Google’s Ray Kurzweil on the quest to live forever

How nanobots will help the immune system, and why we’ll be much smarter, thanks to machines


Dana Smith / Novus Select

Ray Kurzweil—futurist, inventor, entrepreneur, bestselling author, and now, director of engineering at Google— wants to live forever. He’s working to make it happen. Kurzweil, whose many inventions include the first optical character recognition software (which transforms the written word into data) and the first text-to-speech synthesizer, spoke to Maclean’s for our annual Rethink issue about why we’re on the brink of a technological revolution—one that will improve our health and our lives, even after the robots outsmart us for good.

Q: You say we’re in the midst of a “grand transformation” in the field of medicine. What do you see happening today?

A: Biology is a software process. Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells, each governed by this process. You and I are walking around with outdated software running in our bodies, which evolved in a very different era. We each have a fat insulin receptor gene that says, “Hold on to every calorie.” That was a very good idea 10,000 years ago, when you worked all day to get a few calories; there were no refrigerators, so you stored them in your fat cells. I would like to tell my fat insulin receptor gene, “You don’t need to do that anymore,” and indeed that was done at the Joslin Diabetes Center. They turned off this gene, and the [lab mice] ate ravenously and remained slim. They didn’t get diabetes; they didn’t get heart disease. They lived 20 per cent longer. They’re working with a drug company to bring that to market.

Life expectancy was 20 a thousand years ago; 37, 200 years ago. We’re now able to reprogram health and medicine as software, and that [pace is] going to continue to accelerate. We’re treating biology, and by extension health and medicine, as an information technology. Our intuition about how progress will unfold is linear, but information technology progresses exponentially, not linearly. My Android phone is literally several billion times more powerful, per dollar, than the computer I used when I was a student. And it’s also 100,000 times smaller. We’ll do both of those things again in 25 years. It’ll be a billion times more powerful, and will be the size of a blood cell.

Q: You’ve said that human immortality is achievable. Do you really think so?

A: In the last two health books I co-wrote, we talk about a bridge to a bridge to a bridge. I can never say, “I’ve done it, I’ve lived forever,” because it’s never forever. We’re really talking about being on a path that will get us to the next point. People sometimes ask me, “You take a lot of supplements. Do you really think it will make you live hundreds of years?”

Q: How many supplements do you take?

A: About 150 a day. I test myself on a regular basis, and it’s working. All my measurements are in ideal ranges. I scan my arteries to see if I have plaque buildup, and I have no atherosclerosis. I come out younger on biological aging tests. So far, so good. But this program is not designed to last a very long time. This program is what we call bridge one. The goal is to get to bridge two: the biotechnology revolution, where we can reprogram biology away from disease. And that is not the end-all either.

Bridge three is to go beyond biology, to the nanotechnology revolution. At that point, we can have little robots, sometimes called nanobots, that augment your immune system. We can create an immune system that recognizes all disease, and if a new disease emerged, it could be reprogrammed to deal with new pathogens.

People say, “I don’t want to live like a typical 95-year-old for hundreds of years.” But the goal is not just to extend life. The idea is to stay healthy and vital, and not only to have life extension, but life expansion.

Q: But will these advantages be accessible only to those who can afford them?

A: [Look at] cellphones. You had to be rich to have a mobile phone 20 years ago. And it was the size and weight of a brick, and it didn’t work very well. Today there are seven billion cellphones, there’s over one billion smartphones, and there will be six or seven billion smartphones in a few years. Today you can buy an Android phone or iPhone that’s twice as good as the one two years ago, for half the price. It is only the rich that can afford [these technologies] at an early point, when they don’t work. By the time they work a little bit, they’re affordable; by the time they work really well, they’re almost free. And that will be true of these health technologies. We can see that already. Look at AIDS drugs—20 years ago, they were $30,000 per patient per year. Today they’re [more] effective, and they’re $80 per patient per year.

Technology is a double-edged sword. If a bioterrorist were to create some new virus, we’re not not defenseless. I worked with the U.S. Army on exactly that problem. [The virus] would be detected and reverse-engineered very quickly. Part of this is made possible by the same progress I talked about: HIV took five years to sequence; SARS took 31 days to sequence. We can now sequence a virus in one day. In a matter of days, we could detect a new virus, sequence it, create a medication against it, and deploy it.

Q: What are you doing at Google?

A: I’m working on artificial intelligence. Actually, natural language understanding, which is to get computers to understand the meaning of documents. A good example comes from outside Google, which is IBM’s Watson. Jeopardy! is not a narrow task. When Deep Blue won chess, people said, that’s exciting, but chess is a narrow logic game, [and] computers will never understand natural language because that’s a quintessentially human type of task. If you look at the Jeopardy! queries, they’re pretty complex and subtle. For example, this one: A long tiresome speech delivered by a frothy pie topping. It was in the rhymes category.

