David Kushner. Rolling Stone. Issue 1072, February 2009.
The most radical futurist on earth sinks into a large black chair in the corner of his cluttered office. He’s jet-lagged. His skin seems waxen, a sickly yellow against the dark blue of his rumpled suit. As he gazes wearily at the floor, his wide black glasses cling desperately to his prominent nose. His collection of cat statues—more than 300 and counting—crowds every available surface in the room. Slumped at his desk, surrounded by his plaster cats, he looks more like a harried, slightly odd accountant at the height of tax season than the man who has been called the rightful heir to Thomas Edison.
Over the past four decades, Ray Kurzweil has established himself as one of the world’s most prolific and influential inventors. His specialty is pattern recognition—teaching machines to classify data and learn. He created the first program to enable computers to read text—the basis of modern scanning—as well as the first program to translate text into speech. Stevie Wonder, a close friend of Kurzweil, calls the inventor’s print-to-speech technology a “breakthrough that changed my life.” In 1983, with Wonder as an adviser, Kurzweil built the Kurzweil 250—a synthesizer that revolutionized the music world with its uncannily realistic re-creations of acoustic orchestral instruments.
For his contributions to artificial intelligence, Kurzweil has been enshrined in the Inventors Hall of Fame and has received White House honors from three presidents—including the highest prize in his field, the National Medal of Technology. But nothing he has done in the past has shaken the scientific community as profoundly as his latest prediction. In our lifetime, Kurzweil believes, machines will not only surpass humans in intelligence—they will irrevocably alter what it means to be human. Cell-size robots will zap disease from our bloodstream. Superintelligent nanotechnology, operating on a molecular scale, will scrub pollution from our atmosphere. Our minds, our skills, our memories, our very consciousness will be backed up on computers—allowing us, in essence, to live forever, all our data saved by super-smart machines.
“Right now, people think it’s irresponsible not to back up our PCs,” Kurzweil says. “But increasingly, we’ll be backing up the information in our brains. People will think it was remarkable that we couldn’t back up our brains in 2010.”
Kurzweil is very specific about when this epic shift will take place. By 2045, he predicts, machines and humans will merge, redefining life as we know it. The moment is known as the Singularity, referring to the term used in astrophysics to describe the point inside a black hole where the ordinary laws of physics cease to apply. To prepare himself and the rest of the world for the era of conscious machines, Kurzweil has turned himself into the chief prophet of the coming Techno Rapture. He crisscrosses the globe to rally top scientists, hosts an annual Singularity Summit that draws leaders from places like Google and MIT, and has even developed his own line of nutritional supplements to extend people’s lives until the day when their existence can be endlessly preserved by technology. At 61, Kurzweil pops 150 of his own pills every day, determined to live long enough to see the day when, thanks to machines, he will never age.
To say that Kurzweil’s prediction is controversial is to understate the scientific firestorm it has generated. No less a pragmatist than Bill Gates has hailed Kurzweil’s vision, calling him “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.” But to other leading thinkers, Kurzweil has gone off the deep end, venturing into an almost messianic fervor with his promises of life everlasting. “The Singularity is a new religion—and a particularly kooky one at that,” says Jaron Lanier, a top computer scientist who pioneered the realm of virtual reality. “The Singularity is the coming of the Messiah, heaven on Earth, the Armageddon, the end of times. And fanatics always think that the end of time comes in their own lifetime.”
Kurzweil shrugs off such criticism: He has the self-confidence of a man who is used to being so far ahead of the curve that others can’t see where he’s headed. The only time he falters is when he’s asked if he could be wrong about the Singularity. For a moment he stares blankly into space, as if receiving an otherworldly transmission. But he’s actually just crunching numbers, mentally double-checking his complex calculations about what will happen between now and 2045.
“Maybe the Singularity takes a few years longer to get here,” he finally replies. “But I can’t really imagine that I’m significantly off.”
Kurzweil makes no secret of the deep personal need that has driven him to pursue the Singularity. It all comes back to the shadowy portrait that looms over the desk in his office in suburban Boston. The middle-aged man in the painting shares Kurzweil’s eyes and receding hairline: his late father, Fredric.
“I have 50 boxes of his things at home his letters and music and bills and doctoral thesis,” Kurzweil says. “He was a pack rat like me.”
