Are Ray Kurzweil’s “Three Bridges” to Immortality Insane?
Wunderkind and age interventionist Ray Kurzweil takes us on a journey across three bridges to his personal version of immortality. If you’re the envelope-pushing sort, climb aboard.
THIS IS another sneak preview of one of the “12 Ageproof Biohacks” I’m developing an ebook and course around. This one is about soothsayer Ray Kurzweil’s forecast about how medical technology will alter the very nature of our lives. Adapted from Part II, this article deals with the conceptual framework for the ageproof journey.
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Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.
Ray Kurzweil says the biology of the body is much like computer software, and that we’re in need of of a major upgrade. Once humans are merged with machines, we’ll live forever. And, by the way, this could all happen by 2045!
Some dismiss Ray as being nuts to think that humans will be able to live forever, but that view misses the perspective of his “three bridges” conception, which posits that exponentially increasing technological advancement will create a sequence of specific sets (“bridges”) of biologically-enhancing capabilities that will accelerate human biochemical evolution.
“Who is Ray Kurzweil, and what hallucinogen is he on,” you ask? Ray is a prolific inventor, author, futurist and Google engineering director of artificial intelligence. He’s received 20 honorary doctorates in science, engineering, music and humane letters, as well as White House honors from three presidents, including the National Medal of Technology. He famously predicted that “The Singularity” will occur in 2045.
In the context of technological growth, The Singularity is a term attributable to mathematician John von Neuman, who in 1958 described it as an “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”. (1)
Those “human affairs, as we know them, [that] could not continue” will correctly be descriptive of some of what The Singularity will bring, but that’s a good thing, in Ray’s view. It’s good because humans will be merged with artificial intelligence and enhanced capabilities, he says.
If he’s correct, by 2045 information and medical-based technologies will be millions of times more advanced and artificial intelligence (“AI”) will far outshine the power of all human brains combined.
This prognostication is informed by Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, a generalization of Moore’s Law, which predicts ongoing exponential technological growth. The impact, Kurzweil asserts, is that at today’s spectacular growth rate, we won’t experience 100 years of growth in the Twenty-First Century as we did in the last, but more like 20,000 years. (2)
As applied to current biological limitations, the experience of this growth will happen over three distinct metaphorical “bridges” conceived by Ray and Dr. Terry Grossman, with whom he co-authored Transcend
and Fantastic Voyage. The first bridge is available now. The next two necessitate technological advances, many of which are imminent.
Given that the first bridge exists now, we can cross it by becoming as healthy as possible with diet, supplements, exercise and currently available medicine. It’s on this first bridge that we bend the age curve. The objective of the first bridge is make you hale enough to get you to the second.
On the second bridge, a biotechnology revolution is in full swing. If we’ve stayed healthy enough to begin this journey, it is here where biology can be reprogramed make us resistant to disease. The objective of the second bridge is to sufficiently expunge any disease or genetic propensities for it that you can live long enough to get to the third.
The third bridge goes beyond biology to the nanotechnology revolution. Here there’s a merging of human and machine, and lifespan is potentially unending.
The Mission Is Personal
It’s Ray Kurzweil’s work that gave me clarity about what I was doing all these years. Almost instinctually, since early adulthood I’ve been gradually adopting habits aimed at making me as healthy as possible. As it turns out, these same lifestyle tweaks done habitually are enabling me to bend my age curve and put me in a position to cross the second bridge, which turns out to be Ray’s goal as well.
Ray’s quest to live an unimaginably long time was ignited by his father’s death at 58 from a heart attack, which could have been the harbinger of things to come for Ray, for he had risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Ray got type-2 diabetes at the age of 35. He took insulin, but like a good scientist, he examined the literature and learned that when you’re insulin resistant, as diabetics are, taking more of it attempts to overwhelm the resistance, rather than changing the biochemical mechanisms that cause resistance. Ray took an alternative path and changed his biochemistry through nutrition, exercise and aggressive supplementation.
The data he provided a few years ago to New Scientist represented in the chart below, shows that he expunged the signs of diabetes, reducing his fasting glucose (sugar) level from a diabetic-defining 185 milligrams per deciliter to an acceptable 95 today, and has not had any indication of diabetes in the intervening 20 years. He did the same with his cardiovascular risk factors, and now at 66, has outlived his father by eight years, and tests show his biological age to be almost 20 years younger.
Ray’s chart joins the Aging Curve as another illustration that biological age can transcend chronology to some degree even with today’s technology and best practices; meaning, that we can actually become biologically younger even as we get chronologically older. The first step in this direction happens on “Bridge One”.
Bridge One: Now
Like all of us on the ageproof journey, Ray is moving along on Bridge One, doing all he can with available nutrition, supplements, pharmaceuticals and exercise that promise to slow down, or reverse aging (in the case of premature aging due to chronic disease).
