NEW YORK — By 2045, humans will achieve digital immortality by uploading their minds to computers — or at least that's what some futurists believe. This notion formed the basis for the Global Futures 2045 International Congress, a futuristic conference held here June 14-15.

The conference, which is the brainchild of Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov, fell somewhere between hardcore science and science fiction. It featured a diverse cast of speakers, from scientific luminaries like Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis and Marvin Minsky, to Swamis and other spiritual leaders.

In the year 2045

Kurzweil — an inventor, futurist and now director of engineering at Google — predicts that by 2045, technology will have surpassed human brainpower to create a kind of superintelligence — an event known as the singularity. Other scientists have said that robots will overtake humans by 2100. [Super-Intelligent Machines: 7 Robotic Futures]

According to Moore's law, computing power doubles approximately every two years. Several technologies are undergoing similar exponential advances, from genetic sequencing to 3D printing, Kurzweil told conference attendees. He illustrated the point with a series of graphs showing the inexorable upward climb of various technologies.

By 2045, "based on conservative estimates of the amount of computation you need to functionally simulate a human brain, we'll be able to expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold," Kurzweil said.

Itskov and other so-called "transhumanists" interpret this impending singularity as digital immortality. Specifically, they believe that in a few decades, humans will be able to upload their minds to a computer, transcending the need for a biological body. The idea sounds like sci-fi, and it is — at least for now. The reality, however, is that neural engineering is making significant strides toward modeling the brain and developing technologies to restore or replace some of its biological functions.

Brain prostheses

Substantial achievements have been made in the field of brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs (also called brain-machine interfaces). The cochlear implant — in which the brain's cochlear nerve is electronically stimulated to restore a sense of sound to someone who is hard of hearing — was the first true BCI. Many groups are now developing BCIs to restore motor skills, following damage to the nervous system from a stroke or spinal cord injury.

José Carmena and Michel Maharbiz, electrical engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, are working to develop state-of-the-art motor BCIs. These devices consist of pill-size electrode arrays that record neural signals from the brain's motor areas, which are then decoded by a computer and used to control a computer cursor or prosthetic limb (such as a robotic arm). Carmena and Maharbiz spoke of the challenge of making a BCI that works stably over time and does not require being tethered to wires.

Theodore Berger, a neural engineer at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, is taking BCIs to a new level by developing a memory prosthesis. Berger aims to replace part of the brain's hippocampus, the region that converts short-term memories into long-term ones, with a BCI. The device records the electrical activity that encodes a simple short-term memory (such as pushing a button) and converts it to a digital signal. That signal is passed into a computer where it is mathematically transformed and then fed back into the brain, where it gets sealed in as a long-term memory. He has successfully tested the device in rats and monkeys, and is now working with human patients. [Bionic Humans: Top 10 Technologies]

Mind uploading

The conference took a surreal turn when Martine Rothblatt — a lawyer, author and entrepreneur, and CEO of biotech company United Therapeutics Corp. — took the stage. Even the title of Rothblatt's talk was provocative: "The Purpose of Biotechnology is the End of Death."

Rothblatt introduced the concept of "mindclones" — digital versions of humans that can live forever. She described how the mind clones are created from a "mindfile," a sort of online repository of our personalities, which she argued humans already have (in the form of Facebook, for example). This mindfile would be run on "mindware," a kind of software for consciousness. "The first company that develops mindware will have [as much success as] a thousand Googles," Rothblatt said.

But would such a mindclone be alive? Rothblatt thinks so. She cited one definition of life as a self-replicating code that maintains itself against disorder. Some critics have shunned what Rothblatt called "spooky Cartesian dualism," arguing that the mind must be embedded in biology. On the contrary, software and hardware are as good as wet ware, or biological materials, she argued.

Rothblatt went on to discuss the implications of creating mindclones. Continuity of the self is one issue, because your persona would no longer inhabit just a biological body. Then, there are mind-clone civil rights, which would be the "cause célèbre" for the 21st century, Rothblatt said. Even mindclone procreation and reanimation after death were mentioned.

The quantum world

In parallel with the talk of brain technologies and mind-uploading, much was said about the nature of consciousness in the universe. Physicist Roger Penrose of the University of Oxford and others disagree with the interpretation of the brain as a mere computer. Penrose argued that consciousness is a quantum mechanical phenomenon arising from the fabric of the universe. Those of the "Penrose school" think uploading the brain would have to involve quantum computers — a development unlikely to happen by 2045.

But Itskov thinks otherwise. The 32-year-old president of the Global Future 2045 Congress is dead set on living forever.

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