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.
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]
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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The Monkey and the Hunter The <a href="http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=monkey and hunter&source=web&cd=6&ved=0CFsQFjAF&url=http%3A%2F%2Fbuphy.bu.edu%2F~duffy%2Fsemester1%2Fc04_monkeyhunter.html&ei=iB75Tr_HNYfTiAL-ltCFDQ&usg=AFQjCNHrgX0aj5yuH9JxlyPi-xREdluKHg&cad=rja" target="_hplink">Boston University department of Physics website</a> puts it thus: <blockquote>"A hunter spies a monkey in a tree, takes aim, and fires. At the moment the bullet leaves the gun the monkey lets go of the tree branch and drops straight down. How should the hunter aim to hit the monkey? 1. Aim directly at the monkey 2. Aim high (over the monkey's head) 3. Aim low (below the monkey)"</blockquote> The result may be counterintuitive; gravity acts on the monkey and the bullet at the same rate, so no matter how fast the bullet is going (controlling for air resistance, among other things) the hunter should start by aiming at the monkey. In case you're not convinced, try <a href="http://www.waowen.screaming.net/revision/force&motion/mandh.htm" target="_hplink">this simulation</a>. Photo: Flickr: BinaryApe
Newton's Cannonball In this thought experiment, we're meant to imagine a cannon (elevated high enough so that its projectile will avoid hitting anything on Earth) that fires its cannonball at a 90 degree angle to the Earth below it. The diagram above shows several possibilities for the cannonball's flight, depending on how fast it's going at the moment of launch. If it's too slow, it will eventually fall back down to Earth. If it's too fast, it will escape Earth's gravitation entirely and head out into space. If it's somewhere in the middle, it will be sent into orbit. This realization was a landmark in the study of gravitation, and laid the groundwork for satellites and space flight.
<a href="http://analysis.oxfordjournals.org/content/43/1/33.full.pdf" target="_hplink">Kavka's Toxin Puzzle</a>: <blockquote>"An eccentric billionaire places before you a vial of toxin that, if you drink it, will make you painfully ill for a day, but will not threaten your life or have any lasting effects. The billionaire will pay you one million dollars tomorrow morning if, at midnight tonight, you intend to drink the toxin tomorrow afternoon. He emphasizes that you need not drink the toxin to receive the money; in fact, the money will already be in your bank account hours before the time for drinking it arrives, if you succeed. All you have to do is. . . intend at midnight tonight to drink the stuff tomorrow afternoon. You are perfectly free to change your mind after receiving the money and not drink the toxin."</blockquote> Is it possible to intend to drink the toxin? We're not sure. There's an interesting discussion on the puzzle <a href="http://jsomers.net/blog/toxin" target="_hplink">here</a>. Photo: Flickr: The University of Iowa Libraries
<a href="http://web.archive.org/web/20060831124229/http://www.newyorker.com/archive/content/articles/060619fr_archive01" target="_hplink">Molyneux's Problem</a> <blockquote>"Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which is the sphere. Suppose then the cube and the sphere placed on a table, and the blind man made to see: query, Whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube? To which the acute and judicious proposer answers: 'Not. For though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, and how a cube, affects his touch; yet he has not yet attained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so...'"</blockquote> Philosopher John Locke, who referenced the problem in his 'Essay On Human Understanding,' agreed, but the thought experiment lay essentially unsolved until last year, when MIT Professor of Vision and Computational Neuroscience Pawan Sinha led a study of patients whose blindness had been reversed. The results agreed with Molyneux's original hypothesis.
<a href="http://books.google.com/books?id=Yfo3rnt3bkEC&pg=PA21&lpg=PA21&dq="If+we+placed+a+living+organism+in+a+box"&source=bl&ots=-dbzGJt86Y&sig=TBI9HJi4Ux4uCU5TW0EXowoMQVs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=XYH5TuT6E9LoiALru_inDg&ved=0CGAQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q="If we placed a living organism in a box"&f=false" target="_hplink">Twin Paradox</a> Einstein gave the basic formulation as follows: <blockquote>"If we placed a living organism in a box ... one could arrange that the organism, after any arbitrary lengthy flight, could be returned to its original spot in a scarcely altered condition, while corresponding organisms which had remained in their original positions had already long since given way to new generations. For the moving organism, the lengthy time of the journey was a mere instant, provided the motion took place with approximately the speed of light."</blockquote> But what if the two organisms happened to be twins? This helps us realize that either one could think of the other as the "traveler," but if that's the case then why has one aged normally and one quickly? It's not quite a "paradox" in the traditional sense of a logical contradiction, but in Einstein's time it was pretty odd. It's been resolved (the traveling twin experiences two instances of acceleration with regard to the stationary twin--one on the way out and one on the way back--that justify the asymmetrical aging), but it's still interesting to think about, if only to imagine how the twins must feel when they meet. Photo: Getty
Flat-Land In the video above, the great science educator and astrophysicist Carl Sagan gives a thought experiment meant to illustrate the incomprehensibility of higher dimensions to lower-dimensional beings. We'll let him speak for himself.
Feynman Sprinkler If you were to force water through a sprinkler with spouts angled, say, clockwise, the sprinkler head would rotate counterclockwise. But what happens if you built a "reverse sprinkler," or a device with the same construction that sucked water in instead of shooting it out? This was only a thought experiment until Physicist Richard Feynman sought to test it (he didn't come up with it) during undergrad at Princeton, and before his rig exploded he found that there was no motion in the reversed version. Stumped? There's a discussion of a real—albeit air-driven—Feynman Sprinkler <a href="http://web.mit.edu/Edgerton/www/FeynmanSprinkler.html" target="_hplink">here</a>.
Galileo's Ship This thought experiment envisions a subject performing various actions and observing various creatures in a closed room in a ship, and then performing the same actions and making the same observations when the ship is in motion at a constant velocity. The full version, too long to reproduce here, can be found at <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo's_ship#The_proposal" target="_hplink">this link</a>. Galileo's discovery—that it's not velocity but acceleration that changes the trajectory of a thrown ball, say, or the flight of a bird—was ahead of its time. It wouldn't be fully utilized for centuries, when Einstein used it to help formulate his theory of special relativity.
Quantum Immortality and Quantum Suicide The video above, titled 'Quantum Immortality,' is a basic illustration of one of the more disturbing thought experiments. In the original formulation, the unlucky subject pulls the trigger of a gun, rigged with a subatomic mechanism that has a 50% chance of activating the bullet, and dies if the gun fires. This hypothetical process is known as quantum suicide. In the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, there's a world in which the subject lives and one in which he or she dies. A branching point is created at each pull of the trigger; eventually, no matter how many shots are taken, there will be a version of the subject in some world who has survived every shot. He or she is said to have attained quantum immortality.