Sunday, February 27, 2011


 Editor's Note: Occasionally I send you free samples of TIA Daily just to remind you of the kind of news and commentary available to our subscribers. I don't usually try the hard sell—I offer you a few samples, and you can subscribe if they intrigue you. But today and tomorrow I am going to send you two samples, from the last week of commentary in TIA Daily, that I think demonstrate just how much you need our coverage of the news right now.

In the past few months, Democrats and Republicans have drawn real, substantial battle lines over big government, for the first time in decades. To my astonishment, congressional Republicans have officially added "entitlement reform" to their agenda for the 2012 budget, ending the "third rail" protection that used to make Social Security untouchable. On the state level, courageous Republican governors have set out to break the power of the public employees' unions to loot the taxpayer.

The article below—which has also been posted at RealClearPolitics—explains on the deepest ideological level exactly what is at stake.

And it's not just domestic politics that is reaching a crucial breaking point. It is as if someone decided at the beginning of this year that it was time to change every government in the Middle East—and to do it in a couple of months! Tomorrow, I will send you a sample of my coverage of that story, particularly the uprising in Libya.

This is no ordinary time, and you cannot afford to be without a rational guide to help you understand what is going on and to arm you intellectually for the battles ahead. I hope you will consider subscribing at—RWT

TIA Daily February 23, 2011


Public Workers' Paradise

Unionized Public Employment Is the Socialist Utopia

by Robert Tracinski

The Democratic lawmakers who have gone on the lam in Wisconsin and Indiana—and who knows where else next—are exhibiting a literal fight-or-flight response, the reaction of an animal facing a threat to its very existence.

Why? Because it is a threat to their existence. The battle of Wisconsin is about the viability of the Democratic Party, and more: it is about the viability of the basic social ideal of the left.

It is a matter of survival for Democrats in an immediate, practical sense. As Michael Barone explains, the government employees' unions are a mechanism for siphoning taxpayer dollars into the campaigns of Democratic politicians.

But there is something deeper here than just favor-selling and vote-buying. There is something that almost amounts to a twisted idealism in the Democrats' crusade. They are fighting, not just to preserve their special privileges, but to preserve a social ideal. Or rather, they are fighting to maintain the illusion that their ideal system is benevolent and sustainable.

Unionized public-sector employment is the distilled essence of the left's moral ideal. No one has to worry about making a profit. Generous health-care and retirement benefits are provided to everyone by the government. Comfortable pay is mandated by legislative fiat. The work rules are militantly egalitarian: pay, promotion, and job security are almost totally independent of actual job performance. And because everyone works for the government, they never have to worry that their employer will go out of business.

In short, public employment is an idealized socialist economy in miniature, including its political aspect: the grateful recipients of government largesse provide money and organizational support to re-elect the politicians who shower them with all of these benefits.

Put it all together, and you have the Democrats' version of utopia. In the larger American culture of Tea Parties, bond vigilantes, and rugged individualists, Democrats feel they are constantly on the defensive. But within the little subculture of unionized government employees, all is right with the world, and everything seems to work the way it is supposed to.

This cozy little world has been described as a system that grants special privileges to a few, which is particularly rankling in the current stagnant economy, when private sector workers acutely feel the difference. But I think this misses the point. The point is that this is how the left thinks everyone should live and work. It is their version of a model society.

Every political movement needs models. It needs a real-world example to demonstrate how its ideal works and that it works.

And there's the rub. The left is running low on utopias.

The failure of Communism—and the spectacular success of capitalism, particularly in bringing wealth to what used to be called the "Third World"—deprived the left of one utopia. So they fell back on the European welfare state, smugly assuring Americans that we would be so much better off if we were more like our cousins across the Atlantic. But the Great Recession has triggered a sovereign debt crisis across Europe. It turned out that the continent's welfare states were borrowing money to paper over the fact that they have committed themselves to benefits more generous than they can ever hope to pay for.

In America, the ideological crisis of the left is taking a slightly different form. Here, the left has set up its utopias by carving out, within a wider capitalist culture, little islands where its ideals hold sway. Old age is one of those islands, where everyone has been promised the socialist dreams of a guaranteed income and unlimited free health care. Public employment is another.

Now the left is panicking as these experiments in American socialism implode.

On the national level, it has become clear that the old-age welfare state of Social Security and Medicare is driving the federal government into permanent trillion-dollar deficits and a ruinous debt load. Even President Obama acknowledged, in his State of the Union address, that these programs are the real drivers of runaway debt—just before he refused to consider any changes to them. You see how hard it is for the Democrats to give up on their utopias.

On the state level, public employment promises the full socialist ideal to a small minority—paid for with tax money looted from a larger, productive private economy. But the socialist utopia of public employment has crossed the Thatcher Line: the point at which, as the Iron Lady used to warn, you run out of other people's money.

The current crisis exposes more than just the financial unsustainability of these programs. It exposes their moral unsustainability. It exposes the fact that the generosity of these welfare-state enclaves can only be sustained by forcing everyone else to perform forced labor to pay for the benefits of a privileged few.

This is why the left is treating any attempt to fundamentally reform the public workers' paradise as an existential crisis. This is why they are reacting with the most extreme measures short of outright insurrection. When Democratic lawmakers flee the state in order to deprive their legislatures of the quorum necessary to vote, they are declaring that they would rather have no legislature than allow voting on any bill that would break the power of the unions.

National Review's Jim Geraghty describes these legislative walk-outs as "small-scale, temporary secessions." The analogy is exact. One hundred and fifty years ago, Southern slaveholders realized that the political balance of the nation had tipped against them, that they could no longer hope to win the political argument for their system. Faced with a federal government in which they were out-voted, they decided that they would rather have no federal government at all. The Democrats' current cause may not be as repugnant—holding human beings as chattel is a unique evil—but it has something of the same character of irrational, belligerent denial. More than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the left is still trying to pretend that socialism is plausible as an economic system.

The Democrats are fleeing from a lot more than their jobs as state legislators. They are fleeing from the cold, hard reality of the financial and moral unsustainability of their ideal.
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Saturday, February 12, 2011


The prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was not so understanding. His motorcade was arriving at the Sheraton Hotel while a “POTUS Freeze” was in place. The Secret Service agent in charge of Erdogan’s detail asked him to wait until Obama’s motorcade had departed, but the Turkish prime minister did not heed the advice. He opened the door to his car, and armed Turkish agents began exiting the other vehicles in the motorcade. “Don’t do that!” the American detail leader shouted. But Erdogan’s entourage nonetheless approached Obama’s departure tent. An agent in the Presidential Protective Detail, having no idea who these foreign guys with guns were, yelled into his handheld mike, “Crash it! Crash the tent!” Within moments, a dozen agents were out of their cars in full sprint, guns drawn, and the Turks were forcibly detained.

