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 You and I are walking around with outdated software running in our bodies, which evolved in a very different era.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.