Jueves 11 de Diciembre de 2008

Consider the alternative
Por James Patrick Kelly

Who are you willing to be?

At this moment, you are a unique hybrid of the physical and the psychological, a mind and a body. Both are inseparable. If you crash your car and your body is crushed, you're dead. If by some miracle the doctors keep your body alive, but it has no cognitive function, you're just as dead.

But if it's only your legs that are crushed, are you still you? Ouch, but yes. We can go through a litany of body parts that you might conceivably do without or replace. Toes? Kidneys? Heart? But could your mind somehow survive the death of your body? And if it did, would it still be you?

These sound like science fiction questions and they are – as of today. But some respected futurists believe that humanity is at the cusp of a great technological leap. Given our progress in computation and the study of the brain, they think that a kind of digital immortality may be possible sometime this century. Upload your mind into computer memory and you could theoretically live forever.

But first we need to solve two daunting problems. Scientists must learn to extract your memories, feelings, values and beliefs in all their complex working relationships from your brain. Then they must be able to create a medium where you can thrive without your birth body.

Before anyone liberates mind from body, we will need a precise blueprint of the brain. Welcome the Blue Brain project, a joint venture of IBM and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, which is attempting to reverse engineer the mammalian brain. Using an advanced supercomputer, the Blue Brain neuroscientists have thus far been able to replicate a single neocortical column of a rat brain using tens of thousands of computer chips acting as neurons. The project’s ultimate goal is to simulate the physiology of a human brain as nearly as possible. That may seem a quixotic goal, given that our brains have some 100 billion cells. Henry Markham, director of Blue Brain, warns that it will take computers vastly more powerful than those we have now to recreate a complete human brain.

Ray Kurzweil believes those computers are just around the corner. An inventor and a futurist, he received the National Medal of Technology, the nation's highest honor in technology in 1999 and in 2002 was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He describes the wonders that the future will bring with an evangelical fervor and has proposed The Law of Accelerating Returns, which states that technological progress is about to grow exponentially. According to Kurzweil, "So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate)."

With the computational power to simulate brains, scientists would then have to extract all the information that is you from your body. There are several ways this might be accomplished. One is that your brain will be cut into very small slices with a device called ultramicrotome, and those slices will be scanned with an electron microscope. Computers would then analyze this data and reproduce your brain's structure. Another proposal is to inject enough nanoscanners into your skull to monitor all your neural connections over time and then relay that information to some storage medium. Or else new non-invasive neural scanning technologies may be developed – perhaps an advanced version of today's magnetoencephalographs. While we currently lack the sophisticated devices to upload human consciousness to computers, scientists are busy developing the prototype tools.

Of course, humans have no experience with being disembodied. We are so connected to our physical beings that the transition from flesh to digital is bound to be profoundly disturbing. Assuming that you can survive rebirth trauma, however, there are two possible vessels for your newly uploaded consciousness: either a robotic or a virtual body.

The reason that most people can't see that robots are everywhere is that they don't know where to look. They expect robots to look like C3P0 from Star Wars. They don't realize that most of our factories have long since been roboticized. There are already many kinds of military robots and more on the planning boards. Not only are there robot vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers, but houses are also beginning to take on robotic features. What is holding back development of human-like robots is not that we can’t design artificial toes, kidneys or hearts, but that we can’t create an intelligence that negotiates its way through the complexities of the real world.

Hans Moravec, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University, thinks that intelligence could be you. In his book, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, he speculates about how to embody a human intelligence in an artificial body. Ray Kurzweil agrees; in his book The Singularity Is Near he predicts a convergence of biological and non-biological intelligences. He writes of nanobots, which might begin as brain extenders, enabling you to think faster and remember more, but which could ultimately be the means for transferring your consciousness elsewhere.

That elsewhere could also be a body in a fully immersive virtual reality that exactly simulates the body you left behind. The virtual realities of 2008 are but crude forerunners of what is to come. Consider Second Life, the popular internet-based game, which has some 11 million registered accounts. While many find it addictively entertaining, none of the "residents" are fooled into thinking that they actually are in this virtual "world." The virtual realities of 2098 will be as persuasive as that depicted in the hit movie The Matrix. Your virtual body will feel as real as the one you inhabit at this moment.

The prospect of having your mind severed from your brain and transformed into ones and zeros may seem dehumanizing. Already there are many who decry this vision of the future as nightmarish. Who are you willing to be? An uploaded mind in an immortal robot? A disembodied consciousness trapped forever in a bleeding edge videogame?

Unsettling, yes.

But consider the alternative.

  11/12/2008. Obit Magazine.