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An Oral History Interview with Ray Kurzweil, Part 1 of 4

Listen to Kurzweil Interview, Part 1


Legends and Pioneers of Blindness Assistive Technology

Wellesley Hills, MA
November 12, 2004


Introduction to Interview with Ray Kurzweil

Tony Candela: It is very rare when someone who is considered to be a genius turns out to be truly that, a genius. Ray Kurzweil is one of those individuals. He has proven over and over again his immense capacity to absorb and process information and it's by no means a coincidence that his life's work has been in artificial intelligence.

Ray has written several books. Two of his more famous are The Age of Intelligent Machines and The Age of Spiritual Machines. And you'll hear about two other books in the upcoming interview.

Ray is a very busy man. On the day of our interview, a Friday, he drove from his last appointment back to the office to join me at 6:00 in the evening. Two and a half hours later we were packing up, Ray helping me to get a cab before getting into his car and going home to a restful weekend with his family.

Of course, in the blindness assistive rechnology realm, Ray Kurzweil is famous for inventing the reading machine, a device which fulfilled the dreams of blind people ever since the invention of the printed book. Namely, the ability to take a piece of printed material and read it in real time.

Ray's latest venture is in the area of life prolongation and throughout the interview you might occasionally hear Ray taking one of more than 250 nutritional supplements that he hopes will keep him healthy enough to be able to take advantage of life-prolonging nanotechnologies that he expects to be developed in the next 20 years.

Not only does Ray want to live a longer life, but he hopes that discoveries in science and technology will also help people live better lives.

I thought I was going to have a daunting experience interviewing such a great man, but Ray was warm, congenial, and he turned our interview into a conversation, a dialogue. In the end the interview turned out to be great fun.

Beginning of Interview

Tony Candela: Thanks for joining me at a late hour on a Friday at the end of a workweek. I am told by your assistant that you have unlimited energy; they'd never seen you get tired.

Ray Kurzweil: Well, they haven't seen me at all times of day or night.

It's been a busy week but every week's a busy week and I'm looking forward to this interview.

Tony Candela: I was listening to them talking while waiting for you and they said that there was a very marvelous event. Was it today, with some kids?

Ray Kurzweil: Actually, my wife and daughter had written a book together called Forever Poems for Now and Then. We've also created a special CD with the Kurzweil Education format file of the book for learning disabled kids.

So they had written the original poems and matched them up to famous paintings. It's published by Ben Bella Books. And the Kurzweil Foundation is giving a copy of the book, including a special KES CD, Kurzweil Education CD, a version of the book to every fifth grade class in Massachusetts.

Tony Candela: Oh my goodness.

Ray Kurzweil: And so we had a reading of the book by both the Kurzweil 3000 and by Sonia and Amy, the authors, at the O'Hearn School which is kind of a magnet school for kids with disabilities and they're doing a marvelous job.

I was wondering what fifth graders were like these days. These kids were very gung-ho and enthusiastic and not the least bit alienated. I don't know if that's typical for fifth graders or not. Maybe they get alienated around seventh or eighth grade,

Tony Candela: Usually adolescence has something to do with it.

Ray Kurzweil: Seems to be a good age. They're bright enough to be interested in all kinds of topics but not yet in the throes of adolescence.

Tony Candela: How old is your daughter?

Ray Kurzweil: She just turned 18 so she is a bona fide adolescent. But not so adolescent as to be unable to work with her mother.

Actually, I did a project with her, too, a few years ago.

Tony Candela: What was the project?

Ray Kurzweil: It was a kind of interesting project where we wanted to demonstrate how you could transform yourself into someone else, using virtual reality technology. So I transformed myself into a 25-year-old female rock singer and she transformed herself into the male backup dancer. So the audience could see me and my daughter. There were magnetic sensors in our clothing and as we moved the computers picked up all of our motions and created quite realistic, real time animations of these other characters kind of demonstrating this principle of what virtual reality will be like.

I was at a conference called TED, Technology Entertainment Design, and our demonstration of this, which my daughter choreographed, she was 14 at the time, was the basis for the movie Simone, where the character played by Al Pacino does exactly what we demonstrated when he turns himself into Simone and Simone becomes this big international star. And this whole plot, people don't realize that Simone doesn't actually exist, it's just his transformation, using computers of Al Pacino.

But Warner Brothers attended our presentation and went off and made that movie.

Tony Candela: Are you getting residuals from this, intellectual property or anything like that?

Ray Kurzweil: No, I get some intellectual credit.

Tony Candela: That's good. Is your name on the credits somewhere?

Ray Kurzweil: I don't think so. But there was definitely the influence.

Tony Candela: That's fantastic.

Is your daughter as interested in I'll just say science, to start with, as you are?

Ray Kurzweil: She's really more the artist in the family. She's a choreographer, a very good writer and artist.

