Our Bodies, Our Technologies: Ray Kurzweil’s Cambridge Forum Lecture (Abridged)

March 16, 2006 by Ray Kurzweil

In the 2020s, we’ll see nanobots, blood-cell-sized devices that can go inside the body and brain to perform therapeutic functions. But what happens when we have billions of nanobots inside the capillaries of our brains, non-invasively, widely distributed, expanding human intelligence, or providing full-immersion virtual reality?

Originally transcribed from the Cambridge Forum Lecture on May 4, 2005, and reprinted in Science & Theology News. Reprinted on KurzweilAI.net March 16, 2006.

It turns out that information technology is increasingly encompassing everything of value. It’s not just computers, it’s not just electronic gadgets. It now includes the field of biology. We’re beginning to understand how life processes, disease, aging, are manifested as information processes and gaining the tools to actually manipulate those processes. It’s true of all of our creations of intellectual and cultural endeavors, our music, movies are all facilitated by information technology, and are distributed, and represented as information.

Evolutionary processes work through indirection. Evolution creates a capability, and then it uses that capability to evolve the next stage. That’s why the next stage goes more quickly, and that’s why the fruits of an evolutionary process grow exponentially.

The first paradigm shift in biological evolution, the evolution of cells, and in particular DNA (actually, RNA came first)—the evolution of essentially a computer system or an information processing backbone that would allow evolution to record the results of its experiments—took billions of years. Once DNA and RNA were in place, the next stage, the Cambrian explosion, when all the body plans of the animals were evolved, went a hundred times faster. Then those body plans were used by evolution to concentrate on higher cognitive functions. Biological evolution kept accelerating in this manner. Homo sapiens, our species, evolved in only a few hundred thousand years, the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.

Then again working through indirection, biological evolution used one of its creations, the first technology-creating species to usher in the next stage of evolution, which was technology. The enabling factors for technology were a higher cognitive function with an opposable appendage, so we could manipulate and change the environment to reflect our models of what could be. The first stages of technology evolution—fire, the wheel, stone tools—only took a few tens of thousands of years.

Technological evolution also accelerated. Half a millennium ago the printing press took a century to be adopted, half a century ago the first computers were designed pen on paper. Now computers are designed in only a few weeks’ time by computer designers sitting at computers, using advanced computer assisted design software. When I was at MIT [in the mid-1960s] a computer that took about the size of this room cost millions of dollars yet was less powerful than the computer in your cell phone today.

One of the profound implications is that we are understanding our biology as information processes. We have 23,000 little software programs inside us called genes. These evolved in a different era. One of those programs, called the fat insulin receptor gene, says, basically, hold onto every calorie because the next hunting season might not work out so well. We’d like to change that program now. We have a new technology that has just emerged in the last couple years called RNA interference, in which we put fragments of RNA inside the cell, as a drug, to inhibit selected genes. It can actually turn genes off by blocking the messenger RNA expressing that gene. When the fat insulin receptor was turned off in mice, the mice ate ravenously and remained slim. They didn’t get diabetes, didn’t get heart disease, lived 20% longer: they got the benefit of caloric restriction without the restriction.

Every major disease, and every major aging process has different genes that are used in the expression of these disease and aging processes. Being able to actually select when we turn them off is one powerful methodology. We also have the ability to turn enzymes off. Torcetrapib, a drug that’s now in FDA Phase 3 trials, turns off a key enzyme that destroys the good cholesterol, HDL, in the blood. If you inhibit that enzyme, HDL levels soar and atherosclerosis slows down or stops.

There are thousands of these developments in the pipeline. The new paradigm of rational drug design involves actually understanding the information processes underlying biology, the exact sequence of steps that leads up to a process like atherosclerosis, which causes heart attacks, or cancer, or insulin resistance, and providing very precise tools to intervene. Our ability to do this is also growing at an escalating rate.

Another exponential process is miniaturization. We’re showing the feasibility of actually constructing things at the molecular level that can perform useful functions. One of the biggest applications of this, again, will be in biology, where we will be able to go inside the human body and go beyond the limitations of biology.