As a boy growing up in Queens in the 1950s, Ray worked hard to please his father. An acclaimed composer from Vienna, Fredric began giving Ray piano lessons at age six. But Ray already had another obsession: invention. While other kids were out playing stickball, Kurzweil sat in bed reading books like Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire—dusty copies of which now line his desk between two feline bookends. It wasn’t just the giant robots and atomic earth blasters that sparked his imagination—it was the nascent promise they offered to a geeky young kid. “The moral of the tales was simple,” Kurzweil later wrote. “There is no problem so great that it cannot be overcome through application of creative human thought. That simple paradigm has animated all my subsequent endeavors.”
Encouraged by his father, Ray spent his weekends trolling for spare parts in junky electronics stores in Manhattan, building backyard rockets and eventually learning to code on a computer. Their relationship was both lovingly paternal and chummily nerdy. “We talked a lot about the nature of music and mathematical structure, and the fact that computers and music had natural affinity to each other,” Kurzweil recalls, glancing up at the portrait over his desk. “He said, ‘Someday you’ll get involved in creating synthetic music, using computers.’ He recognized that eventually computers could do abetter job.”
In 1965, taking his father’s prophecy to heart, the 16-year-old inventor appeared as a guest on the game show I’ve Got a Secret. The gawky young Ray appeared in a stiff suit playing a dissonant song on a piano; the secret was that the tune had been composed by a computer program he created. The music-composition program won him first place in the International Science Fair, and the first of several invitations to the White House. But today, 44 years later, what Kurzweil remembers is not the accolades but how pleased the invention made his dad.
“He was proud, because it stemmed from the conversation we had,” he says. “I’m glad he got to be able to see that.” Kurzweil’s voice trails off for a moment. “But I’m sorry he didn’t get to see the synthesizer work I did in the Eighties,” he adds.
His father did live long enough to see Ray accepted by MIT, the university that was pioneering artificial intelligence. Even in such abrainiac wonderland, Kurzweil stood out: His goal, he announced, was to make the deaf hear, the blind see and the handicapped walk. His frat brothers gave Kurzweil a nickname for his habit of disappearing to tinker on some invention. “We called him the Phantom,” says his roommate, Aaron Kleiner. “But he was also the social chairman of the fraternity. He was never around, but he could organize a great party.”
While his classmates were turning on to Timothy Leary, Kurzweil sought cosmic enlightenment by other means. “LSD was a pretty imperfect technology because you couldn’t control it,” he says. “That wasn’t my idea of transcendence.” For Kurzweil, the more compelling revolution of the 1960s was in microcomputers. Every year, he observed, IBM was releasing smaller but more powerful machines. Kurzweil became obsessed with how to exploit them. During his sophomore year, he created a computer program to match high school kids with colleges that suited their profiles. Kurzweil sold the idea for $100,000, plus royalties.
He ended up spending most of the money on medical bills. Kurzweil’s father was dying of heart disease, and nothing seemed to help—cutting salt, losing weight, taking vitamin E. In 1970, Fredric died of a heart attack at the age of 58.
When Kurzweil speaks about his father, his words come slowly, and he talks of his loss in abstract terms. “Death represents the loss of knowledge and information,” he says, kneading his hands. “A person is a mind file. A person is a software program a very profound one, and we have no backup. So when our hardware dies, our software dies with it.” Just after graduating from college, Kurzweil was looking for a way to bring his father back to life. “I’ve made an issue of overcoming death,” he says. “And the strongest experience I’ve had with death is as a tragedy.”
Later that evening, in nearby Cambridge, a standing-room-only crowd of computer scientists crams into the Broad Institute Auditorium at MIT. Kurzweil gives about 60 presentations each year to everyone from nursing executives to game developers, earning as much as $30,000 a pop for showing up in person. He also gives another 20 presentations all over the world without leaving his office—thanks to an invention (not his) called the Teleportec Teleporter, which beams a holographic Kurzweil behind a distant podium with eerie precision. “Even though it’s not as compelling as what virtual reality will be in the future, it does look pretty realistic,” he says. “People have been fooled.”
As a kid, Kurzweil loved magic, and there’s a bit of shtick to his current routine. At one point, he reaches into his suit pocket and reveals his latest invention: the Mobile Reader, a cellphone version of his reading device for the blind, which was released last year. After installing the software on a camera phone, a blind person can simply snap a photo of a street sign or menu, then hear a computerized voice read the text back. Business travelers can also aim it at a Spanish menu in Barcelona and hear an automatic translation.
