If you have been following transhumanist thinkers or prophets of the singularity (Ray Kurzweil et al), the ambitious 2045 Initiative may be familiar to you. Its lofty goal is to accelerate us from being consumers who do nothing more than maintain the status quo (the dismissive view of humanity today, as seen in the video above) into an enlightened, post-flesh society capable of traveling the stars. The project is making news this week because of a vision that’s right up my alley: porting human consciousness into avatars.
Dmitry Itskov is the founding father of this movement, and he envisions a time in the very near future — about 10 years from now — where a human brain can be transplanted into a robot. The next step would be to port consciousness itself into an artificial brain, free from the constraints and decay of the flesh.
The non-cynical side of me looks at the amazing advances we’ve made in cybernetics and the ridiculously short timeframe in which the Internet and mobile technology have transformed our lives and says, “Meh. It could happen. Faster please.” Not that I’ll ever have the money to be an early adopter of this sort of technology, but I’m in the generation where it might just be possible to extend my life; not indefinitely, but much longer than the span I’m likely to have naturally.
However, as someone with a background in anthropology and technology, I’m skeptical. There are some Big Thoughts that I’m still chewing on, so I’ll start by sharing some of the little ones. First, I believe that the consciousness one would have by porting only a brain is less than human, so that step of the path seems like an error (though I’m not ruling out the possibility that we’ll be able to find and capture human consciousness someday). Is someone human without a body, anyway? And if so, why does the avatar need to be so anthropomorphic? He talks about the robots getting input from their five senses; he seems to see the avatars as reproductions of the human body for a long time to come, and it isn’t until the final phase that Itskov’s vision has avatars that can take any shape. (Personally, I believe that we are very attached to idealistic human forms and that those would make the easiest adjustment for us, but if we’re talking about transhumanism, let’s get on with it!)
If I can’t get my cell phone to go through a day without recharging and my three-year old laptop is already obsolete, I’m nervous about a vision of society that is entirely reliant on technology. The divide between visionaries and daily life seems to be exceptionally great right now. Perhaps that has always been the case. It’s exciting to see stories about cybernetic advances, yet at the same time I need to wait weeks to get insurance approval for a standard medical test; high-tech options that I read about are no more real than unicorns to me. Even if the cybernetic, biotech, and nanotech portions of the 2045 initiative were to proceed on schedule, there are a web of support systems that would lag behind.
Then there’s the inherent elitism of this vision, which disregards third world people from the descriptions of consumerist society onward. Who will be making the decisions about who gets ported into potential immortality? Just the super-rich? Just those deemed worthy by… whom? Apparently Itskov believes it’s for everyone, eventually. To quote this article from Digital Trends, “The era of neo-humanity is for everyone, rich and poor alike. It will simply be the rich who have access to the life-altering technology first, as a reward for helping finance the mission.”
Lewis Black touched upon the question of who should be immortal in his “Back in Black” segment on last night’s The Daily Show. “Who decided this crappy generation is the one that deserves to live forever? If this avatar technology existed 80 years ago, there’d be a bunch of giant blue racists running around…. To me, the fact that we all eventually drop dead is not a bug, it’s a feature! It’s the only way we rid our society of old assholes!”
The 2045 video bugs me for its naivete and the attitude of disgust it has toward people today, but I respect some of the scientists, engineers, philosophers, and other thinkers who are working on related ideas. I can get very excited and hopeful about all of this, too, despite my skepticism. The Global Future 2045 International Congress takes place this weekend, and if you’re interested in some of the futurists involved, you can check out their videos on the conference website.