Inventor and author Ray Kurzweil is 56 and, as he talks about in his new book, planning to live a long time. Forever, actually.
Ray Kurzweil hasn't given much thought to his epitaph or spent an afternoon shopping for a burial plot. It's not that the idea of death hasn't occurred to him; he's 56, his father died of a heart attack at 58, and heart disease claimed his paternal grandfather. Kurzweil just doesn't plan on dying. Ever. "I think death is a tragedy," he says. "We've rationalized that it's a good thing, because we've had no alternative."
Kurzweil, one of the most influential living inventors, expects that rapidly accelerating progress in the fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and medical devices will eradicate the scourge that is human expiration sometime within the next 50 years. His latest book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, coauthored with Dr. Terry Grossman and published this month, is almost certainly the first diet book that promises not just to help readers drop excess pounds but to render them immortal.
An MIT alumnus, Kurzweil knows a bit about rapidly accelerating progress. As an inventor, he has been responsible for breakthroughs in the fields of speech recognition and document scanning. He invented the first reading machine for the blind that was flexible enough to read any sort of printed matter. And prodded by Stevie Wonder, he produced the first electronic keyboard able to simulate the sounds of real orchestral instruments. Lately, he has been developing software to predict changes in the stock market -- software that he plans to use to start his own hedge fund.
Sipping green tea at his office in Wellesley Hills, Kurzweil is dressed in a blue pinstripe suit; with his gray-flecked hair ending in a duck's tail, he looks like a 1960s rock musician turned CPA. He speaks in carefully crafted paragraphs, and every movement is deliberate. He is an unswerving optimist who believes that new technologies will be able to solve the most pressing problems society faces, from terrorism to energy shortages to diseases. His guiding principle is what he calls the "law of accelerating returns." Because of exponential advances in science, Kurzweil and Grossman write in Fantastic Voyage, "the 21st century will equal 20,000 years of progress at today's rate of progress."
Kurzweil says he knew he wanted to be an inventor at age 5. As a student at MIT in the mid-1960s, he enrolled in every computer course and operated a business using mainframe computers to match high school students with appropriate colleges. The company later sold for $100,000 and helped pay his way through school. He went on to rack up 14 patents and got rich by taking his companies public and later selling them to acquirers like
Kurzweil became interested in the field of wellness at 35, when he was diagnosed with diabetes and found that conventional insulin treatment produced undesirable side effects. In their book, Kurzweil and Grossman advocate an array of common-sense wellness strategies for good health, like reducing one's intake of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol; adopting a low-impact exercise regime; and taking handfuls of dietary supplements. Kurzweil pops 250 pills a day and says he manages his diabetes without relying on insulin. "I really approach this as an engineer or a scientist," Kurzweil says. "I don't just take all these supplements based on general research. I see what effect they have on my biochemistry. I really view it that I'm aggressively reprogramming my biochemistry." He spends one day a week at an alternative-health clinic in Arlington, submitting to tests and receiving intravenous injections. Getting dosed with lecithin, he says, helps keep his cell membranes pliable, allowing nutrients in and toxins out.
Taking proper care of the body today, Kurzweil believes, is a necessary step on the path to immortality for himself and his fellow baby boomers. In 20 years, he predicts, biotechnology will be able to block the circuits that cause disease and will radically slow aging. After that, what he calls the "full blossoming of nanotechnology" will allow us to replace the fragile and diseaseprone cells we were born with, swapping our fading neurons with nano-engineered neurons that keep our memory forever sharp. He plans to be around for both those revolutions, whenever they occur.
Even some of his close friends, however, trust his business instincts more than his health advice. "I'm not as healthy in my behavior as Ray," says Michael Brown, the retired CFO of
Leonard Guarente, an MIT biology professor who has studied mechanisms in yeast and mice that extend their lives, says, "I don't throw around the word 'immortality' much myself." Others argue that humans weren't intended to have unlimited life spans.
In Kurzweil's view, what makes us human is our quest for knowledge and self-improvement, and to his mind, there are no problems that can't be solved through the application of ingenuity. "I don't define humanity in terms of our limitations," he says, "but rather by this quality of seeking to overcome our limitations. We didn't stay on the ground or on the planet, and we're not staying within the limitations of our biology."
Scott Kirsner, who writes the "@Large" column for the Globe's business section, also contributes to Wired and Fast Company.