Sunday, 26 December 2010

Ray Kurzweil: Building 3 bridges to immortality

reposted from: New Scientist
Ray Kurzweil: Building bridges to immortality, 27 December 2010 by Robert Adler

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. .... he 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.

Robert Adler is a writer based in California and Mexico

For inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, being human with limited intelligence and doomed biology was never good enough. So he came up with an idea called the Singularity - a time when humans merge with machines, become smart and live forever. From MIT to the White House, people either hate the idea or can't wait for it to happen. So, asks Liz Else, will any of us live long enough to see it?
When will the Singularity arrive?
By 2045, give or take. We are already a hybrid of biological and non-biological technology. A handful of people have electronic devices in their brain, for example. The latest generation allows medical software to be downloaded to a computer inside your brain. But if you consider that 25 years from now these technologies will be 100,000 times smaller and a billion times more powerful, you get some idea of what will be feasible. And even though most of us don't have computers in our bodies, they are already part of who we are.
What about people who don't want to be "trans-human"Movie Camera and merge with technology?
How many people completely reject all medical and health technology, don't wear glasses or take any medicine? People say they don't want to change themselves, but then when they get a disease they will do whatever they can to overcome it. We're not going to get from here to the world of 2030 or 2040 in one grand leap; we're going to get there through thousands of little steps. Put these steps together and ultimately the world is a different place.
What do you mean by the law of accelerating returns?
The power of ideas to change the world is accelerating and few people grasp the implications of that fully. People don't think exponentially, yet exponential change applies to anything that involves measuring information content. Take genetic sequencing. When the human genome project was announced in 1990, sceptics said: "No way you're going to do this in 15 years." Halfway through the project the sceptics were still going strong, saying you've only finished 1 per cent of the project. But that's actually right on schedule: by the time you get to 1 per cent you're only seven doublings away.
The power of ideas to change the world is accelerating, but few grasp the implications
You have a strong track record with your predictions. Has this exponential thinking helped get the timing right?
In the mid-1980s, I predicted the emergence of the World Wide Web for the mid-1990s. It seemed ridiculous then, when the entire US defence budget could only link up a few thousand scientists. But I saw it doubling every year and it happened right on schedule. It is quite remarkable how predictable these measures of the power of information technology are. Even so, millions of innovators are going to come up with unexpected ideas. Who would have anticipated social networks and blogs? If 10 years ago I had said we're going to create an encyclopedia and anybody can write and edit it, you'd have thought, my god, it's going to be full of graffiti and completely worthless. It's amazing how good it is if we harness the collective wisdom.
These advances all sound very utopian.
They are not utopian because technology is a double-edged sword, it introduces new problems as well. Overall, though, I do believe the benefits outweigh the damage that technology causes. Not everybody agrees.
Why did you set up the Singularity University earlier this year?
Peter Diamandis - founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation - and I decided the time was right to start a university to bring together the leading people in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology and advanced computing to help solve the problems of the future, because these problems are complex and multidimensional. NASA and Larry Page of Google are also backing it. We're starting out small with 40 students this summer. It's a very intensive nine-week course.
You have said that you would like to bring your father back to life because you miss him.
That's right. Using DNA from his grave collected by nanobots, then adding all the information extracted by AI from my memories and those of other people who remember him. Plus all the mementos of his life that I've kept, in boxes and elsewhere, could be downloaded. He could be an avatar, or a robot or in some other form.

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