Futurist Ray KurzweilSeptember 2005
By Jon VanZile
Improving on Biology Today
While Kurzweil’s book touches on subjects such as diet, nutrition, methylation, glycation, and inflammation, one theme is emphasized repeatedly: human biology can and should be improved upon.
This idea helps explain why Kurzweil has little use for current government recommendations concerning nutrient and supplement levels. Because humans are programmed to die around middle age, he says, it makes no sense to think that a healthy diet alone can provide sufficient nutrients needed to grant long life. In fact, many people are born with genetic deficiencies that can be overcome only by megadosing with the nutrients in which they are deficient.
“All the standards are inadequate,” Kurzweil says. “I’ve had these dialogues with the Joslin Diabetes Center at Harvard and the American Heart Association. Frequently, I get back comments like, ‘Well, you’re right. What you’re recommending would be much better, but we have enough trouble getting people to follow these watered-down recommendations.’ My reaction to that is, ‘One of the reasons you may be having a hard time is that they don’t work.’”
He cites homocysteine as an example. Many people are born with a genetic deficiency that causes abnormally high homocysteine levels, a condition that can be corrected only with high doses—many times the US RDAs—of vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folic acid.
According to Kurzweil, the most common genetic variations known to science involve the way vitamins bind to enzymes. In many cases, the binding is somehow compromised, meaning that the only way to deliver enough of a given vitamin is to take much larger doses of it, because only a fraction will actually bind to the appropriate enzyme. He says this may help explain why leading medical journals, such as the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, have published articles recommending that all adults take a daily multivitamin.
“I think we should at least tell people what’s optimal,” says Kurzweil. “The Joslin Diabetes Center, for example, recommends a body mass index of 25, which is borderline overweight. Why not target 18.5, which is still within the healthy range?”
Bridge Two: The Biotechnology Revolution
While some people might be intimidated by the idea of massive nutritional supplementation, it is purely a short-term solution, says Kurzweil. He predicts that in the next decade or so, biotechnology will render many of our deadliest diseases and conditions powerless. This is the “second bridge.”
“Within 10 or 15 years, we’ll be able to reprogram a lot of biological processes away from disease and aging, to stop and reverse aging and maintain optimal health,” he says.
As an example of biotechnology at work, he cites obesity. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 60% of American adults are either obese or overweight. Obesity is closely linked to heart disease, various cancers, diabetes, joint injuries, inflammation, and a host of ill health effects. In a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers estimated that the current generation of Americans may experience a shortened life expectancy of almost a year because of diseases associated with obesity.
Kurzweil, however, has little patience for this kind of prediction, arguing that it is dangerous when researchers make predictions based on one trend alone, as if life occurs in a vacuum. Instead, he predicts that before long, scientists will invent drugs 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. If this sounds impossible, Kurzweil answers that it has already been done in rats, and that it is only a matter of time until humans make a similar leap.
He predicts that the same will hold true for any number of conditions. 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 overnight and treatments will be designed to kill the viruses. “We’re gaining the technology to shape tools at the molecular level and have the models of disease progression that enable us to design new interventions,” he says.
Much of this will be possible because of our increasing understanding of the human genome. In the 1990s, scientists announced they had successfully mapped the entire human genome, ahead of schedule. The implications are enormous, as 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.
“There’s some very exciting work being done with gene therapy,” Kurzweil says. “We’re understanding the triggers for diabetes and for the creation and eruption of vulnerable plaque. We’re in the early stages of developing gene tools.”
This revolution in biotechnology will allow us to conquer diseases and conditions that have plagued us for millennia. According to Kurzweil, however, this is only the beginning. The next bridge will carry us toward immortality on the backs of tiny robots.
Bridge Three: Nanotechnology—Evolution in Motion
Even Kurzweil acknowledges that his “third bridge”—the advent of nanotechnology—is “very futuristic.” However, having spent much of his life studying the rate of technological innovation, he is convinced that nanotechnology is the future.
“It sounds very futuristic, but I’d point out there are already many experiments in animals that use blood cell-sized devices,” he explains. “One experiment we write about in the book involves a device the size of a blood cell that cured type I diabetes in rats. Pancreatic islet cells are actually inside the device. Glucose gets into the islet cells to be measured and insulin is released. It works perfectly normally. That’s occurring today.”
Kurzweil predicts a future in which these tiny robots are everywhere, attacking a host of conditions and enabling humans to “go substantially beyond the limitations of biology.” Robots 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. The opportunities are endless.
“We’ll be able to provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the central nervous system,” he says. “‘Nanobots’ could shut down the signals coming from your real nervous system and put in place signals you would be receiving if you were in the virtual environment. Designing new virtual environments will be a new art form.”
This concept strikes to the very heart of what it means to be human. To many, the idea of tiny robots working within our bodies is literally heresy, evoking images of horror movies and a world populated by cyborg beings that have lost their essential humanity.
Once again, however, Kurzweil has no patience for this critique. This fear will be swept away, he says, by the enormous benefits associated with this technology. He points out that the miniaturization of technology is already increasing exponentially. Computers that once required whole rooms to operate now fit within the palm of a hand. It is only a matter of time before they can fit within the walls of human arteries.
“We will become our technology,” he says. “We’re going to merge with it and will be indistinguishable from it. It’s not going to be a matter of how we compete with the machines. We will become the machines.”
To Kurzweil, this is only natural. Technology is the next step in human evolution. Our biology was originally designed to deal with scarcity. From birth until death, the human body is designed to hoard calories, to crave fat and sugar, and to react to danger with stress chemicals that raise blood pressure and constrict arteries. Until recently, this made sense. It was logical for the survival of the species that following our reproductive years, people gradually succumbed to disease and death, thus freeing up resources for the young.
But that era is ending, says Kurzweil. We are entering the 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.
“This future isn’t an alien invasion,” he says. “It’s emerging from within our civilization, and it will literally be within us. It will be expanding human potential. That’s what the drive of the human species is all about.”