In 30 Years, You May Be
Able To Upload Your Brain
By 2040 you will be able to upload your brain...or at least
that's what Ray Kurzweil thinks. He has spent his life inventing
machines that help people, from the blind to dyslexics. Now, he
believes we're on the brink of a new age the 'singularity'
when mind-boggling technology will allow us to email each
other toast, run as fast as Usain Bolt (for 15 minutes)
and even live forever. Is there sense to his science or
is the man who reasons that one day he'll bring his dad back from
the grave just a mad professor peddling a nightmare vision of
Should, by some terrible misfortune, Ray Kurzweil shuffle off
his mortal coil tomorrow, the obituaries would record an inventor
of rare and visionary talent. In 1976, he created the first machine
capable of reading books to the blind, and less than a decade
later he built the K250: the first music synthesizer to nigh-on
perfectly duplicate the sound of a grand piano. His Kurzweil 3000
educational software, which helps students with learning difficulties
such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, is likewise typical
of an innovator who has made his name by combining restless imagination
with technological ingenuity and a commendable sense of social
However, these past accomplishments, as impressive as they are,
would tell only half the Kurzweil story. The rest of his biography
the essence of his very existence, he would contend
belongs to the future.
Following the publication of his 2005 book, The Singularity is
Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Kurzweil has become known,
above all, as a technology speculator whose predictions have polarised
opinion from stone-cold scepticism and splenetic disagreement
to dedicated hero worship and admiration. It's not just that he
boldly envisions a tomorrow's world where, for example, tiny robots
will reverse the effects of pollution, artificial intelligence
will far outstrip (and supplement) biological human intelligence,
and humankind "will be able to live indefinitely without
ageing". No, the real reason Kurzweil has become such a magnet
for blogospheric debate, and a tech-celebrity, is that he's convinced
those future predictions and many more just as stunning
are imminent occurrences. They will all, he steadfastly
maintains, happen before the middle of the 21st century.
Which means, regarding the earlier allusion to his mortal coil,
that he doesn't plan to do any shuffling any time soon. Ray Kurzweil,
61, sincerely believes that his own immortality is a realistic
proposition... and just as strongly contends that, using a combination
of grave-site DNA and future technologies, he will be able to
reclaim his father, Fredric Kurzweil (the victim of a fatal heart
attack in 1970), from death.
Just when will this ultimate life-affirming feat be possible?
In Kurzweil's estimation, we will be able to upload the human
brain to a computer, capturing "a person's entire personality,
memory, skills and history", by the end of the 2030s; humans
and non-biological machines will then merge so effectively that
the differences between them will no longer matter; and, after
that, human intelligence, transformed for the better, will start
to expand outward into the universe, around about 2045. With this
last prediction, Kurzweil is referring not to any recognisable
type of space travel, but to a kind of space infusion. "Intelligence,"
he writes, "will begin to saturate the matter and energy
in its midst [and] spread out from its origin on Earth."
It's as well to mention at this point that, in 2005, Mikhail
Gorbachev personally congratulated Kurzweil for foreseeing the
pivotal role of communications technology in the collapse of the
Soviet Union, and that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates calls him
"the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial
intelligence". A man of lesser accomplishments, touting the
same head-spinning claims, would impress few beyond an inner circle
of sci-fi obsessives, but Kurzweil honoured as an inventor
by US presidents Lyndon B Johnson and Bill Clinton has
rightfully earned himself a stockpile of credibility.
In person, chewing pensively on a banana, the softly spoken,
slightly built Kurzweil looks chipper for his 61 years, and wears
an elegantly tailored suit. A father of two, he resides in the
Boston suburbs with his psychologist wife, Sonya, but has flown
into Los Angeles for a private screening of Transcendent Man,
the upcoming documentary that examines his life and theories over
a suitably cosmic score by Philip Glass. "People don't really
get their intellectual arms around the changes that are happening,"
he says, perched lightly on the edge of a large armchair, his
overall sheen of wellbeing perhaps a shade more encouraging than
you'd expect from a man of his age. "The issue is not just
[that] something amazing is going to happen in 2045," he
says. "There's something remarkable going on right now."
To understand exactly what he means, and why he thinks that his
predictions bear up to hard scrutiny, it's necessary to return
to the title of the above-mentioned book, and the grand idea on
which it's based: "the singularity".