Q: I remember! A meringue harangue.

A: You’ve got a good memory. [Ken] Jennings and the other guy didn’t get that, and Watson got a higher score than the best human players put together.

What’s not commonly appreciated is that Watson’s knowledge was not handcoded by the engineers. It actually read Wikipedia and several other encyclopedias: 200 million pages of natural language documents. It doesn’t read those documents as well as you or I, but it makes up for relatively weak reading by reading a lot more documents—you and I can’t read 200 million documents. That’s an example of the state of the art, and that’s what we’re creating here at Google. We want to actually read for meaning, the way Watson did, so we can read the web and read book pages and do a better job of search and answering questions. And basically [we] will be able to handle semantically richer questions and search queries. That’s what I’m working on.

Q: Speaking of artificial intelligence, let’s talk about the “singularity”—when artifical intelligence advances to a point where it exceeds our own.

A: We are increasing the intelligence of our civilization, and we’re doing so exponentially. Technology is part of our civilization. Sometimes people talk about conflict between humans and machines, and you can see that in a lot of science fiction. But the machines we’re creating are not some invasion from Mars. We create these tools to expand our own reach. One thousand years ago, I couldn’t reach fruit at a higher branch, so I created a tool to increase my reach. No other species does that.

We are a human-machine civilization. The machines are part of our intelligence. I’m definitely more effective now than I was, say 40 years ago. With a team of three or four people, I can do in a matter of weeks what used to take hundreds of people years to do. We are smarter already. The biological intelligence we have still dominates the intelligence of our civilization, but the non-biological portion is expanding exponentially. It gets back to my law of accelerating returns. If you do the math, by 2045, we’ll have expanded the collective intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billionfold. And that’s such a profound transformation that we borrow this metaphor from physics, and call it a singularity. It’s a singular change in human history.

Q: What will the singularity mean for our “human-machine civilization”?

A: In my view, it will lead to richer lives, and longer lives, but I would put an emphasis on the richer part. And I’m not just talking about financial riches. Life is getting [better] as we enrich our lives with technology. You can see that now—a kid in Africa with a smartphone has access to more information and human knowledge than the president of the United States did 15 years ago. People were lucky if they could get a book 100 years ago. We’re going to continue that expansion. Music is going to be richer. We’re going to have virtual reality experiences we can enjoy. All different forms of human expression, art, science, are going to become expanded, by expanding our intelligence.

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Google’s Ray Kurzweil on the quest to live forever

  1. So it comes down to what is intelligence, and how do we raise it?

    • I heard once, that if more old people on Earth were still alive and be over 100 years old, the world would be a more intelligent place.

      • Well….older doesn’t mean wiser….more experienced maybe, but less keen on change as well.

        What’s that expression…..? ‘Too soon old, too late smart’

        • Very good point. If people live longer that means that society may not develop and change as fast. Societal norms may be kept longer, but is that fair for the new generation? Speaking from social aspects not economically.

          • We’ll probably have a good mix overall….but people can choose when to opt out.

            Probably a lot of people will choose early departure.

          • Those who hold socially oppressive views will likely see the mesh between man and machine as the “mark of the beast” and refuse to participate. Just look up the transhumanist movement and you’ll find that some of the most popular sites about it are against it. I imagine that those people would also see life as a process that must be finite and that these methods of life extension are unnatural. Therefore, I expect that those people will eventually die out and their views will die with them.

  2. We would all like to live with the body of a 21 year-old and the wisdom of a 90 year-old!

  3. So we already now have a significantly overpopulated planet which is the source of almost every problem we have. If everyone lives much longer lives, guess what? Any plans for that?

    • We are not overpopulated.

      You could put the entire population of the planet in Texas in separate homes.

    • The concerns of overpopulation stems from concerns regarding scarcity of resources and energy. When you look at radical life extension by itself, this concern might seem reasonable. But technology has also provided us the capability to significantly expand our ability to grow and produce. America alone is called “the breadbasket of the world” because we produce more food than what is needed to feed the entire planet. This will only improve and expand over time.

      Personally, I think think planet can sustain tens of billions of people quite easily.

  4. If you do the math, by 2045, we’ll have expanded the collective intelligence of our human-machine civilization a billionfold.

    So what will Kurzweil’s obsessives do when he likely dies well before that year? I looked up the actuarial tables and performed a calculation with a spreadsheet: An American man Kurzweil’s current age (65) has odds of 22 out of 100 of dying in the next ten years, and I see no reason for Kurzweil’s exemption from actuarial reality. He can perform all the medical experiments on himself he wants, but the harmful ones could cancel the effects of the beneficial ones and leave him dying pretty much on schedule.

