Over a specially prepared breakfast, the inventor and futurist details his plans to live for ever ... Kurzweil, who invented the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the flatbed scanner and a music synthesiser capable of reproducing the sound of a grand piano, has been thinking about artificial intelligence (AI) for 50 years. In The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), he predicted the internet’s ubiquity and the rise of mobile devices. The Singularity is Near, his 2005 bestseller, focused on AI and the future of mankind. In 2012 he joined Google as a director of engineering to develop machine intelligence. ... Kurzweil’s supporters hail him as “the ultimate thinking machine” and “the rightful heir to Thomas Edison”. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates has called him “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence”. To his critics, he is “one of the greatest hucksters of the age”, and a “narcissistic crackpot obsessed with longevity”. ... His interest in health goes back to when he was 15 and his father, Fredric, had a heart attack. “He died when I was 22. He was 58.” Kurzweil realised he could inherit his father’s dispositions. In his thirties, he was diagnosed with type-two diabetes. Frustrated by conventional treatments, he “approached this as an inventor”. It has not returned. “You can overcome your genetic disposition. The common wisdom is it’s 80 per cent genes, 20 per cent lifestyle. If you’re diligent, it’s 90 per cent intervention and 10 per cent genes,” he claims.
How a 500-year experiment to revive dormant microbes could reveal the secrets to cheating time ... For almost as long as we have known about micro-organisms, we have known about dormancy. In 1702, the Dutch biologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek collected some dried ‘animalcules’ from a nearby gutter and added water. Peering through his handmade microscope, he observed that ‘they began to extend their bodies and in half an hour at least 100 of them were swimming about the glass’. ... Aged 70, van Leeuwenhoek had just discovered the dormant states of rotifers – small, wheel-shaped animals that can be found in many transient freshwater habitats. When conditions become too Spartan, these humble organisms contract into dry, oval-shaped husks in order to survive. ... Water is essential for life, and yet anhydrobiotes appear to get by without it. How? According to the ‘water replacement hypothesis’, they exchange their cellular fluid for sugars such as sucrose and trehalose. The result is a glass-like substance that not only retains the cell’s shape on rehydration, but also slows down a lot of unwanted chemical reactions. With this scaffolding in place, they reduce the fires of their metabolisms to embers, conserving their energy like a ground squirrel within its winter den, waiting for conditions to improve. They keep things ticking over.
Harry Potter brought the philosopher’s stone back as a cultural reference point, but the idea of a universal panacea against death is much older than J.K. Rowling. From Alexander the Great to Ponce de León, tales of conquistadors and rovers stumbling onto fountains of youth are a fable trope. Greek mythology addressed the horror of aging in the tale of pitiful Tithonus, kidnapped by the goddess Eos and granted eternal life. Eos f***ed up and forgot to specify that Tithonus should stay young as well as living, and so her kidnapped boy toy aged into a trembling old man, lasting on and on in babbling, incapacitated misery. In some versions of the story he turns into a cicada, but the moral remains: Eternal life without eternal youth is a curse, which is why RAAD wants both. ... The people who organized RAAD are members of the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, which is the nonprofit offshoot of People Unlimited, a Scottsdale, Arizona–based group that describes itself as “a community of people living physical immortality.” People Unlimited charges a $245 monthly membership fee, and holds regular meetings where members swap antiaging tips and listen to guest speakers. Many of the presenters at RAAD are also members or guest speakers at People Unlimited. ... The coalition’s online mission statement shoehorns immortality into a historical narrative of moral and social progress. ... “Asked whether they, personally, would choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live to be 120 or more, a majority of U.S. adults (56%) say ‘no.’” The study also found that around half the people questioned had never heard of radical life extension; around half also answered that it would be bad for society.