Borrowed from black-hole physics, in which the singularity is
taken to signify what is unknowable, the term has been applied
to technology to suggest that we haven't really got a clue what's
going to happen once machines are vastly more "intelligent"
than humans. The singularity, writes Kurzweil, is "a future
period during which the pace of technological change will be so
rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly
transformed". He is not unique in his adoption of the idea
the information theorist John von Neumann hinted at it
in the 1950s; retired maths professor and sci-fi author Vernor
Vinge has been exploring it at length since the early 1980s
but Kurzweil's version is currently the most popular "singularitarian"
"I didn't come to these ideas because I had certain conclusions
and worked backwards," he explains. "In fact, I didn't
start looking for them at all. I was looking for a way to time
my inventions and technology projects as I realised timing was
the critical factor to success. And I made this discovery that
if you measure certain underlying properties of information technology,
it follows exquisitely predictable trajectories."
For Kurzweil, the crux of the singularity is that the pace of
technology is increasing at a super-fast, exponential rate. What's
more, there's also "exponential growth in the rate ' of exponential
growth". It is this understanding that gives him the confidence
to believe that technology through an explosion of progress
in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics will soon surpass
the limits of his imagination.
It is also why, in addition to bananas and the odd beneficial
glass of red wine, he follows a regime of around 200 vitamin pills
daily: not so much a diet as an attempt to "aggressively
re-programme" his biochemistry. He claims that tests have
shown he aged only two biological years over the course of 16
actual vitamin-popping years. He also says that, thanks to the
regime, he has effectively cured himself of Type 2 diabetes. Not
even open-heart surgery, which he underwent last year, and from
which he made a rapid recovery ("a few hours later I was
in the next room, and sent an email") could dent his convictions.
On the contrary, he thinks that the brevity of his convalescence
is proof positive that the pills are working. If he slows down
the ageing process, he reckons, he'll be around long enough to
witness the arrival of technology that will prolong his life...
Kurzweil was raised in Queens, New York, where two youthful obsessions
electronics and music would lead to a guest appearance
on the 1960s TV quiz show I've Got a Secret, on which (aged 17)
he showcased his first major invention: a home-made computer that
could compose tunes. Five years later came the death (in 1970,
when Ray was 22) of his father, Fredric, a struggling composer
and conductor who, Kurzweil believes, never really got his due.
"I'm painfully aware of the limitations he had, which were
not his fault," he says. "In that generation, information
about health was not very available, and we didn't have [today's]
resources for creating music. Now, a kid in a dorm room can create
a whole orchestral composition on a synthesizer."
The tragedy of that loss and the fact that the means to
repair a congenital heart defect were available to him, but not
his father is clearly an intense motivation for Kurzweil.
Sometime soon, he believes, he will once again be able to converse
with his father, such is the potential of the scientific advances
he believes will ultimately pave the way to the singularity. Not
everyone, though, concurs with his appraisal of technological
progress, and his belief in the imminence of immortality.
Memorably, in the Transcendent Man documentary, Kevin Kelly,
founding editor of future-thinking magazine Wired, labels Kurzweil
a "deluded dreamer" who is "performing the services
of a prophet". In reacting to that assessment, Kurzweil's
habitually mellow tone of voice takes on a hint albeit
mild of umbrage. "It's interesting that [Kelly] says
my views are 'hard-wired', when I actually think his views are
hard-wired," he says. "He's a linear thinker, and linear
thinking is hard-wired in our brains: it worked very well 1,000
years ago. Some people really are resistant to accepting this
exponential perspective, and they're very smart people. You show
them the data, and yes, they follow it, but they just cannot get
past it. Other people accept it readily."
Whereas Kelly differs from Kurzweil on the grounds of interpretation
and tone, other voices of dispute are rooted in a deep-seated
fear of technological calamity. "The form of opposition from
fundamentalist humanists, and fundamentalist naturalists
that we should make no change to nature [or] to human beings
is directly contrary to the nature of human beings, because we
are the species that goes beyond our limitations," counters
Kurzweil. "And I think that's quite a destructive school
of thought you can show that hundreds of thousands of kids
went blind in Africa due to the opposition to [genetically engineered]
golden rice. The opposition to genetically modified organisms
is just a blanket, reflexive opposition to the idea of changing
nature. Nature, and the natural human condition, generates tremendous
suffering. We have the means to overcome that, and we should deploy
To those opponents who detect a thick strain of techno-evangelism
in Kurzweil's basically optimistic interpretation of the singularity,
he reacts with self-parody: there's a tongue-in-cheek photo in
The Singularity is Near of the author wearing a sandwich board
bearing the book's title, and he insists he was never "searching
for an alternative to customary faith". At the same time,
he says humankind's inevitable move towards non-biological intelligence
is "an essentially spiritual undertaking".
