Kurzweil Talks About Achievable Immortality On PBS NewsHour

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Kurzweil on PBS NewsHour

Economists are known for investing enormous time making predictions about the near future, usually by following predictable cycles and extrapolating from trends of the recent past. But emerging exponential and convergent technologies seem to be throwing a wrench in the works, as some have suggested is currently taking place globally with the automation of the workforce.

So it's about time that economists start adding another significant factor in their equations, the Singularity, and who better to turn to for guidance than Ray Kurzweil?

A few weeks ago, PBS NewsHour ran a 10-minute piece with Kurzweil titled "As Humans and Computers Merge...Immortality?" from correspondent Paul Solman for his economics-focused Making Sen$e of Financial News. It is part of a series covering Singularity University from earlier in the year. Solman probes Kurzweil for some insights about where technology is headed in the coming decades, covering topics like artificial intelligence, extending lifespans through supplementation, and digital resurrection of the deceased as avatars.

While those familiar with the Singularity may find the segment more like a teaser trailer for Kurzweil's ideas about immortality and the Age of Technology, it reflects the growing concern about how disruptive technology is to old-fashioned economic theories and attempts to wrestle with the implications of just a few of these rapid changes before it gets out of hand:

Watch Disappearing Dead: Economic Optimism about Immortality on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

What's most notable is that after Solman has gone on a whirlwind tour of futuristic ideas, he is challenged in how to end the piece, which is surprising considering that he has been a PBS correspondent since 1985 and taught at the Harvard Business School. But then again, trying to consider the economics of emergent technologies that may raise people from the dead in avatar form is not particularly easy to do.

For those who want to hear more from Kurzweil, PBS included three more clips from the interview.

In the first clip, Kurzweil explains what a singularity is in the physics sense and how it metaphorically reflects the future of technology, especially when it comes to AI. Ray makes his perspective clear when he states, "My view is that it's not us versus [machines]. We're going to merge with them."

Watch Futurist Ray Kurzweil on Singularity on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

In this second video, Kurzweil talks more about the health program he has devised for himself and provides a bit of a window into what it's like on a daily basis:

Watch Ray Kurweil's Immortality Cocktail on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

In the final segment of the extended interview, Kurzweil talks about his father and the possibility of taking all the documents and images he has of him and creating a digital version in the form of an avatar:

Watch Ray Kurzweil on Bringing Back the Dead on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Interestingly, when PBS last interviewed Kurzweil, it was for a Religion & Ethics segment two years ago, and focused primarily on the philosophical implications of the advances of technology. So it is telling that Kurzweil now finds his ideas coming under more scrutiny by the business world.

Here's the original 2010 PBS piece on Kurzweil:

Watch Ethics of Human Enhancement on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

There is a growing sense that the changes that are currently shaping the world are unlike forces of the past, either because they are stronger, faster, or more importantly, unpredictable. Understandably, those who are focused on global economies are looking for direction and answers to tough questions. One thing that is certain is that Ray Kurzweil will increasingly be in the limelight as technology continues to rustle the status quo.

David J. Hill

Managing Director, Digital Media at Singularity University
I've been writing for Singularity Hub since 2011 and have been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. My interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but I'll always be a chemist at heart.

Discussion — 18 Responses

  • eyenot August 1, 2012 on 12:52 pm

    They should be putting “Immortality” in scare-quotes. Unless you really think you’re going to somehow become conscious and aware in the form of an electrified abacus, whether or not it has sixteen billion beads on it.

    • anthecker eyenot August 1, 2012 on 2:53 pm

      You’re not from around these parts, are you?

    • David J. Hill eyenot August 1, 2012 on 4:51 pm

      I guess the concept of immortality via technology scares some, but usually not Singularity Hub readers!

      And it’s not a new idea – it’s just that Kurzweil recognized early on that it would eventually become possible with exponential advanced in computers and deconstruction of the brain.

