“We may have a society in which robots will drift away from total metal toward the organic, and human beings will drift away from the total organic toward the metal and plastic, and that somewhere in the middle they may eventually meet.”
The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov made that prediction in 1965. Today many scientists are working to make this a reality in the medical field.
For instance, in 2015, a 34-year-old Los Angeles quadriplegic, Erik Sorto, became the first person to control a robot arm with his thoughts. Now he’s able to enjoy a glass of beer by his own efforts, without help.
But others have plans that go well beyond medical use. Their vision is nothing short of merging with machines to give us eternal life.
Surviving as an Android
Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, Osaka University, Japan, is working towards making science fiction a reality.
His creation, Erica the android, is powered by artificial intelligence involving a database of conversations, behaviors and emotions. She seems to be a real person and even has a kind of personality. You can have a conversation with her.
Trying to tell a living being from a machine will become increasingly difficult in the years ahead. This has inspired dreams of a permanent human existence.
Erica is not based on a real person. But she could be powered by databases of real memories and behaviors obtained from living people.
Prof. Ishiguro shares his vision:
“If we replace our body with a machine, we can survive forever. Our final goal as a human is to be a robot; to overcome the constraints of time.
“Android technology is beginning to confuse the concept of death. Of course our consciousness disappears, but if we have an android…we can survive in society forever.”
“We may implement the person’s characteristics and experiences to the android. Then the android will become the person that has passed away. And then we may keep that android forever as a family member.”
As it happens, there are a number of philosophical problems with this idea. I’ll get to those in a moment. Meanwhile, let’s humor the visionaries for a
while. . .
Immortality is a Holographic Avatar
Russian internet billionaire Dmitry Itskov has an ambition that goes far beyond leaving behind a robot copy of himself.
In 2011 he founded the 2045 Initiative, which has an impressive set of global experts in the fields of robotics, neural interfaces, artificial organs and systems.
He stated that “within the next 30 years I’m going to make sure that we can all live forever. I’m 100% confident it will happen.”
The goals of the project are to. . .
Transplant a human brain into an avatar by 2025.
Transfer human personality into a robot with an artificial brain by 2035.
And the 2045 milestone, according to their website, is the creation of a hologram-like avatar, “transferring one’s individual consciousness to an artificial carrier and achieving cybernetic immortality.”
A Waste of Time?
Many believers in the afterlife would argue that we will live on as energy, thought and information (the soul), so we don’t need to exist as a virtual hologram in this world.
Others like Miguel Nicolelis, Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience at Duke University, believe the 2045 Initiative is absurd. He says it is “stupid. It simply cannot be done; a waste of time; a waste of our humanity” because its success depends upon seeing the brain as a sophisticated computer, which he rejects.
In his view, computers don’t get close to the level of complexity that a human brain is capable of handling or generating, and the brain is constantly changing in any case. As the professor puts it, “The brain is like an orchestra. But every time it plays a tune, the tune itself changes the instruments of the orchestra.”
My skepticism of the project goes to what it means to be a human being, who we are exactly. We are bodies as well as minds, and much of the content of our minds is received from other parts of the body. Hunger and sex, to take a couple of obvious examples.
And most emotions from anger to lust to “belonging” to grief originate in the subcortical part of the brain – the animal part, if you will – and even the subcortex is just telling us what’s going on in the rest of the body.
Being a human being is not all about thinking.
Brave New World
Let’s assume this project is successful and we can be turned into simply disembodied minds – whether our brains have been simulated by a machine, or the physical organ the brain has been transplanted to some kind of life support machine that keeps it alive and thinking without a body attached.
This free-floating mind won’t feel hunger anymore or experience the pleasures of eating or all the bodily functions (some pleasant, some not) that follow eating.
Ditto for sex. The mind certainly thinks about sex and experiences it, but nearly all the inputs come from other parts of the body.
I could add a lot of other things to this list, but you get the idea. A disembodied mind is not “me” by any stretch. I guess it would have my memories, could engage in reading, listening to music, watch TV, and be able to talk with people. But we are not merely intellectual beings.
Would we even want to talk with people or listen to music without our bodies and all the heartbeats, hormones and other events involved even in something as simple as talking with a friend? I doubt it.
Dmitry Itskov rejects such skepticism. History is replete with lay people, even great scientists, whose ideas proved false. This is yet another example, he believes. We can live forever.
We only have to wait another 27 years to find out if he’s right.