The location of Ray Kurzweil’s San Francisco apartment must be kept confidential, warns his aide, for “important security reasons”. But I can disclose details of the breakfast that the writer, inventor and pill-taking futurist will prepare according to precepts in his 2009 book “Transcend: Nine Steps To Living Well Forever”.
Kurzweil, who invented the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the flatbed scanner and a music synthesiser capable of reproducing the sound of a grand piano, has been thinking about artificial intelligence (AI) for 50 years. In “The Age of Intelligent Machines” (1990), he predicted the internet’s ubiquity and the rise of mobile devices. “The Singularity is Near”, his 2005 bestseller, focused on AI and the future of mankind. In 2012 he joined Google as a director of engineering to develop machine intelligence.
Kurzweil’s supporters hail him as “the ultimate thinking machine” and “the rightful heir to Thomas Edison”. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has called him “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence”. To his critics, he is “one of the greatest hucksters of the age”, and a “narcissistic crackpot obsessed with longevity”.
Kurzweil greets me at his door. He is a slim, short man with a genial, baffled manner. Casually dressed in a blue linen shirt with rolled-up sleeves, he shakes my hand with soft hands covered in gold rings (one is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology; another I mistake for a Superman ring is the insignia of the Singularity University he co-founded). His hair is darker than in earlier photographs and he looks like a nerdier brother of Woody Allen.
We walk past a Kurzweil music synthesiser, a picture of the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, before arriving in his living room in front of faintly unsettling Monet and Van Gogh paintings — “highly realistic 3D reproductions, done with a laser computer”, he says.
I contemplate a small table set with white china and paper napkins. There is a bowl of berries; a plate with smoked salmon and mackerel; six pieces of dark chocolate; a carton of vanilla WestSoy milk, a pile of Stevia sachets, and a bowl of tepid, dense porridge, that will remain largely uneaten by me.
“Cocoa is anti-inflammatory and it’s very good for you. So that’s very dark chocolate with some espresso in. Berries, soy milk, unsweetened. Fish and green tea,” he says, pointing out each item. He eats almost no meat, is pescatarian and favours “healthy carbs and healthy fats. So a healthy carb is a little bit of berries, oatmeal, vegetables.”
Unnerved by this surreal meal, I find myself gazing at two cat-shaped salt and pepper pots, and ask: “Do you have lots of cat-related objects?” It is not the first question I had planned to ask of a genius but, as he pours me some green tea, he replies, perfectly contentedly: “Yes, I actually have 400 cat figurines. There’s only a handful here. That’s just a bit of whimsy. I do like cats. They’re very elegant creatures.” He had two cats for 18 years. “They slept arm in arm. One was the father of the other but I don’t think they understood that relationship. So, like an old married human couple, when one died the other died a few weeks later. When the cats died, my allergies went away. So, being the very smart person that I am, I realised: I’m allergic to cats. So I haven’t replaced them. I also travel a lot.”
Just a few minutes into our meal, he departs to fetch a DVD about himself (“Transcendent Man”) and five tomes written by him — including “The Singularity is Near” — “my most influential book. The Singularity University is based on it.” He opens it. “So this is where I talk about the neocortex, and that accounts for me being in Google because I gave a pre-publication version to Larry Page [Google co-founder], who really liked it. That was two years ago now and I asked him for an investment in a company I would start based on these ideas, and he said, ‘Sure, we’ll invest, but let me convince you to do it here because we have Google-scale resources — data, computers and talent.’”
Barely minutes into our breakfast we have covered incestuous cats, AI and how to get a job at Google. As his hand hovers over the berries, I tell him I am disappointed not to see his bag of pills. He used to take up to 250 a day; now it is 100. “I’ve found more bio-available forms. So instead of taking 10 pills I can take two.” He has already taken his morning intake of 30 pills (he later shows me a typical bag of them), including ones for “heart health, eye health, sexual health and brain health”.
I ask how much this regime costs. “It’s a few thousand dollars a day. But it’s not one size fits all. A healthy 30-year-old might just need basic supplements”
His wife Sonya, a psychologist, and children, Ethan, 34, and Amy, 27, also follow supplement regimes. Making little headway with the unappetising mackerel, I stick to the berries. Kurzweil also isn’t eating much. I ask if he likes food. “I actually enjoy all food.” Then he reverts to science mode. “This food actually fills you up with fewer calories.”