My son is interested in the technology business. He was a Mackenzie consultant. Now he's working for the Wall Street Journal.

I also worked with the Commissioner of Education in New York, Joel Klein, on that major reform program.

Tony Candela: What's your son's name?

Ray Kurzweil: Ethan.

Tony Candela: Do you have any other children?

Ray Kurzweil: No, just Ethan and Amy.

Tony Candela: Ethan and Amy. And Sonia, your wife.

Usually we get to the personal stuff toward the end of the interview but I'll ask you now, how long have you and Sonia been married?

Ray Kurzweil: Twenty-nine years actually. So we'll probably get to the threshold of thirty. The first thirty years are the hardest.

Tony Candela: That's what I hear.

And based on your new book, if you make it to your fiftieth, you will be around past the year 2020 and perhaps by then, all sorts of good things will be happening with nanotechnology. I'm not trying to lead you into that conversation right now, but if you do make it to your fiftieth, you'll be there.

Ray Kurzweil: Right. This new book is called Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and the subtitle does articulate this concept that the technology of health, medicine, longevity is rapidly changing.

And ten years from now we're going to have very powerful biotechnology means of staying healthy that are in the development and even testing pipeline now.

So, by taking care of yourself today, it's not just a matter of adding a few years. It really means, particularly for baby boomers like myself—I'm 56—that you can be alive and in good shape when these more dramatic technologies come to be.

So we call it a bridge—a bridge to a bridge to a bridge. Taking care of yourself today (and two thirds of this book is kind of a "How-To" health book — very comprehensive) will enable you to stay in good shape and be a bridge to the full flowering of this biotechnology revolution.

That will be a bridge to another revolution, the nanotechnology revolution where we can actually go beyond the limitations of biology. And that will really provide radical life extension. And there'll be a lot of other dramatic things happening in the future.

Of course, we're already in the era where technology is providing more powerful means for people with disabilities to get an education, work in any field, in terms of equality. It's really the great leveler.

And we don't need computers that have broad, flexible intelligence. The disabled person provides the broad, flexible human intelligence. So the disabled person is missing a narrow ability: ability to hear or see or perhaps a physical disability. And that's a good match for the narrow intelligence of today's computers.

So a computer that has let's say just the narrow AI ability to read a book, can really overcome that particular handicap associated with visual impairment. So that's a threshold that we've been on and already, with proper training and access, there's really no significant type of work, or education, that a blind person is unable to do. They'd be driving a taxi is the only thing I can think of, and we'll get to that as well.

Blind people work in every area. Of course it's not just technology. It requires education, training, it requires society to cooperate in terms of overcoming ancient prejudices. But the technology plays an important role, in terms of being able to provide alternative ways of doing the same thing.

Tony Candela: Very often the existence of technology engenders things that people don't think of and that's sometimes when the ethicists come into play, but the technology often opens people's minds to things that they probably have shut their minds to.

Ray Kurzweil: I think it provides just a practical means of overcoming certain specific handicaps, like reading a book that's not in braille or a recorded form.

But it also does have an impact on social attitudes because it reinforces the message that there are alternative ways to do everything and disabled people can contribute, in every possible way to society. So I think technology does, particularly [those of] us who worry about these technical means, reach the public. It also affects public attitudes.

Tony Candela: I'm told by my spies, namely your assistants, that you are bound and determined to be healthy and in good shape twenty years from now and you're taking extra special care of yourself these days. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Tony Candela: Well not just twenty years, one hundred years. And that sort of gets back to this bridge to a bridge to a bridge.

If all sides of technology were to stop today and we had only today's knowledge, we don't yet have in our hands everything we need to know to extend human life indefinitely.

We do have the means of slowing down disease and aging processes, much more than people realize, but we don't have everything we need to know.

But we're actually not that far away from that knowledge. We're learning the information processes underlying biology. We're learning what the genes mean. We're actually learning how to change them.

I'll just give you one example. There's a software program, insiders call the fat insulin receptor gene which says, "Hold on to every calorie because the next hunting season may not work out so well."

So this gene tells the fat cells to literally do that, "Hold on to every calorie." Well that actually served our needs very well thirty-thousand years ago, when we didn't have super-sized meals. It doesn't serve our needs today. It underlies a lot of degenerative diseases, obesity. We've got to turn that gene off. We have actually technology now that's just emerged a couple of years ago that's called RNA interference, which allows us to turn genes off, if we can identify them. And turning off the fat insulin receptor gene in mice enables these mice to eat ravenously and yet remain slim. And they actually got the health benefits of being slim. They didn't get diabetes or heart disease. They lived 20% longer. They got the health benefits of caloric restriction without restriction.

