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Chasing Immortality

The Technology of Eternal Life

An interview with Ray Kurzweil
by Craig Hamilton

The allure of eternal life has been tugging at the human imagination since we first began to contemplate our finitude. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known literary work on earth to the Taoist cult of immortality to Ponce de Leon's quest for the elixir of unending youth, the desire to free ourselves from the Grim Reaper's grasp has proven as persistent as the force it aspires to counter. But although we may have been inspired to hear of Himalayan yogis who have been alive for centuries and although our collective obsession with health, fitness, and increased longevity seems to be at an all-time high, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, even the most optimistic among us have probably never seriously considered the possibility that death could become optional. Indeed, in an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable world, it sometimes seems like our mortality is one of the few things that we can still be sure of.

Ray Kurzweil is determined to change all that. In the book he recently coauthored with Terry Grossman, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, the award-winning inventor and futurist lays out a vision of “the science behind radical life extension” that makes most science fiction writers seem short on imagination. And he's not alone. Over the past few decades, a growing body of research into the aging process has been accumulating in laboratories around the world. And among the more ambitious of the scientists involved, there is, believe it or not, an increasing optimism about the potential of actually bringing the seemingly irreversible mechanisms of degeneration and decay that have haunted humanity for millennia to a screeching halt. Soon.

How soon? According to Kurzweil, two or three decades looks like the magic number. And for him, and other aging boomers, the million-dollar question is: Will he be around and in good health when the fountain of youth finally starts flowing? This is where the subtitle of his book comes in. Living “long enough to live forever,” it turns out, may require a bit more than simply eating your vegetables and not smoking (although that's definitely a start). For Kurzweil, building the “first bridge” to radical life extension means a radical shift in diet, a heavy supplementation regimen (he takes 250 supplements a day), and regular checkups and rejuvenation treatments to slow the aging process as much as possible using today's technology (and, of course, regular exercise and low-stress living). But even Kurzweil's “longevity program” is, he admits, only a modest stay against the inevitable. With a little luck, though, it will be enough to keep him kicking until the “second and third bridges”—biotechnology and nanotechnology, respectively—emerge to secure him his place in eternity.

Are human beings really ready to live forever? Do we have the psychological and spiritual resources to deal with such a profound shift in the very fundaments of our existence? What would a person be without the confrontation with mortality that has defined life and culture as we know it? And as much as we all run from death, are we sure that doing away with it would be a good thing? What would become of the first species to break the death barrier? When confronted with a prospect as radical as immortality, questions like these start to beg for answers. And given the possibility that we might actually be the first generation in history with the luxury of having to ask them, there are many who feel that we might do well to give them some thought before we proceed much further down the road to Shangri-la.

But that isn't stopping Kurzweil. Nor does it appear to be slowing him down. Widely regarded as one of today's leading futurists and innovators (winner of the prestigious National Medal of Technology, his inventions include the first reading machine for the blind and the first synthesizer to duplicate the sound of a grand piano), his unbridled enthusiasm for the omnipotence of technology to surmount any obstacle it confronts has him ready to embrace whatever the future may bring. If even one-tenth of what he predicts comes true, it will be the end of life—and death—as we've known it.

What is Enlightenment: In your new book, you assert that in the not-too-distant future, we'll have the capacity to extend the human life span indefinitely. How long do you think we can expect to live?

Ray Kurzweil: One analogy that life extension researcher Aubrey de Grey uses is, “How long does a house last? If you take care of the house diligently, and quickly address any problem that comes up, the house can last indefinitely. If you don't take care of it, it won't last very long.” The reason that analogy fails in regard to our own bodies is that we don't yet understand all the methods and we don't have all the maintenance tools for our bodies like we do for houses. We fully understand how a house works, because we engineered the concept of a house. We don't yet have all that information about our bodies and brains, and we don't have all the tools. But we will have them within twenty to twenty-five years, so we will be able to indefinitely maintain our bodies—and even anticipate, before they occur, the kinds of issues that now cause us to age and die. We're talking about putting your life into your own hands rather than leaving it in the metaphorical hands of fate.

WIE: How is science going to bring this about?

