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Confronting Immortality: Ray Kurzweil’s Vision of Merging Minds with the Cloud

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Authored by Steven

Should Ray Kurzweil Prove Correct (Once More), His Eternal Essence Could Dwell in the Digital Ether

Ray Kurzweil has no intention of embracing mortality. At 76 years old, this scientist and inventor has dedicated a significant portion of his life to the belief that humanity is not only capable of extending life through future medical breakthroughs but can also achieve a symbiotic existence with technology, enhancing our intelligence and living forever. However, the specter of death loomed over my conversation with Kurzweil this spring. Just moments before our discussion, we were both informed of the passing of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate in psychology and one of Kurzweil’s frequent intellectual opponents.

Days earlier, the renowned sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge had passed away. Vinge was the first to envision the concept of the singularity, a pivotal moment when artificial intelligence's capabilities exceed human capacities, necessitating that humans enhance themselves with advanced technology to stay competitive. Ray Kurzweil adopted this term to describe his ambitious vision and in 2005, he authored a widely successful book titled "The Singularity Is Near." By that time, Kurzweil had already established himself as a prolific inventor and businessman, having achieved significant advancements in fields such as optical character recognition, synthesizer technology, and the creation of devices to improve accessibility. He has been awarded numerous prestigious accolades, including the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the $500,000 Lemelson–MIT Prize, and a Grammy. In 2012, Kurzweil's expertise led Google to appoint him as the leader of one of their AI research teams.

Back in the day, many deemed his forecasts overly ambitious. The idea that by 2029, computers would match human intelligence seemed far-fetched. Yet, in today's era of advanced AI, such timelines appear standard, or even cautious. Hence, it's hardly shocking that Kurzweil's latest publication this month is titled The Singularity Is Nearer. Much of the speculative data in his original book's graphs have now been substantiated—and they align remarkably well with reality. However, despite being astounded by the technological breakthroughs Kurzweil accurately anticipated, I find it challenging to fully grasp his optimistic vision of our minds living on, potentially for centuries, in a sort of digital nirvana.

Kurzweil had proposed that our meeting take place at the public library in Newton, Massachusetts, close to where he lives. He arrived dressed in eye-catching suspenders and sporting a surprisingly lush head of hair, reminiscent of the character Geppetto, fitting for someone dedicated to elevating artificial entities to the status of humans. Navigating through the maze of bookshelves—which he believes will eventually serve as intellectual nourishment for the robots that will share our consciousness in the future—we made our way to a space he had booked for our discussion. Throughout our conversation, Kurzil periodically dug into his backpack to produce several graphs, each illustrating significant advancements in various fields, from computational capabilities to the worldwide average income. Our afternoon was filled with discussions on the nature of immortality, his role at Google, and, inevitably, the approaching singularity.

There's unfortunate news to share. Have you learned about the passing of Daniel Kahneman?

Indeed, I became aware of that information approximately five minutes prior. I've had several meetings with him. What was his age?

Ninety.

Is that so? It's not uncommon these days for individuals in their late nineties to appear quite well. Consider my aunt as an example. She was a working psychologist, actively consulting a roster of clients even at the age of 98! Her wit was as sharp as ever. During a phone call once, she inquired about my activities. When I explained that I had delivered a presentation on the concept of longevity escape velocity – the idea that advancements in science can essentially counteract aging, allowing us not to accumulate the effects of passing time despite growing older by a calendar year – she humorously responded, “Can we expedite that process?” Tragically, that exchange turned out to be our final one, as she passed away two weeks later.

Authored by Mark

Authored by David

By Christopher Solomon

By Julian Chokkattu

Ray Kurzweil consumes around 80 supplements daily to maintain his well-being.

It appears you're in conflict with the principles of biology.

Biology faces numerous constraints. Many researchers believe that death is not a certainty, and we are developing ways to prevent it. Essentially, we can eliminate mortality caused by aging.

Many believe that the age of 120 could be the maximum limit for humans, yet your opinion diverges?

Certainly, there's no need to halt at 120.

