Ray Kurzweil, Google's Director Of Engineering, Wants To Bring The Dead Back To Life
Inventor Ray Kurzweil hopes to develop ways for humans to live forever, and while he’s at it, bring back his dead father.
Behind him is the support of a tech giant. This month, Kurzweil, a futurist, stepped into the role of Director of Engineering at Google, focusing on machine learning and language processing.
"There is a lot of suffering in the world," Kurzweil once said, according to Bloomberg. "Some of it can be overcome if we have the right solutions."
Since his father's death in 1970, Kurzweil has stored his keepsakes in hopes the data will one day be fed into a computer capable of creating a virtual version of him,Bloomberg reported. Interestingly, one of his novels lays out how humans might "transcend biology."
According to TechCrunch, his controversial theories are rooted in the idea oftechnological singularity, a time when humans and machines sync up to the point of nearly limitless advancement.
That idea, which interests Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, could happen as soon as 2030, Kurzweil says.
"We are a human machine civilization and we create these tools to make ourselves smarter," Kurzweil told Scientific American.
In his latest book, "How To Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed," he writes about wanting to engineer a computerized replica of the human brain. If we understand the brain well enough, he says, we would be better equipped to fix its problems, like mental and neurological illnesses.
He imagines a search engine capable of accessing a database of your thoughts, stored in the Cloud. It would anticipate what people are seeking before they even know.
Much of this may sound nearly impossible, but Kurzweil has been spot-on about technological forecasts in the past.
"In 1999, I said that in about a decade we would see technologies such as self-driving cars and mobile phones that could answer your questions, and people criticized these predictions as unrealistic," he said in a statement announcing his position at Google. "Fast forward a decade –- Google has demonstrated self-driving cars, and people are indeed asking questions of their Android phones."
Digital Trends places Kurzweil among the most-celebrated and recognized innovatorsof the last four decades. In 1976, several of his innovations converged into the first device that could read printed text out loud for the blind. He was 27 years old at the time.
Now, the next generation of inventors will learn from him. Google recently allotted more than $250,000 toward his graduate school, Singularity University, according to Bloomberg. After 10 weeks of a curriculum focusing on biotech, robots, and artificial intelligence, students -- forgoing a traditional degree -- create their own startups.
"I'm thrilled to be teaming up with Google to work on some of the hardest problems in computer science so we can turn the next decade's 'unrealistic' visions into reality," Kurzweil said in the statement.
Among the stranger things Ray Kurzweil will say to your face is that he intends to bring his father back to life. The famed inventor has a storage locker full of memorabilia—family photographs, letters, even utility bills—tied to his father, Fredric, who died in 1970. Someday, Kurzweil hopes to feed this data trove into a computer that will reconstruct a virtual rendering of dear old Dad. “There is a lot of suffering in the world,” Kurzweil once explained. “Some of it can be overcome if we have the right solutions.”
Kurzweil, 64, has spent many of the past 40 years exploring his theories on life extension and other matters from a lab in Boston. Now he’s taking the show on the road. In mid-December, Kurzweil announced he’s moving to California to begin his new job as a director of engineering at Google. He’ll work on language processing, machine learning, and other projects. “I’m thrilled to be teaming up with Google to work on some of the hardest problems in computer science so we can turn the next decade’s ‘unrealistic’ visions into reality,” Kurzweil posted on his website.
He’s not the first senior technology celebrity Google has hired. Internet pioneer Vint Cerf often shows up at events in three-piece suits as an “evangelist” for the search giant, while Hal Varian, founding dean of the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley, is now chief economist.
There are some practical reasons Kurzweil makes sense at Google. He was a coding prodigy who, as a youngster, taught computers to play music and predict the best colleges for high school students. Later he built a line of sophisticated music synthesizers and early scanners and then worked on artificial intelligence software for Wall Street equities traders. “Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence,” Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, says on the jacket of one of Kurzweil’s books.
Kurzweil’s body of work is intellectual red meat for Googlers, who envision smartphones as brain extenders. “Imagine your brain being augmented by Google,” the search engine’s co-founder and chief executive officer, Larry Page, said in a 2004 interview. “For example, you think about something and your cell phone could whisper the answer into your ear.”
