Techies Courting Immortality

Inventor Ray Kurzweil and Apple founder Steve Wozniak make some predictions at Austria Telekom’s annual “Future Talk”

News | Mark Tuttle | November 2010

Cloned animal flesh for food; millions of tiny Nano Robots in our blood allowing us to live for centuries; low cost computers a million times more powerful than today; and computers that will actually think and dramatically improve our world.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil was up on all of it, speaking Oct. 19 in Vienna at the Telekom Austria Group’s "Future Talk" series.

Kurzweil is recognized as one of the world’s leading futurists, inventors and engineers; and with 19 honorary doctorates from around the world, he is on call to government and industry leaders to advise on how the future will progress.

Many of his topics seemed at first like pure science fiction to the more than 500 Austrian and international guests of the event. By the end, however, many seemed ready to consider these things probable. And soon.

In one example, nanobots were being used in some 50 animal studies that are already yielding some impressive results in the first generation, for instance, modifying the insulin metabolism so that not 100 percent of all we eat is turned into fat. In this study, the animals were fed far more than normal and they didn’t get fat, and lived an average of 20% longer than animals without the nanobots.

Kurzweil has some dramatic successes: From the work consolidated in his book The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), he is credited with predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union and with predicting the explosive growth in the use of the desktop computers that would be connected and exchanging data by the late 1990s.

With the continual shrinking of the size of computers while dramatically increasing their performance, Kurzweil showed how a computer as powerful as the iPhone could soon be smaller than the size of one blood cell, and with this, he predicts that we can have millions of these in our blood stream, repairing the effects of ageing, environment and disease.

"I plan to live for several hundred years," he said, "the trick is just keeping yourself healthy until these technologies arrive."  Scientists, he reported, were already making substantial progress in this area.

"Our biology has outdated programming (software)," he said. "In our history when food was scarce, and life spans were only 25 years, it made sense to metabolize 100% of all the food we ate; that was needed for survival. But we are well past that time, and yet our biology is still organized to address these bygone conditions."

Kurzweil then showed exponential progress in DNA understanding and sequencing, and that we are on the verge of being able to reprogram our DNA to be optimized to current conditions, which will yield much longer life spans with much better health.

During the question period, one member of the audience commented that "with this rapid advancement you predict, we would seem to need much more informed political leaders to make decisions and policies related to this technology."

Kurzweil is not worried:  With the mass communications technology currently in place, this democratizing effect will shift these decisions to larger groups of people, that will generate much better decisions, he believes, than any one man, or small group can make.

Ray Kurzweil was joined by inventor and co-founder of Apple Computer, Steve Wozniak, the man whose passion in the 1970s was to make computers accessible to everyone, leading to the company’s founding.  Wozniak, was the sole designer of the Apple 1 and Apple 2 computers; hardware, software, and the user interface, and was entered into the "Inventors Hall of Fame" for this and his life long development of incredible technologies.

Wozniak added some predictions of his own: "I see great improvements in education coming from artificially intelligent robots as teachers in our schools," he said. "[U.S.] school systems are in need of great improvement, students are not taught how to think critically, just to take tests where success is measured by everyone coming up with the same answers. "  Wozniak should know; after leaving Apple computer, he spent eight years teaching children in the fifth grade, and remains passionate about education.

"The schools are the key to our future, and they should be treated as such."

Wozniak continues his support of education and creativity by participating in a number of student challenges and contests that push students to create meaningful and innovative inventions.

"The youth is who will come up with the next great innovations; Wozniak said and this is my way of helping, and to stay involved."

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