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Scientific American

Hope Springs Eternal

published July 2005 | Comments Off
Can nutritional supplements, biotechnology and nanotechnology help us live forever?
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As a skeptic, I am often asked my position on immortality. “I’m for it, of course,” is my wiseacre reply.

Unfortunately, every one of the 100 billion humans who have ever lived has died, so the outlook does not bode well. Unless you follow the trend line generated by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman in Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (Rodale, 2004): “The rate of technical progress is doubling every decade, and the capability (price performance, capacity, and speed) of specific information technologies is doubling every year. Because of this exponential growth, the 21st century will equal 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress.” Within a quarter of a century, the authors say, “nonbiological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence,” then “soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge.” Biotechnologies, such as designer drugs and genetic engineering, will halt the aging process; nanotechnologies, such as nanorobots, will repair and replace cells, tissues and organs (including brains), reversing the aging process and allowing us to live forever.

To make it to this secular Second Coming (2030 by their calculation), you need “Ray and Terry’s Longevity Program,” which includes 250 supplements a day and weekly rounds of intravenous “nutritionals.” To boost antioxidant levels, for example, Kurzweil suggests a concoction of “alpha lipoic acid, coenzyme Q10, grape-seed extract, resveratrol, bilberry extract, lycopene, silymarin, conjugated linoleic acid, lecithin, evening primrose oil (omega-6 essential fatty acids), n-acetyl-cysteine, ginger, garlic, 1-carnitine, pyridoxal-5-phosphate, and echinacea.” Bon appétit.

Kurzweil is a brilliant and creative mind—the inventor of the first optical character-recognition program and CCD flatbed scanner, creator of the first reading machine for the blind with a text-to-speech synthesizer, recipient of the 1999 National Medal of Technology, and inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His books The Age of Intelligent Machine and The Age of Spiritual Machines significantly influenced the field of artificial intelligence. Thus, when Ray Kurzweil speaks, people listen. But my baloney-detection alarm went off in three areas of his work.

One, I am skeptical of the effectiveness of nutritional supplements. When I was bike racing in the 1980s, I went through a period of megadosing vitamins and minerals that produced brightly colored urine but no noticeable performance difference. The testimonials behind such nutritional claims are powerful, but the science is weak. The fact that the field is fraught with fads and ever changing claims for “X” as the elixir of health and longevity does not bode well. Nutritional science says that we get virtually all the vitamins and minerals we need through a balanced diet and that more is not better (see www.nutriwatch.org). These diets help us live longer lives, but no one can exceed the maximum human life span of 120 years. The 56-year-old Kurzweil declares that his program has reduced his biological age to about 40. I’m no aging expert or carny barker, but if I had to guess his age from his author photo I’d say, uh, 56.

Two, I question the idea of extrapolating trend lines very far into the future. Human history is highly nonlinear and unpredictable. Plus, in my opinion, the problems of creating artificial intelligence and halting aging are orders of magnitude harder than anyone has anticipated. Machine intelligence of a human nature could be a century away, and immortality is at least a millennium away, if not unattainable altogether.

Three, I am doubtful whenever people argue that the Big Thing is going to happen in their lifetime. Evangelicals never claim that the Second Coming is going to happen in the next generation (or that they will be “left behind” while others are saved). Likewise, secular doomsayers typically predict the demise of civilization within their allotted time (but that they will be part of the small surviving enclave). Prognosticators of both religious and secular utopias always include themselves as members of the chosen few. Hope springs eternal.

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