The incident was over within 20 seconds, but the Turkish delegation was mightily offended. It canceled several events in New York, while the Secret Service and the State Department apologized and tried to smooth hurt egos. Although agents had done exactly what they were supposed to do, the service initiated a full review, and procedures were altered to ensure that presidential motorcades didn’t intersect with waiting dignitaries in the future.

The Atlantic Home

March 2011

Inside the Secret Service

When President Obama and two-thirds of the world’s leaders gather in New York City, it is up to the U.S. Secret Service to keep them all safe. Granted unprecedented access, our author tells the story of how the agency pulls off the most complicated security event of the year, from counter-surveillance to counter-assault, hotel booking to event scheduling.

By Marc Ambinder

Image credit: Brooks Kraft

On a warm September evening in New York City, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad slowly walked down the staircase of his official plane, idling in a remote corner of John F. Kennedy International Airport. Waiting to greet him were a gaggle of invited (and carefully screened) journalists, U.S. consular officials, and the like. But there was at least one face in the small crowd that Ahmadinejad recognized immediately, that of a U.S. Secret Service agent whom I’ll call Jack. (For security reasons, the service prefers not to publicize the names of its agents working on protective details.) A lean, compact man in his late 40s, Jack wore what passes for a uniform in the Secret Service: dark suit with a slight, artificial paunch around the middle (the result of gun, radio, handcuffs, and badge), light-blue shirt, and red tie. This was Jack’s third stint as a senior agent on the Iran detail, but his first as detail leader. He was the man charged by the U.S. government with ensuring the safety of arguably the nation’s most public enemy.

Also see:

Graphic: The Presidential Motorcade
A detailed look at security detail that moves the president on the ground.

Jack does not consider Ahmadinejad a friend, and he is somewhat uncomfortable being one of the few Americans the Iranian leader has gotten to know firsthand. (Ahmadinejad had grown so fond of Jack’s predecessor as detail leader— an agent since promoted to a more senior position—that he’d called him by his first name, asked after his children, and even, upon arriving and departing the country, given him formal kisses on each cheek.) But Jack was nonetheless proud of the job with which he had been entrusted: protecting the life of a man with a bull’s-eye on his back, and getting him door-to-door for six days, from limo to hotel to high-level meeting, as safely and expeditiously as possible.

Ahmadinejad was in New York for the 65th United Nations General Assembly—or UNGA, typically pronounced just the way it looks. While the Iranian leader’s visit was particularly high-profile and politically fraught, it was by no means unique. In 2010, the annual event required more than 200 Secret Service details for foreign leaders, American officials, and spouses, along with another 60 or so State Department security details for lower-level protectees. (This is in addition to the thousands of New York City police officers called upon to help secure buildings and traffic routes, and lead motorcades.) Over the course of the event, 900 aircraft would fly in and out of JFK bearing dignitaries; hundreds of events across the city would need to be scouted and secured.

Yet, remarkably, the General Assembly has become an almost unremarkable event, at least by Secret Service standards. There have been 38 “National Special Security Events” since President Clinton first coined the term in a classified 1998 national-security directive. Most of these NSSEs have occurred since September 11, 2001, and 14 of them since 2007, including the two presidential conventions, President-elect Obama’s pre-inauguration whistle-stop train tour, the inauguration itself, and the 2008 and 2009 G-20 summits. The General Assembly poses greater security and logistical challenges than many, if not most, of these events. This is due in part to its size, and in part to the fact that habit is the worst enemy of protective security, and the assembly offers an extremely attractive, recurring target: many foreign leaders stay in the same hotels and attend the same events at the same times each year. But despite all this, the General Assembly has not been categorized as an NSSE since 2001. The Secret Service has it down to a science.

This is the story of a dog that didn’t bark, and of the men and women who kept it muzzled. The Secret Service receives dozens of requests each year from reporters who want a peek inside the agency; most are quickly turned down. Typically, the service provides context for media coverage of its major security events by opening its training facility in Beltsville, Maryland. There, it can put on a show—complete with motorcades and simulated attacks—in a tightly controlled environment. It took me more than 18 months to persuade the service to let me be the first reporter to see the process from the inside in a real-world, real-time situation. I was allowed access to command posts, operation centers, and other secure areas. I agreed only to withhold some details about protective methodology that would imperil the service’s ability to do its job.

In exchange, I was able to witness how a smallish, secretive federal agency under some bureaucratic duress assures security at the General Assembly, an event for which two-thirds of the world’s leaders, many of whom have been subject to past assassination attempts, gather in one of the most crowded, open cities in the world. It is the job of the Secret Service, in concert with a host of local, state, and federal agencies, to make sure nothing goes wrong.

For Jack and the rest of the Iranian detail, that meant “keeping things simple,” as he explained to me. For the week, Ahmadinejad was just another “high”—that is, someone who receives the highest level of Secret Service protection. During his stay, the Iranian president was ensconced in the smallish, 20-floor Hilton Manhattan East. The hotel remained open to regular guests, and tourists wandered freely through the lobby. No demonstrators were outside when I visited (a somewhat surprising absence, given that the day’s newspapers had disclosed the location of the hotel), but a couple dozen plainclothes police officers were stationed around the building just in case.

Ahmadinejad was in his private suite, preparing for a series of interviews with American television hosts. In the corridors outside, the Secret Service agents and Ahmadinejad’s own Iranian security detail—immediately recognizable by their open-necked collars—generally kept apart, though they were mutually respectful. The Secret Service “command post” was a hotel room with the bed removed and replaced with the tools of the trade: semiautomatic weapons, first-aid equipment, one desk with a computer and another with a radio tuned to the detail’s coded frequency, nicknamed “Mike.”

But arguably the clearest signal that Ahmadinejad was no ordinary VIP was the fact that his media appearances throughout the day all took place within the hotel itself. When the time came, he rode a dedicated elevator down to a small, makeshift studio in the basement to be interviewed—under the watchful eye of his security detail—by the likes of Larry King and Charlie Rose. The mountain, in other words, came to Mahmoud.

Paint is peeling off the clapboard sides of what looks like an abandoned warehouse on the edge of the East River in Brooklyn. During the General Assembly, the Secret Service used the building as a secure location to house at least 100 armored limousines and SUVs, as well as numbered crates containing hundreds of MP5 assault weapons and thousands of secure radios. Over the course of the event, advance agents would arrive as needed to pick up their keys, their guns, and their radios.

The warehouse is a short drive from the Secret Service’s New York field office, which occupies the (again, highly secure) top floors of an otherwise anonymous Brooklyn office building. The field office had been located in Tower 7 of the World Trade Center—along with an important CIA station and the New York emergency command center authorized by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani—until its destruction in the September 11 attacks. For months afterward, until the money came through for a new permanent office, the Secret Service worked out of three temporary locations, leasing space from, among others, John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Midtown.