RK: Terry Grossman and I have described what we call the “three bridges” to radical life extension. Bridge one has to do with taking full advantage of today's knowledge of biology in order to dramatically slow down aging and disease processes. This will enable us to stay in as good a shape as possible for when bridge-two technologies become available. Bridge two is the biotechnology revolution, which will give us the tools to reprogram our biology and the biochemical information processes underlying our biology. We're in the early stages of that revolution already, but in fifteen years we will have, to a large extent, mastery over our biology. That will take us to the third bridge, the nanotechnology revolution, where we can rebuild our bodies and brains at the molecular level. This will enable us to fix the remaining problems that are difficult to address within the confines of biology and ultimately allow us to go beyond the limitations of biology altogether. So the idea is to get on bridge one now, so we can be alive and healthy when the biotechnology and nanotechnology revolutions come to fruition. Our aim is to live long enough to live forever.

WIE: You've been following your own “bridge-one longevity program” for several years now. Do you have any indications that it's working?

RK: When I was forty, I took these biological aging tests that measure forty or fifty different biochemical indicators, and I came out with a biological age of about thirty-eight. I'm now fifty-seven, and last year I came out at forty, so I've only aged a couple of years in the last sixteen years. That does reflect how I feel and look. I've overcome a major predisposition to diabetes—I was actually diagnosed with it twenty-two years ago, but as a result of using basically natural methods to reprogram my biochemistry, I now have no indication of it. I also had a predisposition to heart disease. My father died at fifty-eight of that disease, but I've never had it. So I have a completely different biochemistry than I would otherwise have.

WIE: Can you give an example of what you mean by bridge one, of how we can extend the life span using our current medical knowledge?

RK: One aging process that we can control right now has to do with the loss of phosphatidylcholine in our cell membranes. The cell membrane is typically sixty percent or more phosphatidylcholine in a young person, but it can be down to ten percent in the elderly, in whom it gets replaced by useless substances like hard fats and cholesterol. It's one of the reasons that the skin of an elderly person is not supple and their organs don't work as efficiently. The body makes phosphatidylcholine, but it does so very inefficiently, so gradually over the decades, our cell membranes are depleted of that vital substance. You can reverse that by supplementing with phosphatidylcholine; that's one of the 250 supplements I take. The objective is to use these bridge-one methods, which is applying today's knowledge aggressively so that we can be in biotechnology revolution, become available in another fifteen years.

WIE: How is biotechnology going to aid in life extension?

RK: Through biotech, we're developing the tools to reprogram our biology at the most fundamental level—the level of biochemical information processing. We're not far from being able to overcome diseases like heart disease and cancer, type 2 diabetes, stroke—the major diseases that kill ninety-five percent of us. And beyond simply curing disease, we're also working to reverse aging, which means addressing at least a dozen different processes that contribute to aging.

One of the key ideas in the biotechnology revolution is called rational drug design. We can design drugs to take on very carefully targeted missions to accomplish precise tasks. Drug development used to be called drug discovery, and it literally was that. If you had a mission like lowering hypertension, you would try fifty thousand substances and find one that seemed to lower blood pressure. But we didn't know how it worked or why it worked, and invariably, because it was really a very crude application, it would have all kinds of side effects. Whereas now, we can actually understand these processes very precisely in biochemical terms—for instance, the whole sequence of information processes that occur in the development of something like atherosclerosis, the source of heart disease—and we can attack them at specific vulnerable points. For example, there's one enzyme in the body that destroys HDL, the good cholesterol. If you inhibit that enzyme, people's HDL levels soar and it stops atherosclerosis. There's a drug now in phase-three FDA trials, torsotropie, that does exactly that, and it looks very promising. I wouldn't hang my hat on any one specific development, but there are thousands of these.

We also have the means now to inhibit gene expression. That's very important because every major disease—heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and, of course, viral diseases—uses gene expression, and if we can inhibit certain carefully selected genes, we can stop disease. There's a new methodology, RNA interference, where we put small RNA fragments into a medication that goes into the cell and blocks the messenger RNA expressing a gene and then blocks the expression of that gene. It works very well.

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This article is from
Our Immortality Issue


September–November 2005


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