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Interview: Still young at 57

Visionary Ray Kurzweil tells how biotechnology and nanotechnology will extend human life spans into near immortality

Technology pioneer, entrepreneur, and futurist Ray Kurzweil, 56, invented the flatbed scanner, developed the first text-to-speech reading machine for the blind, helped develop omnifont optical character recognition, and was the first to market large-vocabulary speech recognition technology, among many other achievements.

He has won numerous prizes and awards, including the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the USA's largest award for invention and innovation, and the 1999 National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton.

In his latest book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, Kurzweil and coauthor Terry Grossman, MD, explain how new technologies will push human life spans into virtual immortality.

Tom Spring: How does computer technology fit into your plan to "live long enough to live forever"?

Ray Kurzweil: [In the recent book,] we present three bridges to radical life extension.

We provide a detailed program – bridge one – based on today's knowledge of how to slow down aging and disease processes. I've been reprogramming the biochemistry of my own body for 20 years, and this has become more intensive with my collaboration over the past five years with Dr Grossman. I take about 250 supplements each day and weekly intravenous therapies. A biological aging test pegged me at about 38 when I was 40. I'm now 56, and an extensive biological aging test says that my biological age is now 40, so I have not aged very much in the last 16 years.

Dr Grossman and I describe a program of how to slow down each of the dozen aging and disease processes. This program will enable baby boomers who are aggressive enough to remain in good shape until the full flowering of the biotechnology evolution – bridge two, in which we reprogram the information processes underlying biology. Biotech will reach its peak in ten to twenty years.

Computers are playing a vital role in biotechnology. The decoding of the genome would have been impossible without computers, and we're using computers today to design highly targeted therapies that perform precise biochemical missions, such as destroying a cancer cell, with minimal side effects. We're starting to place computerised biochemical sensors in our bodies that can monitor our health and make diagnostic decisions. An artificial pancreas is now undergoing clinical trials; it combines a glucose sensor, an insulin pump and a computer, all embedded inside the patient's body.

Biotechnology in turn will lead to bridge three – nanotechnology – in which we will go beyond the limitations of biology to enhance our physical and mental capabilities by factors of many thousands, eventually millions. The golden age of nanotechnology will be in the 2020s. We will ultimately replace our frail "version 1.0" bodies with a greatly enhanced version 2.0. In our book, we describe all three bridges in detail.

The killer app for nanotechnology, about twenty years away, is nanobots. Inside our bodies and brains, nanobots will provide radical life extension by destroying pathogens and cancer cells, repairing DNA errors, destroying toxins and debris, and otherwise reversing aging processes. Nanobots are computer-based robots small enough to travel in our bloodstream.

TS: Is technological advancement a double-edged sword?

RK: You don't have to look further than the 20th century to see the deeply intertwined promise and peril of technology. We had over 100m people die in 20th-century wars made possible by technology. On the other hand, how many would really want to go back one or two centuries to the labour-filled, disease- and disaster-prone lives that people lived? Human life expectancy was 37 years in 1800.

The 21st-century technologies have the potential to overcome problems that humanity has struggled with for aeons. As mentioned, biotechnology and nanotechnology have the potential to overcome disease and to vastly extend human health and longevity. Nanotechnology can also produce radical wealth creation in that we will be able to manufacture essentially any physical product from inexpensive raw materials costing pennies per pound. There are many other profound benefits to come.

But these technologies are also introducing new perils. The capability exists right now in a routine college biotechnology laboratory to create a bioengineered virus that could spread easily and stealthily – that is, have a long incubation period so it spreads far and wide before being detected – and could be deadly. Self-replicating nanobots would essentially be a nonbiological cancer that could threaten the biomass. As for strong AI, artificial intelligence at human levels and beyond, this could be the most daunting challenge of all if it does not remain "friendly".

But relinquishing these future technologies is not the answer. That would eliminate the benefits while actually making the dangers worse by driving development underground, where responsible practitioners would not have ready access to the tools needed to develop the defensive technologies. Broad relinquishment would also be impossible except in a worldwide totalitarian system.

We've actually done well with the test case of software viruses. Although they remain a problem, and always will be a problem, the technological "immune system" that has developed in response has managed to keep pace. If we do as well with biological viruses, self-replicating nanotechnology, and other future dangers, we will be able to keep a step or two ahead of the perils.

TS: What else can nanobots do?

RK: Nanobots in the capillaries of our brains will interact with our biological neurons to vastly expand our biological intelligence. Once nonbiological intelligence gets a foothold in our brains (a threshold that we have already passed since we do have a growing arsenal of neural implants), it will grow in capacity by at least doubling every year. In comparison, our biological intelligence is essentially fixed in capacity. The crossover point will be in the 2020s. By the 2030s, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will predominate.

Nanobots in the environment will be able to reverse the environmental degradation from the first industrial revolution – for example, removing controlled amounts of carbon dioxide from the air, which will have the side benefit of providing carbon and oxygen, both useful ingredients for nanotechnology. Renewable energy will be revolutionised by nanotechnology, for example, efficient nano solar cells and nanoscale fuel cells for highly distributed, decentralised energy resources.

TS: What from your work with voice recognition technology has helped you with your work today in understanding living longer?

RK: There is a connection between my work on longevity and my role as an inventor overall. In order to time my inventions, I became interested in technology trends, and that has taken on a life of its own. Today I work with a group of researchers to gather data on technology trends in many areas, and develop mathematical models of how technology evolves. I have a successful track record of predictions based on these models that goes back twenty years. Based on these models, we can anticipate the emerging role of biotechnology and nanotechnology on our health. That is how Dr Grossman and I developed our "bridge to a bridge to a bridge" concept for radical life extension.

TS: How has voice recognition succeeded and failed?

RK: There are millions of people using large-vocabulary speech recognition to create text, although it is still a small percentage of the hundreds of millions of computer users. Accuracy continues to improve gradually, and this technology will ultimately be even more widespread. We are beginning to see ubiquitous use of large-vocabulary, speaker-independent speech recognition over the telephone. You can speak to British Airways' virtual travel agent about anything you want, so long as it has to do with making reservations on British Airways. Many companies are doing this, and this will be very widespread over the next several years.

TS: How is technology empowering the disabled today?

RK: Reading machines for the blind, an area that I've been involved in, are helping most school-age and working blind persons to access ordinary printed material. Systems that combine reading ability with highlighting of the text being spoken on images of the material are helping about 100,000 dyslexic students today. These are both technologies from Kurzweil Educational Systems. Prosthetic systems for people missing limbs are using advanced technologies, including computer control. Ultimately we will be able to pick up the brain patterns of a physically disabled person, translate those signals, and transmit them wirelessly to that person's limbs to restore their ability to move and walk. Speech recognition will be used to provide subtitles on the world for the deaf.

TS: Your idea that nanotechnology-based self-replication will be a reality in 2020 scares the hell out of me. Should I be worried?

RK: As I mentioned, it's a real concern. However, consider the following perspective. When the first software virus emerged, observers said that they would eventually become much more sophisticated and destroy the internet. The first part of that prediction turned out to be true, but not the second part. That's because the defensive technologies evolved along with the offensive ones. That's the same strategy we need to follow with the perils of these 21st-century technologies, such as nanotechnology.


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