Reprogramming your Biochemistry for Immortality:
An Interview with Ray Kurzweil
By David Jay Brown
Ray Kurzweil is a computer scientist, software developer, inventor, entrepreneur, philosopher, and a leading proponent of radical life extension. He is the coauthor (with Terry Grossman, M.D.) of Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, which is one of the most intriguing and exciting books on life extension around. Kurzweil and Grossman’s approach to health and longevity combines the most current and practical medical knowledge with a soundly-based, yet awe-inspiring visionary perspective of what’s to come.
Kurzweil’s philosophy is built upon the premise that we now have the knowledge to identify and correct the problems caused by most unhealthy genetic predispositions. By taking advantage of the opportunities afforded us by the genomic testing, nutritional supplements, and lifestyle adjustments, we can live long enough to reap the benefits of advanced biotechnology and nanotechnology, which will ultimately allow us to conquer aging and live forever. At the heart of Kurzweil’s optimistic philosophy is the notion that human knowledge is growing exponentially, not linearly, and this fact is rarely taken into account when people try to predict the rate of technological advance in the future. Kurzweil predicts that at the current rate of knowledge expansion we’ll have the technology to completely conquer aging within the next couple of decades.
Part of what makes Kurzweil’s upbeat vision of the future so appealing is his impressive track record as an inventor and engineer, as well as the success of his past predictions. Kurzweil is a leading expert in speech and pattern recognition, and he invented a vast array of computer marvels. He was the principal developer of the first omni-font (any type font) optical character recognition software, the first commercially marketed large vocabulary speech recognition systes, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, and the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments.
Kurzweil has successfully founded and developed ten businesses in speech recognition, reading technology, music synthesis, virtual reality, financial investment, medical simulation, and cybernetic art. In 2002 Kurzweil was inducted into the U.S. Patent Office’s National Inventors Hall of Fame, and he received the Lemelson-MIT Prize, the nation’s largest award in invention and innovation. He also received the 1999 National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony, and has received twelve honorary Doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents.
In addition to coauthoring Fantastic Voyage, Kurzweil wrote The 10% Solution for a Healthy Life, and several best selling books on the evolution of intelligence–including The Age of Intelligent Machines, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and The Singularity Is Near, When Humans Transcend Biology. Kurzweil’s books on the evolution of intelligence read like mind-bending science fiction, but are based on a scientific analysis of technology trends. Kurzweil predicts that computer intelligence will exceed human intelligence in only a few decades, and that it won’t be long after that before humans start merging with machines, blurring the line between technology and biology.
Kurzweil works in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I spoke with Ray on February 8, 2006. Ray speaks very precisely, and he chooses his words carefully. He presents his ideas with a lot of confidence, and I found his optimism to be contagious. We spoke about the importance of genomic testing, some of the common misleading ideas that people have about health, and how biotechnology and nanotechnology will radically effect our longevity in the future.
David: What inspired your interest in life extension?
Ray: Probably the first incident that got me on this path was my father’s illness. This began when I was fifteen, and he died seven years later of heart disease when I was twenty-two. He was fifty-eight. I’ll actually be fifty-eight this Sunday. I sensed a dark cloud over my future, feeling like there was a good chance that I had inherited his disposition to heart disease. When I was thirty-five, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and the conventional medical approach made it worse.
So I really approached the situation as an inventor, as a problem to be solved. I immersed myself in the scientific literature, and came up with an approach that allowed me to overcome my diabetes. My levels became totally normal, and in the course of this process I discovered that I did indeed have a disposition, for example, to high cholesterol. My cholesterol was 280 and I also got that down to around 130. That was twenty-two years ago.
I wrote a bestselling health book, which came out in 1993 about that experience, and the program that I’d come up with. That’s what really got me on this path of realizing that–if you’re aggressive enough about reprogramming your biochemistry–you can find the ideas that can help you to overcome your genetic dispositions, because they’re out there. They exist.
About seven years ago, after my book The Age of Spiritual Machines came out in 1999, I was at a Foresight Institute conference. I met Terry Grossman there, and we struck up a conversation about this subject–nutrition and health. I went to see him at his longevity clinic in Denver for an evaluation, and we built a friendship. We started exchanging emails about health issues–and that was 10,000 emails ago. We wrote this book Fantastic Voyage together, which really continues my quest. And he also has his own story about how he developed similar ideas, and how we collaborated.
There’s really a lot of knowledge available right now, although, previously, it has not been packaged in the same way that we did it. We have the knowledge to reprogram our biochemistry to overcome disease and aging processes. We can dramatically slow down aging, and we can really overcome conditions such as atherosclerosis, that leads to almost all heart attacks and strokes, diabetes, and we can substantially reduce the risk of cancer with today’s knowledge. And, as you saw from the book, all of that is just what we call ‘Bridge One’. We’re not saying that taking lots of supplements and changing your diet is going enable you to live five hundred years. But it will enable Baby Boomers–like Dr. Grossman and myself, and our contemporaries–to be in good shape ten or fifteen years from now, when we really will have the full flowering of the biotechnology revolution, which is ‘Bridge Two’.
Now, this gets into my whole theory of information technology. Biology has become an information technology. It didn’t used to be. Biology used to be hit or miss. We’d just find something that happened to work. We didn’t really understand why it worked, and, invariably, these tools, these drugs, had side-effects. They were very crude tools. Drug development was called drug discovery, because we really weren’t able to reprogram biology. That is now changing. Our understanding of biology, and the ability to manipulate it, is becoming an information technology. We’re understanding the information processes that underlie disease processes, like atherosclerosis, and we’re gaining the tools to reprogram those processes.
Drug development is now entering an era of rational drug design, rather than drug discovery. The important point to realize is that the progress is exponential, not linear. Invariably people–including sophisticated people–do not take that into consideration, and it makes all the difference in the world. The mainstream skeptics declared the fifteen year genome project a failure after seven and half years because only one percent of the project was done. The skeptics said, I told you this wasn’t going to work–here you are halfway through the project and you’ve hardly done anything. But the progress was exponential, doubling every year, and the last seven doublings go from one percent to a hundred percent. So the project was done on time. It took fifteen years to sequence HIV. We sequenced the SARS virus in thirty-one days.
There are many other examples of that. We’ve gone from ten dollars to sequence one base pair in 1990 to a penny today. So in ten or fifteen years from now it’s going to be a very different landscape. We really will have very powerful interventions, in the form of rationally-designed drugs that can precisely reprogram our biochemistry. We can do it to a large extent today with supplements and nutrition, but it takes a more extensive effort. We’ll have much more powerful tools fifteen years from, so I want it to be in good shape at that time.
Most of my Baby Boomer contemporaries are completely oblivious of this perspective. They just assume that aging is part of the cycle of human life, and at 65 or 70 you start slowing down. Then at eighty you’re dead. So they’re getting ready to retire, and are really unaware