“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
―Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
Raymond Kurzweil is an author, inventor, entrepreneur, futurist, and the founder of Singularity University, as well as the prophetic figure who preaches the salvation of technology through singularity, where technology explodes at an exponential rate and mind and machine become an indistinguishable unity. He is also the creative protagonist in the film Transcendent Man which documents the personality of one of histories most sophisticated minds.
From an early age Kurzweil was a precocious youth who undertook projects inventing various machines and contraptions with whatever he could pull together. His father was a hardworking, financially strapped composer who actively supported and encouraged his son’s creative pursuits in every way he could. At seventeen Ray built a computer that composed music and in 1965 he gained his first national exposure when he was invited on a CBS game show to showcase his invention. Shortly thereafter he invented a computer that matched and selected colleges that were best suited for a student given their academic data and preferences. Upon graduation he attended MIT, studying Computer Science and Literature, and went on to start several companies during his undergraduate years that would produce original breakthroughs in flat-bed scanning and electronic acoustic synthesizing technology.
Kurzweil pioneered many advancements in the areas of computing technology, specifically in the areas of transcription software, optical character recognition, music machines and synthesizers, and artificial intelligence. He is the award winning author of many books on trans-humanism, singularity, and artificial intelligence. As a futurist he has developed a cult following due to his uncanny ability to predict historical events and technological advancements to the year, forecasting the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and foretelling the date of technological breakthroughs, such as when a computer would beat a human grand chess master, or describe the Internet phenomena and its explosive social integration many years and decades beforehand. This ability served to strengthen his persona as a clairvoyant leader of a technological future growing increasingly uncertain.
A recent prediction of Kurzweil that is slowly unfolding into fruition is the human synthesis of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics into everyday living. He asserts that we will eventually merge man and machine, technology and thought, so as to enhance our capabilities and intelligence. Ultimately Ray Kurzweil has a not so hidden motive behind all his work and theories. His aim, he says, is to transcend death, to live forever. According to him this will be achieved in our lifetime in the very near future. Eventually, when singularity is reached and technological breakthrough arrives at an event horizon of infinite upward intelligent potential, artificial intelligence will allow us the capability of beating the odds of death. Even more incredible is that Kurzweil believes we’ll even be able to resurrect the dead through the information contained in memories and data. Many contend that he’s a crackpot, or that even if his singularity prediction is true, artificial intelligence, being infinitely intelligent, would usurp power and control and dominate mankind, similar to the way humans deal with insects, in what contemporary AI researches deem as the Artilect war, or artificial intellect war.
What is initially curious about Ray’s obsession with transcending death is compounded to just plain weird when he begins speaking about his father who unexpectedly died from a heart attack. It seems that Ray’s fascination with conquering death and resurrecting the dead originates out of the painful loss he suffered when his father passed away. Since then he has collected and stored, some may say horded, every scribble, bill, and manuscript left by his father with the professed hope of digitizing it one day in order to reanimate his father.
Notions like this are certainly wild. Just as wild as his daily regimen of 200 supplement pills that he consumes to “reprogram the biochemistry” of his body in order to reverse the effects of aging and grow young again. Despite his quirky eccentricity, his advancements have allowed the blind to listen to visual text, libraries to digitally transcribe and immortalize volumes of text, musicians to create music and synthesize acoustics, in addition to founding dozens of multimillion dollar companies from technology to health and wellness. His achievements and ideas have gained him worldwide notoriety and recognition, winning dozens of honoree doctorates and awards, most notably the National Medal of Technology, the highest medal awarded by the president, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His acclaim and contributions are undisputed. Even his ability for predictions, of which 89 out of 108 came true, serve to bolster his credibility and make even his wildest ideas appear taste worthy.