  • jimart50 August 1, 2012 on 5:29 pm

    Ray…its getting hard to watch you do the childish secret manipulative ego dance about what you are taking
    am looking for some transparency from you…if you are going to market the formula then do it …you are not imortal never will be but you could help people live better lives will never watch you again till I know whats in your formula

  • why06 August 1, 2012 on 7:45 pm

    Im getting a little tired of watching Ray. As an introduction of the technological singularity I found his ideas and the way he conveyed them absolutely fascinating, but as I learn more and more about I find the majority of his communications with the public are mostly old stuff, still trying to convert people with knowledge that his followers already know. It would be nice if someone more well read on the singularity could ask him some more serious questions. I would like to know his complete feelings and thoughts for the current Reverse-Engineering Brain Project, but as it is I’ve seen this video a few weeks ago and even then I felt as if I could simply replay any of his other speeches and nothing would have changed.

    Someone could do a really in depth interview and question him on all his missed predictions and ask what went wrong. I would also like to see what he would think powerful event like a US Dollar collapse, Global Warming, WWIII, Peak Oil, and many other converging global catastrophes will have on the technological singularity.

    Wars have caused the “Dark Ages” before. We dont have to reeenter a 500 year drought of Science to stifle his hopes at immortality. just a mere 10 years could be enough since he is riding right at the line between immortality and death. It would be an interesting conversation to see how he think the way geopolitical powers that be reactions to said event would affect his technological singularity and ultimately his immortality and not get off with that usual escape of his: “Technology never stops advancing”. That maybe true, but its not always smoothly. Serious thought needs to be given to the geopolitical side of the equation by the Technological Singularity’s most outspoken advocate.

    • David J. Hill why06 August 1, 2012 on 8:45 pm

      The significance of this particular story is that PBS NewsHour is seeking to expose an entirely fresh audience, one consisting of people in business and economics, to Ray’s ideas and the Singularity. That is a pretty big deal. Sure, Ray isn’t saying anything new, but then again, this would be the wrong audience to pitch a lot of new stuff too anyway.

      Mostly, they just need a Singularity primer.

      From what I can tell, Kurzweil seems to be keenly focused on monitoring technology and its exponential growth, not on what’s slowing it down or what-if scenarios of international politics. Those factors are important, but he’s likely leaving that for others in the Singularity community to address with their expertise.

      It isn’t, after all, a one-man show.

      • why06 David J. Hill August 2, 2012 on 1:27 pm

        First of all a big thanks to you and the other writers at Singularity Hub for the continued stories and articles on the singularity. What you say is true. Public awareness has to be built for any serious discussion to be had and the segment on PBS is a good thing. It is wrong to throw Ray Kurzweil under the bus, but I do think some serious thought needs to be given to these topics. While Im all for public awareness, I see things like this: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/05/americans-believe-in-creationism_n_1571127.html 46% of Americans think Evolution had NO PART in the formation of humans and the lag between the populace and the Intelligentsia is not just 20 years or so, nearly hundreds. The bigger question is how can the general populace keep up enough to make intelligent decisions when the gap between the two spheres is so large and growing larger. There are concepts that will need popular understanding within 10-20 years. Information is being thrown at the populace with such ferocity that they cant keep up. So this is where my disposition comes from. It comes from my observations that the majority of the public will be ignorant to the things going on around them and ultimately irrelevant, but the whatever power in a democracy we have comes from an informed and knowledgeable public, but the American public is rejecting new knowledge and going backwards. How can we fix 21st century problems with a 20th century mindset.

    • starnois why06 August 2, 2012 on 10:31 am

      He’s got a new book coming out in October. My guess is that he’s got a bunch of new predictions lined up. He probably doesn’t want to give them away just yet, so we buy his book.

    • turtles_allthewaydown why06 August 14, 2012 on 1:10 pm

      Why06 – As others have stated, I think this was an introduction piece to the idea. Don’t look at this show for advanced discussion.

