Raymond Kurzweil was a 17-year-old kid who played a short musical composition on a piano in a game show 47 years ago. What made his performance unusual was that the music was composed by a computer he built himself that was hooked up to a typewriter. Creating the work of art is one of those activities we reserve for humans and humans only. It’s an act of self-expression; you’re not supposed to be able to do it if you don’t have a self. To see creativity, the exclusive domain of humans, usurped by a computer built by a 17-year-old is to watch a line blur that cannot be unblurred, the line between organic intelligence and artificial intelligence.

Humans have long used machines to extend our physical capabilities: cars and airplanes take us near and far faster, and assembly lines automate the manufacturing process and thus save time and money. As computers are getting so much faster and more powerful, will they eventually become more intelligent than humans and therefore extend our intellectual abilities or will they turn on humanity and destroy us?

Kurzweil has kept himself busy since his performance in that game show. His exponential growth curves track the changes over time in the amount of computer power, measured in MIPS (millions of instructions per second), that you can buy for $1,000. The curves held eerily steady when Kurzweil extended them backward through the decades of pretransistor computing technologies like relays and vacuum tubes, all the way back to 1900. He then ran the numbers on a whole bunch of other key technological indexes — the falling cost of manufacturing transistors, the rising clock speed of microprocessors, the plummeting price of dynamic RAM. He looked even further afield at trends in biotech and beyond — the falling cost of sequencing DNA and of wireless data service and the rising numbers of Internet hosts and nanotechnology patents. He kept finding the same thing: exponentially accelerating progress. Finally he extended the curves into the future, and the growth they predicted was so phenomenal that it blew his mind.

Kerzweil’s exponential curves told him that we would successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. To him what that means is someday in the foreseeable future (Kerzweil predicted it to be 2045) we’ll be able transfer our minds to sturdier vessels such as computers and robots and live inside them as software, forever, virtually. But Kurzweil finds that life extension produces even more resistance in his audiences than his exponential growth curves. “There are people who can accept computers being more intelligent than people,” he says. “But the idea of significant changes to human longevity — that seems to be particularly controversial. People invested a lot of personal effort into certain philosophies dealing with the issue of life and death. I mean, that’s the major reason we have religion.”

The human-machine interface isn’t just happening in the world we live in, it also occurs in our body to enhance life quality and extend longevity. Artificial pacemaker helps heart patients live a normal and active life. Amputees wear artificial limbs to get around with ease. Imagine a chip, strategically placed in the brain, could prevent epileptic seizures or allow someone who has lost a limb to control an artificial arm just by thinking about it. A couple of years ago, the first synthetic organ – a windpipe – was grown in a laboratory setting and transplanted into a patient. Now, the University College London’s (UCL) Department of Nanotechnology and Regenerative Medicine is taking on another ‘world first:” growth of a nose.

The prospect of keeping our biological body alive and well beyond life expectancy no longer sounds like an outrageous fantasy. It’s well known that one cause of the physical degeneration associated with aging involves telomeres, which are segments of DNA found at the ends of chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, and once a cell runs out of telomeres, it can’t reproduce anymore and dies. But there’s an enzyme called telomerase that reverses this process; it’s one of the reasons cancer cells live so long. So why not treat regular non-cancerous cells with telomerase? In November, researchers at Harvard Medical School announced in Nature that they had done just that. They administered telomerase to a group of mice suffering from age-related degeneration. The damage went away. The mice didn’t just get better; they got younger.

Since 2005 the neuroscientist Henry Markram has been running an ambitious initiative at the Brain Mind Institute of the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland. It’s called the Blue Brain project, and it’s an attempt to create a neuron-by-neuron simulation of a mammalian brain, using IBM’s Blue Gene super-computer. So far, Markram’s team has managed to simulate one neocortical column from a rat’s brain, which contains about 10,000 neurons. Markram has said that he hopes to have a complete virtual human brain up and running in 10 years.

On Monday (Feb 17, 2013) the Obama administration announced its plan of a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics. Scientists with the highest hopes for the project also see it as a way to develop the technology essential to understanding diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as well as to find new therapies for a variety of mental illnesses. But its implications are far beyond finding cure to a few diseases.

Historically, brain transplants (or whole-body transplant) have not been feasible and were widely regarded as impossible. Today, given progress in organ transplant and human cloning research, many scientists hold that brain transplants are theorectically possible and likely to be feasible in the future. Since the brain stores one’s unique identity, the question becomes “does the body get the brain, or the brain get the body?”

There is a long list of animals that have been successfully cloned. Just like identical twins are clones of each other in the sense that they look exactly the same and share the same DNA, it’s technically possible to create a genetically identical copy of you. Even though studies have shown that identical twins are more similar psychologically than fraternal twins, they are still two distinctive persons. In the same way, you and your clone are two different people who might not share the same personality. Now imagine that we can make a copy of your brain and put it in your clone. Now he doesn’t just look like you, but also thinks like you because you two share the same memories, conscious, beliefs and sentiment. I understand that the ethics of cloning is an extremely controversial issue. I am not making judgment here, but merely talking about the possibilities.

Whether human’s life extension can be achieved through preserving the biological body, transferring our mind to other vessels or another identical body, one thing seems to be clear: with the exponential growth of technology, the human species is going through an unimaginable transformation. This transformation has a name: the Singularity. It may sound like science fiction, but it’s an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.

Multiple points in the post are extracted from “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal” by Lev Grossman, Time Magazine