What signifies the maximum limit?

The limits are nonexistent. After surpassing the singularity, we will have the capability to integrate AI links directly with our brains. This integration won’t physically take place inside the brain, but rather it will connect to the cloud. The benefit of utilizing cloud technology is its comprehensive backup system.

At the age of 76, do you believe you will witness the achievement of escape velocity?

Indeed, I'm doing quite well health-wise. I consistently monitor my physical condition and whenever I notice a decline, I resort to different treatments or drugs to ensure I'm on the right track towards a long life. Currently, I'm taking approximately 80 pills daily, which is a significant reduction from the roughly 200 pills I was consuming back in 2008.

During our previous conversation, I brought up the topic of Steve Jobs' graduation address at Stanford, in which he referred to death as the ultimate innovation of nature, making room for renewal. You labeled it as a stance that romanticizes death. Do you still hold that perspective?

Choosing to live is preferable. We don't deplete any irreplaceable resources. The sunlight that reaches Earth is ample, exceeding our energy needs by 10,000 times. With the help of artificial intelligence, we will innovate in producing food among other things. Thus, there's no concern about exhausting our resources.

Should I reach the age of 300, how would my existence alter? All that was familiar during my upbringing would have transformed.

Crafted by Mark

Authored by David

By Christopher Solomon

By [Your Name]

Consider the transformations that have already occurred. Two decades ago, smartphones were non-existent in your life, and your computer, if you had one, was likely quite basic. When we extend the timeline to several centuries, the differences in daily life will be profoundly significant. We'll encounter new realities and possibilities that are currently unimaginable.

However, the essence of who I am, the part of me that yearns to persist eternally, was shaped by the deep bonds I forged during my early years. It feels quite arbitrary that these early experiences will continue to influence me for centuries to come. It's often mentioned that the music you adored at the age of 14 becomes your lifelong soundtrack. So, when I reach the age of 500, will I still be replaying Rolling Stones hits for the umpteenth time?

Fresh tunes are on the horizon.

Fresh tunes are available today, yet I continue to enjoy the Rolling Stones.

I also enjoy listening to the Rolling Stones, alongside discovering newer musicians. Moreover, our capabilities are set to broaden, opening up opportunities previously unavailable to us. We're expected to connect with something referred to as a large language model, a term I'm not particularly fond of since it doesn't fully capture the scope beyond language processing. Essentially, we will have the ability to acquire and comprehend knowledge instantly.

Life follows a natural trajectory. Regardless of my vitality at ages 150 or 300, my youth is irrevocably behind me. Perhaps this is the reason why reaching your nineties can make the prospect of death less daunting.

One might claim such a thing, yet when the moment arrives, the desire to keep living persists. Individuals often declare, "I have no wish to live beyond 99." However, upon reaching that age, their perspective tends to shift. Should they genuinely wish to pass away, they have the means to do so, yet they choose life unless they are suffering from intolerable pain.

It seems you're the sole individual who wasn't caught off guard by the debut of ChatGPT, perfectly aligning with the predictions you made in the previous century.

Indeed, I did forecast that back in 1999. A group from Stanford was quite impressed by it. It seems my reputation was solid enough for them to organize a conference focused on my viewpoint. Reflecting on the discussions back then, everyone agreed that artificial intelligence equivalent to human intelligence was inevitable, though they believed it was a century away, not just three decades. Lately, there’s been a shift in those estimations. I now believe we're merely five years from achieving it, while others argue it could be as soon as next year.

What indicators will signal the arrival of AGI?

Indeed, that’s an insightful inquiry. Essentially, when it comes to composing poetry, ChatGPT’s work is fairly commendable, though it hasn’t yet reached the pinnacle of excellence demonstrated by the finest human poets. It remains uncertain if this level of achievement will be realized by 2029. Should this milestone not be met by that time, it is anticipated that it will occur by 2032. Additional time might be necessary, but any goal that is clearly set is attainable given the continuous advancement of AI technology.