      About your last paragraph, wars usually advance technology, not cause “dark ages”. In particular, the dark ages were caused by the decline of the Roman Empire, then the Crusades brought Europeans in contact with the Islamic world and the culture of the remnants of the Byzantine Empire, reintroduced the spice trade leading to world exploration, etc.
      Other advancements from war run the gamut from canning meat for preservation, to nuclear energy and GPS navigation. Landing a man on the moon was entirely a product of the Cold War and the Space Race against the Russians.

      I’m certainly not defending war, but necessity is the mother of invention, and war gets governments ready to spend money to solve these issues. Okay, the destruction that large-scale war brings could set society back temporarily, at least in localized areas. Pray that we don’t see WWIII.

      I think a bigger issue is the lack of resources. Our population is getting too big, we’re using up oil at a ferocious pace. We’ve applied new technologies to produce more oil, but that won’t last forever. Will we have viable replacements ready? What will happen with Iran? When oil is expensive, everything is expensive. It’s harder to mine metals, to grow crops, etc. Some have talked about a phosphorous shortage, which is used in fertilizer. China is the majority producer of rare earth elements, used in electronics and large batteries, we can’t afford to anger them. There are a lot of possible short-term disruptions on the geopolitical arena.

  • stainless steel rat August 3, 2012 on 11:23 am

    I’m sure rich people will figure out how to make it just for them. I wonder what the poor people are doing these days?

  • Lucky Saint Luis August 3, 2012 on 2:05 pm

    well youre obviously subjective here if Mr Kurzweil is co founder to this place but he is far behind of just everything. honours to his old synthesizers and further mechanics of science but generations should know better when time of stepping back has come. Quantum physics and health is far ahead of his knowldege and all the other metaphysical wisdom too. I m not loosing respect to his past but this “representation” was just a bit to much. Thanks

  • Morgan Johnson August 13, 2012 on 10:40 pm

    Would you look at that. A delirious old man rambles on about a pipe-dream that sounds far too close to a biblical rapture. Watch as he spouts litanies of electronic salvation to his blessed covenant of wealthy dreamers. Most of which squander there time talking and predicting the grand day their digital deity will whisk them away to there fabricated god’s kingdom of cyber-heaven. How about this, you stop the aging futurist circle jerk and get back to working on some solutions. Hell, if are fucking prophet of Techno-Jesus started working on making his predictions come true. Shouldn’t we be focusing on inspiring people to work on current problems; like a serious lack funding for science education,that religious fundie’s are preaching creationism in American schools; that most of our prosthetic devices on the market don’t have force feedback; or that we really don’t have an artificial heart that dose not rely on cutaneous cables to keep them running. All this shit is not even completed the basics of R&D, yet still viable if people like him through down some cash to speed it along. Sentient artificial beings by the time I’m 40, hell I’de be lucky enough to be alive.

    • turtles_allthewaydown Morgan Johnson August 15, 2012 on 11:13 am

      It was kind of hard to catch, did he say AI would reach human levels by 2029? I agree that’s unlikely, especially since we’ve been predicting we’d have AI in 20 years for about 50 years now. We will likely have something that can carry on a decent conversation and of course handle complex mathematics, but would it be able to ponder the universe or why we’re here? Could it appreciate life and beauty?

      Also, I’m not sure I buy his idea that exponential growth will occur forever. Every system that we’ve had so far can have exponential growth for only so long. Human population was growing like that, now the growth rate is slowing down. The limits of oil and remaining metals and minerals that can be mined will become problems in the near future that can affect the economic/technological growth. Solar energy capabilities is not growing exponentially (not even close), until real-world energy problems are solved, technological growth and implementation is not guaranteed. Eventually we can hit a physical limit stopping Moore’s Law as well. It’s been predicted a few times, and we’ve continued to double processor power, but one of these times we’ll hit a snag that can’t be overcome.

      On your other point, that he should get off his duff and actually do things, I think you missed the part where they described his earlier achievements. And they interviewed other Singularity thinkers, who are CEO’s of tech companies. So it’s not like these are vacant theoreticians, they actually have made stuff. You bring up some good problems that need to be solved, but you can’t blame Kurzweil and friends for those problems.