To demonstrate, Kurzweil aims his phone at an open copy of his book The Singularity Is Near and snaps a photo. Seconds later, the phone begins to read the text in a robotic voice: “If all the AI systems in the world suddenly stopped functioning, our economic infrastructure would grind to a halt. Your bank would cease doing business. Most transportation would be crippled. Most communications would fail… Of course, our AI systems are not smart enough—yet—to organize such a conspiracy.”
The crowd erupts in applause—not just for the invention but for Kurzweil’s artful segue to the topic about which they all want to hear. The idea of superhuman intelligence—intelligence that comes when humans merge with machines—is not new. It dates back to the 1950s, when mathematician John von Neumann observed that the ever-faster pace of technology would reach “some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” By 1993, sci-fi novelist Vernor Vinge was predicting that “within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. ” But the Singularity still seemed like something out of the Tom Swift books Kurzweil read as a child. “It wasn’t very quantified,” he says. “It was more impressionistic. It needed to be fleshed out, so that’s what I sought to do.”
Kurzweil had already been forecasting technology for years. It’s an essential part of any inventor’s trade, because he has to know what technology will be on the market by the time his product is released. To calculate what’s ahead, Kurzweil extrapolates from historical data. By charting microprocessor clock speeds since 1975, for example, he found they were doubling every three years. “It’s like skeet-shooting,” he says. “Things are moving very quickly.”
Kurzweil proved himself an astonishingly good shot—so good, in fact, that he began to make sweeping predictions about politics and society. During the 1980s, he correctly predicted the fall of the Soviet Union due to decentralized technologies, the rise of the Internet and the ubiquity of wireless networks. He announced that a computer would be a world chess champion by 1998—a reality that occurred in May 1997, when Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov. “There’s something inexorable about these progressions,” Kurzweil says. “We really can predict—not exactly what’s going to happen, but the power of these technologies.”
Then one day, as he was plotting the time between innovations from the wheel to the World Wide Web, Kurzweil made a discovery: Technological change is accelerating at a far more rapid pace than we understand. At the current rate, he wrote, “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.” The rapidly decreasing cost of technology, he predicted, coupled with the exponentially increasing power of computers, will lead inevitably to a single moment: the Singularity.
The takeoff starts with computers embedding themselves—from GPS systems to iPhones—into the fabric of our lives. Then, 10 years from now, computing power will finally catch up with our brains. For $1,000, you’ll be able to store as much memory on a chip as you can in your head. By 2030, artificial intelligence will make computerized voices on telephone help lines as realistic-sounding as any human’s (think HAL from 2001). Virtual realities—projected directly onto your retinas—will become indistinguishable from your own. Kurzweil compares this leap to when humans learned how to fly. “Once we figured out the secret to flight—the subtle scientific principles we created the world of aviation,” he says. “Once we can build and create intelligence that doesn’t have the limitations of our brain, there’s nothing it can’t do.”
But the even trippier stuff happens in the 2030s, when nanobots—microscopic machines built from molecular components start to infiltrate your everyday life. “Nanobots in our physical bodies will destroy pathogens, remove debris, repair DNA and reverse aging,” Kurzweil predicts. “We will be able to redesign all the systems in our bodies and brains to be far more capable and durable.” By scanning the contents of your brain, nanobots will be able to transfer everything you know, everything you have ever experienced, into a robot or a virtual-reality program. If something happens to your physical body, no problem. Your mind will live on—forever.
But as computer intelligence surpasses that of humans, machines will also make smarter and smarter versions of themselves—without any help from us. After 2045, Kurzweil predicts, nanobots will replicate and spread throughout the tiniest recesses of matter, transforming the host—say, a tree or a stone—into a computational device. He calls this intelligence-infested matter “computronium, which is matter and energy organized at optimum level for computation. Using nanotechnology, we’re going to turn a rock into a computer.” As the nanobots spread computer intelligence beyond our planet, the universe itself will awaken as if a giant switch is finally being turned on. “The universe is not conscious—yet,” Kurzweil has written. “But it will be.”
Of course, all this begs the central question: What happens to us? If we’re just disembodied computer programs, why will the superintelligent machines even bother to keep us around at all? As the MIT lecture ends, a graying professor stands up in the back and asks Kurzweil if humans will eventually become obsolete. Kurzweil pushes up his glasses and steps forward on the stage. He replies with almost blasé matter-of-factness.
