The Playboy Interview with Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil is an entrepreneur and futurist who sees the upward curve of technology continuing to physical immortality in the decades ahead, and the transformation of humanity into something greater. He has said comparatively little about SENS rejuvenation biotechnology over the years, however. One way to look at his thinking on the matter, I believe, is to consider him fairly uninterested in implementation details. They are just color painted atop fundamental capabilities such as computational power. He has amassed considerable data on and studied the shape of trends in these fundamental capabilities, and predicts based on those trends - "The Singularity is Near" is still the definitive form of his arguments.

I think this a defensible methodology over the average and in the long term, but one that doesn't allow you to say much about short-term futures or specifics. When he does put dates on the table, most of us believe they are too early. So I'll advance the argument that Kurzweil's writings, even Fantastic Voyage on actuarial escape velocity, don't really intersect strongly with the work of advocates and biotechnologists who are currently trying to raise funding and build the first rejuvenation therapies. We are very interested in short-term futures and specific implementation details, and much less interested in trends, since we're about to disrupt them. Kurzweil's visions form a part of the zeitgeist, the background of persuasion and aspiration against which this work takes place.

When people talk about the future of technology, especially artificial intelligence, they very often have the common dystopian Hollywood-movie model of us versus the machines. My view is that we will use these tools as we've used all other tools - to broaden our reach. And in this case, we'll be extending the most important attribute we have, which is our intelligence.

How will all this help us live longer? Let's start with genetics. It's beginning to revolutionize clinical practice and will completely transform medicine within one to two decades. We're starting to reprogram the outdated software of life - the 23,000 little programs we have in our bodies, called genes. We're programming them away from disease and away from aging. We can subtract genes. We can modify stem cells to have desirable effects such as rejuvenating the heart if it's been damaged in a heart attack, which is true of half of all heart attack survivors. The point is health care is now an information technology subject to the same laws of acceleration and progress we see with other technologies. We'll soon have the ability to rejuvenate all the body's tissues and organs and develop drugs targeted specifically at the underlying metabolic process of a disease rather than taking a hit-or-miss approach. But nanotechnology is where we really move beyond biology.

By the 2020s we'll start using nanobots to complete the job of the immune system. Our immune system is great, but it evolved thousands of years ago when conditions were different. It was not in the interest of the human species for individuals to live very long, so people typically died in their 20s. The life expectancy was 19. Your immune system, for example, does a poor job on cancer. It thinks cancer is you. It doesn't treat cancer as an enemy. It also doesn't work well on retroviruses. It doesn't work well on things that tend to affect us later in life, because it didn't select for longevity. We can finish the job nature started with a nonbiological T cell. T cells are, in fact, nanobots - natural ones. We could have one programmed to deal with all pathogens and could download new software from the internet if a new type of enemy such as a new biological virus emerged.

I believe we will reach a point around 2029 when medical technologies will add one additional year every year to your life expectancy. By that I don't mean life expectancy based on your birthdate but rather your remaining life expectancy. People say they don't want to live forever. Often their objection is that they don't want to live hundreds of years the way the quintessential 99-year-old is perceived to be living - frail or ill and on life support. First of all, that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about remaining healthy and young, actually reversing aging and being an ideal form of yourself for a long time. They also don't see how many incredible things they would witness over time - the changes, the innovations. Me, I'd like to stick around.

I regard death as the greatest tragedy. People talk about getting used to death and accepting it, but the end of each life is a terrible loss, like the Library of Alexandria burning down. All that information, all their skills, their personality, their memories are gone. The people who loved that person also suffer. A significant portion of their neocortex had evolved to understand the person and interact with them, and then suddenly that person is no longer there for them to use that part of their brain, which leads to the shock of mourning. But I think it's humanity's mission to transcend our limitations, and the most profound limitation we have is that of our life span. That's the hardest thing for people to accept, because birth and life and death have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. But I can see a path that's not far off where we can indefinitely extend our lives.



I think singularity advocates are too much focused on the exponential progress in computing and unfoundedly extrapolate that exponential progress to other fields, or think that fast progress in computing will suffice to drive fast progress in all other fields.

But that's clearly not the case. Fields can stagnate for decades or centuries and then suddenly advance, only to stagnate again in the future.

Posted by: Antonio at November 8th, 2017 10:33 AM

You know, I've been a long-time fan of Ray since I read "Age of Spiritual Machines" back in 1999. I even got a signed copy. He's a visionary, that's for sure, and he is trying his damnedest to move humanity in a better direction. He gives us something to aim for. I put him in the same category as Gene Roddenberry.

He claims his accuracy is like.. 86-87%. Its not how I see it. More like 50%, but there are moments in time I take pause... and go hey...... wait a sec....

Recently its been his predictions on energy. Back in the 90's he was saying that he's not as up in arms as the climatologists and eco-warriors when it comes to global warming. Solar and wind were going to be far cheaper. Holy crap. Look at how the cost of these units is dropping and becoming more efficient! Ok, score one for the big R!

Self driving cars are another! Waymo just unleashed its first wave of fully autonomous cars. As in.. for the public, as in... no human AT ALL.