The New York field office is the service’s largest, averaging six protective assignments a week under normal circumstances as well as dozens of counterfeiting cases—responsibility for which the service, until recently a part of the Treasury Department, has fought zealously to retain. Among the James Bondian features of the facility are a state-of-the-art wire room, where the service conducts phone tracking; a locked vault full of disguises and fake-grass tarps for agents to hide beneath when on undercover assignments; and a warren of interview rooms where the service regularly conducts polygraphs, both for criminal investigations and for security-clearance applications. (The agency’s polygraphs are considered the gold standard in U.S. government.)

When I visited in June, Brian Parr, the special agent in charge of the field office, pointed out that terrorists had twice attempted to attack New York City within the past year, failing only because they’d made mistakes, not because they had been detected by law enforcement. He cited the case of Najibullah Zazi, a bus driver who was intercepted by the NYPD and the FBI as he prepared to bomb the New York City subway system in September 2009. “A year ago,” Parr told me, “I was standing in a room with 14 backpacks that had tested positive for TATP, an explosive. And that next week”—that is, when the UN would convene its 2009 General Assembly—“I had two-thirds of the world’s leaders coming to my district.”

During the 2010 assembly, a command center, code-named “Broadside,” was set up at the heart of the field office. Here, agents followed the movements of the many dignitaries and their security details in real time, in part by monitoring 16 distinct radio channels set aside for the summit. (This was considered a luxury: radio bandwidth is a precious commodity, and only 12 channels had been available the prior year.) Encryption keys for each channel are supplied by the National Security Agency, and the agents protect their radios as scrupulously as they protect their guns. “If only one radio is lost, we have to rekey every radio,” the agent in charge of this process told me.

In addition to establishing Broadside, the Secret Service also set up a tactical command post, code-named “North Star,” at a secret location in the city. North Star coordinated the counter-assault teams, the counter-sniper teams, and the hazardous-material teams—or “Hammer” squads—assigned to high-threat protectees. Run by the service’s Special Operations Division, North Star was responsible for arguably the most sensitive part of the assembly preparations. “One of the things we know,” Parr told me, “is that when things go wrong, we’ve got to get 150 world leaders and their spouses off the island”—that is, Manhattan—“in a hurry.” For weeks, the Special Operations Division scouted evacuation routes, hardened safe houses throughout the city, and secured Coast Guard assets. If a situation arose in which protectees needed to be moved to safety, counter-assault (or CAT) teams would “crash” the event and secure an evacuation pathway.

Also see:

Listening In: Secret Service radio chatter
Marc Ambinder is the first journalist allowed to listen in on a secret service radio encrypted transmission.

As a last resort in the event a leader is shot or otherwise injured, the service has what Parr calls its “secret weapon” on 24/7 standby. Dr. Maurizio Miglietta, a former chief of trauma at Bellevue who has been working these summits for years, provides the agency with a team of doctors and nurses, and sets up a mobile trauma unit at major venues. He can perform surgery on the spot, if necessary.

The primary goal, of course, is preventing any such incident. The mission begins with an extensive intelligence assessment. Agents and analysts at the Protective Intelligence and Assessment Division in Washington, D.C., prepare a detailed profile of each protectee—including information on who might wish him or her harm and why—for delivery to the New York field office. The Secret Service has access to virtually every bit of data produced by the American intelligence community; as Charlie Allen, a former top CIA officer who served as the Department of Homeland Security’s first intelligence chief, explains, “They are voracious consumers of intelligence.”

That intelligence often includes sensitive information developed by counterparts in other countries: for obvious reasons, the service has some of the closest liaison relationships with foreign intelligence agencies of any U.S. entity. Chinese and Russian protective-security teams regularly spend time with Secret Service agents to help them prepare for large events. China even invited the service to Beijing to observe its agencies’ security arrangements for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Indeed, it is an irony of the service that some of its dealings with foreign security agencies are less fraught than those with the rest of the American intelligence community.

Mark Sullivan, the director of the Secret Service, is tall and trim, with deep-set eyes. He is ready with a smile even though he occupies a job that one predecessor, Stuart Knight, called a “living nightmare in a democracy.” When I met him last April, during a nuclear-security summit convened by President Obama, he was giving senior administration officials a tour of the Multi-Agency Command Center in downtown Washington. Before I was even able to ask the question directly, he stressed to me that the service was only a consumer, not a collector, of foreign intelligence.

What Sullivan did not tell me, but I knew from other sources, was that over the past 10 years, the CIA had asked the service on at least two occasions to help develop intelligence on a visiting foreign leader—that is, essentially, to spy on the very person it was assigned to protect. Both times, the service refused.

While not confirming these details, W. Ralph Basham, who was the director of the service from 2003 to 2006, told me, “It can’t work any other way. Once you lose the confidence of those individuals you protect, once they don’t want you near them—and many of them already think we’re spying on them anyway—it would never be a workable situation.”

Recently, Sullivan had fought, and won, yet another internal battle to avoid having his agents designated as intelligence collectors, which would have led to a kind of agency schizophrenia. “Mark is absolutely right to be fighting those battles,” Basham said. Though the service and the FBI cooperate closely on terrorism threats, they’ve created an informal firewall between the FBI’s intelligence-gathering operations and the service’s protective operations.

Although no one working for the Secret Service would discuss the subject with me, other sources told me that these sometimes contradictory priorities within the intelligence community can create Spy vs. Spy–style scenarios—but with American agents on both sides. When Ahmadinejad visits the United States, for instance, the FBI’s National Security Division dispatches teams of undercover agents to keep tabs on everyone with whom he travels or meets. As a result, the Secret Service’s security detail and counter-surveillance teams not only have to look out for suspicious figures who might pose a threat to Ahmadinejad’s life; they also have to determine which of those figures might in fact be “friendly” agents conducting surveillance on behalf of the U.S. government. (Comparable situations arise during visits by the leaders of any of a number of nations with whom the United States has a fraught or hostile relationship.)

Such conflicts help explain the wariness with which some protectees view their security details. For instance, after the Secret Service’s Technical Security Division carefully swept Ahmadinejad’s limousine and hotel room for listening devices— standard practice for all protectees—Ahmadinejad’s own bodyguards swept them as well. Trust extends only so far.

Active bodyguard duty makes up just a fraction of the work performed by Secret Service agents on protective missions; they are also, as the situation demands, hotel bookers, personal schedulers, and protocol experts. And these latter roles are often as demanding as the ones that make for good Hollywood screenplays. Being assigned to “housing,” for instance, might not seem glamorous compared with serving on one of the counter-assault teams. But the truth is that CAT team members spend much of their time standing around in stairwells, watching and waiting for extreme scenarios that are very unlikely to occur. Agents working on housing, by contrast, must constantly solve problems, though some might seem mundane.

