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GF2045 Congress – Avatars, Immortality, and Selfhood

Posted: Mon, June 24, 2013 | By: Indefinite Life Extension



by Winslow Strong

The Global Future 2045 (GF2045) Congress took place June 15-16 in New York City. The brainchild of Dmitry Itskov, it brought together scientists (neuro, computer, robot), futurists, transhumanists, and spiritual leaders from around the world. The mission was to get a clearer picture of the potential future paths for co-evolution of humanity and technology and to alert us to pitfalls along the way so that we can chart a course for our own future, rather than go where the wind takes us. For me this was my major introduction to the futurist community, ideas, and concepts. In this post I’ll share with you some of the most exciting and bewildering prospects for the future evolution of humanity.

Avatars

The main technological theme of the conference was the prospect that we will leave our biological bodies behind and in some sense transfer our minds into avatar bodies that are more robust and resistant to aging/death than our current biological wetware. The progression of avatars was subdivided into stages:

  • Remote – While remaining in our biological bodies we remotely control avatars as the military now does with their drones, and professor Ishiguro did via giving a remote lecture with his robotic avatar.
  • Brain transfer – We transfer our brain into an avatar body. An argument for this step is that in many ways, brain tissue ages much more slowly than other bodily tissues, although this would depend on our ability to ward off the pathologies that lead to Alzheimer’s. To realize brain transfer would require big improvements in brain-machine interfaces, including sensation and proprioception, which are totally absent currently.
  • Mind upload to avatar bodies – We upload our minds into hardware. They could then be loaded into one or several humanoid or non-humanoid avatar bodies. The mindfile could also be backed up, so that death of an avatar body, from, say, an accident, wouldn’t result in death of the mind.
  • Mind upload to “holographic” bodies – I’m not totally clear on what would be so great about holographic bodies. It seems to me that after achieving mind upload to hardware, that the next desirable step would be networking our consciousnesses more directly to build a meta-consciousness. 

While the overwhelming majority of the people in attendance seemed to believe that the objective of mind-uploading would eventually be accomplished in some sense, there was much debate on particulars. While remote-presence capability exists already, as emphatically demonstrated by professor Ishiguro’s avatar giving the opening to his talk, it’s not clear how widespread and cost-effective the usage will become. While impressive, there was no mistaking the mannerisms of the avatar for a human, and it’s not clear that virtual presence will ever be immersive enough to replace real-world interaction e.g. in the venue of a conference or business meeting (outside of Japan  ).

Dr.Ishiguro and his Avatar
Dr.Ishiguro and his Avatar

Regarding transferring a human brain to an avatar body, motivation was given by citing the fact that as early as the 1950s and 1960s, both head-transplantation, and brain-transplantation had already been demonstrated in mammals, with limited success. To do so into a cybernetic body would require a way for the central nervous system to interact seamlessly with electronic hardware. We have already had great success with that, however, as humans routinely use cochlear implants to enhance hearing, and monkeys have learned to control robotic arms via electrodes placed directly on their brains.

However, some expert scientists that I spoke with believed brain transfer to be a far more difficult task than simply learning how to repair and keep a human body alive via anti-aging advances until we are ready for mind upload. Since both approaches are being pursued, time will tell.

Selfhood and immortality

The ideas presented here really forced you to contemplate what notions of self you find important to perpetuate. If you are very attached to your human body, then you might not care for brain transfer or mind upload. If you are dying and technology were available to have an AI that could mimic you well enough to fool anyone else alive, would you find that sufficient or desirable? E.g. for young children with parents who are on their death bed, this might be a very beneficial functionality.

For those desiring a more literal kind of immortality, brain transfer would be more attractive. However, even brain transfer will be unlikely to provide true immortality, as the problem of brain aging would need to be totally solved, and furthermore, the probability of brain death via accident would have to approach zero quickly enough to not imply its eventual certitude. So this is more of a postponement rather than avoidance of death.

