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On the Road to Immortality

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Rick Friedman/Corbis
Ray Kurzweil, surrounded by some of the foods he recommends for living a longer life, November 2004

First published in 2009, and more recently in a paperback edition, Transcend presents “an easy-to-follow program”—“a comprehensive exercise program, sample menus and recipes, precise dosages for supplements, when and where to obtain blood tests, and many other helpful details.” The program’s initial goal is “to slow down and in many cases to stop the processes that lead to disease and aging” so that we can “live—well—for decades longer than what we now consider a long life.” But the promise that Kurzweil and Grossman’s manual holds out is not just more years of healthy life. The aim is not longevity, but immortality. “If you stay on the cutting edge of our rapidly expanding knowledge, you can indeed live long enough to live forever.”

An earlier book by Kurzweil and Grossman, Fantastic Voyage (2004), acknowledges that these are far-reaching claims: “We felt that fantastic claims required fantastic evidence, so we needed to offer rigorous support.” Fantastic Voyage contains around one thousand citations from scientific and medical literature, while Transcend is very largely composed of detailed advice on diet, exercise, and preventive medicine. A fuller statement of the ideas that underpin Transcend can be found in Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005), where he spelled out the argument that a sudden acceleration in the growth of knowledge is about to make immortality technologically feasible. He specified a time when this event would occur: “I set the date for the Singularity—representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability—as 2045.”

A part of the argument concerns the transformation the human body will undergo as a result of the explosive increase of knowledge he believes is imminent. Nanotechnology will enable the design of nanobots—tiny robots operating at the molecular level—that will “have myriad roles within the human body, including reversing human aging (to the extent that this task will not already have been completed through biotechnology, such as genetic engineering).” Reengineered and indefinitely renewable, our bodies will allow us to overcome the limitations that go with having any genetically preordained lifetime.

But this will still not be immortality, and perfecting the human body is a phase in a much larger transformation. The use of nanobots in the human brain will enable them to interact with biological neurons and

once nonbiological intelligence gets a foothold in the human brain (this has already started with computerized neural implants), the machine intelligence in our brains will grow exponentially (as it has been doing all along)…. Thus, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will ultimately predominate.

Nanobots will have the ability “to vastly extend human experience by creating virtual reality from within the nervous system.” Rather than being confined in a single body, we will be able to construct multiple bodies for ourselves at will in virtual environments—a process that will continue “until nonbiological intelligence comes close to ‘saturating’ the matter and energy in our vicinity of the universe with our human-machine intelligence…. Ultimately, the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence.” This is “the purpose of the universe,” which “reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.” This fusion of human-machine intelligence with the universe may already be underway:

Having reached a tipping point, we will within this century be ready to infuse our solar system with our intelligence through self-replicating nonbiological intelligence. It will then spread out to the rest of the universe.

As Kurzweil is fond of observing, these are radical ideas. Aside from the new technologies that he invokes, however, they cannot be described as novel. The crystallographer J.D. Bernal, a Marxist who in the interwar years was one of the most influential British scientists, envisioned a future in which humans would become cyborgs, with their brains encased in cylinders that could be wired up to allow them to exchange thoughts without the need for speech, and would eventually cease to be distinct physical beings. In his book The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Inquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, Bernal wrote:

Consciousness itself may end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherialized, losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light.1

Bernal’s use of the symbolic language of religion—the world, the flesh, and the devil—points to the sources of his vision of the human future, which is in many ways a precursor of that expounded in The Singularity Is Near. Like Bernal, Kurzweil sees his thinking as inspired by science; but his ideas display clear affinities with some that have been central in religion. The notion that the essence of humanity is a spark of consciousness in a mortal body is a feature of some versions of Christianity and Platonism and figured in Gnostic traditions, which viewed humans as souls that were condemned to live in a dark material world. The idea of the Singularity echoes apocalyptic myths in which history is about to be interrupted by a world-transforming event.

The vision of a merger of expanded human consciousness with a self-aware universe appears in many occult and theosophical writings and in some versions of process theology, which view deity as something that emerges from within the world. The twentieth-century French Jesuit thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin believed that matter was evolving and becoming ever more conscious, a process that would culminate in an “Omega Point” at which the universe would be a single self-aware being. There is nothing in Kurzweil’s work suggesting that he is familiar with any of these thinkers and traditions. Yet to a large extent what he is presenting is a mix of ideas whose historical provenance is not scientific inquiry but mystical speculation—a very different mode of thinking.

By themselves these affinities do not invalidate Kurzweil’s arguments. But they suggest that when he invokes science to support his claims he runs a risk of blurring intellectual boundaries, and he crosses one such boundary when he invokes the theory of evolution in support of his vision of human development. A key advance of Darwin’s account of natural selection is that it dispenses with any idea of purpose in nature. As Darwin understood it, evolution has no goal, and for that very reason it cannot be defined as a process of development from simpler to more complex forms of life. Yet the idea of evolution has very often been interpreted in this way, and in turn conflated with ideas of progress. Herbert Spencer, the Victorian prophet of laissez-faire capitalism who coined the expression “survival of the fittest,” thought of evolution as a process of increasing complexity, whose endpoint was a universal state of equilibrium.