Indeed, the Secret Service is an elite travel agency of sorts, maintaining relationships with hotels across the country and negotiating rates throughout the year. Large events such as the General Assembly pose particular hurdles, as many of the better hotels sell out years in advance.

Every venue to be used must be cleared by the Technical Security Division. First, 130 dog teams, many borrowed from other agencies, sniff for explosives. Then agents conduct fire-safety surveys; coordinate the placement of chemical, biological, and radiological sensors; and, for some rooms, add bulletproof glass and blast webbing to the windows. This year, housing agents faced an additional threat to national security: bedbugs. It would have been an obvious embarrassment if any of the General Assembly protectees had been bitten by the pests that have of late plagued New York City. None were, but one agent wasn’t so lucky. As a gag, fellow agents posted his injured-in-the-line-of-duty portrait on a wall in one of the temporary offices leased by the service.

Scheduling is a still-more-complex duty at an event such as the assembly—especially, as is often the case, when foreign dignitaries prove impulsive or uncooperative. One African nation, for instance, was particularly reticent about sharing its president’s U.S. itinerary with the service. One of the agents charged with scheduling his protective detail actually resorted to sleuthing his planned movements on Google. There, he found a reference to a speech the president intended to give in Utah. The agent then called the chief of police in Salt Lake City, who was vaguely aware of the dignitary’s impending visit and managed to supply the name of the hotel where he would be staying. A call to the hotel management provided the president’s arrival and departure dates. Only then could the agent alert his colleagues in Salt Lake City to supply protective personnel—and, just as important, determine how many agents in New York could be reassigned to other duties during those dates.

Even when protectees are more forthcoming with their schedules, those schedules are prone to change at the last minute. The service has “jump teams” available to handle sudden itinerary changes—as, for example, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy opted for an unplanned jog through the lovely (but entirely unsecured) grounds of Central Park. Last year, the Afghanistan delegation belatedly canceled its General Assembly appearance altogether. One might think that the service would appreciate the manpower this would free up. But consider the number of countries whose leaders had already scheduled events with President Hamid Karzai. Those events had to be canceled, and new events planned—and it was up to the agents in the scheduling office to make sure all the new pieces fit together. One scheduling change can create a cascade of others.

On Monday morning, September 20—the day world leaders began to arrive in force for the General Assembly—all 24 copies of the New York Post sold by the gift shop of the Embassy Suites hotel in Lower Manhattan were snatched up by 8 a.m. The Secret Service had set up a special coordinating center on the 15th floor, and agents there were passing around copies of page seven, which featured a heroic photo of one of their own in action.

The day before, in the late afternoon, the motorcade belonging to Israeli President Shimon Peres had arrived near the Carlyle hotel on the Upper East Side. French President Sarkozy and his glamorous wife, Carla Bruni, were staying at the hotel and, as a result, French and American paparazzi were staked out across the street. As Peres’s limo arrived, a photographer bearing a black backpack hopped over a barricade fence and began walking quickly toward it. Agents described the subsequent events as if they happened in slow motion.

Perimeter agents and officers immediately called on the photographer to halt: Stop stop stop! But he continued crossing the street, readying his camera for a picture and, in the process, swinging his backpack forward. Under the circumstances, both items had to be viewed as potential weapons.

Two things happened at almost the same instant: an NYPD intelligence officer leapt from the lead car of the motorcade and drew his Glock, and a bulky man in a polo shirt and shorts pulled his own weapon, a SIG-Sauer P229, shouting, “Get to the ground! Get to the ground!” The latter agent was a member of a Secret Service counter-surveillance team, breaking cover to intercept the potential threat.

Facing the business ends of two pistols, the photographer had a moment of sudden insight and dropped to the ground. He was cuffed by NYPD officers, interviewed by the Secret Service, and ordered to stay the hell away from motorcades in the future. The bad news, from the service’s point of view, was that any potential assassin would now know that the service had undercover counter-surveillance teams in place. The good news: the perceived threat was shut down quickly and smoothly. And a lucky New York Post photographer had taken a stunning photograph of the incident: agent and policeman, weapons drawn, standing over the prone photographer.

The situation also served as a reminder of the importance of the service’s cooperation with local law enforcement. For the General Assembly, the Secret Service coordinates with at least 17 different federal, state, and local agencies. In particular, the service cannot do its job unless the New York police and other local agencies have done theirs. Every year brings disagreements—often the same ones, year after year. Sometimes, the Port Authority balks at providing foreign leaders with enough vehicle escorts; the service usually wins that one. The service often requests more “setback”—that is, space between motorcades and other traffic—on certain streets; the NYPD will give it just one lane. The service prefers intersection control for all high-level protectees; last year, the NYPD decided to reserve that perk for President Obama alone. The give-and-take is perennial, and frustrating, and absolutely unavoidable.

In an advance briefing, Brian Parr had reminded his agents that maintaining mutual respect with the police was crucial. “Be humble,” he said. “The NYPD is going to be valuable to you.” The photographer incident, however inconsequential, had fulfilled his prediction.

The Secret Service likes to say that its high-level protectees are given every asset that is used to protect the president of the United States. This isn’t true, of course. The Presidential Protective Detail is the holiest of holies. Everything stops for the presidential motorcade—including, during the 2009 General Assembly, the motorcade carrying a prominent world leader accustomed to near-royal treatment in his own country. He was returning to the Waldorf from the UN, but found his route unexpectedly blocked.

He tapped the agent who was driving his car. “Why are we stopped?”

“It’s President Obama,” the agent replied. “He’s departing the hotel.” The leader was silent for a moment, before shrugging and leaning back in his seat. In his country, after all, everything stopped for him.

The prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was not so understanding. His motorcade was arriving at the Sheraton Hotel while a “POTUS Freeze” was in place. The Secret Service agent in charge of Erdogan’s detail asked him to wait until Obama’s motorcade had departed, but the Turkish prime minister did not heed the advice. He opened the door to his car, and armed Turkish agents began exiting the other vehicles in the motorcade. “Don’t do that!” the American detail leader shouted. But Erdogan’s entourage nonetheless approached Obama’s departure tent. An agent in the Presidential Protective Detail, having no idea who these foreign guys with guns were, yelled into his handheld mike, “Crash it! Crash the tent!” Within moments, a dozen agents were out of their cars in full sprint, guns drawn, and the Turks were forcibly detained.

The incident was over within 20 seconds, but the Turkish delegation was mightily offended. It canceled several events in New York, while the Secret Service and the State Department apologized and tried to smooth hurt egos. Although agents had done exactly what they were supposed to do, the service initiated a full review, and procedures were altered to ensure that presidential motorcades didn’t intersect with waiting dignitaries in the future.