“If we fail to extend our physical and mental capabilities with our technology, we could become obsolete,” he says. “But that, in fact, is what we’ve always been doing with our machines. We routinely perform intellectual feats that would not be possible without our machines.”
Kurzweil slips out his cellphone and holds it up. “It’s now in your pockets, and it will make its way into our bodies and brain,” he concludes. All of human progress, he suggests, has been moving toward the moment when we merge with technology, when all of our BlackBerries and Facebook pages and instant messages and Wiis become fully integrated with humanity. Given how much time we already spend staring into screens and interacting with computers, the future he predicts doesn’t seem that far off. “We’ll extend who we are and become smarter,” Kurzweil tells the crowd. “That is the nature of technology. We are a human-machine civilization. We won’t be able to say humans on the right and machines on the left. We’re not obsolescing ourselves—we’re extending ourselves.”
Not everyone is as optimistic about the Singularity as Kurzweil. Indeed, anyone who has ever watched The Terminator or read Isaac Asimov’s classic Robot Series knows the terrifying scenarios in which intelligent machines come to dominate the human race. Bill Joy, the cofounder of Sun Microsystems, was deeply spooked when he spoke with Kurzweil at a technology conference in 1998. “I had always felt sentient robots were in the realm of science fiction,” he recalled. “But now, from someone I respected, I was hearing a strong argument that they were a near-term possibility. I was taken aback, especially given Ray’s proven ability to imagine and create the future.”
Joy’s response came in a 2000 essay in Wired titled “The Future Doesn’t Need Us.” In it, Joy cites a grim vision of a planet devoured by tiny, self-replicating nanobots that decide humans are in the way: “They could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days.” Vernor Vinge envisions an arms race for superhuman power, in which competing nations ultimately surrender “all human control and judgment” to a Terminator-like version of SkyNet—which then proceeds to wipe out the entire human race in a matter of hours.
This prospect is being taken seriously in high places. A recent congressional study by the Joint Economic Committee titled “The Future Is Coming Sooner Than You Think” warns that “whether or not one believes in the Singularity, it is difficult to overestimate nanotechnology’s likely implications for society.” Even Kurzweil acknowledges the potential risk of superintelligent machines—and he has taken the time to quantify the danger. “How long would it take an out-of-control replicating nanobot to destroy the Earth’s biomass?” he asks. The answer: only about a couple of months.
Others doubt that the Singularity will happen in Kurzweil’s time frame, if at all. Thomas Ray, a renowned biologist who has developed some of the most compelling simulations of artificial life, insists that computers will never be advanced enough to reach the Singularity. “I don’t see engineers sitting at their desks at Microsoft programming software that’s intelligent,” he notes. “They’re struggling just to keep the operating system from collapsing.” Lanier, the virtual-reality pioneer, boils the problem down to seven words: “The Singularity won’t happen because software sucks.”
Others believe that even the greatest advances in technology will not lead to anything approaching fully conscious machines. “I’m very impressed by Ray’s work on speech recognition, music synthesis and other existing technologies,” says Peter Norvig, director of research at Google. “But I have a wait-and-see reaction to some of his other futurist ideas. I don’t think there’s a direct link between CPU processing power and the ability to simulate human brains. I have no idea whether it will ever be possible to upload a mind/personality/consciousness into another machine/body, nor whether such a thing would experience consciousness in the same or similar way.”
John Searle, a noted philosopher who is critical of artificial intelligence, puts it more succinctly. “I think the Singularity is demonstrably bullshit,” he says. “But that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s very thrilling.”
Some colleagues wonder privately if Kurzweil even believes his own predictions. There are whispers about the seemingly convenient timing of the Singularity—that it will happen just in time for Kurzweil to live forever. Although Kurzweil is too lowkey and reasoned to be a fanatic, he doesn’t deny the religious implications of promising eternal life. In his book, he even pokes fun at the notion by posing with an end-times sandwich board that reads the singularity is near. Once you come to terms with the exponential power of technology, you become what he calls a Singularitarian. “Being a Singularitarian is a view toward life,” he says, sounding more evangelist than scientist. “It means you have understood and reflected on how profoundly the world is going to change and what it means for the nature of human beings.”
And what, I ask, does this understanding mean for you?
“It means I’m trying to be healthy,” he says. “I’m trying to stay alive. I have a plan for that.”
