Ray Kurzweil must encounter his share of interviewers whose first question is: What do you hope your obituary will say?
This is a trick question. Mr. Kurzweil famously hopes an obituary won’t be necessary. And in the event of his unexpected demise, he is widely reported to have signed a deal to have himself frozen so his intelligence can be revived when technology is equipped for the job.
Mr. Kurzweil is the closest thing to a Thomas Edison of our time, an inventor known for inventing. He first came to public attention in 1965, at age 17, appearing on Steve Allen’s TV show “I’ve Got a Secret” to demonstrate a homemade computer he built to compose original music in the style of the great masters.
In the five decades since, he has invented technologies that permeate our world. To give one example, the Web would hardly be the store of human intelligence it has become without the flatbed scanner and optical character recognition, allowing printed materials from the pre-digital age to be scanned and made searchable.
If you are a musician, Mr. Kurzweil’s fame is synonymous with his line of music synthesizers (now owned by Hyundai). As in: “We’re late for the gig. Don’t forget the Kurzweil.”
If you are blind, his Kurzweil Reader relieved one of your major disabilities—the inability to read printed information, especially sensitive private information, without having to rely on somebody else.
In January, he became an employee at Google GOOG +0.57% . “It’s my first job,” he deadpans, adding after a pause, “for a company I didn’t start myself.”
There is another Kurzweil, though—the one who makes seemingly unbelievable, implausible predictions about a human transformation just around the corner. This is the Kurzweil who tells me, as we’re sitting in the unostentatious offices of Kurzweil Technologies in Wellesley Hills, Mass., that he thinks his chances are pretty good of living long enough to enjoy immortality. This is the Kurzweil who, with a bit of DNA and personal papers and photos, has made clear he intends to bring back in some fashion his dead father.
Mr. Kurzweil’s frank efforts to outwit death have earned him an exaggerated reputation for solemnity, even caused some to portray him as a humorless obsessive. This is wrong. Like the best comedians, especially the best Jewish comedians, he doesn’t tell you when to laugh. Of the pushback he receives from certain theologians who insist death is necessary and ennobling, he snarks, “Oh, death, that tragic thing? That’s really a good thing.”
“People say, ‘Oh, only the rich are going to have these technologies you speak of.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, like cellphones.’ ”
To listen to Mr. Kurzweil or read his several books (the latest: “How to Create a Mind”) is to be flummoxed by a series of forecasts that hardly seem realizable in the next 40 years. But this is merely a flaw in my brain, he assures me. Humans are wired to expect “linear” change from their world. They have a hard time grasping the “accelerating, exponential” change that is the nature of information technology.
“A kid in Africa with a smartphone is walking around with a trillion dollars of computation circa 1970,” he says. Project that rate forward, and everything will change dramatically in the next few decades.
“I’m right on the cusp,” he adds. “I think some of us will make it through”—he means baby boomers, who can hope to experience practical immortality if they hang on for another 15 years.
By then, Mr. Kurzweil expects medical technology to be adding a year of life expectancy every year. We will start to outrun our own deaths. And then the wonders really begin. The little computers in our hands that now give us access to all the world’s information via the Web will become little computers in our brains giving us access to all the world’s information. Our world will become a world of near-infinite, virtual possibilities.
How will this work? Right now, says Mr. Kurzweil, our human brains consist of 300 million “pattern recognition” modules. “That’s a large number from one perspective, large enough for humans to invent language and art and science and technology. But it’s also very limiting. Maybe I’d like a billion for three seconds, or 10 billion, just the way I might need a million computers in the cloud for two seconds and can access them through Google.”
We will have vast new brainpower at our disposal; we’ll also have a vast new field in which to operate—virtual reality. “As you go out to the 2040s, now the bulk of our thinking is out in the cloud. The biological portion of our brain didn’t go away but the nonbiological portion will be much more powerful. And it will be uploaded automatically the way we back up everything now that’s digital.”
“When the hardware crashes,” he says of humanity’s current condition, “the software dies with it. We take that for granted as human beings.” But when most of our intelligence, experience and identity live in cyberspace, in some sense (vital words when thinking about Kurzweil predictions) we will become software and the hardware will be replaceable.
