Could we live forever? (Or at least centuries?) Kurzweil thinks so

Yesterday I wrote about Ray Kurzweil’s idea that humans and machines will eventually merge, at which point the human species will be transformed into something altogether different. I failed to mention that Kurzweil’s track record for prediction is impressive, especially when it comes to matters involving computers and information technology.

He predicted, for example, the demise of the Soviet Union caused in part by then-new technologies such as cell phones and fax machines, which removed state control over the flow of information. He said in 1990 that a computer would beat the best human chess players by 1998; in fact, IBM’s Deep Blue beat world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. When there were only 2.6 million Internet users worldwide, Kurzweil said Internet usage would explode.

Now, Kurzweil is saying that in the not-too-distant future – 15 to 30 years – we could have the capacity to live for centuries. He sees this happening as a result of the interaction between three areas of science:

  • Genetic engineering will provide treatments and cures that will significantly extend life. It also will help us amplify good traits and jettison bad traits.
  • Nanotechnology will give us tiny machines that can enter our body to repair cells, restore lost functions, re-energize and rejuvenate us.
  • Robotics will give us the power, if we so wish, to replace ourselves with robotic technology, achieving near immortality by downloading our consciousness.

Kurzweil and his followers and fellow travelers are very comfortable with this scenario, and they’re certain that it’s inevitable. They’re so certain, in fact, that they tell people of Kurzweil’s generation (he’s 63) that if they take care of themselves and hold on for 15 to 20 years, they might have access to immortality. (Just in case his timetable is off a bit, Kurzweil has a contract with the Alcor Life Sciences Foundation to freeze his body cryonically so he can be brought back when the technologies he predicts are in place.)

I’m not one to discount his ideas. As I said yesterday, organ transplants and test-tube babies would have sounded impossible a century ago, and yet they’re routine today. He’s brighter than I, and certainly better informed in this area, so his predictions deserve a hearing.

I’m not so sure, however, that I’d want to avail myself of the technologies he says are coming our way. First, at some point I’ll have had my fill of the bickering and strife that moves from generation to generation. I think the arc of history is toward justice, as Martin Luther King told us. But at some point, I feel, I’ll weary of the slowness with which that happens.

Second, I think death frames and gives meaning to our life. It lights a fire under us. It challenges us to find direction, make our contribution within our allotted time, and leave the stage so that a new generation can have its time in the spotlight.

I also think death keeps us humble. The logical conclusion of Kurzweil’s predictions is that we will be immortal and also increasingly powerful. As we have learned time and time again, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s hard to imagine that the genies who make these scientific advances will be immune from the desire to use them for less-than-admirable purposes. Kurzweil says he does not envision a utopia and recognizes that abuses are possible. Just as much as he thinks his predictions are inevitable, so, I think, are the abuses.

Last, and here Kurzweil would shake his head at what he would call my naivete, I think there are new adventures and things more beautiful than we can imagine on the other side of the grave. I can’t prove it, and Kurzweil can’t disprove it. If I’m wrong, I’ll have had a wonderful life anyway. But if I’m right, I’ll be off to a far better fate than anything Kurzweil could conjure up with his robo brain and body.

What do you think? Will we be able to invent our own mortality? And if so, would you sign on, or would you look for the exits? Let me know.

Tomorrow: The promise of 3-D “printing” to fulfill all our wants and needs.

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