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The cult of Kurzweil

MIT’s most vocal visionary revisits his own predictions on ever-advancing technology and eternal life

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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I have seen this movie before, sort of.

Newton’s own Ray Kurzweil has a strong sense of self — I’ll give him that. A year ago I sat through his inane, self-valorizing vanity movie, “The Singularity Is Near,’’ co-directed, written, and co-produced by Kurzweil himself. The Singularity, the putative assimilation of human and computer intelligences, is one of Kurzweil’s favorite hobbyhorses, a hypothetical future paradise in which humans will become “more creative and more loving’’ by adding artificial intelligence to their brains. Cynics call it the Rapture of the Nerds.

Now I have sat through “Transcendent Man,’’ yet another hour-and-a-half-long movie hailing the fantastic visionary, who plans to live forever and raise the dead. “TM’’ continues to advance the dubious hypothesis that Ray is the smartest man alive, that he has foreseen all things visible and invisible, blah blah blah.

The problem with Kurzweil’s relentless campaign of self-aggrandizement is that it masks his many wonderful accomplishments. One of MIT’s most distinguished graduates, he helped invent the flatbed scanner, which birthed a computerized reading machine for the blind that has been miniaturized to the size of a cellphone. He also invented and commercialized a line of successful keyboard synthesizers widely used in the music industry. About 20 years ago, he changed his job description to “societal visionary,’’ where his track record has been uneven.

Take immortality. For quite a while, Kurzweil has been popping pills — he is now up to 200 a day — to “reprogram’’ his metabolism for extreme longevity and, with a little luck on the genomics front, maybe eternal life. “This mission to not die is the right course,’’ Kurzweil tells the movie camera. “I think I’ll make it through to where I could at least back myself up and have some protection against the dying of the light.’’

I don’t wish ill health on anyone, but it’s hard not to wonder: Will Ray live forever? He has type 2 diabetes (he claims his pill regimen “got rid of the profile of type 2 diabetes,’’ whatever that means) and recently had open-heart surgery.

He looks great for a 63-year-old, but . . . Wired magazine cofounder Kevin Kelly says it best, in the movie: “What happens 40 years from now when Ray dies and doesn’t have his father back?’’ Kurzweil thinks his father, and other dead people, might be revivified through their DNA. “His longing for this technology is heartwarming, but it isn’t going to happen,’’ Kelly comments.

The movie, which literally follows Kurzweil into the bathroom (ugh), does have some enjoyable moments. Inside his Newton home, stuffed with mementos to his considerable vanity, we catch a glimpse of his charming collection of cat figurines. In one scene, the 79-year-old William Shatner, who looks like a train hit him, remarks that Kurzweil looks pretty good. Kurzweil mentions his vast intake of vitamins, supplements, and other compounds, and, smiling shyly, admits that he sells this stuff on the Internet.

Indeed, there it is: “Ray and Terry’s Longevity Products.’’ Ray’s business partner is Dr. Terry Grossman, author of “The Baby Boomers’ Guide to Living Forever.’’ Talk about a dystopic future.

Don’t take my word for it. “Transcendent Man’’ will be available on iTunes March 1, and arrives at the Coolidge Corner Theatre next month.

Reality Byte Remember Byte, the cool hobbyist-computer magazine that used to come out of Peterborough, N.H.? Byte begat the whole computer publication industry that made people like Bill Ziff and Pat McGovern rich, and employed roughly half my friends at one time or another. The founders sold out to McGraw-Hill, which in turn sold the title to CMP Media. CMP turned Byte into an Internet-only publication until it croaked a few years ago.

Now a British-based company called United Business Media has hired technology columnist and writer Gina Smith to put the Byte lightning back in the bottle, if possible. Byte.com, based in San Francisco, “will serve as the professional’s guide to consumer technology, providing news, analysis, reviews, and insight across the media gamut — from slide shows and video, to written columns and news commentary,’’ according to a release.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.