Some of Ray’s ageproof lifestyle measures are supported by a large body of research that shows his low-calorie, low-carb diet, exercise and lots of sleep to be correlated with longevity and health. His critics tend to focus on his other interventions that have less scientific support, such as drinking ten glasses of highly alkaline water a day to rid his body of toxins, and weekly intravenous infusions of vitamins, chelating agents and various other pharmaceuticals.
In response, Ray presents naysayers with tests he has taken that show impressive results. Various metrics associated with aging, such as those measuring lung capacity, reaction time, sensory acuteness, memory and decision speed show a biological aging progression of just two years over a 20 year time span.(3) Translation: two years of actual aging over 20 years of chronological time.
On Bridge One we learn about how the body’s different systems work, such as those that control insulin resistance, methylation, atherosclerosis and cancer. What we want to do is to disrupt the outdated contention that aging and disease are 80% genes and 20% lifestyle. While this may be true if we avail ourselves to a conventional approach, if aggressive, we can overcome almost any genetic disposition.
We can intervene to reverse common underlying factors of chronic disease with currently available methods. A quick look at atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in arteries), pH, blood glucose and dietary fat shows how much control we have over our health.
Let’s start with atherosclerosis, among a group of cardiovascular diseases that kills more people in the industrialized world than any other. Scientists had only a basic understanding of heart disease 25 years ago. Now, it’s understood that atherosclerosis as an inflammatory condition that can be treated and even reversed through healthy lifestyle decisions, including frequent exercise, anti-inflammatory dietary choices, and aggressive supplementation with nutrients that reduce cholesterol.
Get Acidity/Alkaline In Balance
The pH range in the human body is narrow, typically from 6.8 to 7.1 in our cells, and a slightly more alkaline range of 7.35 to 7.45 in while blood cells. Many metabolic processes produce acidic by-products that make the body’s fluids too acidic. Ray maintains that good health is dependent on maintaining a slightly alkaline pH level. He recommends avoiding acidic beverages such as sodas, and to drink pure water alkalized to adjust its pH level and promote detoxification and health-promoting effects. (4)
Control Blood Glucose
Scientists continue to unravel the relationships between blood sugar (glucose), obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. One common denominator people with these conditions appear to have is excess high-glycemic carbohydrate consumption.
Not all carbohydrates are problematic. It’s the “simple”, highly refined carbohydrates, such as refined sugar or white bread that cause a rapid elevation in blood sugar. The pancreas then must respond by producing insulin to handle the excess glucose not immediately useable by the body. Over time, the body’s system for controlling blood sugar breaks down and diabetes develops.
To prevent this vicious cycle, Ray adds his voice to many health pundits and doctors who recommend that people avoid simple carbohydrates, and eat foods with a lower glycemic load instead. The glycemic load is calculated by multiplying the number of grams of carbohydrates in a given food by its glycemic index (which measures how quickly the food is converted into glucose and released into the bloodstream). The glycemic load is an accurate measure of how much insulin your body will have to produce to neutralize the carbohydrates in a given food. (5)
Carbohydrates with a low glycemic load include peanuts, carrots, lentils, and kidney beans. By contrast, carbohydrates with a high glycemic load include all candy and refined sugar, white rice, potatoes, pasta, and white bread.
Irrespective of carbohydrate source, Ray recommends they should account for no more than one third of total caloric intake, and people with diabetes or insulin resistance should limit them even further.
Eat The Right Dietary Fat
When it comes to dietary fat, there’s two things to know — the right fat to eat and how much of it. Which type of fat to eat has consensus, but how much to consume is hotly debated, particularly since the relatively high meat, high fat consuming Paleo Diet became popular.
In Rays view, body fat is an outdated form of energy storage in humans. Yes, it made sense for most of our history when calories were scarce, a successful hunt was uncertain, and winters long and challenging. These days, however, with our next meal typically ten steps away, our body’s efficient fat storage system has made one-of-three Americans obese, and two-of-three overweight. (6)
Ray admonishes us to stay away from unhealthy saturated and trans fats, and focus on omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, walnuts, hemp seeds, chia seeds and flaxseed. In particular, he recommends high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, such as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eico-sapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). EPA and DHA especially have been shown to lower triglyceride levels dramatically.
Although most people consume too much plant-based, Omega-6 fatty acids, Ray recommends ingesting GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, heart attack and stroke risk. Another healthy omega-6 fatty acid is DGLA (dihomogamma-linolenic acid). (7)
He also recommends that fat make up no more than 25% of daily caloric intake, and that virtually all of this should be in the form of healthy fats. Like most scientists who study dietary fat, Ray thinks that saturated fats are unhealthy, and recommends they account for no more than 3% of total calories. But, as mentioned, these days there’s considerable push-back both on total fat intake and the unhealthiness of saturated fat.