Human Genome, check. AI beating a human at Chess, check. Etc etc etc.

He's missed on some, like the pill that turns off your need to store fat (I was really hoping for that one. Pictures of me and my wife look like Jabba and Leia. Its quite unflattering.).

So, rule #1 of prognostication: Never make predictions about technology based on metabolism.

But... every so often when I think Ray has let me down, something pops up... and its more or less on schedule.

Is he 100% accurate? No. But dammit if he doesn't make me pause a couple times a year and go "Hmmmm".

He's even making converts out of some very POWERFUL people. Masayoshi Son CEO of Softbank is probably the one to watch the most. He's ACTIVELY trying to bring about the singularity, and he has the money to pull it off. Softbank bought Boston Dynamics, ARM and invested in a whack of Telco's. Even is starting a fund to partner in other entities to actively bring about the singularity.

So we now have people actively putting HUGE amounts of capital into Ray's vision. I for one do not think that's a bad thing. At all.

Does Ray have access to knowledge and resources we don't have? OH... you betcha!

Now that he is at Google, do you think he's helping to point the way of where we should be going as a species? Yup. No doubt at all. And he's gaining POWERFUL followers.

Would you rather have someone like Ray in that position or someone like Dick Cheney? Oh... not even a contest.

I hope he's right. Sincerely! What a positive future he paints! Just like another visionary Gene Roddenberry. But this time... he's in a place where he can actually make a difference.

If he is even 50% correct in his predictions (And that in my opinion is his actual accuracy rate but then he makes me second guess this number at LEAST 3-4x a year!) then this world is going to be a much better place going forward.

I'm solidly in his corner. He has given us a blueprint, a target and sure has motivated the right people. We need more.

Posted by: Mark Borbely at November 8th, 2017 2:08 PM

My point is: not all progress is exponential, or even increasing. See for example aviation. Mostly no progress until XX century, then very fast progress, from single person airplanes to the Concorde, and after that, nothing happened, and now we even don't have private supersonic flights anymore. See also astronautics. Less than two decades from the first suborbital flight to setting foot on the Moon, and then... half a century in low Earth orbit, and only now are we slowly becoming capable again of travelling outside LEO, and only thanks to the random appearance of an outsider like Musk. It also happens in medicine:

Posted by: Antonio at November 8th, 2017 4:30 PM

@ Antonio : yes, you have a point about progress not being necessarily exponential. However you have to take into account the political and economic factors that are very adept at slowing down progress.

Supersonic jets, space exploration, etc. were not hampered by technological impasses. Not at all. There just wasn't any political or economic will anymore. Governments had stopped trying at all. Now private ventures are rekindling progress in these domains again (just like with rejuvenation).

Posted by: Spede at November 9th, 2017 7:39 AM

I think there is abundant evidence that computing power is revolutionizing biotech. It's just not quite here yet in a meaningful way. Ray may have been out by a couple of orders of magnitude because epigenetics is obviously a lot more complex than genetics, but that won't delay it's complete simulation by computers for that long. Calico might, just might, have the last laugh.

I think there is a good chance we'll get the first suite of SENS therapies, and thank goodness for that, but we may never need another iteration because by that time all the things like nanobots that Ray talks about will appear.

Posted by: Mark at November 10th, 2017 2:42 AM


Air travel is a useful example not of failure to innovate but of the reality of a mature technology diverging from the imagined path. Yes, in the 60s and 70s it was expected that higher speed supersonic travel would become the mainstream. But it turned out what customers actually wanted was an affordable price and more destinations rather than speed - and that is what the airline industry has furnished them with, going for volume. So up to 865 people in an Airbus A380 vs 128 in Concorde. The technological progress in the industry has focused on supporting this - so fuel efficiency of engines, materials, customer experience within the cabin, managing vast numbers of planes in the air at any time, and the logistics and systems that support all this.

So yes, we may not have new, exotic forms of air travel, but more people are travelling more often to a much greater range of destinations than at any point in history and there is no real end in sight:

Posted by: TheRage at November 10th, 2017 4:52 AM


I think the problem of the Concorde was different. First of all, the Concorde was profitable when it was discontinued (around 20M £/year for British Airways in his London-NY, London-Barbados flights). Second, the fuel consumption of the Concorde was not that big compared to subsonic business jets (166 ml/km per passenger compared to for example the 148 ml/km per passenger of a Gulfstream G550). The real problem was a lack of funding for research for the next generation of supersonic jets. When the Concorde was retired, it was in many respects like an antique car, expensive to maintain and repair. It was also noisy, so few airports wanted it to land on them. That was OK for a first generation but, as years passed, a second generation was needed, and none came.

The R&D that produced the Concorde and the Tupolev 144 was very expensive and lengthy. The US tried to develop his own supersonic passenger jet and failed (the B2707 almost made Boeing go bankrupt). Only the USSR and Europe achieved it, with big public funding.

A second generation would probably require a lengthy and costly R&D process. But today, both governments and companies are focused on low risk, low gain, fast return on investment projects. What changed was not the customers but the investors.

Posted by: Antonio at November 10th, 2017 9:06 AM

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