Reprogramming DNA: Raymond Kurzweil on technological leaps without boundaries

Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil believes innovation is about to accelerate at startling speed, with biotechnology alone accelerating change millions of times faster than ever before.

Take a look at today’s smartphone*; it’s a trillion more times powerful than the cumbersome PC of the ‘80s. And tiny by comparison, because “exponential growth in information technology is changing the world rapidly,” entrepreneurial guru Raymond Kurzweil told My Business at the Creative Innovation 2011 in Melbourne last week.

“Although innovation is unpredictable and there is often a drama prompting it, there are many predictable attributes,” says Kurzweil, who notes that the printing press took 400 years to reach a mass audience.

Ray Kurzweil

“This is in sharp contrast with the cell [mobile] phone that just seven years from launch was widespread – today there are five billion mobile phones in the globe – and social networks which took just three years to gain a massive following.

“Communications technology is doubling each year; scientific and IT developments are speeding up exponentially. And if you measure the underlying properties of technology it forms an exquisite curve of progression.

“Particles follow a random path but the overall momentum is predictable, hence the law of accelerating returns. With tools expanding at an unpredictable pace we can predict future technology; search engine optimisation could have been predicted.”

Human endeavors in health and medicine are broadening. “Previously the average life expectancy was 25 years, you were middle aged at 12! Life expectancy jumped to 37 in 1800, then to 47 by 1900. Now it’s pushing 80.”

But people will live a lot, lot longer in the future. The body hosts 22,000 genes and “That is our software, it is written in 3D protein interaction in the human genome project.”

“Bodies are programmed to hold on to every calorie in case the ‘hunting season’ is less than successful but we want to tell the body that fat is not necessary – to switch off the fat retention,” Kurzweil said.

“This is one gene we would like to modify, and we’d like to turn off cancer genes and ageing genes. We have the means now to add genes … to take cells out and add others in, inject them back into the bloodstream. Diseases can be cured.

“Biology is being programmed like it is software and when you apply the law of accelerating returns – as in the printing press and mobiles – we are making 1000 million times the progress.”

With his genius and easy humour, My Business could not help but think of Ray Kurzweil as Woody Allen-meets-Einstein brandishing a digitally programmed crystal ball.

More revelations, this time from the 3D space. “By the 2020s advancements in nanotechnology will enable us to email objects such as violins to those with a 3D printer,” he says. “Houses too could be emailed in modules for print out and assembly. 3D is scaling up exponentially and this will revolutionise manufacturing.”

The biggest 3D application will be in medicine: therapeutics delivered through the bloodstream using the quintessential white blood cell, the ‘intelligent creatures’ that detect and destroy bacteria.

“But the most important frontier is the brain, the neural connectors or thoughts. Brain scan and data is doubling each year and now the cerebral cortex is being modeled and simulated.

“The biotechnology revolution is profound. And we design purposeful intervention.”

Phew. Listening to Raymond Kurzweil is like taking a dizzying intergalactic trip before returning to planet earth and being awakened to our future – and the control we could exercise over our wellbeing and destiny. And that provides a measure of comfort.

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