You're convinced that AI could outdo humans in crafting superior novels. However, should you present readers with a life-altering masterpiece only to reveal it was authored by a machine, they'd likely feel duped. The bond they thought they shared with the story, believing it came from a human heart, would seem deceitful.

By [Your Name

Authored by David

Authored by Christopher

Authored by Julian Chokkattu

It's recognized that there's a certain bias towards the idea. However, the task of writing novels won't solely fall to language models, or whatever name they might go by in the future. Instead, there will be a collaboration between them and us. Individuals will maintain their human appearance, including the skin we're familiar with. Yet, they'll embody a fusion of the natural intelligence we're endowed with at birth and the artificial intelligence of computers, resulting in significantly enhanced intellect. Whenever they undertake a task, we will regard them as human. Essentially, we'll all possess the capabilities of superhumans within our minds.

After going through your book, I still find myself somewhat unclear on the specifics of how the connection with the cloud is established. Assuming one does reach escape velocity and finds themselves in the year 2050, how exactly does the integration of your consciousness with the cloud take place?

This is a significant problem. Various thoughts and ideas pop up in your mind without knowing their origin. This also applies to the augmented digital intelligence we plan to integrate with. Currently, professionals are developing technology to implant devices in the brain to aid individuals who are unable to interact through their physical bodies. The process must become quicker than it presently is. I'm confident that by the 2030s, we will see this advancement.

At what point should you begin integrating a child with cloud technology?

Indeed, that's an intriguing inquiry. Alternative methods exist for accessing the brain without resorting to physical means.

Do you believe that the entities that follow LLMs will possess what is referred to as consciousness?

To grasp the distinctions between what possesses consciousness and what does not, one must embrace a philosophical perspective. Marvin Minsky guided me as a mentor for half a century. Each time the subject of consciousness arose, he would dismiss it, stating, "Don't bother me with that, it's absurd, it lacks a scientific basis." He was right in pointing out the absence of a scientific explanation for consciousness. However, dismissing it as foolish is misguided, as it represents a crucial matter.

Blake Lemoine, who claims to have been part of your team at Google, argues that LaMDA, the language model you developed, possessed consciousness. Is his assertion incorrect?

I've always regarded his opinions as correct. It seems to me he's quite fond of language models. Some might argue they possess consciousness—I'm of the belief they haven't reached that stage. However, they're on their way. Whether or not you believe they're conscious really depends on your philosophical stance. The moment when they mimic human behavior and reactions is not a century away, but merely a few years. At that point, if one argues they lack consciousness, it would parallel arguing that humans themselves lack consciousness.

Authored by Mark

Authored by David

By Christopher Solomon

Authored by Julian Chokkattu

What activities have you been engaged in at Google? There's always been an element of mystery surrounding it.

The journey began when Bill Gates expressed interest in bringing to life the concepts from my book, "How to Create a Mind," through technology. At that time, I had just launched a new business. Shortly after, Larry Page, the former CEO of Google, showed interest in my venture, leading to Google acquiring it. This transition led me to establish a group named Descartes at Google, where we undertook significant projects that contributed to the development of advanced language models. About seven years ago, our team successfully trained a model capable of comprehending 200,000 books and providing answers to various questions. Managing a team of 40 individuals eventually entailed considerable administrative duties. Recognizing my penchant for ideation over management, my superior suggested I focus on advising on AI, allowing me to share my insights with the CEO and others. My recommendations are now given greater consideration, as my past predictions have often proven accurate.

Earlier, you touched on the idea of transferring our consciousness to a device, essentially creating a duplicate of ourselves as a form of backup. This clone could take our place should we pass away. The thought of having another version of myself out there is quite unsettling to me.

Your true self is a combination of your biological brain and your digital brain. This version is merely a duplicate of that. Is there an issue with possessing a clone?

Potentially, you might produce numerous duplicates. Following that, there's a rush to arrive home before the others to determine which iteration of yourself will share a meal with your partner.

Certainly, challenges will arise that you must confront. I don't possess complete solutions.

