Famed futurist sees

Technology pioneer, entrepreneur, and futurist Ray Kurzweil, 56, invented the flatbed scanner, developed the first text-to-speech reading machine for the blind, and was the first to market large-vocabulary speech recognition technology, among many other achievements. In his latest book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, Kurzweil and coauthor Terry Grossman, explain how new technologies will push human life spans into virtual immortality.

How does computer technology fit into your plan to “live long enough to live forever”?

Computers are playing a vital role in biotechnology. We’re starting to place computerized biochemical sensors in our bodies that can monitor our health and make diagnostic decisions. An artificial pancreas is now undergoing clinical trials; it combines a glucose sensor, an insulin pump, and a computer, all embedded inside the patient’s body.

The killer app for nanotechnology, about 20 years away, is nanobots. Inside our bodies and brains, nanobots will provide radical life extension by destroying pathogens and cancer cells, repairing DNA errors, destroying toxins and debris, and otherwise reversing aging processes. Nanobots are computer-based robots small enough to travel in our bloodstream.

Is technological advancement a double-edged sword?

You don’t have to look further than the 20th century to see the deeply intertwined promise and peril of technology. The 21st-century technologies have the potential to overcome problems that humanity has struggled with for eons. We’ve actually done well with the test case of software viruses. Although they remain a problem, and always will be a problem, the technological “immune system” that has developed in response has managed to keep pace. If we do as well with biological viruses, self-replicating nanotechnology, and other future dangers, we will be able to keep a step or two ahead of the perils.

What else can nanobots do?

Nanobots in the capillaries of our brains will interact with our biological neurons to vastly expand our biological intelligence. Once non-biological intelligence gets a foothold in our brains (a threshold that we have already passed since we do have a growing arsenal of neural implants), it will grow in capacity by at least doubling every year. In comparison, our biological intelligence is essentially fixed in capacity. The crossover point will be in the 2020s. By the 2030s, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will predominate.

How has voice recognition succeeded and failed?

There are millions of people using large-vocabulary speech recognition to create text, although it is still a small percentage of the hundreds of millions of computer users. Accuracy continues to improve gradually, and this technology will ultimately be even more widespread.

You can speak to British Airways’ virtual travel agent about anything you want, so long as it has to do with making reservations on British Airways.This will be very widespread over the next several years.

Your idea that nanotechnology-based self-replication will be a reality in 2020 scares the hell out of me. Should I be worried?

As I mentioned, it’s a real concern. However, consider the following perspective. When the first software virus emerged, observers said that they would eventually become much more sophisticated and destroy the Internet. The first part of that prediction turned out to be true, but not the second part. That’s because the defensive technologies evolved along with the offensive ones. That’s the same strategy we need to follow with these 21st-century technologies.