The Presidential Protective Detail always walks a fine line. On the one hand, the safety of the president is sacrosanct; on the other, the detail is extremely wary of being perceived as a kind of Praetorian Guard. Still, its security footprint is, inevitably, enormous. In his 2010 book, The Kennedy Detail, former agent Gerald Blaine said he was aghast at the scope of the protective detail at a 2008 event for a presidential candidate he declined to identify: close to 60 agents and law-enforcement officers—for someone who was only campaigning to be president.

Since the Kennedy assassination in 1963, and following each subsequent attempt on a president’s life, the “package,” as the protective detail is called, has grown larger and more menacing. In 2005, as President Bush and Vice President Cheney celebrated their inauguration with a slow motorcade back to the White House, the conservative commentator George Will told the ABC News anchor Peter Jennings that the package, with its rings of hulking vehicles and heavily armed agents, brought to mind less Washington, D.C., than wartime Sarajevo. Sensitive to such perceptions, Obama’s inaugural procession in 2009 changed the security configuration somewhat—so that, for example, photographs of the president would feature the Capitol dome in the background, rather than a black, ambulance-style hazmat truck.

It is a sorely underappreciated fact that both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were the subjects of relatively close-call assassination attempts. During a speech Bush gave at Tbilisi’s Freedom Square in Georgia on May 10, 2005, an assailant threw a live grenade at the president. The would-be assassin, who was later caught, had been among the throng of Georgians who had burst through the perimeter fencing when it was compromised an hour before the event. (Luckily, the grenade fell more than 30 yards away from Bush, outside of its effective range, and it did not explode.) The Secret Service had warned the president and his staff that it was not able to screen everyone within the standard range, and that as a result, he was potentially in danger. According to former administration officials, Bush insisted on giving the speech anyway.

Clinton’s brush with death was closer still, and his life may have been saved by a gut decision made by his detail leader. The incident was disclosed only recently by the historian Ken Gormley in his book The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr. The context was Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s effort to force members of the Presidential Protective Detail to disclose particulars of Clinton’s movements and any conversation they might have heard that was germane to his case. Then–Secret Service Director Lewis C. Merletti argued to Starr that a president needed to have complete trust in his protective detail, offering the following example: in 1996, President Clinton was in Manila for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, and had on his agenda a visit with a local official. He was running late, in a surly mood, and eager to get going. According to Gormley, just moments before the motorcade was about to move, agents using a special intelligence-gathering capacity—one that remains classified—picked up radio chatter mentioning the words wedding and bridge. Knowing well that wedding was often a code word for a terrorist hit, Merletti changed the route, which happened to include a bridge. Clinton was angry at the decision, which would cause further delay, but he did not override it. When agents arrived at the bridge, they indeed found explosives: had Clinton taken the prescribed route, he very likely would have been killed. (Within the past decade, the service has added an electronic-countermeasures vehicle— theoretically capable of jamming remotely controlled explosives—to the presidential protection package.)

After the September 11 attacks, the Secret Service found itself in the middle of a bureaucratic turf war. Under pressure from congressional Democrats, the Bush administration had reluctantly agreed to consolidate domestic security functions into a huge new department with the faintly Teutonic appellation of Homeland Security. The Secret Service was to be moved from its comfortable—if seemingly outdated—perch in the Treasury Department to the new entity. (The service’s placement within Treasury was a consequence of its having been initially formed, under President Abraham Lincoln, as an anti-counterfeiting unit; it officially assumed its better-known protective function only after the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley.)

Negotiations regarding the integration of the service into Homeland Security were fraught from the start. Joseph W. Hagin, President Bush’s deputy chief of staff, told me that the White House debated folding the service’s protective duties into Homeland Security, but handing over its responsibility to investigate counterfeiting and other financial crimes to the Justice Department. Though the debate was settled in the service’s favor, the threat of having its investigative functions taken away still lingers: in late 2009, rumors flared within the service that a secret White House working group was making plans to limit the service to its protective functions and divvy up its financial-fraud mission between Treasury and Justice. Though the rumors were subsequently debunked, their persistence speaks to the service’s institutional fears.

“We can’t have agents standing post all year,” says Robert Sica, the deputy special agent in charge of the New York field office. “The investigations are what keep the agents’ minds sharp, which reinforces their effectiveness on protective details. The best protective agents are often the smartest ones, because they know how to read people. That comes from investigations.” It may be true that if you designed the entire national-security apparatus from scratch, investigating financial crimes would fall outside the purview of the Secret Service. But from the agency’s point of view, its hybrid nature is a feature, not a bug.

Tension between the Secret Service and its new DHS overseers is still evident on both sides. When I approached a top DHS official with a question about a “good story” I was working on about the service, his curt response was, “There are no good stories about the service.” Yet for all the bureaucratic wrangles and miscommunications, integration into DHS has helped the service in innumerable ways. The service now has a much easier time borrowing personnel to staff major national-security events: on the 2008 presidential campaign trail, hundreds of federal agents from other DHS agencies assisted the service with protective duties. The service can also borrow surveillance assets very easily, and its Technical Security Division works closely with DHS scientists on explosive-detection technology. As DHS claims more of a role in securing cyberspace, it has also helped protect the service’s ability to initiate financial cyber-crime investigations— an area where, again, the Justice Department would prefer to take the lead.

On September 23, as the General Assembly drew to a close, three senior Secret Service agents sat down to a breakfast of eggs and pancakes at the Embassy Suites. All were veterans of numerous large security events.

“The Pittsburgh summit was harder than this,” one of them said, referring to the 2009 G-20 gathering. Protecting 20 world leaders in an unfamiliar location, in other words, had been a greater challenge than taking care of 150 in a city where the infrastructure was in place, the local relationships were built, and the public was conditioned to accept the hassles. It had been particularly difficult in Pittsburgh, for example, to find agents hotel rooms near those of their protectees.

Talk then turned to an upcoming National Special Security Event: the APEC summit in Hawaii in November 2011. Two agents had been dispatched from Washington more than a year in advance of the event to scout out locations for command centers; establish contact with hotels, police departments, and businesses; and prepare a pre-advance packet, listing everything from hospital locations to potential motorcade choke points. “The government of Hawaii is very anxious,” one of the agents noted. “We still haven’t figured out the hotel rooms.”

Overall, though, the agents didn’t have a lot of sympathy for their colleagues’ travails. A year in Hawaii is, after all, a year in Hawaii—about as far a cry from Pittsburgh as could be imagined. “Not a bad gig,” one of the agents commented, to nods all around. There was no need to add: as long as nothing goes wrong.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011

2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal

By Lev Grossman

On Feb. 15, 1965, a diffident but self-possessed high school student named Raymond Kurzweil appeared as a guest on a game show called I've Got a Secret. He was introduced by the host, Steve Allen, then he played a short musical composition on a piano. The idea was that Kurzweil was hiding an unusual fact and the panelists — they included a comedian and a former Miss America — had to guess what it was.