His interest in health goes back to when he was 15 and his father, Fredric, had a heart attack. “He died when I was 22. He was 58.” Kurzweil realised he could inherit his father’s dispositions. In his thirties, he was diagnosed with type-two diabetes. Frustrated by conventional treatments, he “approached this as an inventor”. It has not returned. “You can overcome your genetic disposition. The common wisdom is it’s 80 per cent genes, 20 per cent lifestyle. If you’re diligent, it’s 90 per cent intervention and 10 per cent genes,” he claims.
Though the 67-year-old Kurzweil looks fresh-faced (he uses antioxidant skin cream daily), he is ageing, even if his “biological age comes out in the late forties. It hasn’t moved that much.”
But this is peanuts compared with Kurzweil’s ultimate goal: to live for ever. That means staying healthy enough to get to what he dubs “Bridge Two, when the biotechnology revolution will reprogramme our inherited biology”, and “Bridge Three”: molecular nanotechnology enabling us to rebuild our bodies.
Radical life extension has been on Kurzweil’s mind for decades. Today such sci-fi heroics to save mankind from death are being embraced by Silicon Valley’s tech elite. Billionaires such as Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, call death “the great enemy”; death is no longer seen as inevitable but as the latest evil to be “disrupted”. Google, too, has created a separate venture, Calico, to combat ageing. “I had a discussion two years ago with the head of Google Ventures about longevity. It resulted in Calico. I’m an adviser.
“I think every death is tragic. We’ve learnt to accept it, the cycle of life and all that, but humans have an opportunity to transcend beyond natural limitations. Life expectancy was 19 a thousand years ago. It was 37 in 1800. Everyone believes in life extension. Somebody comes out with a cure for disease, it’s celebrated. It’s not, ‘Oh, gee, that’s going to forestall death.’”
A scientist in “Newsweek” magazine in 2009 mocked Kurzweil, saying his was “the most public mid-life crisis” ever. “These are ad hominem attacks. There’s what I call ‘death-ist’ philosophy of people who celebrate death,” he responds.
Kurzweil claims the fundamental mistake his critics make is in believing progress is linear. This is his key thesis: “The reality of information technology is it progresses exponentially ... 30 steps linearly gets you to 30. One, two, three, four, step 30 you’re at 30. With exponential growth, it’s one, two, four, eight. Step 30, you’re at a billion.”
If medical progress might once have been a hit and miss affair, he argues that we are now starting to understand “the software of life”. Data from the Human Genome Project will enable exponential, not incremental, progress. “Over the next 20, 25 years, we’re going to overcome almost all disease and ageing.”
Sitting with Kurzweil, he doesn’t sound crazed. His benign, amused tone is the same whether making bold predictions or discussing cats. He looks you in the eye and seems free of doubt. I’m curious about how he got to be him. Kurzweil tells me about growing up in a middle-class house in a suburban part of Queens, New York, with his father, a concert pianist and conductor, and his mother, Hannah, an artist.
One influence on his becoming an inventor was the series of Tom Swift Jr books, which he read, as a seven-year-old, at camp. His collection is on display. One book, from 1914, is presciently called Tom Swift and his Photo Telephone. “Usually the human race was in trouble along with him, and he would disappear into his basement and come up with some invention that saved the day.”
Another important influence was his grandmother, Lillian Bader, who wrote a memoir, “One Life is Not Enough” (something that rings true for her grandson), about her life in Austria. The Jewish family fled in 1938. When Kurzweil was five, in 1953, Lillian showed him her mechanical typewriter. “It had a deep influence on me, because here was this magical machine. You could take a blank piece of paper and turn it into something that looked like it came from a book. It was not like parlour magic. With technology, if you see how it works, it’s still magical.”
In high school his first major invention was to programme a computer to analyse composers’ melodies and write original music in the same style. “It won these national contests. I got to meet President Johnson and took it on this TV show: ‘I’ve Got A Secret.’”
