My critiques of Ray Kurzweil's vision of the future are not wholly honest. I have at lot at stake in these debates . . . and not merely because I want to believe my consciousness is more than mere computation. Kurzweil's vision of artificial intelligence has been eclipsed by his vision of human immortality. He really, truly honestly believes that human beings alive right now can become immortal, merely by living long enough for the accelerating scientific knowledge to eliminate death. Or, as he puts it, "Live Long Enough to Live Forever." And this is not merely idle speculation on his part; he is personally pursuing every radical intervention he can find to prolong his own life, including radically reducing his caloric intake and taking every conceivable supplement and pill he can find that even vaguely promises to extend life. He seems to be succeeding, too; he has already staved off impending diabetes and high cholesterol, and cuts a trim figure at age 60.
I give him a lot of credit for actively living his philosophy. He has, as Richard Rose would put it, "made himself a living laboratory," putting into action whatever his philosophy dictates. Not content to merely predict the future, he intends to meet it himself. And the guy has a long enough track record of technological brilliance to think he's got a shot at beating death. His credibility has me half-convinced. I don't know if he personally is going to make it, but it is not inconceivable to me that humanity might seriously tackle super-longevity within the next century or so.
You would think that this would be good news. "Hey, guess what? You might not have to die!" So why does the thought of physical immortality fill me with dread? Why, instead of cheering and planning for century upon century of life, does this feel more like the end of the world?
The most obvious answer is mere envy and laziness. I know for a fact that I will not be nearly as industrious as Kurzweil in his quest for immortality, and that I am doomed to die. Even the remote possibility that I could live forever if I worked hard at it twists a knife in my Puritanical, American work-ethic soul. For all of our biological imperative at self-preservation, it's so much easier to accept death as inevitable than to seriously consider escaping it. Damn his eyes for making me think about it.
But there is also something morally bent about this quest for immortality. It feels wrong. For starters, it cultivates a mind-set of supreme selfishness. "I will subjugate everything in the universe to the sole goal of preserving Me." Billionaires like Bill Gates, who might have spent their vast wealth helping millions of people, may instead squander their fortunes trying to enshrine themselves for the future. Personal immortality is the ultimate in Ambition, something that could suppress all manner of goodness in lieu of a mad, megalomaniacal dash to become a god. This is hardly a new theme, either. How many science fiction and fantasy novels have hinged on some super-villain committing world-destroying atrocities in an attempt to secure their immortality? Kurzweil is not Voldemort, but that's the general moral direction we're headed in: "To hell with other people â€“ let's save me, Me, ME!" It's rather like running for U.S. Presidency â€“ anyone who is able to achieve the office automatically disqualifies themselves from deserving it. We may wind up preserving the worst specimens of our species.
Nor does this spirit of selfishness end once immortality is achieved. An immortal would also have to be invulnerable for him to enjoy any peace, because otherwise they would perpetually dedicate themselves to preserving their eternal life. Even the remotest possibility of death suddenly becomes unbearable: the immortal wouldn't ride in a car, or ride a bicycle, or travel to places where foreign diseases may lurk, or associate with other humans who might murder you. The immortal would lock his doors, draw the blinds, and live out his eternal days in perpetual paranoia. Some life.
Even if we could somehow transfer our consciousness to indestructible, immortal machines (as Kurzweil predicts), I think the futurists have vastly underestimated our potential for ennui. After a few centuries, I think most people would be sick to death of themselves. Most religions do not merely promise perpetuity to the departed. They also offer transcendence â€“ the chance to leave behind their limited sense of themselves and find union with God. And eternal life without transcendence might be an altogether different sort of afterlife. It might, indeed, be hell.
Regarding the singularity: it's always seemed to me that Kurzweil was optimistic there, and not just because of the core issue of consciousness, but even on the level of computation. But I have always held that opinion to myself, because, quite frankly, he's a lot more smarter--or at the very least more knowledgeable--than I am.
Regarding immortaility, on the other hand, I think I disagree with you. It does not seem especially immoral, arrogant, or selfish to me. And I have often wondered if immortality might lead people to spiritual pursuits. (Obviously, right now, it is often the prospect of death that pushes folks in that direction. But after just a few hundred years, you might really burn out all that "experience" has to offer, and really look for something more.) In any case, I think doctors who work to prolong the lives of others are doing good work, whether healing those who suffer from cancer or any other form of inevitable death.
The foremost prophet of immortality, as far as I know, is Aubrey de Grey. You might want to check out http://www.technologyreview.com/articles/05/02/issue/feature_aging.asp?p=1 to read more about him. He is certainly arrogant, and sounds like a complete idiot sometimes when he discusses the real implications of what he is proposing. (Example: overpopulation will not be a problem because no one will have kids, since the only reason people have kids is because they want to be immortal.) But he works hard to make people really think about it, and in that way, he is certainly useful and interesting.
Obviously, I don't think that long life itself is a bad thing. I want to live as long as I can, and I imagine everyone else does, too. It's the wholehearted pursuit of long life that seems questionable to me. If we manage to get a period of time when living forever is normal for everyone, why then I imagine you will be right about it leading to greater wisdom, insight, spirituality, etc.