Kurzweil reaches into his pocket and pulls out a crinkled plastic bag. Inside are several pills and a torn piece of paper with the word “Eve,” to remind him that these are for nighttime. Every day, he gobbles dozens of nutritional supplements to reprogram his biochemistry—policosanol and grapefruit powder for cholesterol, acetyl-1-carnitine for brain power, fructooligosaccharides for digestion, timethylglycine for blood vessels. Once a week, he gets an intravenous dose of alpha lipoic acid for the antioxidants, and a glutathi-one IV for liver health. “Fifteen years from now I’ll be 75,” he says, “but I expect to be biologically 40.”
Kurzweil—who markets Ray and Terry’s Longevity Products, a line of nutritional supplements he developed with an anti-aging specialist—takes his pills throughout the day: on the go, during meals, at the office. “This is a wake-up call for my baby-boomer peers,” he says. “Most have a conventional concept of life span: They think they’re going to work a few more years and retire and not live that long. If they can be more aggressive, they can actually be quite healthy. In another 15 years, we get to the tipping point.” By then, he says, we’ll have the means to reverse-engineer “the information processes underlying biology”—giving us the power to ensure our immortality.
While Kurzweil is alive and well, he’s busy making plans for the future. First, he’s taking steps to make sure that some larger catastrophe doesn’t do away with us all before the Singularity arrives. Working as an adviser for the U.S. Army, he is designing a rapid-response system for new biological viruses. The good news, he says, is that we now have the ability to determine the DNA code of a virus and create an antidote that turns off the bug before it causes problems. “It took five years to sequence HIV,” he says. “But we sequenced SARS in 31 days. Now we can sequence a virus in one day, and we’re doubling that speed every year.”
Kurzweil’s most ambitious plan for life after the Singularity, however, is also his most personal: Using technology, he plans to bring his dead father back to life. Kurzweil reveals this to me near the end of our conversation. It’s a bright, clear afternoon, and we can see the river that runs behind the trees outside his wide office windows. The portrait of his father looks down over him. In a soft voice, he explains how the resurrection will work. “We can find some of his DNA around his grave site—that’s a lot of information right there,” he says. “The AI will send down some nanobots and get some bone or teeth and extract some DNA and put it all together. Then they’ll get some information from my brain and anyone else who still remembers him.”
When I ask how exactly they’ll extract the knowledge from his brain, Kurzweil bristles, as if the answer should be obvious: “Just send nanobots into my brain and reconstruct my recollections and memories.” The machines will capture everything: the piggyback ride to a grocery store, the bedtime reading of Tom Swift, the moment he and his father rejoiced when the letter of acceptance from MIT arrived. To provide the nanobots with even more information, Kurzweil is safeguarding the boxes of his dad’s mementos, so the artificial intelligence has as much data as possible from which to reconstruct him. Father 2.0 could take many forms, he says, from a virtual-reality avatar to a fully functioning robot.
Kurzweil is less eager to discuss the possibility of his own reconstitution—should all his supplements and exercise fail to keep him alive until the Singularity arrives. “Uh, yeah,” he says, “that would be a setback.” In the worst-case scenario, he says, some great artificial intelligence will harvest DNA from his cryogenically preserved body and comb through his cat statues and Jefferson Starship records to bring him back to life. Kurzweil concedes that New Ray may not be the same as Old Ray, just as his New Dad may not be the one whose loss he mourns. But he still looks forward to the reunion. “If you can do it right, it’s worthwhile,” he says. “If you bring back life that was valuable in the past, it should be valuable in the future.”
For a moment, I recall something Kurzweil told me earlier. If we apply ourselves, he believes, there’s no problem we can’t solve—even the ultimate problem of death. But in the decades he has spent immersed in these issues, there’s one thing he apparently hasn’t considered: If all this incredible sci-fi shit really does come true, and he has the chance to sit there across from his dad and speak with him again—what would be the first thing he’d say?
Kurzweil falls silent. After an awkward pause, he begins speaking as if his father were sitting there in the empty black chair across from him.
“Remember those conversations we had about creating musical sound by computer, and how they could be ultimately better than analog computers?” he tells his dad. “Well, I actually did work on that.”
Then Kurzweil blinks a couple of times, coming out of his reverie. “I’d dive right into something substantive,” he says.
Molecular robots will spread throughout the tiniest recesses of all matter, Kurzweil predicts, turning rocks and trees into living computers. “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.”
Kurzweil’s most ambitious plan is also his most personal: He plans to bring his dead father back to life. “Nanobots can extract some DNA from his grave site,” he says. “Then they’ll get memories from my brain and put it all together.”