Which brings us to his father, a gifted musician and composer whose early death from heart disease left a profound mark on Mr. Kurzweil. Understand: He is not talking about growing a biological person in a test-tube and requiring him to be Dad. “DNA is just one kind of information,” Mr. Kurzweil says. So are the documents his father left behind, and the memories residing in the brains of friends and family. In the virtual world that’s coming, it will be possible to assemble an avatar more like his father than his father ever was—exactly the father Mr. Kurzweil remembers.
“My work on this project right now is to maintain these files,” he adds, referring to Dad’s memorabilia.
Mr. Kurzweil grew up in Queens, N.Y., and went to MIT. Looking back on his inventions, a common theme since that first music composer has been pattern recognition—which he believes is the essence of human thinking and the essence of the better-than-human artificially-enhanced intelligence that we are evolving toward.
The same work now continues at Google. Last July, Mr. Kurzweil was hunting investors for a new project. He pitched Google co-founder Larry Page. Mr. Page’s response was to ask why Mr. Kurzweil didn’t pursue his project inside Google, since Google controlled resources that Mr. Kurzweil surely would not be able to replicate outside. “Larry was actually more low-key and subtle than that,” Mr. Kurzweil says now, “but that’s how I interpreted the pitch. And he was right.”
To wit, the knowledge graph—Google’s map of billions of Web objects and concepts, and the billions of relationships among them—would be immeasurably handy to Mr. Kurzweil’s ambition to recreate human-style pattern recognition, especially as it relates to language, in computers. The two agreed on a one-sentence job description: “to bring natural language understanding to Google.”
Mr. Kurzweil and his Google team will be tackling a project begun by IBM’s IBM +0.52% Watson, which fed its brain by reading Wikipedia. What Watson understood is hard to say, but—helped by brute processing power—Watson was famously able to beat all-time “Jeopardy” champions to intuit that, for instance, “a tiresome speech delivered by a frothy pie topping” was a “meringue harangue.”
Mr. Kurzweil’s goal is to enable Google’s search engine to read, hear and understand human semantics. “The idea is to create a system that’s expert in everything it has read and make that expertise available to the world,” he says.
Mr. Kurzweil, at age 65, claims he has become just another Googler living in San Francisco and “riding the Google bus to work every day.” But his employer also wants him to remain a “world thought leader”—a term not so grandiose as it seems when you consider all the Davos-type pontificators who exercise global influence without having hatched an original thought.
Mr. Kurzweil’s ideas on death and immortality, not his impressive record as an entrepreneur, are what bring TV newsmagazines and print reporters to his door these days. I suggest to him he’s discovered the power of the prophetic voice and is borne forward by the rewarding feelings that come from giving people hope in the face of their profoundest fears.
My insight does not impress him. He says he just gets satisfaction from seeing his ideas, like his inventions, wield a positive force in the world. People blame technology for humanity’s problems, he says. They are much too pessimistic about its power to solve poverty, disease and pollution in our lifetimes.
By the same token, people need to prepare themselves for a downside they haven’t experienced yet. “How many people have been harmed by biotechnology? Approximately zero. But when it’s a problem, it’s going to be a big problem,” he says. (Starting more than a decade ago, Mr. Kurzweil began helping the U.S. Army develop countermeasures to a potential terrorist superbug.)
Mr. Kurzweil tells me he objects to some people’s insinuation that he’s religiously motivated, that “I’m trying to start a religion.” He simply believes what his data are telling him: The rise of computational technology is exponential, and astonishingly smooth and predictable through wars, depressions, history. His aim in the first instance was the practical one of making sure his own technology ventures succeeded in the market. Today, his goals are still practical.
One is to keep himself alive until some form of technological immortality becomes possible. Two of his seven books are on nutrition and health. A Kurzweil-co-founded company even sells “longevity products,” and Mr. Kurzweil himself takes more than 150 pills and supplements a day. As the subtitle of one of his books puts it, “Live long enough to live forever.”
But be warned: There is no magic pill. Mr. Kurzweil submits to a relentless series of blood tests to monitor his efforts to reprogram his body chemistry against aging and against inherited propensities for diabetes and heart disease. “I’m reasonably confident that I will make it,” he adds. “But it’s not guaranteed. There are still many diseases we don’t have an answer to, though I do have some good ideas about cancer and heart disease.” If diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, he adds, he already has plans to put aside his other projects and develop a cure.
Which creates a moral quandary for anyone tempted to wish Mr. Kurzweil good health. But this is one wisecrack I keep to myself.
– HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR., The Wall Street Journal