A Look at Some of Ray Kurzweil's Predictions on Longevity

Like many, I think that Ray Kurzweil is overly optimistic on the timeline for progress in technology. I don't think he's wrong in terms of his high level view on where our technology is going, just a few decades on the early side - which is unfortunate for those of us who will age to death before the advent of rejuvenation biotechnology. It is certainly the case that the first draft of technologies to repair the underlying biological damage that causes aging could arrive fairly soon, within two decades - but it's not just a matter of building them, even though there are detailed research and development plans for doing so.

The issues are persuasion and fundraising; when it comes to aging, the mainstream of the research community is set on goals that either have nothing to do with human longevity, or will do very little to extend life even after being realized at great cost. So the comparatively tiny and underfunded shard of the scientific community whose members are interested in realizing effective means of rejuvenating the old will likely spend the next twenty years on laying the groundwork, prototyping the biotechnologies, proving their case ever more completely, growing funding, and persuading ever more researchers to do the same. If there were hundreds of millions of dollars devoted to this cause today, we could leap ahead twenty years in this timeline - but there are not. The money and large supportive community still has to be bootstrapped, building on the present early phase in the growth of modern rejuvenation research, underway successfully but slowly for the past decade or so, giving rise to organizations like the Methuselah Foundation and SENS Research Foundation.

Here is Kurzweil's take on timelines, which are derived from his analysis of trends in technological capabilities:

To listen to Mr. Kurzweil or read his several books is to be flummoxed by a series of forecasts that hardly seem realizable in the next 40 years. But this is merely a flaw in my brain, he assures me. Humans are wired to expect "linear" change from their world. They have a hard time grasping the "accelerating, exponential" change that is the nature of information technology. "A kid in Africa with a smartphone is walking around with a trillion dollars of computation circa 1970," he says. Project that rate forward, and everything will change dramatically in the next few decades.

"I'm right on the cusp," he adds. "I think some of us will make it through" - he means baby boomers, who can hope to experience practical immortality if they hang on for another 15 years. By then, Mr. Kurzweil expects medical technology to be adding a year of life expectancy every year. We will start to outrun our own deaths. And then the wonders really begin.

Mr. Kurzweil's ideas on death and immortality, not his impressive record as an entrepreneur, are what bring TV newsmagazines and print reporters to his door these days. I suggest to him he's discovered the power of the prophetic voice and is borne forward by the rewarding feelings that come from giving people hope in the face of their profoundest fears. My insight does not impress him. He says he just gets satisfaction from seeing his ideas, like his inventions, wield a positive force in the world. People blame technology for humanity's problems, he says. They are much too pessimistic about its power to solve poverty, disease and pollution in our lifetimes.

Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510.html


I have to agree with you 100% here, Reason. I have read Kurzweil's The Singularity, and while it was a thought provoking book, I too, thought that his predictions were very aggressive. They will likely be proved true, but most likely much further in the future.

The problem that Kurzweil has is an affliction many have - including religious folks, and I'm even susceptible to it as well - that predictions of occurrences in the future are typically always in the life times of the person making the prediction. For Kurzweil, his prediction of the technological singularity is 2045, which, for him would make him close to 90 years of age. That is an advanced age, but may be attainable for him. As he states frequently, he follows a strict diet and takes some 150 pills a day. All of this is for him to live as long as possible to reach the singularity and, ostensibly, for him to gain immortality through the singularity.

The problem is that predictions of occurrences or technological breakthroughs are inherently inaccurate. How can you accurately predict something that has never been accomplished before? You can't. All you have is HOPE - that the breakthrough will happen in time for it to help you achieve your own goal (immortality).

I will admit that I've had the same problem - I have predicted that I won't have to worry about dying of old age as I have "50 years left". Now, I'm 42 years away from 80, and I'm becoming much more pessimistic. Until we see some real, significant breakthroughs in disease treatment or more importantly age therapies, the progress day by day, year by year is very incremental, and for someone on the outside looking in, it isn't obvious that the goal is any closer to achievement.

Posted by: Dan C at April 15th, 2013 12:40 PM

If high-profile advocates such as Kurzweil would just focus on physical reversal of aging, instead of bringing in all this other junk such as the "singularity", harnessing the entire energy of the sun, uploading brains to machines, etc etc, then maybe the public would have more awareness of the really urgent issue. Kurzweil may be right about some of the other things also, but by failing to focus on rejuvenation biotech he's greatly reducing the likelihood that he will live to see any of his other predictions come true. It's really frustrating to read articles and interviews with Kurzweil where only 10% of the text actually focuses on realistic efforts at reversing aging.