To understand and tolerate his futuristic and often fantastical visions of the coming world, you must gain a glimpse into his inner mind and how he thinks. To begin, Ray Kurzweil is a mathematical prodigy by most accounts, giving him a rare ability to calculate complex abstractions, conceiving and building technology in his mind before it is even feasible of producing that vision into reality. Many of Ray’s current technologies were produced this way, far in advance, long before the technology was invented. He describes his creative process as dreaming himself years into the future, imagining himself interacting with the technology, describing its use and functions to an audience at a conference, detailing all the problems they must have solved and hurdles they must have overcome to produce it, eventually working back until the entire piece of technology has been reverse engineered in his mind. He recalls that when he sets out to create or invent he allows himself to fantasize or dream about it and that he’ll frame the problem in his mind before he sleeps and will frequently wake up with the solution in mind. He stresses that it is a process however, not simply a light bulb flicking on, and requires actively seeking the solution in mind.
Kurzweil points out that the nature of his creative work in the realm of technology doesn’t provide him so much opportunity for solitary creativity. Because technology is often the synthesis of many specialized disciplines, ranging from linguistics to mechanical engineering to computers, he is required to facilitate creative collaboration among groups of specialists despite their disparate vocabularies in order to accomplish a common, creative task. While flow can be a challenge to achieve for individuals, he says it poses an even greater difficulty for groups managing different perspectives and values. However, ensuring that everyone is equally invested and on the same page with mutual interest, collaboration yields a diversity of perspective and greater magnitude of thought, yielding invaluable results.
True to his American values, Kurzweil believes that the US is a leader because of its ability to see new frontiers, reward risk and generate new knowledge which, given the emergence of the information age, he says is becoming the new capital currency. Risk is a necessary component of success. For Ray, failure is apart of risk, but failure is simply success deferred.
While Kurzweil and his ideas have been warmly received by the public, in large thanks to his life changing technologies and paradigm shifting predictions, he is not without critics. Despite his large, almost cult following of technologists and scientists, many skeptics believe his predictive powers are over inflated, that anyone could equally observe the basis for his predictions provided they had access to the same technological information being developed at the time of his claims, while others posit that, given the observed trajectory of past trends, such predictions were bound to occur and not so much a surprise as many people would believe. Rather than debating whether the event of singularity will occur, most critics challenge the date Kirzweil believes it will take place, as well as the nature and magnitude of the “event horizon”. More numerous are those that challenge his ideas regarding transcending death via the integration of man and machine. Many highly regarded contemporaries draw a line in the proverbial sand and fault Kurzweil for over reaching his domain of expertise into the realm of biology where they say he has little understanding of the delicate balance of biological organisms designed over millions of years by the hand of evolution. Whatever the criticisms may be, Kurzweil has produced an indelible mark on science and progress with his technology from which everyone has directly or indirectly benefited, and his appreciation is continually recognized year after year.
The narrative of Kurzweil being portrayed in Transcendent Man communicates a misunderstood genius who carries with him the suffering of paternal loss as a haunting reminder of his own frailty and death. It paints his character as one of wild optimism and hope that technology, with the aid of his hand, will deliver him from this suffering by simultaneously preventing his death and finally resurrecting the memory of his father. His work appears to revolve almost exclusively around integrating his envisioned prosthetic technologies seamlessly into the human life as a means of overcoming physical constraint or existential finitude.
When viewed in this light, his creative activities and life accomplishments, while awe inspiring, seem to be vain desperate attempts to manipulate the hand of god and alter fate. Interspersed between his articulate monologues, fervent speeches, and the various technologies of his being surveyed there remains a portrait of a hollow man emptied of heart, preoccupied with the past, longing for his father, and pining for the future of technology to arrive before death does. His crisis is internal but always subsuming beneath his genial intimations. His father’s death acts as a reminder of his frailty and forces the confrontation of his metaphysical identity in the face of annihilation. In an act of defiance, Kurzweil renounces both in a creative expression of vision and technology that wills the formation of a new identity, free from death, and a new world, free from loss. In this way we can see how his creative pursuits manifest this struggle to establish a new nomos in which he is the author and architect who writes the rules of fate.