In the year 2050, if Ray Kurzweil is right, nanoscopic robots will be zooming throughout our capillaries, transforming us into nonbiological humans. We will be able to absorb and retain the entirety of the universe’s knowledge, eat as much as we want without gaining weight, shape-shift into just about any physical form imaginable, live free from disease, and die at the time of our choosing. All of this will be thrust on us by something that Kurzweil calls the Singularity, a theorized point in time in the not-so-distant future when machines become vastly superior to humans in every way, aka the emergence of true artificial intelligence. Computers will be able to improve their own source codes and hardware in ways we puny humans could never conceive. This will result in a paradigm shift that sees mankind coalescing with its own creations: man and machine, merging into one.
These grand-scale premonitions are largely based on Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns, which states that the development of technology has been increasing exponentially since the beginning of time. That concept isn’t really compelling to anyone but science nerds until you focus on the “knee” of this exponential curve—the point where the perpetual doubling of technological growth skyrockets and negates the linear models of progress that people like economists have relied on for so long. Kurzweil says we’re just about to start rounding this bend and that the rate of progress will be so great it will “appear to rupture the fabric of human history.” In other words, we will trump nature and take control of our own evolution. In your face, God.
Kurzweil’s magnum opus, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, outlines the implications of this transition in a way that is simultaneously believable, terrifying, meticulous, and mind-bendingly absurd. It was published in 2005. That may seem like a short time ago, but an incoming technological explosion of nuclear proportions isn’t so far-fetched when you consider everything that’s changed just between then and now. Twitter, iPhones, the comment on the Facebook wall as the new pickup line? The things we were using four years ago already seem like crap from The Flintstones in comparison. Tech is moving faster all the time, and even if a third of Kurzweil’s predictions about the future are realized, we will soon be living in a world that makes Back to the Future II look like Planet of the Apes.
People like to tag Kurzweil as the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and that’s not a stretch considering he’s responsible for some of the most useful inventions of the past century: An optical-character-recognition machine for the blind that’s capable of reading most types of printed text aloud, the CCD flatbed scanner, speech-recognition software, the first synthesizer that created sounds virtually indistinguishable from those produced by their acoustic counterparts, and a whole bunch of other nifty things we can barely comprehend came from Ray’s brain. You might imagine that this guy works in some futuristic, zero-gravity hidden laboratory with a staff of cyborgs. But his office, just outside Boston in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is modest. It looks like it hasn’t seen a new piece of furniture since the late 80s. When Kurzweil, dressed in a slightly crumpled navy suit jacket and slacks, emerged from the columns of books surrounding his desk, he seemed almost meek and startled even though he had postponed our interview by over half an hour. One immediately notices his lustrous and almost plastic-looking skin—a byproduct of supplementing his diet with phosphatidylcholine, a major component of cell membranes that depletes with age. It’s just one of the 100-plus vitamins, minerals, and other supplements he ingests on a daily basis to combat the ravages of time. The goal is to live long enough to see his prophecy fulfilled. And it seems to be working—the guy is a machine. Toward the end of our conversation, he got up from his seat to take a break. He returned ten minutes later, did this shifty rolling maneuver with his eyes that looked as if he were computing some complex theorem, and then promptly picked up exactly where he left off (like, literally the same word). It wouldn’t be surprising if Kurzweil announced that he has already received artificial neural enhancements and other biological upgrades. In fact, it would make most of us feel better about the discrepancy between his brainpower and ours. Regardless, Kurzweil knows more than a few things that the majority of us don’t, and we’d be really foolish not to listen as closely as possible.
INTERVIEW BY ROCCO CASTORO
PHOTOS BY JESPER DAMSGAARD LUND
The first thing you see when walking into Kurzweil’s office is this mannequin. He’s supposed to be a general “inventor” guy who just hangs out and greets visitors. It’s very creepy.
Vice: The Singularity sounds neat and all, but right now the global economy is a ruptured septic tank and people could care less about what’s 30 years down the road. In 2005 you wrote that deflation was just a niggling concern and we’d be in good shape for years to come. How do you reconcile this?
Ray Kurzweil: The exponential growth of information technologies is going to continue completely unaffected by this current recession, or whatever you want to call it, just as it has through every other recession, including the Great Depression. There’s a new iPhone that’s twice as powerful as last year’s for half the money, and that’s not just because Apple is so brilliant. It’s true of all electronics, and in fact it’s not just electronics. It’s true of anything where we have information, whether it’s brain scanning or biological technologies. Ultimately, these things start out unaffordable and don’t work very well, and eventually they’re almost free and work extremely well. For instance, half the world now has cell phones though they used to be a real luxury item. So that’s actually the deflationary force that’s keeping inflation in check. That’s why we don’t have rampant inflation.