Posted by: Will Nelson at April 15th, 2013 12:40 PM

Right on, Will. There seems to be more or less two schools of thought in terms of life extension - you and I, Reason and SENS are on the side that feel that we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater - lets keep what we know works for decades of life - but lets fix the machinery to keep it running much longer. Kurzweil and others, perhaps because they are more technology focused rather than biology focused in their minds and in their professions choose to believe we have to go in a completely different and 100% foreign and unknown direction - to move beyond being human to a more digital consciousness. Unfortunately, the idea to "download" a human mind has so many unknowns and is very possibly impossible, that it seems like a waste of time - why not work on regenerating the human mind and body mostly with extensions of technologies we have today, rather than the development of many we don't have a clue of today?

Posted by: Dan C at April 15th, 2013 12:47 PM

I've had the same sort of trouble with the Russian 2045 initiative. There is much more discussion of distant and inchoate prospects, rather than steps toward getting over the threshold. I've tried to bring up discussions about near-term issues grounded in their own approach (mind-machine interfaces, steps toward identifying the requirements for a bio-artificial life support system) with various people involved only to be brushed off because they'd rather debate how many uploaded angels can dance on the head of a digital pin.

Posted by: José at April 15th, 2013 1:16 PM

The rejuvenation effect of blood or blood plasma from a younger individual is a very promising area of research. It also seems a lot simpler than trying to understand all the mechanisms of aging and correcting them. Some sort of treatment based on this research could be available soon (say 5 to 10 years) and that could allow rich baby boomers who are technologically adventurous to outrun their own aging. So I'd agree with Kurzweil on that point.

But I don't agree with much about 'The Singularity'. We've had hype about AI since the 1960s and this seems to be more of the same. This is a completely different issue - I don't see any substantial connection between rejuvenating our cells and attaching devices to our bodies.

I've always thought that the key to rejuvenation lies in mimicking developmental biology. Our cells live forever in our decendants already. We have to make them live forever in our bodies as well.

Posted by: Chris at April 15th, 2013 5:29 PM

In the article Ray says that if he were afflicted by a life threatening disease, he would stop whatever he was doing and try to cure it.

He is dying of a life threatening disease. It's called aging. At 65, I don't think I would love his odds when so much of SENS is languishing and underfunded.

Kurzweil is something of a marketing genius (I'm not in a position to comment on engineering brilliance. I'll stipulate it. It's over my head.) But a guy who believes that aging can be ended, who can call former presidents and rock stars on the phone, who rubs elbows with the uber-wealthy...but does not make aging the first priority of his talents...I find him something of a head scratcher. He could promote SENS much harder, solicit greater investment and specifically promote the most legit, most dire projects in order to save the most lives. To me, going to Mars or building a brain seem pretty thin soup compared to stopping death from aging. Alas. Ray Kurzweil is an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, shrouded by Google glasses.

Posted by: Jersey Jones at April 15th, 2013 7:43 PM

I am surprised that the issue of AGI wasn't introduced in this discussion of future medical and technological advances, I guess it is just another example of people unable to implement exponential progress in their predictions of the future. Briefly, while you may poo-poo other areas of technological advancement, Moore's Law seems to be fairly well established (although naysayers continue to predict anytime that the theoretical limits of computer processor speed are just on the horizon). Using Moore's Law in a straightforward way, you can see processor speed going through the roof in the next couple of decades. Just using current AI software, using processors at that predictable speed will produce AGI, and therefore quicken medical and other technical advances.

In other words, if you can't see how the future is going to be transformed due to the exponential speed of technological advancements (including extreme longevity treatments), it says more about you than it does about the obvious (at least to me and Kurzweil) trend. BTW, as Kurzweil says, the average lifespan need only increase at the rate of time, as that will buy more time for further longevity advances to be discovered.

Posted by: Brad Arnold at April 26th, 2013 8:15 AM

My problem with Ray's prediction of that 15-year threshold of being able to add one year of expected lifespan, every year - is that it's ALWAYS 15 years away. He said that more than 5 years ago, and he's still saying it now.

I'm as much as fan of Ray as the next person, and the highest gratitude goes to his optimism. But it's a bit frustrating, to keep hearing the phrase '15 years', without an explanation as to why this is a moving target. My guess is that he was simply wrong about it, which he can admit or start saying that it's less than 10 years away, in 2013.

Posted by: DCWhatthe at September 28th, 2013 11:29 PM

Those of you who are claiming that Ray is wrong about the timeline for what he predicts: Please provide a link to your 30+ years of technological speculation and philosophies. I would love to read someone else's take on our progression so far. I'd also be particularly interested to see how successful you have been at accurately forecasting where we were heading over the years. Because obviously coming on this more-or-less anonymous forum wasn't the first time you've delved into disagreeing with technological predictions; right?

Posted by: Cody at July 29th, 2014 6:20 AM
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