Kurzweil’s view is similar. He does not define evolution simply as a matter of increasing complexity—“evolution increases order, which may or may not increase complexity (but usually does),” he writes. But evolution is essentially progressive:

Technology…enables our next step in evolution. Progress (further increases in order) will then be based on thinking processes that occur at the speed of light rather than in very slow electrochemical reactions.

In this passage, which encapsulates much of his thinking, Kurzweil departs from a scientific account of evolution in two related but distinct ways: he introduces an idea of purpose into evolution for which Darwin’s theory (surely the best theory of evolution that science has produced) has no place; and he identifies the goal of evolution—increasing “order”—with progress, a normative judgment that has no place in science. Kurzweil then makes a third claim, possibly the most important of all and certainly nonscientific in nature, when he argues that the purpose of human life is to promote progress in this evolutionary sense:

In my view the purpose of life—and of our lives—is to create and appreciate ever-greater knowledge, to move toward greater “order.” …The purpose of the universe reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.

Though Kurzweil claims that it is grounded in science, the Singularity is not a scientific theory: it is meant to be a life-changing idea.

To truly understand it inherently changes one’s view of life in general and one’s own particular life. I regard someone who understands the Singularity and who has reflected on its implications for his or her own life as a “singularitarian.”

What Kurzweil does not adequately explain is why anyone should want to be a singularitarian. In what sense is the life of a human being enhanced, if—as a consequence of the Singularity—he or she no longer has the attributes that have in the past made them human? It is a question Kurzweil has anticipated:

There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality. If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human in such a world, it’s simply this quality: ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations.

He reiterates this view when he states:

To me, the essence of being human is not our limitations—although we do have many—it’s our ability to reach beyond our limitations.

Given his forecast of how deeply human life will alter in the next few decades, Kurzweil might have been expected to reject the claim that there is any such thing as the essence of being human. But even if his conception of humans as essentially self-transcending beings is accepted, nothing follows about the kind of life to which humans should strive. Citing Nietzsche’s dictum “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and overman—a rope over an abyss,” he interprets it as meaning that “we have advanced beyond other animals while seeking to become something far greater.” But if the goal is a condition in which humans have transcended nearly everything that made them human, how are we to decide the direction in which we should now advance?

Self-evidently, there are many different ways in which humans can reach beyond their current limitations. Nietzsche believed that any morality based on sympathy or compassion imposes needless limits on human development. On what basis might Kurzweil resist Nietzsche’s view? He cannot appeal to the fact that sympathy for others is inherent in the human species, for he tells us that “a species is a biological concept, and what we are doing is transcending biology.” In order to have grounds for rejecting Nietzschean ethics, Kurzweil needs a more fully fleshed-out account of the human good; but since any plausible account would necessarily include the human limitations to which sympathy and compassion respond, no such grounds are available to him.

Kurzweil might object that what is essentially human is self-transcendence of a particular kind. Humans transcend themselves by extending their knowledge—a process that produces increasing order, he maintains. He defines order as “information that fits a purpose,” where the purpose in question is presumably that which he attributes to the world as a whole—increasing order. Order comes in many forms, however, not all of which are humanly valuable.

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Christian Darkin/Photo Researchers
A computer rendering of nanobots—tiny robots operating at the molecular level—working on brain cells

The highest point of order in Kurzweil’s account is a kind of cosmic consciousness—a state in which human individuality, at least in the forms in which it has been known hitherto, has been extinguished. Even a partial move toward such a mode of consciousness could undermine human values. A novella by George Eliot, “The Lifted Veil” (1859), tells how the narrator, gifted with the ability to read the thoughts of others, is repulsed by what he learns of their motivations; the unwanted ability destroys his marriage, and he dies soon after his wife leaves him. The emergence of a type of planetary consciousness could have similar dangers. Numerous writers have looked forward to such a development in the hope that that it would enable humankind to overcome its problems. The idea that the human species might evolve into a collective mind was anticipated by the science fiction author Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men (1930) and by H.G. Wells in a collection of essays, World Brain (1938).2

More recently, Michael Chorost in World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet3 has welcomed the development of what he calls “collective telempathy”—a state in which neural activity can be transferred directly between individuals. “With humanity telempathically linked in a World Wide Mind,” Chorost writes, “moods would spread among far larger groups. Entire ethnic groups, or entire countries, might have moods from day to day. We would hope, of course, that the collective effect is positive.”

As Sue Halpern has suggested in her recent review of World Wide Mind, new processes may be developing that could allow us to read each others’ thoughts. But it is hard to see how the effects of more fully developed technologies of thought-reading could be uniformly benign. With enmities among groups and divisions in society more transparent than they are now, moods of animosity would likely spread far more quickly. Perhaps these dangers would be transitional, so that evils such as ethnic hatred would disappear once full-scale collective consciousness was attained. The trouble is that much of what is good in human lives would also disappear. The experiences we find most valuable—love and courage, glimpses of beauty and acts of heroism, together with the joys of everyday life—require a form of personal identity in which human beings are separate and different from one another. As the differences between people were erased, these goods would cease to be possible. The question remains: Why should anyone devote themselves to furthering an idea of progress when it involves the loss of so much that gives meaning to our lives?