Ideally, you’ll experiment with a mix of macronutrients (protein, fat and carboohydrates) to find which mix best suits your individual needs.
Bridge Two: 2025 − 2030
This is where things get really interesting. On Bridge Two, Ray foresees an explosion in biotechnology, resulting in remarkable life extending enhancements available at the cellular and genetic levels. This will be a time when many of our deadliest diseases and conditions are rendered powerless. He envisions the increasing use of gene therapy, stem cells, therapeutic cloning and replacement cells, tissues and organs. When that happens, we turn back our biological clocks.
As an example of biotechnology at work, Ray predicts that by time Bridge Two comes along, drugs will be available to us that can turn off the body’s calorie-storage mechanisms. People will be able to eat as much as they want but never gain weight. Impossible? It’s already been done in rats, and human trials are likely.
Surely, we humans need it. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, more than two-thirds of American adults are either obese or overweight. (7) Obesity is closely linked to heart disease, various cancers, diabetes, joint injuries, inflammation, and a host of ill health effects. As shown in the Survival Rates Body Mass graph in Chapter 1.2, there’s an inverse relationship between bodyweight above healthy levels and longevity.
Salutary predictions are also made for several other chronic health conditions, given that researchers are already gaining the technology to shape tools at the molecular level and have the models of disease progression that enable us to design new interventions. Heart disease drugs will reverse atherosclerosis. Cancer drugs may be able to restore damaged DNA and stop cell proliferation. Diabetes drugs will prevent insulin resistance before diabetes is diagnosed. The DNA of viruses will be mapped and treatments will be designed to kill the viruses.
This is largely possible due to our increasing understanding of the human genome. Scientists successfully mapped the entire human genome in the 1990s. The genome carries in its 23 pairs of chromosomes the entire map of human life. In the coming years, as we unravel the complex interaction between gene expression and health, we will gain a greater understanding of what makes us sick or healthy.
To give you a sense of what’ possible, let’s take a peek into what’s actually happening now with ongoing scientific studies on mice and rats, all with the anticipation of human application soon.
Imaginary Meal Tricks the Body Into Losing Weight
Salk researchers have developed an entirely new type of pill, called “fexaramine”, that tricks the body (only in mice at present) into thinking it has consumed calories, causing it to burn fat, by lower cholesterol, control blood sugar, and minimize inflammation. (8)
Altered Probiotics Could Prevent Obesity and Insulin Resistance
Vanderbilt University researchers have discovered that genetically modified probiotic bacteria in the gut produce a therapeutic compound that inhibits weight gain, insulin resistance, and other adverse effects of a high-fat diet in mice. (9)
Genetic Regulatory Circuit Reduces Obesity
ETH-Zurich biotechnologists have constructed an implantable genetic regulatory circuit that monitors blood-fat levels. In response to excessive levels, it produces a messenger substance that signals satiety (fullness) to the body. Tests on obese mice revealed that this helps them lose weight. (10)
Nanotechnological Delivery of Cancer Drugs to Tumors
University of Florida researchers have developed a “DNA nanotrain” that fast-tracks its payload of cancer-fighting drugs and bioimaging agents to tumor cells deep within the body. (11)
A Hormone Designed for Diabetes
Researchers at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) have discovered a hormone, “betatrophin” that causes mice to produce insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cells at up to 30 times the normal rate. Betatrophin may become a dramatically more effective treatment of type-2 diabetes, a metabolic illness afflicting an estimated 26 million Americans. The researchers believe that the hormone might also have a role in treating type-1, or juvenile, diabetes. (12)
Soft microrobots that simulate unicellular water microorganisms
Researchers in Trieste and Catalonia are designing miniaturized robots (nanobots) with the same “softness” and flexibility as biological tissues that could one day function medically inside the human body to deliver drugs directly to where they are needed, re-open occluded blood vessels, or help to close wounds. (13)
Stomach-acid-powered micromotors tested in living animal
Researchers at the University of California at San Diego are working on making a micromotor fueled by stomach acid that can take a bubble-powered ride inside a mouse — and that could one day be a safer, more efficient way to deliver drugs or diagnose tumors for humans. The experiment is the first to show that these micromotors can operate safely in a living animal. (14)
Micrometer Fibers Deliver Drugs Into The Brain
MIT Scientists have created probes containing biocompatible multipurpose fibers about 85 micrometers in width (the width of a human hair) that can deliver optogenetic signals and drugs directly into the brain, while allowing a simultaneous electrical readout to continuously monitor the effects of the various inputs from freely moving mice. Eventually, they expect to enable precision mapping of neural activity, and ultimately the treatment of neurological disorders. (15)
‘Glowing’ Nanotech Guides Cancer Surgery and Kills Cancer Cells
Oregon State University researchers are using a compound called “naphthalocyanine” which has some unusual properties when exposed to near-infrared light: It can make a cell glow as a guide to surgeons, heat the cell to kill it, and produce reactive oxygen species (chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide) that can also kill a cell if the other methods don’t work. By adjusting the intensity of the light, the action of the compound can be controlled and optimized to kill just the tumor and cancer cells. (16)
This revolution in biotechnology will allow us to conquer diseases and conditions that have plagued us for millennia. According to Ray, however, this is only the beginning. The next and final bridge will carry us toward immortality on the backs of tiny robots.