That's one of hundreds of ideas that are being developed that really do appear to be workable. That biotechnology revolution will lead us to an even more advanced revolution, maybe twenty years from now called the nanotechnology revolution where we can actually go and rebuild portions of our bodies and brains, have nanobots in our blood stream, robots that can go in and actually keep our bodies in repair, reverse atherosclerosis, kill cancer cells, kill pathogens, correct DNA errors, remove debris, and keep the house that is our body in top form indefinitely. It really will lead to radical life extension and the ability to actually not age at all.

So, baby boomers life myself, people in their 50s or 60s, if they just do the normal thing and age in the normal way, they can kind of just miss this boat. And most of my baby boomer peers are oblivious to this perspective.

On the other hand, if you are aggressive about it, in terms of really maintaining your health in an optimal fashion, you can slow down the aging disease process sufficiently that when we have these dramatic new technologies you can be in good shape.

So, that's what the book articulates. My co-author, Dr. Terry Grossman, and myself are very committed to this personally.

He works with his patients, he runs a major longevity clinic in Denver, and so we are putting this message out. Two-thirds of the book is a practical, how-to guide on keeping healthy and it's not a one-trick pony, because our bodies are complicated.

We have a very comprehensive message about nutrition. We believe in aggressive supplementation. You can only get so far by being "natural" because it's natural for people to live not much past child-rearing age. It was not in the interest of our species, twenty- or thirty-thousand years ago for people to live, for most people to live to old age. Because they used up the precious, limited resources of the clan. But we live now in an era of abundance. What's limited is human knowledge. People who are older can contribute quite well because they have the brains and wisdom to contribute to knowledge. So we want to overcome these genetic programs.

You can actually change, I mean I'm aggressively reprogramming my biochemistry. I take 250 supplements a day and my biochemistry, all my levels, I measure 50 or 60 different things, starting with things like cholesterol and other common measurements and they are at levels that are actually healthier than they were 20 years ago.

In many ways, I have not aged very much in the last fifteen years. This program by itself may not lead to radical life extension but what it will do is put me in good health, ten or fifteen years from now, when we have these more powerful tools from RNA interference to gene therapy, cell therapies and a lot of very exciting ideas that are going to overcome disease and stop the aging process.

So that's the message of that book. I've been very interested in health for twenty years. I was diagnosed with diabetes twenty years ago. I had the conventional treatment. That made things worse so I really approached it as an adventure, which is my general orientation to any kind of problem. I immersed myself with scientific literature.

I came up with this program that overcame my diabetes. I've had no indication of diabetes since. I also had a very strong genetic predisposition to heart disease because ordinarily my cholesterol levels would be say 280. They're 130 today.

All my levels were pretty bad. Now they're really excellent. My father died when I was 22 and he was 58, my age, I'm 56 now. But I don't have any heart disease. I don't have any diabetes. I'm very healthy. But I work at it.

Tony Candela: Did he die of heart disease?

Ray Kurzweil: Yes.

So that's the message. It used to be my main interest was computer science and information technology, with a strong interest in applying that to disabilities, in particular, visual impairment. And then I had this side interest in health, just because I happened to be a biological human being.

But lately, these two interests have really merged. Because we are now actually understanding health, and biology and medicine, in information terms. We're decoding the genome, we're understanding processes like cancer and heart disease and it's really information processes.

How one enzyme affects another, affects something else and then it cause white blood cells to burrow into the artery. We're understanding each of these steps and the kind of signaling that one molecule or cell sends to the other and exactly how the signals are encoded in chemicals.

And then finding specific vulnerabilities of the disease processes where we can knock out one enzyme and it just cuts the legs from atherosclerosis and that's happening.

Tony Candela: When you had diabetes, type 2 diabetes, what was the treatment that was making it worse?

Ray Kurzweil: Type 2 diabetes is not a lack of insulin, it's a resistance of the cells to using insulin. So the pancreas sees that the glucose levels are high and it pours out more insulin. These are the early stages, until you exhaust your pancreas, a type 2 diabetic will have very high levels of insulin.

And then they tell you, "Well, your problem is you have high sugar levels." They measure your blood and it's high and then they give you insulin and they say, "Look it worked." You measure your glucose and indeed it's gone down.

However, the negative impact of diabetes is not just that you have high glucose levels, it's also from high insulin levels. So now instead of having maybe three times normal insulin levels you have maybe five or six times [normal] levels and your insulin is really sky high and that promotes atherosclerosis and a lot of other conditions.

And also it's very unstable and it doesn't actually work like the pancreas, taking shots, and so sometimes you actually get hyperglycemic, which makes you ravenously hungry and I gained a lot of weight and that makes the type 2 diabetes worse. It's just not the right treatment.

