Keeping the Grim Reaper at Bay

This Sunday's New York Times business section had a big article on a guy named Dmitry Itskov, a Russian multi-millionaire who is using some of his money to solve the problems of hunger, environmental degradation, and mortality by creating a world in which all of us have out consciousness uploaded into avatars, or robot bodies. He calls it the 2045 Initiative, since that's his target date for it all coming together. Sound like a good idea? My opinion on this is complicated, but let's hear from him first:

"That is the picture of this world that we created, with the minds we have today, with our set of values, with our egotism, our selfishness, our aggression," he went on. "Most of the world is suffering. What we're doing here does not look like the behavior of grown-ups. We're killing the planet and killing ourselves."

To change that picture, he reasons, we must change our minds, or give them a chance to "evolve," to use one of his favorite words. Before our minds can evolve, though, we need a new paradigm of what it means to be human. That requires a transition to a world where most people aren't consumed by the basic questions of survival.

Hence, avatars. They may sound like an improbable way to solve the real problems on Mr. Itskov's laptop, or like the perfect gift for the superrich of the future. But the laws of supply and demand abide in Mr. Itskov's utopia, and he assumes that once production of avatars is ramped up, costs will plunge. He also assumes that charities now devoted to feeding, clothing and healing the poor will focus on the goal of making and distributing affordable bodies, which in this case means machines.

Although I can't recall seeing it discussed in the Paper of Record before, this isn't a new idea; it's called "mind uploading," and if you want you can read Wikipedia's rather extensive entry on it. Some people propose it as a kind of identity back-up that we'll all do every day in case we should meet with an unfortunate accident; sometimes it's posited that our uploaded minds will not be attached to a body but will just live in a virtual world.

There's a fundamental problem with mind uploading, though. Eventually—maybe in 30 years, or in 300—we may get to the point where we can model every one of the 86 billion neurons in your brain and all the trillions of connections between them, then recreate the whole thing in a computer. But even if we could, we wouldn't have recreated you. If we upload your mind, what we've uploaded isn't your unique consciousness, it's a duplicate. You would still exist, even if there were another you with all your memories and your personality residing on a flash drive somewhere. Imagine that you uploaded your mind tomorrow. Would "you" now exist in that computer? No—you'd still be you, in your body. The thing in the computer would be a lot like you, but the fate of your body would still be your fate. If you subsequently died, you'd still be dead, even if there was a duplicate of you to continue whatever fabulous contributions you're no doubt making to humanity. Whatever mind uploading might have to recommend it, it won't make you immortal, at least not in the sense of the you that is reading this right now, which for many people is kind of the whole point.

So mind uploading could achieve a kind of immortality, but an incomplete kind. The question is, does the world need you, or do you need the world? For some people, we could say the world needs them; perhaps you're a gifted composer and we'd all benefit from you being able to create more music. Certainly your family and friends need you, and it wouldn't matter to them if it was the new you or the old you, since from their perspective the two are the same. But as Woody Allen said, I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it through not dying.11This quote is cited all over the place in slightly different forms; I remember reading it in one of Allen's books as a teenager, but I've been unable to track down the original. He is also quoted as saying some variation of, "I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment."

That's why if I had a few hundred million dollars, I'd invest it in the Brain In a Jar Initiative, which I think has much more potential. The way it would work is that your brain would be preserved, fed with blood and whatever else it needed to continue to function, and then connected via computer to the outside world. You could hook it up to a robot body with visual, audio, touch and even smell sensors, or you could just connect it to a virtual world. That way, your unique consciousness continues, assuming we can keep the brain from deteriorating (no small order, but let's say for the sake of argument we'll be able to do it). A few years back I asked a neurologist friend of mine if this would work. He smiled kindly and said, "Um, no." I found his answer less than satisfying.

Since most of his patients have seriously compromised brains and many of them die while in his care (his specialty is strokes), my friend is skeptical about efforts to extend life indefinitely; he sees the fact that we so often artificially extend our lives past the point where we ought to as a more urgent problem. He may be right, but the eternal quest for immortality is unquestionably gaining momentum. In prior eras, kings would order their alchemists and magicians to concoct the elixir of life, while explorers would search the earth for Shangri-La or the Fountain of Youth. Today, we have eccentric billionaires funding projects in biotechnology, computer science, and robotics with the goal of defeating the grim reaper. But just because all of these efforts through human history to this point have failed, it doesn't necessarily mean that one won't eventually succeed. And maybe you'll be lucky enough to still be alive when it happens. You never know.

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