This year's Global Future 2045 conference took place earlier this week. The focus, as for other aspects of the 2045 Initiative, is on creating artificial bodies and minds and the many technologies needed to support that goal. There is also a fair-sized chunk of social utopianism driving the Initiative's founder, Dmitry Itskov, and that shows in the way he presents his vision for a machine humanity: not just a proposal to eliminate the death and suffering caused by aging and disease, but also to undermine as much as possible of the basis for man's ongoing inhumanity to man.
We shall see how well that plays. Certainly analogous and admired visions have emerged from the past few decades of transhumanist writing, such as the Hedonistic Imperative: technology shackled primarily to the goal of ending pain and suffering, with the defeat of aging and disease merely one necessary line item along the way. But this is more or less the opposite way round from the way in which I usually think of these things: I say focus on building the technologies of rejuvenation and disease control first, second, and last of all, and let society sort itself out. Creating the means to reduce suffering and involuntary death is a worthy goal to focus on regardless of how people choose to behave towards one another.
A couple of press items on the Global Futures 2045 conference have emerged in the past few days, and some of them manage to avoid the eye candy robotics in favor of noting more interesting items. In the first case below, that means getting the essence of Aubrey de Grey's SENS proposals wrong, but such is life.
There's a broader question that's yet to be broached: If we're searching for immortality, do we really need to become robots? Conference attendee Aubrey de Grey, the biologist and longevity scientist known for his colorful interviews and wizard beard, thinks the biological solution to eternal life will be available first as it is "easier" to achieve. Much of de Grey's research revolves around solving the free radical problem, through which rogue molecules accumulate inside and randomly damage our cells, which in turn make us age. As biological robots, our bodies should be able to repair themselves indefinitely, but free radicals prevent cells from doing this after you reach a certain age.
The prospect of his research failing to find a cure for aging before Itskov's timeline plays out doesn't phase Grey one bit. When asked how he would feel about his work becoming obsolete if the goals of the 2045 initiative come to fruition, Grey responded with a smile and "good, the sooner the better."
"It's not so hard to predict the future, but it's sometimes hard to connect the dots." In the opening of his lecture to the Global Futures 2045 Congress, famed geneticist Dr. George Church neatly summed up what being a futurist is all about, though he was reminding the audience rather than the other speakers assembled at Alice Tully Hall in New York City this past weekend. Gathered there by a young Russian tech tycoon on a mission to do nothing less than achieve immortality through technology, a who's-who of renowned technologists, scientists, futurists, and entrepreneurs painted a sometimes terrifying, sometimes electrifying picture of what the world is going to look like in the decades to come, describing how technology is going to drastically alter economies, biologies, and perhaps even consciousness itself.
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.
I shouldn't have to repeat myself to say that the 2045 timeline seems overly ambitious, and for all the same reasons as Ray Kurzweil's projections seem overly ambitious. For so long as we are still essentially human, it takes a certain minimum amount of time to organize a business, raise funding, process and assimilate new knowledge into the entrepreneurial and scientific zeitgeist, and so on. The technological capabilities discussed at Global Futures 2045 will come to pass, but not for at least another few decades, I think.
That said, nothing wrong with aiming high if you're in the business of working on the problem rather than just talking about it. It's just a pity that working towards machines to replace biology is highly unlikely to be of greater benefit over the next thirty years than working on rejuvenation biotechnology after the SENS model. Progress on the problem of aging in the next thirty years is critical for those of us in middle age today: it determines whether we make it or not, whether we live for as long as our parents, or we live for thousands of years in a golden future of ever-increasing technological capabilities.