On the show (you can find the clip on YouTube), the beauty queen did a good job of grilling Kurzweil, but the comedian got the win: the music was composed by a computer. Kurzweil got $200. (See a photoessay on Cyberdyne's Real Robot)

Kurzweil then demonstrated the computer, which he built himself—a desk-size affair with loudly clacking relays, hooked up to a typewriter. The panelists were pretty blasé about it; they were more impressed by Kurzweil's age than by anything he'd actually done. They were ready to move on to Mrs. Chester Loney of Rough and Ready, Calif., whose secret was that she'd been President Lyndon Johnson's first-grade teacher.

But Kurzweil would spend much of the rest of his career working out what his demonstration meant. Creating a 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.

That was Kurzweil's real secret, and back in 1965 nobody guessed it. Maybe not even him, not yet. But now, 46 years later, Kurzweil believes that we're approaching a moment when computers will become intelligent, and not just intelligent but more intelligent than humans. When that happens, humanity — our bodies, our minds, our civilization — will be completely and irreversibly transformed. He believes that this moment is not only inevitable but imminent. According to his calculations, the end of human civilization as we know it is about 35 years away. (See the best inventions of 2010.)

Computers are getting faster. Everybody knows that. Also, computers are getting faster faster — that is, the rate at which they're getting faster is increasing.

True? True.

So if computers are getting so much faster, so incredibly fast, there might conceivably come a moment when they are capable of something comparable to human intelligence. Artificial intelligence. All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is our brains are doing when they create consciousness — not just doing arithmetic very quickly or composing piano music but also driving cars, writing books, making ethical decisions, appreciating fancy paintings, making witty observations at cocktail parties.

If you can swallow that idea, and Kurzweil and a lot of other very smart people can, then all bets are off. From that point on, there's no reason to think computers would stop getting more powerful. They would keep on developing until they were far more intelligent than we are. Their rate of development would also continue to increase, because they would take over their own development from their slower-thinking human creators. Imagine a computer scientist that was itself a super-intelligent computer. It would work incredibly quickly. It could draw on huge amounts of data effortlessly. It wouldn't even take breaks to play Farmville.

Probably. It's impossible to predict the behavior of these smarter-than-human intelligences with which (with whom?) we might one day share the planet, because if you could, you'd be as smart as they would be. But there are a lot of theories about it. Maybe we'll merge with them to become super-intelligent cyborgs, using computers to extend our intellectual abilities the same way that cars and planes extend our physical abilities. Maybe the artificial intelligences will help us treat the effects of old age and prolong our life spans indefinitely. Maybe we'll scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software, forever, virtually. Maybe the computers will turn on humanity and annihilate us. The one thing all these theories have in common is the transformation of our species into something that is no longer recognizable as such to humanity circa 2011. This transformation has a name: the Singularity. (Comment on this story.)

The difficult thing to keep sight of when you're talking about the Singularity is that even though it sounds like science fiction, it isn't, no more than a weather forecast is science fiction. It's not a fringe idea; it's a serious hypothesis about the future of life on Earth. There's an intellectual gag reflex that kicks in anytime you try to swallow an idea that involves super-intelligent immortal cyborgs, but suppress it if you can, because while the Singularity appears to be, on the face of it, preposterous, it's an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.

(See a photoessay on Cinema's Most Memorable Robots)

(From TIME's archives: "Can Machines Think?")

See TIME's special on gadgets: then and now.

People are spending a lot of money trying to understand it. The three-year-old Singularity University, which offers inter-disciplinary courses of study for graduate students and executives, is hosted by NASA. Google was a founding sponsor; its CEO and co-founder Larry Page spoke there last year. People are attracted to the Singularity for the shock value, like an intellectual freak show, but they stay because there's more to it than they expected. And of course, in the event that it turns out to be real, it will be the most important thing to happen to human beings since the invention of language.

The Singularity isn't a wholly new idea, just newish. In 1965 the British mathematician I.J. Good described something he called an "intelligence explosion":

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an "intelligence explosion," and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make. (Read "Is Technology Making Us Lonelier?")

The word singularity is borrowed from astrophysics: it refers to a point in space-time — for example, inside a black hole — at which the rules of ordinary physics do not apply. In the 1980s the science-fiction novelist Vernor Vinge attached it to Good's intelligence-explosion scenario. At a NASA symposium in 1993, Vinge announced that "within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create super-human intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

By that time Kurzweil was thinking about the Singularity too. He'd been busy since his appearance on I've Got a Secret. He'd made several fortunes as an engineer and inventor; he founded and then sold his first software company while he was still at MIT. He went on to build the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind — Stevie Wonder was customer No. 1—and made innovations in a range of technical fields, including music synthesizers and speech recognition. He holds 39 patents and 19 honorary doctorates. In 1999 President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology. (See a photoessay on adorable robots)

But Kurzweil was also pursuing a parallel career as a futurist: he has been publishing his thoughts about the future of human and machine-kind for 20 years, most recently in The Singularity Is Near, which was a best seller when it came out in 2005. A documentary by the same name, starring Kurzweil, Tony Robbins and Alan Dershowitz, among others, was released in January. (Kurzweil is actually the subject of two current documentaries. The other one, less authorized but more informative, is called The Transcendent Man.) Bill Gates has called him "the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence."(See the world's most influential people in the 2010 TIME 100.)

In real life, the transcendent man is an unimposing figure who could pass for Woody Allen's even nerdier younger brother. Kurzweil grew up in Queens, N.Y., and you can still hear a trace of it in his voice. Now 62, he speaks with the soft, almost hypnotic calm of someone who gives 60 public lectures a year. As the Singularity's most visible champion, he has heard all the questions and faced down the incredulity many, many times before. He's good-natured about it. His manner is almost apologetic: I wish I could bring you less exciting news of the future, but I've looked at the numbers, and this is what they say, so what else can I tell you?

Kurzweil's interest in humanity's cyborganic destiny began about 1980 largely as a practical matter. He needed ways to measure and track the pace of technological progress. Even great inventions can fail if they arrive before their time, and he wanted to make sure that when he released his, the timing was right. "Even at that time, technology was moving quickly enough that the world was going to be different by the time you finished a project," he says. "So it's like skeet shooting—you can't shoot at the target." He knew about Moore's law, of course, which states that the number of transistors you can put on a microchip doubles about every two years. It's a surprisingly reliable rule of thumb. Kurzweil tried plotting a slightly different curve: the change over time in the amount of computing power, measured in MIPS (millions of instructions per second), that you can buy for $1,000.

As it turned out, Kurzweil's numbers looked a lot like Moore's. They doubled every couple of years. Drawn as graphs, they both made exponential curves, with their value increasing by multiples of two instead of by regular increments in a straight line. The curves held eerily steady, even when Kurzweil extended his backward through the decades of pretransistor computing technologies like relays and vacuum tubes, all the way back to 1900. (Comment on this story.)