In 1979 he graduated from MIT with a degree in computer science and literature. More inventions followed. The blind singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder became the first person to own the Kurzweil reading machine. “The most gratifying has been the reading machine for the blind. I started on that in 1973 and I’ve been working continuously on it. The thrill of inventing is the leap from dry formulas on a blackboard to positive changes in people’s lives.”
Kurzweil may see into the future, but he is also obsessed by his past. He pulls out his father’s PhD thesis on Brahms from 1938 and recounts a Brahms concert Fredric put on in Vienna in 1937. A wealthy Philadelphia woman in the audience was so moved, she told Fredric: “If you ever need anything, let me know.” Following the Anschluss in March 1938, she sponsored his move to America. “You could say that Brahms saved his life.”
He remains mesmerised by his late father. “He was generally painfully shy and quiet but when he conducted he was ‘Maestro’ and there would be a party afterwards and everyone would go, ‘Maestro!’ And he’d take his hat off ... he was quite brilliant.”
He has hundreds of boxes filled with his father’s documents. “I have all of his letters, and even his electric bills. There are 8mm movies, photographs, lots of vinyl records of his music. So the ambition is to create an avatar based on all that information that would reflect my father’s personality. He would be indistinguishable from the real Fredric Kurzweil to the people who remember him. This avatar will be more like my father was than he would have been, had he lived (and was now 102).”
It is evident that it is a very particular version of father he wants to recreate. The one he was at 58. “Yes,” he concedes. “My relationship with him deepened later in his life. He was very busy when I was a young child. [But] in my teenage years he was ill and was home a lot, and we had opportunity to talk about music, and artificial intelligence.”
What would you want to ask, I hesitate, feeling uneasy using the word “him”? “I’d like to continue the conversations on music and the relationship of music to life and philosophy and math.”
He predicts that by 2029 a computer will reach human levels of intelligence. Making progress on this avatar could depend on his work at Google on natural language understanding. A goal is to enable someone to have “a dialogue with a computer; it could be given a personality and a knowledge base.”
However, in a 2012 “New Yorker” article entitled “Kurzweil’s dubious new theory of mind”, Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University queried whether the mind is a hierarchical-pattern recogniser. He also argued Kurzweil ignored too much human psychology and irrational behaviour.
Kurzweil’s work at Google aims at moving search beyond keywords towards more complex ideas. He offers this example. “I met this girl at a party last night. We only spoke a few words, but I felt an instant bond with her. Is that realistic? What does the psychology literature say about this? Ultimately, and this is the long-term project, it would be like asking a person who has reviewed the relevant literature and would intelligently give you the right citations and summarise them for you.”
Artificial intelligence faces a battle from technologists too, such as Elon Musk, for example, who has called AI “our biggest existential threat”. Alert to its perils, Kurzweil is frustrated at how AI is misrepresented in movies as a dangerous force divorced from humans, “an alien invasion of intelligent machines”. He sees AI as a tool that will enable billions of us “to enhance our capacity. They’ll go from being in our pockets to inside our bodies and brains.”
He is at his most playful when imagining the future, such as advances in virtual reality. “We could be having this brunch in the Taj Mahal or on a Mediterranean beach, and you’d feel the warm moist air in your face and it would be very realistic. That’s going to happen over the next couple of decades.”
He cites a 2001 Ted conference in which, using sensors to create an avatar of a female rock singer, he became “Ramona. My voice was turned into her voice. I sang [Jefferson Airplane’s] ‘White Rabbit’. It was considered a drug song but drugs are just one technology to change reality.” Kurzweil slips some chocolate into his mouth before continuing. “I was a different person, a young woman. It really felt quite liberating. And then, obviously, you could be anyone. A couple can become each other.”
He seems equally thrilled to use an old technology, writing a novel, to create a character who immodestly articulates his own ideas. “It’s called Danielle, and it follows this young girl from zero to 22. Here she is in Zambia. She’s my fantasy of myself. She’s very precocious.”
As I leave, I walk past his electronic keyboard and ask if he plays. “My repertoire is limited,” he admits. “It peaked.” Surely, I joke, if he is going to live for ever he could be like Bill Murray in the film “Groundhog Day” who, unable to die, becomes an expert pianist (ice sculptor and French speaker). “There are so many things we could apply our minds to. That’s really the goal of artificial intelligence — to enhance our capacity.”