What you really want to do is make the cells able again to be sensitive to insulin. And there are a number of things you can do. There are supplements. There's one drug called Metformin which actually does that very well. We actually think it's a very powerful anti-aging drug, because everybody actually, when they get into their 50s and thereabouts develops some insulin resistance. It's considered a normal aging process but they actually reverse that with Metformin.

Tony Candela: Do you take that?

Ray Kurzweil: Oh yeah.

Tony Candela: What other supplements do you take? How does one take 250 supplements in a day?

Ray Kurzweil: I take them throughout the day. I'm taking them right now, actually.

But generally, if I'm working on my computer, I will be drinking green tea and I drink 10 cups of green tea a day and then I just take two or three supplements at a time, drinking the green tea.

But I'm not just sitting there, I'm working on my computer while I'm doing that. I actually find it relaxing. I enjoy the green tea. So I do that throughout the day.

Tony Candela: The quintessential multi-tasker.

So no more insulin therapy, obviously.

Ray Kurzweil: I stopped that almost twenty years ago.

Tony Candela: Did you lose weight right away afterwards?

Ray Kurzweil: I lost forty pounds from this nutrition program and I've maintained my weight in a good range since that time.

Tony Candela: What is the thought about having to be in really good shape for when the nanotechnologies finally have arrived? Why couldn't you be in bad shape and have these things be beneficial?

Ray Kurzweil: Well, if you're in too bad shape, it may be too late.

Tony Candela: Can't fix something that's overly broken.

Ray Kurzweil: If you're dead or if you have severe deterioration of your brain. There's going to be conditions that are hard to recover from.

And it's not as if nothing is going to happen for twenty years and we'll wake up one morning and have everything. There are already things coming out of the biotechnology revolution that are already quite significant.

They are able to design drugs now, using rational drug design, smart drug design, to go after some specific enzyme or some specific step in the disease process that is well-targeted and doesn't affect healthy tissue. Drug development used to be called drug discovery because literally that's what it was. You just try out lots of substances we had around and find something that seems to have some benefit but also has all kinds of side effects. That's the way primitive man developed tools. "Here's a nice rock. This will make a good hammer." We couldn't actually shape the tools to do what we wanted, but we ultimately developed the means of shaping tools, shaping macro tools like hammers and machine tools. We're now actually shaping tools at the molecular level, so they can go in and do a specific thing.

I'll give you a specific example. The body has a specific enzyme that destroys HDL, the good cholesterol.

A lot of people get heart disease because their HDL is too low. If you destroy this enzyme or block it, then the body stops destroying HDL and people's HDL levels go up dramatically. We know how to inhibit enzymes. That's a technique we have.

There's a new drug Tocipitrine from Pfizer, that does exactly that. It blocks that enzyme, causing people's HDL to soar and that reverses their atherosclerosis and Pfizer is now spending a billion dollars, which is a record, on phase 3 FDA trials for that drug.

That's just one of the examples of the kind of dramatic, smartly designed, drugs that are in development. And there's already things that have come out. There'll be a lot of exciting things happening in the next few years. I think within five years we'll really have the means of easily controlling heart disease and probably make great strides in cancer as well. We're also going after all the different diseases and aging processes.

Tony Candela: You've talked about Moore's Law. I've heard you speak. Will we need a paradigm shift do you think before these technologies can actually come into fruition or do you think that we're already in the paradigm, that if it just continues the way it's going will lead to some of these technologies? Like smart medications, or nanotechnologies that have those capabilities?

Ray Kurzweil: A lot of our lectures talk about what I call the law of accelerating returns. Moore's laws are really just one example of many of the exponential growth of technology.

Just about every aspect of information technology is doubling in capability every year, in price performance and with speed. Take a number of different measures. The number of base pairs of DNA resequencing, that doubles every year. The cost of sequencing a base pair of DNA comes down by half every year. The spatial and temporal resolution of brain scanning doubles every, in terms of three-dimensional volumes, doubles every year. The bandwidth of telecommunication measured many different ways, doubles every year. The number of nodes on the Internet doubles every year. The price performance of computers, that's resulting from Moore's Law, that doubles every year.

But Moore's Law is one of many examples and almost every measure, if it has anything to do with information, in many different fields: biology, communication, reverse engineering the brain, certainly electronics, doubles every year. And that's a really profound phenomenon.

In economic terms that represents 50% inflation, but what it does is it opens up new applications. People didn't build iPods for $10,000 each ten years ago. So when the price performance gets to a certain point then whole new applications open up.

We're working with the National Federation of the Blind on developing a pocket-sized reading machine. That wasn't feasible five years ago.

So as we miniaturize these technologies and improve their price performance, whole new applications become feasible. And that's going to continue to the point where we can actually build sophisticated machines that are the size of blood cells and put them inside the body and it will be so inexpensive you can avail yourself of them and they can keep you healthy and also expand human intelligence and so on. That's where we are headed.

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