Here's where Daniel Kahneman plays a pivotal role. In the book, you recount discussions between the two of you regarding the shift from our current reality to the era of the singularity. You were of the opinion that society could manage this change smoothly, yet Kahneman contended it would be a turbulent process, potentially marked by chaos and conflict.

Indeed, he anticipated disagreements. On the other hand, I held a more hopeful view. It's not that I expect everything to be flawless, but consider, would anyone really prefer to return to a time, perhaps centuries ago, when our average life expectancy was barely 30? A time devoid of any electronic conveniences, when collective memory was non-existent, and even simple inventions like the record player were yet to be conceived? Life was quite harsh back then. Today, we find ourselves significantly more content. I can present you with 50 different charts that illustrate the improvements across the board. It seems people often overlook this progress.

I'm concerned that we may be regressing to a perilous era, and the misuse of AI by nefarious individuals could exacerbate the situation. In your publication, you acknowledge the possibility that AI could cause greater destruction than the events of World War II.

Indeed, I discuss the dangers associated with AI. However, I believe these dangers are not likely to occur. Critics of AI argue that we lack the mechanisms to address these challenges. That's simply because we haven't faced them so far. I'm confident that with enhanced intelligence, we'll be able to navigate around these potential problems.

Authored by Mark

Authored by David

Authored by Christopher

Authored by Julian Chokkattu

In your publication "The Singularity Is Near," you firmly established your position. Now, with your latest release titled "The Singularity Is Nearer," could you explain what you mean by the singularity?

The essence of transcending into a superhuman state, in my view, involves not just matching the capabilities of others but also pioneering novel breakthroughs, such as discovering cures for specific types of cancer. Artificial Intelligence (AI) plays a crucial role in this process by enabling the exploration of every conceivable combination of solutions to tackle cancer. Rather than narrowing our options to a few potential cures from billions, we have the capacity to test them all virtually, simulating outcomes in mere days. The moment we can merge this advanced computational approach with our conventional thought processes, we will elevate ourselves to a superhuman level.

Should we reach a stage where humanity is fully integrated with highly advanced intelligent systems, would significant personal wealth still exist, or would the gap between the rich and poor be lessened by then?

What sets us apart from billionaires? They have the capability to offload businesses, among other things. However, when it comes down to appreciating life's pleasures, we're essentially on equal footing.

Over half of the individuals in the United States are unable to muster $500 for unexpected expenses. Do you believe that the social safety network, along with universal basic income and similar initiatives, will distribute this anticipated wealth evenly?

The protective measures have grown significantly, encompassing a vast array of initiatives. This expansion is expected to continue, although it's not a certainty. It hinges on the choices we make and the political frameworks we implement. With the advent of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI), computers will possess the capability to perform any task, ranging from washing dishes to composing poetry—essentially, whatever is requested, these devices will be capable of executing.

Your perspective seems overly optimistic to me. Do you believe that people are fundamentally good at heart?

Indeed, amidst the chaos, the advent of technology has been a silver lining, a development impossible without the fusion of human intellect and the functionality of opposable thumbs. Positive outcomes emerge.

One might contend that we are causing harm to the Earth.

Actually, the next decade is likely to bring about innovations in renewable energy sources that won't emit carbon dioxide. We are currently experiencing a significant transformation. It's not only scientists and philosophers pondering over the future but the general public as well, questioning, "What's our strategy moving forward?" I believe these developments will keep moving in a favorable direction. There's no need for concern.

Vernor Vinge, the person who initially developed the idea of the singularity, has also passed away recently. Had you been in communication with him?

I maintained contact with him throughout the journey. The final time we communicated was likely a decade ago. What was his age then?

He seemed to be in his eighties. [Kurzweil grabs his phone.] Right, verify that with your mental database.

[Glancing at the monitor] Alright, his birth year was 1944, and he passed away in 2024. That makes him seventy-nine. Quite young, honestly.

Revised on June 14, 2024, at 5:45 am ET: Clarifications have been made regarding Kurzweil's role at Google in this article.

Share your thoughts on this piece with us. Send your feedback to the editor via email at mail@wired.com.

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