None of these facts tempered Kurzweil's promises of immortality. In his 2010 book, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever (co-authored with a doctor named Terry Grossman), he offered tips for keeping yourself alive for twenty years, so that you can take advantage of all the life-extending technology that will be invented by then, which will keep you alive for another twenty years, and so on and so on, bootstrapping yourself through the centuries.
For all the talk of transcendence, a lot of the tips in Transcend are profoundly banal. Maintain a regular exercise routine! Lose excess body weight! Transcend also advises readers to take vitamins and supplements, often relying on shaky evidence. Kurzweil recommends 500 milligrams of vitamin C a day, for example, writing that "vitamin C is a potent free-radical scavenger (anti-oxidant) that has been shown to be of value in preventing and treating cancer." As evidence, he cites a small study in 2002 on the effect of vitamin C on precancerous cells living in culture dishes.
Kurzweil doesn't mention any of the large-scale investigations of the benefits that vitamin C brings to the health of actual people. In December 2009, scientists at Harvard Medical School published one such study in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute. For a decade, they tracked 7627 women. Half took 500 milligrams of vitamin C a day, and half took placebo. Vitamin C, the Harvard scientists concluded, "offers no overall benefits in the primary prevention of total cancer incidence or cancer mortality."
You won't read about findings like that in Transcend. But you can page through 66 pages of Singularity-friendly recipes, like Fiesta Omelets and Cajun Salmon Fillets. Whether you'll have to eat them for eternity, Kurzweil doesn't say.
When I started contacting experts about the Singularity, something surprising happened. They didn't laugh and hang up the phone.
"I find some people way too quick to pooh-pooh the idea of an impending Singularity," said Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.
Farah investigates how people try to enhance their cognition with drugs. Drugs originally designed to treat mental disorders are now being taken by perfectly healthy people. Adderall, a drug for ADHD, is a popular campus drug for boosting concentration. Modafinil, developed for people with narcolepsy, is now a drug of choice for those who want to burn the midnight oil.
In the years to come Farah anticipates even more powerful drugs will reach the market. Some are intended to slow the disappearance of memories in people with Alzheimer's disease; others may boost cognition in people with impairments. Farah expects there will be people—maybe a lot of them—who will take these drugs in the hopes of improving an already healthy brain, not to fix a deficit.
In December 2008 Farah and a group of fellow neuroscientists and bioethicists wrote a commentary in Nature on cognitive enhancement. Their verdict was that it was okay. "Mentally competent adults should be able to engage in cognitive enhancement using drugs," they wrote. It's impractical, they argued, to try to draw a line between treating a disease and enhancing a healthy brain.
What really matters, Farah said, is for scientists to figure out how much enhancement these drugs can actually bring. "The effectiveness of Adderall depends crucially on the individual," she said. "The literature suggests that people who are average or below get the biggest benefit. The high performers may get no benefit or may actually be impaired by it." Farah is now measuring the performance of students on Adderall and placebos to see if that's actually the case.