    And BTW, since when did “living forever” mean “living to 2045,” the year some transhumanists and singularitarians have fixated on as the time they think we’ll allegedly “become immortal”?

    • 2045 is the Kurzweil predicted date of the technological singularity.

      Vernor Vinge predicts 2030

      Anyway it is the moment when AIs take over from humans.

      Kurzweil btw will be 97 in 2045. Barring accidents, easily reachable.

    • I have no clue what Kurzweil will do and I don’t really much care. But Kurzweil does try to make the argument that medical advancements leading up to 2045 will also start adding years to his/our lifespan; thus, making it more likely that he could reach his predicted date. Ultimately, he is trying to reach what he refers to as “bridge 2”, which would be radical life extension. He then goes on to argue that when humans are able to upload their consciousness into a computer then we would have truly reached the point of living forever.

      • He then goes on to argue that when humans are able to upload their consciousness into a computer then we would have truly reached the point of living forever.

        How can anyone who has to deal with computers in their daily lives come to such an absurd belief? Biological human bodies, despite their flaws, work decades longer than any computer built so far.

        • Longer than any computer maybe, longer than data that can be transfered from obsolete hardware to new hardware, I think not. Do you loose all your data each time you change computer?

          • Unfortunately most people do because they really don’t understand how computers work. Actually I do as well but that’s because everything I really need is on an EH

        • Ever heard of backups? simple example: I have been using iphones since 2007 and from iphone 1 to iphone 5 i had backups and could easily clone /emulate the older iphone to the new iPhone hardware. it is super simple. and when you consider that there is no need to have only ONE centralized place/hardware when you can rather spread your software on several computers (#cloud) then things get even more easier and safer.

  5. what about intuition and contemplation?

  6. I personally don’t want to live forever. All the heart break and the things in society you would have to see. For example some World War 2 veterans probably didn’t want to live forever because of their experiences in their life.

    • That’s too bad but do what you want to do. For me, I think that this life is it and there is nothing after so I want to enjoy the ride for as long as I can. As for the societal heartbreaks, I would argue that the heartbreaks we experience today are small when compared to even 100 years ago. Back then, it was just a given fact that 25% of your children would die and nearly everyone grew up with a dead sibling. Today, that is the exception not the rule. Comparatively, almost every measurement for quality of life pales in comparison to today’s standards. Just a couple of examples but the list goes on.

      I expect that this will only get better over time and the heartbreaks that you speak of will become even less frequent than they are now. In the last 100 years we have effectively doubled our lifespans and society has found a way to adapt to the changes quite well. Back then, it was uncommon for grandchildren to live at the same time as their grandparents, let alone great grandchildren or even great-great grandchildren. So keep your head up. things aren’t as bad as they might seem.

  7. Mr Kurzweil does not live in Ontario – he would probably change his mind.

    • Canada ranks well in world happiness ratings, doing better than the U.S. the UK and Australia.

  8. Ray is looking a little worn and weary himslef. Not a great public inspiration for longevity or vitality. I suspect at this stage of his life his telomeres are probably pretty short. Unfortunately our personal ideology will always beat up on our biology. Chronic non life-affirming notions tend to speed this decay process up. Technology by elitist technocrats to often spout this as the only answer to our collective futures … but so far this bargain with beelzebub hasn’t fared well for the 99% and retty much vaccuming up a planet of its resources. Living on this crowded rock with a few elasian billonaires who would profit from this so called perfect future world doesn’t sell. Sorry Ray buddy, vote me out.

  9. so much ignorance in the comments section, Natural selection working as usual.

  10. The ELITES of this world believe THEY will soon be able to CHEAT death. Kurweil is an ELITIST who wants these technologies for HIM and HIS Super Rich Elitist buddies. WE, the general public WILL NOT be getting ANY of these life-extension technologies. Sorry to say, but that is the sad TRUTH. This technology is NOT for YOU.

  11. I think we should improve on Bridge One.
    This can be done by taking Charcoal supplements daily (increased rats’ lifespan by an extra 30% – but nobody promotes it since it’s so cheap) or drinking Kaqun water daily (one liter Kaqun water daily markedly increased memory in a medical study when compared to a control group) or doing high intensity exercises daily.

  12. Let’s get some bets going that Ray Ray doesn’t make it to the singularity.
    Gold only, because the dollar ain’t gonna make it.

  13. This planet’s climate is changing, resources are depleted, environment is poisoned. We supremely fouled our own nest and now our brightest are concentrating on living forever? Humanity is such a determined cancer.

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