Is genius immortal?

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  May 3, 2010

Like Edison, who started 14 industrial powerhouses, including General Electric, Kurzweil has launched more than 10 major companies, including a hedge fund designed to subsidize his AI and nanotech projects. His latest business venture is the e-reader software Blio, which will soon come pre-installed on tens of millions of smart phones and computers. Unlike the Amazon Kindle and comparable “e-ink” devices, Blio can present books in various formats, and with pictures, animation, social-networking features, and realistic page-turning. You won’t need an expensive iPhone or iPad for access, either — you just need to pay for volumes (either that or read the several million free selections). Using Kurzweil’s patented flatbed scanners, programmers are currently uploading texts from approximately 40,000 publishers (including every major imprint).

Kurzweil has had Blio-esque notions for years without a willing public to embrace them. So today’s flourishing e-book market is a timely confluence for his lifelong ambition to tweak the larger population’s reading habits. In 1997, he even gave a keynote speech to the American Library Association, in which he decimated the Dewey Decimal System and told attendees that they would soon be downloading books from thin air. Needless to say, the audience was unconvinced, if not unsettled. Which is why he waited so long to concoct a mainstream instrument like Blio; if there’s one aspect of his business acumen that distinguishes Kurzweil from his contemporaries, it’s strategy.

“Most inventors fail not because they couldn’t get their inventions to work,” claims Kurzweil, “but because their timing is wrong. . . . My real objective is that people use something because they actually want to use it, and they keep using it because it contributes something to their lives. I’ve probably received more than 1000 albums from musicians who felt that they couldn’t have created their music without our technology. The Who didn’t use our products [in their February Super Bowl halftime performance] because we paid them. They used them because they’re fans, and that’s a thrill.”

Transcendent man
At the one-hour mark of our interview, I remind Kurzweil that our allotted time has expired. But he’s characteristically calm and in no rush — perhaps since he plans to live forever — and, instead of stopping, segues into a show-stopping conversation piece: “I should explain the three bridges to radical life extension.”

Still munching on berries, he extols the Bridge One virtues of exercise and healthy living. Such measures, he says, are necessary to reach Bridge Two, where, starting about 15 years from now, Kurzweil says humans will be able to re-program our basic chemistry with powerful drugs (including one that will block fat storage to keep people trim). Bridge Three — which traverses the blood-cell-bot-driven “Nanotechnology Revolution,” as he calls it — is where critics especially seek to burn Kurzweil’s theories.

There has been much blowback against his notion of Singularity, and Kurzweil’s immortal aspirations also draw significant ire from respectable dissenters. Fortune labeled him “the smartest (or the nuttiest) futurist on Earth”; Pulitzer Prize–winning scientist Douglas Hofstadter once described his work as “a bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid with ideas that are crazy”; this past year, in a blistering Newsweek feature, “Fake Steve Jobs” blogger Daniel Lyons called him an “armchair futurist,” and lambasted Kurzweil for mistakenly predicting that the Internet stock bubble would stretch through 2009. “By the middle of this century,” Lyons tweaks, “the only way for us to keep up will be to merge with the machines so that their superior intelligence can boost our weak little brains and beef up our pitiful, illness-prone bodies.”

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