Whether or not he attracts a significant following of dedicated
believers in search of deliverance, ecstasy or any variation thereof
(some commentators have called the singularity "the rapture
for geeks"), Kurzweil has undoubtedly positioned himself
at the heart of a growing singularity industry. He is a director
of the non-profit Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence,
"the only organisation that exists for the expressed purpose
of achieving the potential of smarter-than-human intelligence
safer and sooner"; there's a second film awaiting release
(part fiction, part documentary, co-produced by Kurzweil), also
based on The Singularity is Near; and in addition to his theoretical
books, he has co-authored a series of health titles, including
Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever and Fantastic Voyage:
Live Long Enough to Live Forever. The secret of immortality, he
wants you to know, is available in book form.
Those who have lent Kurzweil their support include space-travel
pioneer Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X-Prize Foundation; videogame
designer (and creator of Spore and SimCity) Will Wright; and Nobel
Prize-winning astrophysicist George Smoot. All three can be found
on the faculty and adviser list of the recently founded Singularity
University (Silicon Valley), of which Kurzweil is chancellor and
If the pace of technology continues to accelerate, as Kurzweil
predicts, it seems likely that discussion of the singularity will
see an exponential growth of its own. Few would dispute that it's
one of the 21st century's most compelling ideas, because it connects
issues that intensely polarise people (God, the energy crisis,
genetic engineering) with sci-fi concepts that stir the imagination
(artificial intelligence, immersive virtual reality, molecular
engineering). Thanks largely to Kurzweil and the singularity,
scenarios once viewed as diverting entertainment are being reappraised
with a new seriousness. The line between fanciful thinker and
credible, scientific analyst is becoming blurred: what once would
have been relegated to the realms of sci-fi is now gaining factual
"People can wax philosophically," says Kurzweil. "It's
very abstract whether it's a good thing to overcome death
or not but when it comes to some new methodology that's
a better treatment for cancer, there's no controversy. Nobody's
picketing doctors who put computers inside people's brains for
Parkinson's: it's not considered controversial."
Might that change as more people become aware of the singularity
and the pace of technological change? "People can argue about
it," says Kurzweil, relaxed as ever within his aura of certainty.
"But when it comes down to accepting each step along the
way, it's done really without much debate."
The greatest thing since sliced bread?
Ray Kurzweil's guide to incredible future technologies
and when he thinks they're likely to arrive...
1. Reconnaissance dust
"These so-called 'smart dust' tiny devices that are
almost invisible but contain sensors, computers and communication
capabilities are already being experimented with. Practical
use of these devices is likely within 10 to 15 years"
2. Nano assemblers
"Basically, these are three-dimensional printers that can
create a physical object from an information file and inexpensive
input materials. So we could email a blouse or a toaster or even
the toast. There is already an industry of three-dimensional printers,
and the resolution of the devices that can be created is getting
finer and finer. The nano assembler would assemble devices from
molecules and molecular fragments, and is about 20 years away"
"A respirocyte is a nanobot (a blood cell-sized device)
that is designed to replace our biological red blood cells but
is 1,000 times more capable. If you replaced a portion of your
biological red blood cells with these robotic versions you could
do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath, or
sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for four hours. These are
about 20 years away" '
"Foglets are a form of nanobots that can reassemble themselves
into a wide variety of objects in the real world, essentially
bringing the rapid morphing qualities of virtual reality to real
reality. Nanobots that can perform useful therapeutic functions
in our bodies, essentially keeping us healthy from inside, are
only about 20 years away. Foglets are more advanced and are probably
30 to 40 years away"
5. Blue goo
"The concern with full-scale nanotechnology and nanobots
is that if they had the capability to replicate in a natural environment
(as bacteria and other pathogens do), they could destroy humanity
or even all of the biomass. This is called the grey goo concern.
When that becomes feasible we will need a nanotechnology immune
system. The nanobots that would be protecting us from harmful
self-replicating nanobots are called blue goo (blue as in police).
This scenario is 20 to 30 years away"