Kurzweil 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. "It's really amazing how smooth these trajectories are," he says. "Through thick and thin, war and peace, boom times and recessions." Kurzweil calls it the law of accelerating returns: technological progress happens exponentially, not linearly.

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Then he extended the curves into the future, and the growth they predicted was so phenomenal, it created cognitive resistance in his mind. Exponential curves start slowly, then rocket skyward toward infinity. According to Kurzweil, we're not evolved to think in terms of exponential growth. "It's not intuitive. Our built-in predictors are linear. When we're trying to avoid an animal, we pick the linear prediction of where it's going to be in 20 seconds and what to do about it. That is actually hardwired in our brains."

Here's what the exponential curves told him. We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. Kurzweil puts the date of the Singularity—never say he's not conservative—at 2045. In that year, he estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today. (See how robotics are changing the future of medicine.)

The Singularity isn't just an idea. it attracts people, and those people feel a bond with one another. Together they form a movement, a subculture; Kurzweil calls it a community. Once you decide to take the Singularity seriously, you will find that you have become part of a small but intense and globally distributed hive of like-minded thinkers known as Singularitarians.

Not all of them are Kurzweilians, not by a long chalk. There's room inside Singularitarianism for considerable diversity of opinion about what the Singularity means and when and how it will or won't happen. But Singularitarians share a worldview. They think in terms of deep time, they believe in the power of technology to shape history, they have little interest in the conventional wisdom about anything, and they cannot believe you're walking around living your life and watching TV as if the artificial-intelligence revolution were not about to erupt and change absolutely everything. They have no fear of sounding ridiculous; your ordinary citizen's distaste for apparently absurd ideas is just an example of irrational bias, and Singularitarians have no truck with irrationality. When you enter their mind-space you pass through an extreme gradient in worldview, a hard ontological shear that separates Singularitarians from the common run of humanity. Expect turbulence.

In addition to the Singularity University, which Kurzweil co-founded, there's also a Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, based in San Francisco. It counts among its advisers Peter Thiel, a former CEO of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook. The institute holds an annual conference called the Singularity Summit. (Kurzweil co-founded that too.) Because of the highly interdisciplinary nature of Singularity theory, it attracts a diverse crowd. Artificial intelligence is the main event, but the sessions also cover the galloping progress of, among other fields, genetics and nanotechnology. (See TIME's computer covers.)

At the 2010 summit, which took place in August in San Francisco, there were not just computer scientists but also psychologists, neuroscientists, nanotechnologists, molecular biologists, a specialist in wearable computers, a professor of emergency medicine, an expert on cognition in gray parrots and the professional magician and debunker James "the Amazing" Randi. The atmosphere was a curious blend of Davos and UFO convention. Proponents of seasteading—the practice, so far mostly theoretical, of establishing politically autonomous floating communities in international waters—handed out pamphlets. An android chatted with visitors in one corner.

After artificial intelligence, the most talked-about topic at the 2010 summit was life extension. Biological boundaries that most people think of as permanent and inevitable Singularitarians see as merely intractable but solvable problems. Death is one of them. Old age is an illness like any other, and what do you do with illnesses? You cure them. Like a lot of Singularitarian ideas, it sounds funny at first, but the closer you get to it, the less funny it seems. It's not just wishful thinking; there's actual science going on here.

For example, 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. (Comment on this story.)

Aubrey de Grey is one of the world's best-known life-extension researchers and a Singularity Summit veteran. A British biologist with a doctorate from Cambridge and a famously formidable beard, de Grey runs a foundation called SENS, or Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. He views aging as a process of accumulating damage, which he has divided into seven categories, each of which he hopes to one day address using regenerative medicine. "People have begun to realize that the view of aging being something immutable—rather like the heat death of the universe—is simply ridiculous," he says. "It's just childish. The human body is a machine that has a bunch of functions, and it accumulates various types of damage as a side effect of the normal function of the machine. Therefore in principal that damage can be repaired periodically. This is why we have vintage cars. It's really just a matter of paying attention. The whole of medicine consists of messing about with what looks pretty inevitable until you figure out how to make it not inevitable."

Kurzweil takes life extension seriously too. His father, with whom he was very close, died of heart disease at 58. Kurzweil inherited his father's genetic predisposition; he also developed Type 2 diabetes when he was 35. Working with Terry Grossman, a doctor who specializes in longevity medicine, Kurzweil has published two books on his own approach to life extension, which involves taking up to 200 pills and supplements a day. He says his diabetes is essentially cured, and although he's 62 years old from a chronological perspective, he estimates that his biological age is about 20 years younger.

From TIME's archives: "The Immortality Enzyme."

See Healthland's 5 rules for good health in 2011.

But his goal differs slightly from de Grey's. For Kurzweil, it's not so much about staying healthy as long as possible; it's about staying alive until the Singularity. It's an attempted handoff. Once hyper-intelligent artificial intelligences arise, armed with advanced nanotechnology, they'll really be able to wrestle with the vastly complex, systemic problems associated with aging in humans. Alternatively, by then we'll be able to transfer our minds to sturdier vessels such as computers and robots. He and many other Singularitarians take seriously the proposition that many people who are alive today will wind up being functionally immortal.

It's an idea that's radical and ancient at the same time. In "Sailing to Byzantium," W.B. Yeats describes mankind's fleshly predicament as a soul fastened to a dying animal. Why not unfasten it and fasten it to an immortal robot instead? 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." (See the top 10 medical breakthroughs of 2010.)

Of course, a lot of people think the Singularity is nonsense — a fantasy, wishful thinking, a Silicon Valley version of the Evangelical story of the Rapture, spun by a man who earns his living making outrageous claims and backing them up with pseudoscience. Most of the serious critics focus on the question of whether a computer can truly become intelligent.

The entire field of artificial intelligence, or AI, is devoted to this question. But AI doesn't currently produce the kind of intelligence we associate with humans or even with talking computers in movies—HAL or C3PO or Data. Actual AIs tend to be able to master only one highly specific domain, like interpreting search queries or playing chess. They operate within an extremely specific frame of reference. They don't make conversation at parties. They're intelligent, but only if you define intelligence in a vanishingly narrow way. The kind of intelligence Kurzweil is talking about, which is called strong AI or artificial general intelligence, doesn't exist yet.

Why not? Obviously we're still waiting on all that exponentially growing computing power to get here. But it's also possible that there are things going on in our brains that can't be duplicated electronically no matter how many MIPS you throw at them. The neurochemical architecture that generates the ephemeral chaos we know as human consciousness may just be too complex and analog to replicate in digital silicon. The biologist Dennis Bray was one of the few voices of dissent at last summer's Singularity Summit. "Although biological components act in ways that are comparable to those in electronic circuits," he argued, in a talk titled "What Cells Can Do That Robots Can't," "they are set apart by the huge number of different states they can adopt. Multiple biochemical processes create chemical modifications of protein molecules, further diversified by association with distinct structures at defined locations of a cell. The resulting combinatorial explosion of states endows living systems with an almost infinite capacity to store information regarding past and present conditions and a unique capacity to prepare for future events." That makes the ones and zeros that computers trade in look pretty crude. (Read "How to Live 100 Years.")

