Eternal life has always been the stuff of myth, fantasy, or faith. But artificial intelligence expert and futurist Ray Kurzweil and physician Terry Grossman have a provocative message: that people alive today can make use of existing medical knowledge to extend their lives and remain healthy until a time, just decades hence, when advanced biotechnology will make “radical life extension” (a slightly hedged euphemism for living forever) feasible. It’s an audacious claim, and the authors make a serious case for it in their new book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough To Live Forever.
No, it’s not the Isaac Asimov science fiction classic, but the title is appropriate, since nanotechnology is likely to be a big part of the future of health care. While the book is, indeed, part futurist vision it’s also part advocacy for “aggressive supplementation” and part general health guide. The split focus makes it a sometimes frustrating and even difficult read. For one thing, in order to back up their claims for nutritional supplementation, the authors provide quite detailed biochemistry. There’s a reason most of us didn’t become biochemists, and plowing through the hard science can be tough.
On the plus side, it shows they have a high opinion of their readers. And let’s face it, without supplying the hard science behind “Ray & Terry’s Longevity Program” they’d have a hard time being taken seriously by a public that’s already saturated with confusing and contradictory health information.
In the authors’ conceptualization,
the goal of extending longevity can be taken in three steps, or Bridges. This book is intended to serve as a guide to living long enough in good health and spirits – Bridge One – to take advantage of the full development of the biotechnology revolution – Bridge Two. This, in turn, will lead to the nanotechnology-AI (artificial intelligence) revolution – Bridge Three – which has the potential to allow us to live indefinitely…
Our core idea is that we now have the knowledge to determine where each of us is located in the progression of… [our] decades-long degenerative [biological] processes and reverse them… [emphasis added]
Although human ability to take command of the course of life and death is controversial, we believe that the ability to broaden our horizons is a unique and desirable attribute of our species.
That passage contains one of a very few hints that the authors recognize the importance of ethical issues in biotechnology. Kurzweil and Grossman do not pose or address the questions ethicists, philosophers and science fiction writers have been asking for a long time: what would be the psychological effects of living for hundreds of years? At what level of artificial enhancement might a person cease to be human (and who is to judge)? Can people with varying degrees of physical and mental enhancements maintain sociopolitical equality?
Of course, we could play that game for hours. Will insurance cover these life-extending technologies? Will we provide them to convicted criminals who’ve been given life sentences? What do you do about a brutal dictator who is never going to die of old age? The book could have used more discussion, or at least acknowledgement, of ethical considerations.
There’s certainly plenty to digest, though. Cloning replacement organs, correcting genetic defects, turning cells into living computers, and supplementing, or even entirely replacing, our blood cells with more efficient nanobots are just a few of the 21st century developments the authors foresee. New technologies should be able to sidestep many, if not all, of the religious and ethical questions that swirl around issues like stem cell research. The book’s Bridge Two and Bridge Three sidebars describe fascinating areas of research, from drugs that will allow us to eat whatever we want and still maintain optimal weight, to nanobot-based neural implants that will vastly amplify our thinking and communicating abilities. (Telepathy, anyone?)
For the present, the book provides several useful services. It explains the basis for a great many popular health claims. Why is it healthier to consume fewer carbohydrates? Why are some fats good and others bad? What about those supplements that reduce free radicals in the bloodstream, and how do free radicals actually harm you? If you’re patient, you’ll find explanations in this book for many of the health claims and fads you may have been wondering about. You can also satisfy some of your curiosity about what is actually happening in the body when conditions like cancer, diabetes and heart disease occur.
The authors provide their own nutritional guidelines, with convincing explanations of how and why they differ from common wisdom or government specifications. There’s a food pyramid that departs markedly from even the most recent government version, along with fairly simple formulas for how much of what nutrients an individual who wants to lose weight or improve health should consume. They also blunt a few saws, like the common modern assumption that any and all exposure to the sun is bad for you, and challenge the medical establishment’s faith in some common practices like coronary bypass surgery and angioplasty.
With respect to lifestyle, the authors’ advice includes a lot of common sense: choose healthy (and whenever possible organic) food, exercise, drink plenty of water, avoid sugar and addictive drugs, avoid stress, get enough sleep, quit smoking and so on.
Thus after a breathtaking, futuristic beginning, it turns out that the heart of the book is, as promised, Bridge One material covering what you can do today to achieve and maintain optimum health.
The book enters some unfamiliar territory in the area of nutritional supplementation. Here, its central ideas aren’t all proven facts. They are intriguing, however, and seem sensible given the scientific evidence presented.
We cannot get adequate nutrients even from eating healthy foods, the authors argue, since modern processing reduces much of our food’s nutritive value. Our biological defenses need to be enhanced in order to fight unnatural toxins from processing and pollution. Also, toxins aside, our bodies simply didn’t evolve to live many decades beyond what the authors refer to as the child-rearing years. Government recommendations and much common medical practice don’t take these factors into account. Ray & Terry aim to correct this.
Kurzweil’s own story is instructive. I’ve seen him give an artificial intelligence technology demo – actually, “performance” would be a better term – and he certainly acts and looks fitter than most men his age. Now in his fifties, he has been for many years completely free of indications of the type 2 diabetes he was diagnosed with at 35. He attributes his good health in part to the dozens of supplements he takes each day, and the reader will be inclined to concur, but will at the same time clearly understand that Kurzweil has turned himself into a living experiment.
For most of us, it would be a full-time job – at least for a while – to undergo all the examinations and testing Kurzweil puts himself through. As well, authorial protestations aside, it would be expensive to buy all the supplements that thorough testing would indicate for any one of us. And, in addition to his own initiative, Kurzweil seems to be a sort of “special project” of his co-author, clearly an unusually curious and devoted doctor.
For those unfamiliar with Ray Kurzweil’s work, I’ll also mention that he happens to be a kind of super-genius. All the good health in the world might not enable most of us to maintain his kind of schedule and multiple careers and still tend to the painstakingly individualized health care we would need to get us safely to Bridge Two.
Still, we read travel books and watch TV shows about places we may never visit. We read fictions about adventures we’ll never have and futures we won’t live to see. There’s nothing wrong, and much good, with reading about people who test the frontiers of health care. Some readers will be able to put into practice some, or even many, of this book’s recommendations. Others will not. But any curious human will be likely to find the book something of a revelation.