms. Wolfe. Reminds me of the Borg, of the Star Trek series. This singularity or merger “will occur in 2045,” he predicts, “when human intelligence will be enhanced a billion-fold — thanks to high-tech extensions.”

“For now, as Director of Engineering at Google, a role he started in January 2013, Mr. Kurzweil is primarily working on getting machines to understand what scientists call “natural” language. Computers aren’t as good as humans at context,” writes Ms. Wolfe. Mr. Kurzweil “is developing software that he hopes will enable computers to understand language conceptually, rather than just by key words,” as the Hal 9000 did in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science-fiction classic, “2001: A Space Odyssey.

“While it is still years away, Mr. Kurzweil is trying to get computers to simulate the brain’s natural thought processes,” writes Ms. Wolfe. “Before the publication of “How To Create A Mind,” she writes, “he met with Google Chief Executive Larry Page to give him a copy and pitch him on investing in a company he wanted to create — based in the ideas in his book. Mr. Page was interested,” Ms. Wolfe notes, “but instead, persuaded Mr. Kurzweil to start it at Google, having the use of the company’s resources, but keeping his independence intact. Since then,” notes Ms. Wolfe, ‘Google has continued building a veritable artificial-intelligence laboratory, hiring artificial intelligence researcher Geoffrey Hinton; and recently, acquiring the company “DeepMind,” which combines techniques from machine learning and neuroscience to build algorithms.”

Ms. Wolfe notes that “Mr. Kurzweil is quick to add that Google isn’t working on brain nanobots. But, he imagines that once our neocortex’s are connected to the cloud–something he expects will happen in the 2030s–this wireless connection will make us much smarter.” “Somebody’s approaching and if I need to think of something clever, and if my neocortex doesn’t cut it, I’ll be able to access more neocortex in the cloud,” Mr. Kurzweil says.

Mr. Kurzweil thinks that “someday humans will be able to live forever; but first,” he says, “we must cross three bridges. The first of these is staying healthy much longer,” than we do now — through consuming large quantities of vitamins and other supplements — intravenously so the body can absorb them better; and, vigorous exercise. “The second bridge is reprogramming our biology, which began with The Human Genome Project, and includes,” he says, “the regeneration of tissue through stem-cell therapies, and the 3-D printing of our new organs.” “We will cross the third and final bridge,” he says, “when we embed nano-bots in our brains that will affect our intelligence and ability to experience virtual environments.” Reminds me of the HoloDeck on Star Trek. “Nano-bots in our bodies will act as an extension of our immune system,” he says, “to identify and destroy particular pathogens our own biological cells can’t.”

“Mr. Kurzweil projects that the 2030s will be a “golden era,” — a time of revolution in how medicine is practiced.” “He compares the human body to a car,” writes Ms. Wolfe. “Isn’t there a natural limit to how long an automobile lasts?” “However, if you take care of it; and if anything goes wrong — you fix it, and maybe replace it — it can go on forever.” “He sees no reason that technology can’t do the same with human parts,” adds Ms. Wolfe. “The body is constantly changing already,” he says, “with cells replacing themselves every few days to months.”

Mr. Kurzweil’s “vision of the future raises the question of what it means to be human,” notes Ms. Wolfe. “Yet, he believes that adding technology to our bodies doesn’t change our essence.” “The philosophical issue of identity is,” “Am I the same person I was six months ago?” “There is a continuity of identity,” he contends. “In some ways, we’ve already extended our brains,” he says. “When it comes to mobile devices like smartphones, for instance, “philosophically I don’t see a significant difference whether [technology] is inside your brain; or, whether my brain is directing my fingers. It’s really an extension of my brain already; but, we will make it more convenient by directly connecting it into our brains.”

“Remember what happened the last time we expanded our neocortex?,” he asks. “That was two million years ago, when we became humanoids and developed these large foreheads; whereas, other primates have a slanted brow.” “This time around, we won’t be limited by physical constraints. As a result,” he says, “we’ll think deeper thoughts, we’ll have more beautiful music, and we’ll have deeper relationships.”

“Mr. Kurzweil believes that our thinking will eventually be a hybrid of biological and the non-biological. “I would say humans are not purely biological. We’ve already expanded humanity with our technology; and, the technology is part of humanity; we are the technology,” he argues.

“Mr. Kurzweil is well aware of the darker side of a more technological future,” writes Ms. Wolfe. “Technology has always been a double-edged sword,” he observes. “Fire has helped humans improve their lives; but it also burns down villages. And while he thinks technology can reprogram our biology away from disease, it can also fall into the hands of terrorists who might reprogram colds into deadly viruses.” (“We’re not defenseless against that,” he adds, “having spent time helping the U.S. Army come up with a program to combat biological threats.” “And, he’s reassured by the ubiquity of networked technology. With smartphones in the hands of billions of people, crowds can organize to deal with many problems.”

“The futurist is unabashed about his positive outlook,” notes Ms. Wolfe. “I’m accused of being an optimist, and I am,” he says. “It’s not a naïve optimism, though.” He has thought extensively about the possible dangers ahead,” he says, and thinks “we have to give very high priority to managing the downside.”

“In any case,” Ms. Wolfe concludes, “Mr. Kurzweil plans to be around to see whatever the future holds. “The goal is to live indefinitely,” he says. And, “as a backup plan, he will cryogenically preserve his body (i.e. base legend Ted Williams). But, he says, “the goal is not to need to.”

What a fascinating man. V/R, RCP

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