Ray Kurzweil: the 'guru' with a quest for immortality

Inventor Ray Kurzweil's suprisingly popular vision of the future is populated by 'superhuman cyborgs' where he lives on forever as a computer named Ramona.

Forbes magazine once described Ray Kurzweil, 60, as "the ultimate thinking machine". He certainly believes in keeping the mechanism well oiled. America's top futurist takes so many vitamin and mineral supplements (up to 210 a day) that he has a dedicated "pill wrangler" to sort them out. He reckons that if he can hang on for 20 years, the technology will be in place to give him a fighting chance of immortality.

It's easy to dismiss Kurzweil as a sci-fi freak, but his ideas are taken seriously by much of the US scientific establishment. He has just become chancellor of a new institute: the Singularity University, based at Nasa's Silicon Valley campus, and backed by such luminaries as Google co-founder Larry Page and Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation.

The school takes its name from Kurzweil's 2005 bestseller

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The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

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, in which he argues that artificial intelligence will soon outstrip human brainpower, says BusinessWeek. Man will merge with machine via "nanobots": tiny robotic devices implanted in our bodies and brains, extending lifespans and vastly enhancing our mental prowess. Bionic brains, Kurzweil says, will make short work of the world's intractable problems, from climate change to disease.

"My ideas challenge people's most basic assumptions about life, death and what it means to be human," he says. One reason he is taken so seriously, says Business Wire, is his record as an inventor: "a modern Edison", credited with everything from the first flat-bed scanner to the algorithms that formed the basis of the Lexis and Nexis database engines.

In 1976, he created a TV storm when Walter Cronkite's famous sign-off "and that's the way it is" was read not by the anchorman but by a Kurzweil Reading Machine. It cost $50,000, was the size of a washing machine and Stevie Wonder was the first customer.

A key driver behind his quest to fuse computing with biotechnology was his "unlucky genes", says Wired. Both his father and grandfather died young of heart disease; Kurzweil himself was diagnosed with high cholesterol and incipient type-two diabetes. "He felt his bad luck as a cloud hanging over his life." Hope lay in the power of Moore's Law. This is Intel co-founder Gordon Moore's claim that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles roughly every 18 months, suggesting that "just about any limit on computing power" can be overcome. Kurzweil saw the truth of the theorem in his own work. "Computers have become so fast and small they've nearly disappeared." The huge Kurzweil Reader is now just software running on a Nokia phone.

Kurzweil has no plans to retire, intending to "sustain himself indefinitely through his intelligence", says Wired. He keeps fit, judging the risk of cycling through the Boston suburbs to be offset by the "physical conditioning" it gives him. To die "a heart attack just before the singularity occurred... would be tragically bad luck. Like being the last soldier shot down on the Western Front moments before the armistice was proclaimed."

Ray Kurzweil: the three bridges to eternal life

Kurzweil talks of three "bridges" to immortality. The first is to adopt a healthy lifestyle to maximise your chances of reaching the 125-year limit of our 'natural' span.

The second is when biotechnology begins fixing some of the causes of ageing, letting us surpass this limit.

The third, says Wired, is when computers are able to model human consciousness, so we can "download our personalities... As long as we maintain multiple copies of ourselves to protect against a system crash, we won't die." Kurzweil hopes to live on as a computer named Ramona ("women are more interesting than men"). He aims one day to have real human experiences, "both with her and as her".

Unsurprisingly, his vision of a world of "superhuman cyborgs" has its critics, says BusinessWeek. They question Kurzweil's assumption of continuing leaps in computing power, and doubt neuroscientists will ever be able to reverse-engineer such a complex structure as the human brain. Others question the ethics of "a painful muddle of science and science fiction" leading to "a future we might not even want".

Yet plenty of Silicon Valley CEOs seem to be signing up for Singularity University courses, to learn how they can best position their businesses for the revolution, says BusinessWeek.