The top-selling neuroscience book on Amazon.com is Kurzweil’s How To Create A Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, released in November. Kurzweil’s previous books promised ways to “live long enough to live forever” and the path for humans to “transcend biology.” In the brain book, he discusses efforts to build computers that mimic the architecture of the human mind and eventually to construct machines that surpass our mortal limits. He closes by writing, “Waking up the universe, and then intelligently deciding its fate by infusing it with our human intelligence in its nonbiological form, is our destiny.”
Statements like these have turned Kurzweil into a quasi-religious figure. He’s the grand prophet of “the Singularity”—the moment when superintelligent machines light up with something approximating life and either destroy humanity or carry it to unimaginable heights. Kurzweil travels the world preaching the optimistic version of this future, and thousands of people have bought into his message. This movement comes most alive in Silicon Valley where an army of superwealthy technologists and investors have decided to put their fortunes and smarts into bringing the Singularity to fruition.
Page gave Kurzweil more than $250,000 to help start Singularity University, a graduate school of sorts located on NASA-managed property in Mountain View, a couple of miles from Google’s campus. For about the last three years, SingU, as it’s known, has held programs for students and entrepreneurs in which they hear from the world’s leading thinkers in areas such as biotech, robotics, and artificial intelligence. The university is anything but traditional. Students come for only 10-week sessions. Rather than complete a degree, they create a startup. The coursework is mostly straightforward, though the occasional lecturer will vow to live for 700 years. “I find it a mixture of very interesting work on technology that may provide disruptive opportunities for innovation—and very silly woolgathering,” says Mitch Kapor, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and critic of Kurzweil’s Singularity stumping.
The gig at Google gives Kurzweil something he never really had before during his long polymathic career: money. Google has taken the profits it earns from pasting ads next to Internet searches and used them to fuel groundbreaking work in areas such as self-driving cars and augmented reality glasses. Perhaps Android smartphones will one day telepathically whisper sweet nothings in our brains. Google could begin selling the Brain Uploader 3000, thus freeing the species from its mortal shackles. No pressure, Ray.
The X-tra Life Factor: Simon Cowell wants his body frozen when he dies so he can be brought back to life in the future. Fantasy - or chilling possibility? Cash, we may safely assume, is not an issue. But even so, the news that one of entertainment's biggest earners plans to shell out up to £120,000 to have his body frozen after he dies is sure to have his critics quoting the old adage that involves fools, money and the easy parting thereof.
Simon Cowell, the pop impresario, apparently announced at a private dinner with Gordon Brown that he intends to have his body placed in a deep freeze after he dies.
'Medical science,' he says, 'is bound to work out a way of bringing us back to life in the next century or so, and I want to be available when they do. I'd be doing the nation an invaluable service.'
Quite apart from whether our great-great-great-grandchildren will want to watch Mr Cowell abuse contestants on some futuristic talent show, he is not alone in planning to cheat death by using the 'science' of freezing the dead.
Already, hundreds of people have been frozen in vats across the world and a further 1,000 have signed up to have their body frozen when they die, including a few dozen in Britain.
Most people fund their planned immortality through an insurance premium of between £20 and £100 a month, and the total cost can vary from £20,000 to £120,000. The money is used to keep the 'death support' mechanism going for the decades (or centuries) needed while science catches up with their aspirations to live again.
Absurd and macabre though it sounds, some companies even offer a discount for those who choose simply to freeze their heads (neuro-suspension) as opposed to opting for whole body cryo-preservation.
So if Mr Cowell presses ahead with his quest for immortality, how exactly would he be frozen after death, to maximise his chances of reincarnation?
Those who have signed up wear a bracelet, with a contact number for a 'mobile salvaging' team of cryonicists. In the event of a sudden death, they supposedly arrive with a cooling mechanism and a heart and lung machine, which is used to start pumping embalming chemicals into the body.
The body is chilled dramatically, then shipped off, almost invariably to the U.S., for storage.
But would Mr Cowell be spending his money wisely? Would he, indeed, be better commissioning a statue or portrait if he wants some measure of immortality?
