Saturday, April 13, 2013

Brilliant Solipsist

Perhaps you're familiar with Ray Kurzweil. If not you probably will be one of these days. The man is a creative genius and, as Wall Street Journal writer Holman W. Jenkins notes, he's probably the closest thing to Thomas Edison alive today, an appraisal which segues us into the point of Jenkin's article. Kurzweil isn't satisfied with just being alive today. He hopes and intends to extend his life indefinitely. Here's Jenkins' lede:
Ray Kurzweil must encounter his share of interviewers whose first question is: What do you hope your obituary will say?

This is a trick question. Mr. Kurzweil famously hopes an obituary won't be necessary. And in the event of his unexpected demise, he is widely reported to have signed a deal to have himself frozen so his intelligence can be revived when technology is equipped for the job.

Mr. Kurzweil is the closest thing to a Thomas Edison of our time, an inventor known for inventing. He first came to public attention in 1965, at age 17, appearing on Steve Allen's TV show "I've Got a Secret" to demonstrate a homemade computer he built to compose original music in the style of the great masters.

In the five decades since, he has invented technologies that permeate our world. To give one example, the Web would hardly be the store of human intelligence it has become without the flatbed scanner and optical character recognition, allowing printed materials from the pre-digital age to be scanned and made searchable.

If you are a musician, Mr. Kurzweil's fame is synonymous with his line of music synthesizers (now owned by Hyundai). As in: "We're late for the gig. Don't forget the Kurzweil."

If you are blind, his Kurzweil Reader relieved one of your major disabilities—the inability to read printed information, especially sensitive private information, without having to rely on somebody else. In January, he became an employee at Google. "It's my first job," he deadpans, adding after a pause, "for a company I didn't start myself."

There is another Kurzweil, though—the one who makes seemingly unbelievable, implausible predictions about a human transformation just around the corner. This is the Kurzweil who tells me, as we're sitting in the unostentatious offices of Kurzweil Technologies in Wellesley Hills, Mass., that he thinks his chances are pretty good of living long enough to enjoy immortality. This is the Kurzweil who, with a bit of DNA and personal papers and photos, has made clear he intends to bring back in some fashion his dead father.

Mr. Kurzweil's frank efforts to outwit death have earned him an exaggerated reputation for solemnity, even caused some to portray him as a humorless obsessive. This is wrong. Like the best comedians, especially the best Jewish comedians, he doesn't tell you when to laugh. Of the pushback he receives from certain theologians who insist death is necessary and ennobling, he snarks, "Oh, death, that tragic thing? That's really a good thing." "People say, 'Oh, only the rich are going to have these technologies you speak of.' And I say, 'Yeah, like cellphones.' "
Kurzweil is a man who believes there are no limits to what technology can accomplish, and one of those accomplishments is an unlimited life span. Perhaps he's right, but then what would we do with the children? How would we prevent them from over-populating the earth? Turn them over to the Kermit Gosnell's of the world? I suppose Kurzweil would reply that if we can solve the problem of immortality we'll be able to solve the problems of over-population.

At the end of the article Jenkins writes:
Kurzweil submits to a relentless series of blood tests to monitor his efforts to reprogram his body chemistry against aging and against inherited propensities for diabetes and heart disease. "I'm reasonably confident that I will make it," he adds. "But it's not guaranteed. There are still many diseases we don't have an answer to, though I do have some good ideas about cancer and heart disease." If diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, he adds, he already has plans to put aside his other projects and develop a cure.
This is a little disconcerting. Kurzweil apparently thinks himself able to develop cures for killer diseases, but he'll only do it if he himself develops the disease. Maybe he didn't intend what he said to make himself sound like a selfish solipsist, but he managed to anyway. It'd be nice, don't you think, if he'd drop those other projects right now and start to work on those cures.