Bridge Three: 2045, “The Singularity”
You can decide to journey across Bridge One right now by doing the 12 Ageproof Hacks, which, in effect, means to select the necessary and sufficient nutrients, supplements and exercise currently available to bend your age curve and prepare you for Bridge Two.
Although not fully “built”, Bridge Two’s existence is already observable. As described above, the biotechnological revolution is in full swing, and has already developed proven medical solutions to prevent or heal chronic health issues in animals and humans. That leaves Bridge Three, the most controversial and hard to imagine, or accept.
Bridge Three is built from the merging of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence (“AI”). The result would be specialized, programmable, communicating nanobots that could replace neurons and blood cells, because they would have the capacity to destroy infections, reverse degenerative changes and rewrite genetic code.
This may seem preposterous, but we already know from the experience presented above in “Bridge Two” that many animal experiments are already happening today that use blood cell-sized, nanobot-type devices to deliver drugs and healthy cells, such as one that cured type-1 diabetes in rats by placing pancreatic islet cells inside the device. Glucose gets into the islet cells, is measured and then insulin is released, making the rats no longer diabetic.
Ray predicts a future in which these tiny robotic nanobots are everywhere, healing every health issue and thereby allowing humans to be unencumbered by biological limitations. Nanobots the size of red blood cells could be injected by the billions to carry oxygen more efficiently than can actual red blood cells. Neurons could be enhanced by tiny microcomputers implanted in the capillaries of the brain, which would communicate with biological cells, each other, and a wireless Internet. Still other robots could monitor our blood glucose and maintain a safe level of insulin, rendering diabetes powerless.
This is not only revolutionary, but evolutionary, for how we evolve along Bridge Three will be up to us. In the 2040s, Ray predicts, the non-biological proportions of our beings will be powerful enough to completely model and simulate the biological part.
To Ray, this is natural, for he sees biology is a software process. Bodies are made up of trillions of cells, each governed by this process. Our biology had to be designed to accommodate scarcity, so it craves dietary fat and sugar and stores calories as body fat via a fat insulin receptor gene that says, “Hold on to every calorie.” Our biology reacts to danger with stress chemicals, such as cortisol, that raise blood pressure and constrict arteries. For most of human history, this made sense — the species was better able to survive after reproductive years if we gradually succumbed to disease and death, and freed scarce resources for the next generation.
That era is ending, says Ray, and we’re about to take a big leap forward into an age of abundance, when manufacturing and energy will cost virtually nothing, when 1-3% of humanity can feed the rest of world with advanced agriculture, and when we improve on our original design through our insatiable drive to overcome our own limitations, including our own human potential.
A thousand years ago, life expectancy was 20 years, and 800 years later it was only 37. At that time, advances in medical and information technology grew slowly, linearly. Now, the growth is exponential. We think linearly, so our intuition has a difficult time with exponential growth, but your “smart” phone provides a good example.
A smart phone today is now literally several billion times more powerful per dollar, and 100,000 time smaller, than a room-sized computer was in the late 1960s. In 25 years, the computing capacity of your smart phone is likely to be a billion times more powerful then now, and the size of a blood cell. When this kind of exponential growth is applied to medical technology, what do you think will be the impact on your lifespan?
- You can heavily influence your biological aging process by choosing the foods, drinks, supplements and exercise regimens that reduce the probability of developing chronic disease.
- The pace of scientific innovation is happening faster than most of us can conceive, but we have apt examples with devices we use every day, such as our smart phones. Applying the rate of technological improvement that happened so quickly to make our phones “smart” let’s us imagine a time close at hand where medical technologies will let us extend our healthy lifespans considerably.
- If you haven’t already, discover what your health issues may be, and take steps to improve them, as did Ray Kurzweil with his diabetes and cardiovascular issues.
- Replace one or more unhealthy fats or carbohydrates that you regularly consume with healthy options.
Questions To Wrestle
- Does an unlimited lifespan present you with a moral dilemma, and if so, under what circumstances would it not?
- Do you think it’s likely that you could make the necessary lifestyle changes to cross Bridge One and thereby be alive to benefit from the medical technologies that will be available on Bridge Two? If not, why not?