Sure, but most of the folks I know who’ve been laid off in the past six months won’t be able to afford the next iPhone. They’re just thinking about the necessities.
People say, “Well, information technology, that’s just part of what I need. I also need bread and I need housing.” But those things will eventually become information technologies as well as we transform from a pre-information era to a post-information era. A very important industry that’s doing that now is health and medicine. We’ve mapped the genome, we can design interventions on computers and test them out in biological simulators, we can turn genes off, we can add new genes in a mature individual, not just a baby. Ultimately, we will have full-scale nanotechnology, which is just reorganizing matter and energy at the molecular level using information processes. That’s when I will be able to email you a toaster or toast or a blouse or a solar panel or a module to build housing or transportation. What we now consider physical products will become information files—email attachments. That’s already true today with some categories. Ten years ago, if I wanted to send you a movie, I would have sent you a FedEx package. I can now send you an email attachment. The same goes for a music file or a book. What used to be physical products can now be sent as files of information.
That kind of correspondence will only be possible if we develop advanced artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. How long will it take for computers to surpass our own intellect?
Today’s machines don’t have the full range and supple flexibility of human intelligence, but the key to achieving that is going to be understanding how the human brain works, and we’re making exponential progress on that as well. We’ll have all the models and simulations of brain regions by 2029. They will give us the templates of the software, the algorithms of human intelligence. It will allow machines to have access to their own source codes and redesign themselves to be smarter.
Once we have hardware that far surpasses the human brain’s computational power, you predict that it will take about a decade to reverse-engineer the subtleties and nuances of the way our minds work. Then nanorobots will allow us to supplement our bodies, eventually resulting in the emergence of nonbiological humans who are more machine than man. And this will allow us to live as long as we want, raise our intelligence to unimaginable heights, and control our senses. Any ideas what the world is going to look like after this happens?
You can think of it in terms of virtual reality, another trend that’s been emerging for a while. For example, you can go on Second Life now and have all these avatars, which represent biological people because they are, for the most part, controlled by biological people. But there are actually some avatars running around on Second Life that don’t have real biological people behind them. They’re called bots, and sometimes these bots will fool you. You think that this is a normal avatar and some biological person, but actually it’s a bot. People are experimenting with how long they can get away with a bot running around and not being noticed as a bot.
Bots aren’t up to human levels—yet. But by my calculations, a computer will pass the Turing test [which determines if a computer has reached a level of true AI] by 2029, using stringent definitions of the rules. True AIs will then have a presence in virtual reality, and avatars in virtual environments won’t be cartoonish, like they are today. By the 2030s, virtual reality is going to be as real and as compelling as “real” reality, and we’ll be doing it from within the nervous system. So the nanobots in your brain—which will get to your brain through the bloodstream, noninvasively and without surgery—will shut down the signals coming from your real senses and replace them with senses that your brain will be receiving from the virtual environment. Then it would feel like you’re really in that environment. You’ll go to move your hand and it’ll move your virtual hand. You’ll have a virtual body, but your virtual body doesn’t have to be the same as your real body. It can be different for every environment. A couple could become each other in a virtual environment and experience a relationship from the other’s perspective. The AIs will have bodies, too, so you could be walking around Second Life circa 2030 and run into a person, and it may be a bot. Unlike today’s bots, it will be as convincing as a real person. It will be as intelligent as you, have the supple command of human language, and look real.
Are we going to look like humans forever, or will we eventually just become ghosts in the machine while our physical bodies devolve into dwarves with lobster hands?
If we’re in a virtual-reality environment, we’re not going to be happy being a disembodied intelligence. We’re going to want bodies, and these AI bots are going to be modeled, at least in large measure, on human intelligence, and they will have bodies as well. Some will be humanlike bodies, while some will be specialized bodies for special purposes. By the 2030s or 2040s, we’ll have nanobot swarms, which can assemble themselves to look like human bodies. They’ll also be able to change their bodies quickly, kind of like the Transformer concept. They’ll have the same morphing qualities that we will see in virtual realities but will also be in “real” reality. Just as there won’t be a clear distinction between nonbiological and biological intelligence, there won’t be a clear distinction between real and virtual realities. It’s going to be mixed up—we’re going to have augmented reality. You’ll look at someone and there will be little pop-ups and little virtual people who whisper in our ears and tell us what’s going on, or just remind us what people’s names are.
So you’re saying I could be sitting on the toilet and a pop-up ad is going to materialize out of nowhere? That’s very discomforting.