Many at the conference clearly thought that mind-upload in a sufficiently thorough way would constitute a sufficient realization of true immortality. The two main approaches to brain-preservation for mind upload are currently:

  • Cryonic freezing of the brain to preserve it well enough until a true solution presents.
  • Connectome mapping via vitrification – Dr. Ken Hayworth boldly began his talk by proclaiming: “I am my connectome.” The connectome is a map of the neural connectivity of the brain. If and when good plastination procedures are developed, Ken favors preemptive suicide so that brains can be preserved in their prime before the atrophy of age sets in.
Peter Diamandis
Peter Diamandis

However, there’s a simple argument against the idea that any even an arbitrarily precise version of your “mindfile” can ever truly reproduce “you.” If you could copy your mindfile into an avatar so that both you and the avatar could not be distinguished by any 3rd party, there’s still the fact that you two are easily distinguishable by the (original) you: namely, you remain perceiving and deciding within your body but do not perceive/decide for the other. I’m assuming that no conjoined consciousness is formed by uploading your mindfile, which would seem to me to be a rather mystical, implausible outcome.

Some might point out that we are different people moment-to-moment, and that at the moment of uploading a sufficiently-detailed mindfile, we might be sufficiently identical to our cyborg clone, but immediately after that moment we start evolving differently as our positions in the universe are not identical. So the moment of upload would be like a bifurcation of consciousness where your moment-to-moment evolution splits down two paths. Still, this doesn’t really address the objection that it seems implausible to find yourself conscious in the cyborg body after the upload.

Related to this conversation is the notion advanced by Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff that quantum mechanics may play a role in consciousness. Hameroff presented some evidence supporting the plausibility that microtubules present in the nervous systems of nearly every organism reside in a size and dynamics regime in-between that where it’s clear that linear evolution of a quantum state occurs as opposed to a nonlinear collapse due to forces deemed to constitute a “measurement.” We currently don’t have physics to explain when/why one or the other dynamics applies; we usually just “know” which to apply by context. If there is a quantum signature that’s an important aspect of consciousness/selfhood, then in principle it could be transferred (teleported), but not copied (no cloning) to quantum hardware for further emulation and perpetuation. This would rule out creating true copies of oneself, and the issue above would not arise.

While this all may seem a bit out-there philosophically, these actually become important questions to ponder when deciding how you might respond to the future availabilities of avatar technologies, and the current availability of cryonics.

(LEFT - Peter Diamandis gave an inspiring talk based on his book: Abundance.)

 

Miscellaneous

Soylent – The whole foods version

I spent some time with Mikko Ikola, who has reformulated Rob Rhinehart’s soylent meal-replacement by building a whole-foods based recipe. It will cost more, but it should be a lot healthier, in particular, a lot safer from micronutrient deficiencies that might occur from eating an entirely processed food formulation.

Personal Genome Project (PGP)

I spent a good deal of time talking with Dr. Preston Estep and Alex Hoekstra of the Personal Genome Project. The PGP intends to gather genomic data and make sequencing more widely available to the public. TeloMe, which I wrote about previously, will provide telomere data to the project. This will help further scientific understanding of the role of telomeres in health and longevity. I have signed up, since I believe in their mission. Understand that you will be sharing a lot of personal health data if you participate (the enrollment process makes the details crystal clear).

MetaMed

MetaMed had a big presence at GF2045. They are a company that digests the best and most current biomedical research to help give patients and doctors the highest quality personalized advice regarding medical conditions. Personalization comes from lab test results, genetic data and a detailed patient interview. At present, MetaMed works as an assistant consultant within the context of a doctor/patient relationship. In the future, diagnosis should largely be taken over by AI, and MetaMed will be in a position to drive that innovation.

Takeaways

Overall, I was both surprised and impressed with the current state of science on brain-machine interfaces and with the optimism of respected research scientists with respect to the prospects for brain emulation in hardware. I must admit that going in I thought this was a rather fringe science topic. But with the likes of George Church, Ted Berger, Ken Hayworth, Randal Koene, and Ed Boyden expressing optimism with respect to important aspects of the avatar program, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched or distant anymore. It’s great that some of the world’s wealthiest like Dmitry Itskov are enthusiastically engaging themselves and their fortunes into the enterprise of building a better future for humanity. Hopefully more will be inspired to do the same.

Everyone wanted to shake Nigel Ackland’s hand.
Everyone wanted to shake Nigel Ackland’s hand.

Further Information

NYT profile of the benefactor and visionary behind GF2045, Dmitry Itskov.

Penrose and Hameroff - Consciousness and the Universe: Quantum Physics, Evolution, Brain & Mind

Kurzweil - How to create a mind

Diamandis - Abundance

Gwern on Plastination for human preservation.

io9 on plastination

Brain Preservation Foundation - Plastination is their goal.

The H+ Agenda – A concise and free introduction to (H+) transhumanity by David Wood.

More on MetaMed

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