Rob Freitas has designed a nanorobotic red blood cell, which is a relatively simple device, it just stores oxygen and lets it out. A conservative analysis of these robotic respirocytes shows that if you were to replace ten percent of your red blood cells with these robotic versions you could do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath, or sit at the bottom of your pool for four hours. It will be interesting to see what we do with these in our Olympic contests. Presumably we’ll ban them, but then we’ll have the specter of high school students routinely outperforming the Olympic athletes.

A robotic white blood cell is also being designed. A little more complicated, it downloads software from the Internet to combat specific pathogens. If it sounds very futuristic to download information to a device inside your body to perform a health function, I’ll point out that we’re already doing that. There are about a dozen neural implants either FDA-approved or approved for human testing. One implant that is FDA-approved for actual clinical use replaces the biological neurons destroyed by Parkinson’s disease. The neurons in the vicinity of this implant then receive signals from the computer that’s inside the patient’s brain. This hybrid of biological and non-biological intelligence works perfectly well. The latest version of this device allows the patient to download new software to the neural implant in his brain from outside his body.

These are devices that today require surgery to be implanted, but when we get to the 2020s, we will ultimately have the “killer app” of nanotechnology, nanobots, which are blood cell-sized devices that can go inside the body and brain to perform therapeutic functions, as well as advance the capabilities of our bodies and brains.

If that sounds futuristic, I’ll point out that we already have blood cell-size devices that are nano-engineered, working to perform therapeutic functions in animals. For example, one scientist cured type I diabetes in rats with this type of nanoengineered device. And some of these are now approaching human trials. The 2020s really will be the “golden era” of nanotechnology.

It is a mainstream view now among informed observers that by the 2020s we will have sufficient computer processing to emulate the human brain. The current controversy, or I would say, the more interesting question is, will we have the software or methods of human intelligence? To achieve the methods, the algorithms of human intelligence, there is underway a grand project to reverse-engineer the brain. And there, not surprisingly, we are also making exponential progress. If you follow the trends in reverse brain engineering it’s a reasonable conclusion that we will have reverse-engineered the several hundred regions of the brain by the 2020s.

By early in the next decade, computers won’t look like today’s notebooks and PDAs, they will disappear, integrated into our clothing and environment. Images will be written to our retinas for our eyeglasses and contact lenses, we’ll have full-immersion virtual reality. We’ll be interacting with virtual personalities; we can see early harbingers of this already. We’ll have effective language translation.

If we go out to 2029, there will be many turns of the screw in terms of this exponential progression of information technology. There will be about thirty doublings in the next 25 years. That’s a factor of a billion in capacity and price performance over today’s technology, which is already quite formidable.

By 2029, we will have completed reverse engineering of the brain, we will understand how human intelligence works, and that will give us new insight into ourselves. Non-biological intelligence will combine the suppleness and subtlety of our pattern-recognition capabilities with ways computers have already demonstrated their superiority. Every time you use Google you can see the power of non-biological intelligence. Machines can remember things very accurately. They can share their knowledge instantly. We can share our knowledge, too, but at the slow bandwidth of language.

This will not be an alien invasion of intelligent machines coming from over the horizon to compete with us, it’s emerging from within our civilization, it’s extending the power of our civilization. Even today we routinely do intellectual feats that would be impossible without our technology. In fact our whole economic infrastructure couldn’t manage without the intelligent software that’s underlying it.

The most interesting application of computerized nanobots will be to interact with our biological neurons. We’ve already shown the feasibility of using electronics and biological neurons to interact non-invasively. We could have billions of nanobots inside the capillaries of our brains, non-invasively, widely distributed, expanding human intelligence, or providing full immersion virtual reality encompassing all of the senses from within the nervous system. Right now we have a hundred trillion connections. Although there’s a certain amount of plasticity, biological intelligence is essentially fixed. Non-biological intelligence is growing exponentially; the crossover point will be in the 2020s. When we get to the 2030s and 2040s, it will be the non-biological portion of our civilization that will be predominant. But it will still be an expression of human civilization.

Every time we have technological gains we make gains in life expectancy. Sanitation was a big one, antibiotics was another. We’re now in the beginning phases of this biotechnology revolution. We’re exploring, understanding and graining the tools to reprogram the information processes underlying biology; and that will result in another big gain in life expectancy. So, if you watch your health today, the old-fashioned way, you can actually live to see the remarkable 21st century.

© 2006 Ray Kurzweil. Reprinted with permission.