One answer may be found in Kurzweil’s belief that a technological version of human immortality can be achieved as a byproduct of the increase of knowledge. Let us leave on one side whether the kind of immortality he envisions is scientifically feasible. No one can know how far science may advance; it may be that the development of nano robots and other advances of the magnitude he forecasts will come to pass, perhaps in the near future. The issue is whether the immortality that Kurzweil believes science can make possible is humanly valuable. Here Kurzweil encounters some of the difficulties faced by more overtly religious thinking. It has always been unclear just what it is that survives death in traditional accounts of the afterlife: If it is a soul or spirit of some kind that survives, can that disembodied entity truly be the person who once lived?

Kurzweil’s account is equally open to question. Immortality as he understands it involves uploading information stored in our brains and preserving it in virtual form:

Currently, when our human hardware crashes, the software of our lives—our personal “mind file”—dies with it. However, this will not continue to be the case when we have the means to store and restore the thousands of trillions of bytes of information represented in the pattern that we call our brains…. Ultimately software-based humans will be vastly extended beyond the severe limitations of humans as we know them today. They will live out on the Web, projecting bodies wherever they need or want them, including virtual bodies in diverse realms of virtual reality.

Kurzweil attempts to answer the objection that this will not be the person who once lived: “Is this form of immortality the same concept as a physical human, as we know it today, living forever? In one sense it is, because today one’s self is not a constant collection of matter, either.” But the discontinuity between the person who once lived and the information scanned from their brain that is stored on the Web may be greater than he implies.

Without denying their importance, Kurzweil sidesteps questions about consciousness throughout much of his discussion. “There exists no objective test that can conclusively determine its presence,” he writes, whereas “science is about objective measurements and their logical implications.” However, the fact that it cannot be objectively measured does not mean that consciousness poses no difficulties for Kurzweil’s idea of immortality. The problem is not only that there is a radical difference between the sentient individual and the information that has been preserved in cyberspace. It is that only aspects of the person that can be rendered into bits of information will be preserved. Plainly, a file containing all the data that can be extracted from a living person’s brain can survive the death of that person. But the file is not the person, for the file leaves out anything that cannot be programmed. What survives is a shadow of the person, lacking even the vestigial self-awareness of the shades that populate the afterworld in ancient Greek myth.

Interestingly, Kurzweil accepts that this shadow may not be immortal:

For eons the longevity of our mental software has been inexorably linked to the survival of our biological hardware. Being able to capture and reinstatiate all the details of our information processes would indeed separate these two aspects of our mortality. But…software itself does not necessarily survive forever, and there are formidable obstacles to its enduring very long at all.

Any hope of immortality must then depend on his claim that a type of human-machine intelligence is evolving, which will eventually extend to the rest of the universe:

Our civilization will…expand outward, turning all the dumb matter and energy we encounter into sublimely intelligent—transcendent—matter and energy…. The Singularity will ultimately infuse the universe with spirit…. So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God.

By his own admission, the Singularity is a religious conception. Yet presumably an intelligent universe would still be a material structure, with a finite lifetime like the universe in current cosmology. Kurzweil tries to avoid any clash with scientific materialism, writing, “Although I have been called a materialist, I regard myself as a ‘patternist.’ It’s through the emergent powers of the pattern that we transcend.” No doubt patterns can persist throughout many changes in the material structures in which they are embodied; but unless they have some independent reality—like Plato’s timeless forms—they will vanish when their material substratum is destroyed. Without a metaphysic of this kind, Kurzweil can have no reason for thinking that a divinized cosmos would not collapse on itself just as our own universe is expected to do—or for believing that patterns extracted from human brains could somehow be everlasting.

If the prospect of living forever that is held out in Transcend is unconvincing, it is not because the science Kurzweil invokes is necessarily mistaken. On that one can reasonably remain agnostic. The difficulty is that little of human value will be preserved in the afterlife he envisions, while much continues to be at risk in the world below. The memory files that float in the ether will depend for their continued existence on disks and computers—material things that decay and fail. A regime of diet, exercise, and preventive medicine may extend longevity beyond its natural limit, but will not prevent an untimely death if society breaks down in war or economic collapse. Nor can a type of ersatz immortality in a virtual world protect humanity or the planet from the destructive effects of climate change. Kurzweil may be sustained by a vision of deathless existence on the Web. But the civilization that maintains the Web stands on mortal human beings, whose problems cannot be solved by fleeing into cyberspace.

  1. 1

    Dutton, 1929, p. 47. 

  2. 2

    For a discussion of Stapledon and Wells’s ideas, see George B. Dyson, Darwin among the Machines (Helix, 1997), pp. 10–11, 199–217. Dyson’s book remains one of the best discussions of the issues raised by artificial intelligence. 

  3. 3

    Free Press, 2011; reviewed in these pages by Sue Halpern, June 23, 2011. 

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