Well, you’ll have control of it to the extent that you want, just as you do now. We’re all actually very close to our machines. They are an extension of reality. A woman I know recently told me she went to see her son, and he’s sitting there on the computer. He’s got five friends open in different windows while she’s standing there in a real doorway, and she’s just another window in his life. They’re not just imaginary, they’re real people. There’s not going to be a clear distinction between real people and virtual people. In fact, “real people”—biological people of biological origin, like myself—will be mostly nonbiological once we get through the 2030s. We’ll have billions of nanobots going into our brains through capillaries that will interact with our biological neurons. As soon as we do that, we’re a hybrid of biological and nonbiological intelligence. There won’t be a clear distinction. It’s not like “Now I’m using my biological intelligence, now I’m using my machine intelligence.” We’ll get to a point where the biological portion of our intelligence is pretty insignificant. And the nonbiological, the machine part, will fully comprehend the meager biological part and be able to simulate and understand it.
INTERVIEW BY ROCCO CASTORO
PHOTOS BY JESPER DAMSGAARD LUND
A promotional poster for one of Kurzweil’s early reading machines.Surely a significant number of people will find this transition terrifying and attempt to resist it.
People say, “Gee, I don’t want to be a machine.” They’re thinking of the machines they know today, and that’s not the kind of machine I’m talking about. I’m talking about a machine—and we’ll probably need a different word by then—that’s just as subtle and supple and emotional as humans are today, and even more so.
Something that’s deeply troubling about your vision of the future is the risk of hyper-equality. What’s the point of life if everyone is perfect and super-smart? It seems like it will hinder diversity.
I think it’s going to make people more diverse. We’re actually quite similar to each other today. We have less genetic diversity within all human beings on earth than a typical group of baboons. We all have the same organs and we’re all constrained with a very similar brain that really can’t expand. I can’t just double the neurons I have in my brain and reorganize them usefully. Once we can break that barrier and not have our thinking limited to what we can do with a hundred billion neurons in a constrained small skull and begin to actually think with computation out on the “cloud” by tapping into the web and all of its computational resources, we’re going to actually become more different. We’ll be able to explore, in great depth, different subjects and different skills.
Is the ultimate goal to transcend biology and choose how long we would like to live?
Even if we perfect biology, it has inherent limitations. We will have very powerful means, such as drugs finely pinpointed to reprogram the information processes underlying biology, to get away from disease and aging. When we can augment our immune systems with nanobots that are 1,000 times more capable than white blood cells at destroying pathogens and keeping us healthy at the level of cells and molecules to combat disease, that will be even more powerful. And ultimately, we will be able to actually back up the information in our biological systems, including our brains. That’s sort of the last step.
What can your average Eddie Lunchpail do to be sure he lives long enough to reach this era of unprecedented advances in health care?
A young person should take a balanced vitamin-mineral supplement. There are some other things that are good to take: phosphatidylcholine, a major component of biological membranes, will keep your cells young and is actually very good for your skin. Coenzyme Q10 is good for keeping your muscles healthy. Vitamin D will combat a lot of diseases and it’s very inexpensive. It’s not costly to eat a healthy diet. Vegetables are pretty inexpensive and that’s the mainstay of our diet. Exercise you can do on your own—buy some weights and some good walking or running shoes. So this is not just a rich man or woman’s pursuit. The recommendations are actually pretty affordable, and they’re well worth it in terms of the implications for one’s health. It’s expensive to get sick. If you lose your health, you really have nothing.
Is it fair to call the Singularity a belief system?
When I talk about being a Singularitarian, it’s not a belief system. While it does address some of the same issues that, say, religion has addressed, it makes sense to update our ideas about things with insight drawn from science and technology. Religions emerged in prescientific times. What people did before there was any conceivable way to imagine really extending human longevity significantly was to come up with ideas that were like, “Well, death is really not such a bad thing.” Now we actually can see a way around this. The goal is to get to what Aubrey de Grey calls the “longevity escape velocity,” where we’re adding more than a year every year to our remaining life expectancies so that we may live long enough to get to the point where we have the technology to expand human longevity indefinitely. We are the species that changes who we are.
If we change who we are, how will we still be human?
People say, “If your brain’s going to be 99 percent nonbiological, then you’re not human anymore.” But it comes down to a definition of the term. By my definition, human beings are exactly the species that changes who they are. If you look at humans today, we didn’t stay on the ground, we didn’t stay on the planet, we have not stayed within the limitations of our biology. Human life expectancy was 23 years 1,000 years ago. We’ve changed ourselves in lots of ways. I can take a device out of my pocket and, in a few keystrokes, access all of human knowledge. What other animal species has done that? So that is the nature of being human: to go beyond our limitations.
Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, a new instructional health book by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, MD, will be in bookstores April 28 on Rodale Press.
For more of Ray Kurzweil’s mind-blowing insights about the future of technology, watch an extended interview with him on Motherboard on VBS.TV.