Raymond C. Kurzweil: Prophet Of Longevity

Inventor-entrepreneur-author Raymond C. Kurzweil is keeping his eye on the year 2030. He'll turn 82 that year -- and with luck, he'll cross a threshold to some form of immortality. By 2030, Kurzweil believes, biomedical technology will have advanced to the point where it will be possible to halt the body's aging process. Tiny robots the size of red blood cells will patrol our circulatory systems and rejuvenate tired cells. Soon after that, around 2050, we should be able to reverse-engineer a human brain and upload it into a robot. People willing to give up their "wet" bodies -- we're 50% to 60% water -- could not only live forever but also think at electronic speeds.

That was the vision Kurzweil presented in his fifth book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, published last fall. If it all sounds too fantastic, be warned: Kurzweil has been making wild pronouncements for two decades and hasn't been grossly wrong yet. In his first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, written in 1988 and published in 1990, he foresaw a worldwide computer network in a few years -- and the Web emerged in 1991. The book also predicted a computer would defeat the world's chess champion by 1998, and IBM's (IBM ) Deep Blue humbled Garry Kasparov in 1997.

"I'm not pulling these dates out of the air," Kurzweil says. At Kurzweil Technologies Inc., "I have 18 people gathering key data," tracking 50 technical disciplines. In most, tech progress is doubling every 12 to 15 months -- faster even than the advancing power of computer chips. "Most people don't appreciate what such exponential growth means. That's why they don't realize how dramatic the next few decades will be."

For baby boomers who want to be around in 2030 to see if he's right, Kurzweil advises starting now to slow down the aging process with low-tech regimens: diet and exercise. Kurzweil himself takes scores of supplements a day and claims that tests show his body is that of a person 10 years younger than his actual age, 57. To help others shape up for immortality, he and Fantastic Voyage co-author Dr. Terry Grossman, head of Denver's Frontier Medical Institute, recently founded a health food company dubbed Ray & Terry's Longevity Products Inc. It's No. 10 on Kurzweil's hit parade of ventures. No. 1 dates way back to 1974. He formed Kurzweil Computer Products Inc. to market his first major invention, the Kurzweil Reading Machine, which reads ordinary printed text to blind people. Stevie Wonder bought the first machine, and Xerox Corp. (XRX ) bought the company in 1980. This was just one of several deals that have made Kurzweil a millionaire many times over.

Reading machines exploit Kurzweil's first love: using pattern recognition, a cornerstone of artificial intelligence, to make sense of letters and words. He got hooked on the field at 14, when he wrote software that analyzed melodies, then used the patterns it found to compose new tunes. "Pattern recognition has been my primary focus ever since," he says.

The latest application is an AI-based stock trading program being refined by FatKat Inc., formed by Kurzweil in 1999. He won't share many details, except to say that the software "is doing very well -- 50% to 100% returns for the last two years." In the near future, FatKat plans to launch a small hedge fund of around $10 million. Investors include Michael W. Brown -- formerly CFO of Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ) and chairman of NASDAQ -- and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Given all of Kurzweil's successes to date, it seems unwise to dismiss his forecasts for 2030 and beyond. He'll lay out the next phase of evolution in The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. It's coming in September.

By Otis Port

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.