      • why06 turtles_allthewaydown August 15, 2012 on 1:48 pm

        There’s data to back up what he says. Kurzweil has shown quite clearly that computing continues to double through multiple paradigms and that each paradigm becomes increasingly more powerful. Vacuum Tubes, transistors, and now integrated circuits and many others before and in between.

        I think sometimes he calls many things an information technology w/o fully demonstrating what he defines as an information technology, but other then that the data is good.

        As for what Kurzweil is doing, he has done many things, he created the Kurzweil electronic keyboard, has created a reading device for the blind, and has founded many companies all focused on creating future technologies.

        The reason I am confident that AI has finally reached its time to shine is because previously computers were not powerful enough to carry out the immense calculations of the human brain. However as we speak some supercomputers are approaching the Computing processing power of the human brain. And look what we have achieved already. Watson, the Google autonomous car, UAV’s, & bomb robots. In this decade alone robots have popped up all over. This is truly the Golden Age for robotics. And the next decade will trump this one.

        Am I confident the brain will be modeled? Yes. Brain scanning technology is increasing in resolution and speed, it is following a Moores law curve so that is only a matter of time. Will they reverse engineer the brain? No I think not. They will be able to simulate it, but reverse engineering it will take a lot of times. What I do think they will find is many errors in our thought processes, things that can lead to psychosis if left unchecked, Reversing the brain inst just about making a brain, that will be done, but managing thought pattern and controlling that brain. That will take time.

        • turtles_allthewaydown why06 August 16, 2012 on 7:52 am

          Why06 – Regarding your last paragraph:

          Yes, reverse engineering is tough, but there’s no way we can try to correct psychosis without fully understanding what’s happening. Otherwise the cure could lead to bigger problems, since we don’t know the side-effects and what kind of safe-guards the brain has within it. I think they may find out it’s not just a matter of neurons and synapses, there may be other smaller structures within the nerve cells that contain information.

          The problem is not that computers have to have as many transistors as we have neurons, but that the computer is built on pure digital, 0 or 1, on or off. The brain is well adapted for an analog world, adjusting weights of different inputs and naturally implementing fuzzy logic. Unless we find the brain does somehow do this with binary synapses, we’ll require many transistors for each synapse, to fully model each one. Brain scanning is an interesting area, but we’re aren’t close to ‘reading’ a living brain and pulling out memories or anything from the subconscious.

          (The EE people will point out transistors is not the best term here, since it takes a group of transistors to represent one bit of data, but you get the point. To simulate something complex, you need something even more powerful than what’s being simulated.)

  • Lucky Saint Luis August 15, 2012 on 1:58 pm

    I am really sorry to jump into it again but a “man of science?” Kurzweil ever should run around and selling other scientists improvements and ideas while diabetis is being cured by true science since decades by now. You understand what I mean? He doesnt deliver references to nobody and this lil old nail makes him a ilusionist and not a visionary and less a seriouse reference. The obsession of AI and fusion of bio plus machine but is shared by many and more advanced in a couple of edges than anybody knows about it. But also far behind in a couple of other edges which is based on non patendable issues people like Kurzweil dont like that much. As long as we have these capitalists and speculation driven forces in science we are fully screwed and paralyzed. Thats the only obstacle we have followed by bad speeches and jealeous little brains.
    But lets joke about AI because it will be much more ethical and reliable than HI.

    • turtles_allthewaydown Lucky Saint Luis August 16, 2012 on 7:36 am

      I’m assuming you used Google translate or something to help you with that paragraph.

      I’m not sure why you think capitalism is bad for advancement of technology, that has shown to be the most effective method of progress. Also not sure how you think Kurzweil is not a man of science, given the work he’s done over his entire lifetime. BTW, there’s no “cure” for diabetes, but there is treatment that can essentially eliminate it, depending on the type you have.