For centuries, people have dreamed of freezing the dead and bringing them back to life at a later date. The idea was first mooted by the American polymath and politician Benjamin Franklin as early as 1773.
But the modern 'science' of 'cryonics' (from the Greek for 'cold') dates back to the Sixties, when scientists proposed using liquid nitrogen, at -196C, to freeze human bodies at the point of death, preserving them until a time when medical knowledge had advanced so much that they could be resuscitated.
Several 'institutes' were founded on this proposal, the largest of which are the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute, which froze its first 'patient', physiology professor Dr James Bedford, in 1972, Arizona-based Alcor, and the American Cryonics Society.
All are non-profit charities which between them have several hundred 'clients', human and animal (many people pay to have their pets preserved), in various deep-freeze facilities around the U.S. There are also small cryonics facilities in Russia and Australia.
The trouble is that freezing is the easy part. It's bringing the bodies back to life that poses a huge technological challenge.
Freezing biological tissues in liquid nitrogen can cause a lot of damage, primarily because water expands as it solidifies.
Your body, and the cells which make it up, is more than 80 per cent water and if this is allowed to form ice crystals, they can pierce and shred cell walls.
(Cryonicists say modern techniques use chemicals which do not form solid crystals in the tissues, minimising damage.)
But even if you manage to preserve the tissue from cell damage, and thaw out the body, how can the person be revived?
After all, if you deep-freeze a mouse, then thaw it out, you get only mouse-meat, not a live animal. And not only will medical science have to advance to a stage where it can revive a frozen corpse, it will also have to cure or repair - very quickly - whatever illness or injury brought his or her life to an end.
The cryonicists point to the fact we know so little about death and the mind, and that this alone offers at least some hope that the technique may one day work.
For a start, after centuries of philosophical debate, nearly all scientists agree that the mind is a purely physical thing, that self-awareness, memories, the mechanisms of thinking, must all be purely physical, biological processes which take place in the brain, even if these processes as yet remain poorly understood.
No one sensible believes in a nebulous 'soul', which leaves the body at point of death (the traditional 'dualist' religious view).
This means that, in principle, if you can preserve the brain you can, in theory at least, preserve the mind, personality and memories of its erstwhile owner.
What cryonics is trying to do, say its proponents, is preserve not flesh and blood, but information.
Since the essence of a person, his memories and thoughts, are stored in the brain, it should be possible to take a preserved brain and, like a broken computer, somehow retrieve the information and recreate the person who died.
Some technologists, such as U.S. futurologist Ray Kurzweil - who this month was appointed head of a Futurology School, funded by Nasa and Google - believe the time is close when advances in genetics, computing and nanotechnology (engineering which manipulates matter on the scale of individual atoms and molecules) will mean humans could become immortal.
Since the essence of a person, says Dr Kurzweil, is just the fleeting electrochemical messages and circuits in our brains, then it should be possible to read or 'scan' this information (as it is possible to scan the information on a broken computer disc) and transfer, or download, it to another, healthier and empty 'brain', either biological or electronic.
This is why many cryonics organisations offer only 'neuro-preservation' - freezing of the head on its own.
So how are they likely to revive the frozen body - or head - in the future? Barring accidents (like the embarrassing funding crisis which caused nine bodies stored in one facility to thaw out in 1979), let us assume that technology has advanced to a stage where it is possible to bring people out of cryo-preservation.
Kurzweil and others believe this could be as soon as the 2040s.
The brain is thawed and - possibly using swarms of bacteria-like nano-machines, effectively minute robots - its cells and synapses are explored, the information being fed into a computer.
Then, either the original brain and body are repaired and 'reprogrammed', or an artificial brain-body is prepared to receive the scanned mind.
Finally, in a Frankenstein-like flourish, the person is switched on and blinks into life.
It sounds like science-fiction nonsense. It probably is. The problems with this scenario range from the trivial (the ice crystal problem) to the philosophical (will the revived person really be the same as the one who died?).
All that said, the multimillionaire Mr Cowell can afford to experiment. Whether future generations will thank him for doing so is another matter.
The Prime Minister sees the point. 'I'm not sure me coming back from the dead would be popular,' he said at that dinner party. 'In fact, there may be a campaign to stop me being frozen!'