Is genius immortal?

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  May 3, 2010

Heralded thinkers chase dreams far beyond societal conventions, and Kurzweil’s driving aspiration is, believe it or not, immortality. Really — he expects to be here when man fully merges with machine. As explained in his best-selling books Fantastic Voyage and Transcend — the former of which is subtitled Live Long Enough To Live Forever — he believes that, within the next 20 years, perfect, perpetual health will be facilitated by nanotechnological devices that float through our veins. Kurzweil’s path to infinite existence is as controversial as his flagship prediction, dubbed “Singularity,” which posits that human and computer intelligence will be indistinguishable by 2029.

Sound crazy? Sure, but before judging Kurzweil, consider that he correctly foresaw the schedule and completion of the Human Genome Project (in 2003), and that his newly opened Singularity University — dedicated to “enhancing our own intelligence by merging with intelligent technology” — is backed with extensive resources from both NASA and Google.

“This progression is exponential,” says Kurzweil, who charges that humans think in linear patterns, and hence have trouble understanding the rapid speed of technological advancement. Snacking on a bowl of blueberries, Kurzweil gives me the same pitch he gives every reporter, explaining in laymen’s terms (or as close to laymen’s terms as possible for such a complicated subject) a phenomenon he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns: “When I was in college, we all shared one computer that cost tens of millions of dollars and that took up half a building. This cell phone in my hand is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful — that’s a billion-fold increase. And in the next 25 years, there will be another billion-fold increase in the power of computation and the amount of memory per dollar.

“My predictions,” he says unflinchingly, reaching for more blueberries, “are never surprising when they come around.”

Family man
If Kurzweil’s intuitions continue to materialize, it might be wise to invest in the exhumation business. In what is certainly his most eyebrow-lifting mission yet, he plans to retrieve his father’s buried corpse and compile extracted DNA with his own memories in order to create a three-dimensional “facsimile” that (or who) can, say, carve the turkey on Thanksgiving. The Queens-raised Kurzweil was extremely close with his father, Fredric Kurzweil, a conductor and concert pianist who succumbed to heart disease in 1970 (a dark portrait of him hangs over his son’s desk). Kurzweil has spent the past 40 years imagining ways to reunite his family, and is currently digitizing more than 50 boxes of recordings, home movies, sheet music, books, and documents that Fredric left behind.

“It will eventually be feasible to create virtual people and give them an appearance and personality based on the knowledge that exists about a person,” says Kurzweil. “Would it be a perfect recreation of my father? No, but even if he had lived — and he would now be pushing 100 — he wouldn’t exactly be the same as he was in 1970, anyway. [The clone] would probably be a better representation of what he was when he died than he would have been if he had lived.”

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