Underlying the practical challenges are a host of philosophical ones. Suppose we did create a computer that talked and acted in a way that was indistinguishable from a human being—in other words, a computer that could pass the Turing test. (Very loosely speaking, such a computer would be able to pass as human in a blind test.) Would that mean that the computer was sentient, the way a human being is? Or would it just be an extremely sophisticated but essentially mechanical automaton without the mysterious spark of consciousness—a machine with no ghost in it? And how would we know?

Even if you grant that the Singularity is plausible, you're still staring at a thicket of unanswerable questions. If I can scan my consciousness into a computer, am I still me? What are the geopolitics and the socioeconomics of the Singularity? Who decides who gets to be immortal? Who draws the line between sentient and nonsentient? And as we approach immortality, omniscience and omnipotence, will our lives still have meaning? By beating death, will we have lost our essential humanity?

Kurzweil admits that there's a fundamental level of risk associated with the Singularity that's impossible to refine away, simply because we don't know what a highly advanced artificial intelligence, finding itself a newly created inhabitant of the planet Earth, would choose to do. It might not feel like competing with us for resources. One of the goals of the Singularity Institute is to make sure not just that artificial intelligence develops but also that the AI is friendly. You don't have to be a super-intelligent cyborg to understand that introducing a superior life-form into your own biosphere is a basic Darwinian error. (Comment on this story.)

If the Singularity is coming, these questions are going to get answers whether we like it or not, and Kurzweil thinks that trying to put off the Singularity by banning technologies is not only impossible but also unethical and probably dangerous. "It would require a totalitarian system to implement such a ban," he says. "It wouldn't work. It would just drive these technologies underground, where the responsible scientists who we're counting on to create the defenses would not have easy access to the tools."

Kurzweil is an almost inhumanly patient and thorough debater. He relishes it. He's tireless in hunting down his critics so that he can respond to them, point by point, carefully and in detail.

See TIME's photo gallery "A Global Look at Longevity."

See how genes, gender and diet may be life extenders.

Take the question of whether computers can replicate the biochemical complexity of an organic brain. Kurzweil yields no ground there whatsoever. He does not see any fundamental difference between flesh and silicon that would prevent the latter from thinking. He defies biologists to come up with a neurological mechanism that could not be modeled or at least matched in power and flexibility by software running on a computer. He refuses to fall on his knees before the mystery of the human brain. "Generally speaking," he says, "the core of a disagreement I'll have with a critic is, they'll say, Oh, Kurzweil is underestimating the complexity of reverse-engineering of the human brain or the complexity of biology. But I don't believe I'm underestimating the challenge. I think they're underestimating the power of exponential growth."

This position doesn't make Kurzweil an outlier, at least among Singularitarians. Plenty of people make more-extreme predictions. 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. (Even Kurzweil sniffs at this. If it worked, he points out, you'd then have to educate the brain, and who knows how long that would take?) (See portraits of centenarians.)

By definition, the future beyond the Singularity is not knowable by our linear, chemical, animal brains, but Kurzweil is teeming with theories about it. He positively flogs himself to think bigger and bigger; you can see him kicking against the confines of his aging organic hardware. "When people look at the implications of ongoing exponential growth, it gets harder and harder to accept," he says. "So you get people who really accept, yes, things are progressing exponentially, but they fall off the horse at some point because the implications are too fantastic. I've tried to push myself to really look."

In Kurzweil's future, biotechnology and nanotechnology give us the power to manipulate our bodies and the world around us at will, at the molecular level. Progress hyperaccelerates, and every hour brings a century's worth of scientific breakthroughs. We ditch Darwin and take charge of our own evolution. The human genome becomes just so much code to be bug-tested and optimized and, if necessary, rewritten. Indefinite life extension becomes a reality; people die only if they choose to. Death loses its sting once and for all. Kurzweil hopes to bring his dead father back to life.

We can scan our consciousnesses into computers and enter a virtual existence or swap our bodies for immortal robots and light out for the edges of space as intergalactic godlings. Within a matter of centuries, human intelligence will have re-engineered and saturated all the matter in the universe. This is, Kurzweil believes, our destiny as a species. (See the costs of living a long life.)

Or it isn't. When the big questions get answered, a lot of the action will happen where no one can see it, deep inside the black silicon brains of the computers, which will either bloom bit by bit into conscious minds or just continue in ever more brilliant and powerful iterations of nonsentience.

But as for the minor questions, they're already being decided all around us and in plain sight. The more you read about the Singularity, the more you start to see it peeking out at you, coyly, from unexpected directions. Five years ago we didn't have 600 million humans carrying out their social lives over a single electronic network. Now we have Facebook. Five years ago you didn't see people double-checking what they were saying and where they were going, even as they were saying it and going there, using handheld network-enabled digital prosthetics. Now we have iPhones. Is it an unimaginable step to take the iPhones out of our hands and put them into our skulls?

Already 30,000 patients with Parkinson's disease have neural implants. Google is experimenting with computers that can drive cars. There are more than 2,000 robots fighting in Afghanistan alongside the human troops. This month a game show will once again figure in the history of artificial intelligence, but this time the computer will be the guest: an IBM super-computer nicknamed Watson will compete on Jeopardy! Watson runs on 90 servers and takes up an entire room, and in a practice match in January it finished ahead of two former champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. It got every question it answered right, but much more important, it didn't need help understanding the questions (or, strictly speaking, the answers), which were phrased in plain English. Watson isn't strong AI, but if strong AI happens, it will arrive gradually, bit by bit, and this will have been one of the bits. (Comment on this story.)

A hundred years from now, Kurzweil and de Grey and the others could be the 22nd century's answer to the Founding Fathers — except unlike the Founding Fathers, they'll still be alive to get credit — or their ideas could look as hilariously retro and dated as Disney's Tomorrowland. Nothing gets old as fast as the future.

But even if they're dead wrong about the future, they're right about the present. They're taking the long view and looking at the big picture. You may reject every specific article of the Singularitarian charter, but you should admire Kurzweil for taking the future seriously. Singularitarianism is grounded in the idea that change is real and that humanity is in charge of its own fate and that history might not be as simple as one damn thing after another. Kurzweil likes to point out that your average cell phone is about a millionth the size of, a millionth the price of and a thousand times more powerful than the computer he had at MIT 40 years ago. Flip that forward 40 years and what does the world look like? If you really want to figure that out, you have to think very, very far outside the box. Or maybe you have to think further inside it than anyone ever has before.

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