[Paleopsych] WP: Kurzweil's Quest For Eternal Youth Sets Group Abuzz

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Kurzweil's Quest For Eternal Youth Sets Group Abuzz

    By Leslie Walker
    Thursday, October 7, 2004; Page E01

    CAMBRIDGE, Mass.

    Inventor Ray Kurzweil takes 250 nutritional supplements a day in his
    quest to live long enough to reap the benefits he expects from
    biotechnology. He says he's trying to reprogram his body, as he would
    his computer.

    "I really do believe it is feasible to slow down the aging process,"
    Kurzweil told Technology Review magazine's Emerging Technologies
    Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology here last
    week. "We call that a bridge to a bridge to a bridge -- to the full
    flowering of the biotechnology revolution."

    Kurzweil, a well-regarded scientist who invented the flatbed scanner
    and a reading machine for the blind, claimed his pills appear to be
    helping: Biological tests conducted at a clinic in Denver found his
    body resembles that of a man in his early forties, he claimed, rather
    than his true age of 56.

    The claim startled many in the audience because there is no medically
    accepted way to measure aging. Most biological markers simply measure

    And health is a theme Kurzweil returned to repeatedly; it is the
    subject of his latest book, "Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to
    Live Forever," co-authored with medical doctor Terry Grossman. But it
    was his broader vision of how biology, nanotechnology and information
    science are merging that set the backdrop for the conference, which
    brought together nearly 1,000 scientists and executives from various
    disciplines to peer into the future.

    Kurzweil has long contended technology is advancing exponentially, as
    each new breakthrough -- fire, the printing press, computers, the
    Internet -- is used to speed up development of the next. Debate at the
    two-day event ranged widely about just what is on the horizon.

    Presentations ranged across the frontiers of science, including
    robotics, nanotechnology, biometrics and geographical positioning
    systems. World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee described the second
    big phase of the global computer network, a "Semantic Web" project
    involving tagging or defining online content in a special language.
    The idea is to let computers accomplish work humans now do by making
    it possible for machines to read the Web. "Isn't that a bit
    old-fashioned, having a human being browse the Web?" mused

    DuPont's research chief, Uma Chowdhry, said her company is working on
    a long-range project for the Department of Energy involving a
    bio-refinery to create renewable energy resources. General Motors
    Corp. chief executive G. Richard Wagoner Jr. described the automaker's
    plans to expand the safety and security services it offers through its
    OnStar subsidiary.

    Yet no one got the crowd talking like Kurzweil, winner of the National
    Medal of Technology and author of "The Age of Spiritual Machines."
    He's known for making accurate predictions, including one about the
    emergence of a global network resembling the World Wide Web and
    another about when computers would beat humans at chess.

    At MIT last week, Kurzweil described a future in which he's convinced
    immortality -- or a drastically longer life span -- will be possible
    thanks to emerging technologies. His new book, which will hit stores
    in a few weeks, outlines a special "longevity program" of diet,
    exercise and nutritional supplements aimed at slowing the aging

    He and Grossman recommend simple starches and foods low in sugar and
    high in anti-inflammatory agents such as fish and nuts. They advise
    taking all sorts of substances such as phosphatidylcholine, a
    cell-membrane component that people tend to lose as they age, making
    their skin sag.

    In an interview, Kurzweil said he and Grossman also have developed
    their own line of products and will launch a Web site to sell them,
    including shake mixes and other meal-replacement products .

    Such dietary supplements tend to be controversial in the medical
    community. David Schardt, senior nutritionist at the nonprofit Center
    for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, said the only
    regimen that has shown real potential to slow aging to date is
    drastically reducing calorie intake.

    "We tell people to take these claims with a grain of salt because in
    many instances there is no evidence -- or the evidence is far from
    conclusive -- that these supplements will do anything," Schardt said.

    Kurzweil acknowledged that science today can't halt aging, but he said
    he believes science will develop age-defying or even age-reversing
    techniques within 10 to 20 years, thanks to advances in biotechnology
    and nanotechnology.

    He described three stages or "bridges" on the purported road to
    immortality. First is his healthy living program designed to correct
    "metabolic imbalances" and keep people alive long enough to benefit
    from the second stage. In stage two, a decade or so away, he contends
    biotechnology advances will block diseases and slow aging, because the
    decoding of our genome is already leading to tissue-engineering
    techniques for regrowing cells and organs, and to the creation of
    genetically targeted drugs and gene therapies.

    These techniques, he said, should help some people reach the third
    stage -- about 30 years away -- when nanotechnology will allow humans
    to radically rebuild and extend their bodies with help from
    "nanobots," itsy-bitsy robots smaller than human blood cells that will
    slip into our bloodstreams to fix DNA errors, fight pathogens and
    expand intelligence.

    At that point, he declared, humans may be able to live forever.

    Some are skeptical. S. Jay Olshansky, an epidemiology professor at the
    University of Illinois School of Public Health, called Kurzweil's
    vision "science fiction" in a phone interview. He said life expectancy
    isn't likely to change much even after the expected medical advances.
    "Life expectancy is inching up. It's not jumping up."

    At the MIT conference, not everyone seemed enamored with this idea.
    During lunch the next day, Daniel McCurdy, chief executive of
    consulting company ThinkFire Services USA Ltd., said immortality
    didn't strike him as all that appealing:

    "I'm already periodically bored, and I'm only 48. Why would you want
    to live forever?"

    Kurzweil later conceded that radically extending human life could lead
    to a "deep ennui" if nothing else changed, but he believes we will
    grow smarter and vastly improve our quality of life. Nanobots, if we
    let them swim around our brain capillaries, will boost our brainpower,
    he said, as they chatter with our biological neurons over a wireless
    local network and the Internet, creating a hybrid form of

    "This scenario will enable us to expand our mental faculties through
    these massively distributed neural implants with no surgery required,"
    he added.

    Kurzweil said he doesn't think such changes will detract from our
    humanity. "The emergence of artificial intelligence is not an alien
    invasion of intelligent machines coming from over the horizon to
    compete with us," he declared. "Rather, it is emerging from our human

    For baby boomers, though, it's a safe bet many will resist the idea of
    tinkering with Mother Nature. That's the thinking of McCurdy, who
    believes part of what makes life a great adventure is knowing it will

    "I would rather continue the adventure by dying and going into a
    different plane," he said, "instead of having nanobots running around
    my brain."

    Leslie Walker's e-mail address is [3]walkerl at washpost.com.

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