In case you haven’t been following the radical life extension community lately, the movement no longer seems to be toward freezing your body, pot belly, irritable bowels, birthmark on your hip the shape of New Jersey, slightly off-kilter big toe and all. That costs $150,000, as opposed to a cool $80K for freezing just your head, and who has an extra seventy grand in these trying economic times?
But now even head-freezing is on the outs. Instead, radical life-extension commandos are speculating on information mapping. Speculation, thank God, is free.
Much of this life-extension speculation relies on the idea that as technology develops, it accelerates ad infinitum. At some point, it reaches something called “the singularity,” when a positive feedback loop will mean technology, rather than advancing faster, will advance faster than faster. Then, faster.
In considering this matter, I’m reminded of the discourses I heard in Santa Cruz, circa 1987, about the coming “ecocrisis,” and the “rise of consciousness” that humankind would attain when forced to face our worst fears about collapsing ecosystems. Which reminded me, then and now, of the Age of Aquarius. the introduction to a ’60s Asimov paperback I just picked up, in which he is induced to see the musical Hair.
Asimov’s bitchy response to people who want to groove on about the coming Age of Aquarius with him? “It was certainly very loud.”
Well, this is certainly very loud. As an enthusiastic tryer-onner of every configuration of tinfoil asshat (derby, bowler, fedora, acey-deucey, newsboy, Ming the Merciless-style headdress, Texaco gimme-cap), I was amazed to see none other than the New York Times publish a bizarrely credulous article on said singularity early this summer, entitled “In the Singularity, Humans Are So Yesterday,” which sounds like the ironic tagline of a dystopian apocalyptic thriller scripted by Charlie Kaufman and starring a very petulant Natalie Portman as the spunky wisecracking upload.
The Times article quotes futurist Raymond Kurzweil, whom it describes as “the inventor and businessman who is the Singularity’s most ubiquitous spokesman and boasts that he intends to live for hundreds of years and resurrect the dead, including his own father.” Kurzeil told the times, “We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology. That is what it means to be human — to extend who we are.”
Kurzeil’s plan to “resurrect” his father is not the lightning-driven Bride of Frankenstein affair I hoped it would be; he wants to create a construct by programming all the information he can obtain about his father into an artificial intelligence. Which sounds like it might work for him, but sure as hell wouldn’t work all that well for his father; when it comes to consciousness, isn’t a copy a copy a copy? How different is this from making a sculpture of your father?
And once you have the construct, when you upload him into a flash drive and stick it in the USB of a spiffy robot body so Dad can have Christian Bale’s face and tentacles and seven boobs and a jet pack built into his ass, how different is that from filesharing an episode of Doctor Who, while the original episode sits on a hard drive in Poland, pouting? Are human beings really just information, each rendition exactly identical to any other instance of identical information?
Woah, man. Cosmic.
But, hey, far be it from me to harsh on The Singularity’s mellow. To listen to the Times, there seem to be a lot of buh-buh-buh-ZIL-lionaires in Silicon Valley and elsewhere who are quite sure that if they can go from college dropout to “visionary” tech guru in about fifteen minutes, the next logical step — to immortal being able to transcend death — should be almost as easy as getting venture capital for an online pet food retailer in early 1999. They take this stuff pretty seriously. There are also a lot of forward-thinking scientists who, as Murmansk-born, Moscow-based Maria Konovalenko, puts it, “Don’t want to age and get old, sick, ugly and frail.”
The talk, filmed at TED in July and posted last month, concerns the “connectome,” a term for the connections between all a brain’s neurons. There’s some interesting and freaky stuff about the only time a connectome has actually been mapped — that of a worm, in a process taking 12 years. Seung then continues through the process by which the neurons of mouse brains can be mapped, which is interesting and a little scary. Theoretically, all the connections between neurons could be mapped, and Seung posits an army of nanobot cameras doing exactly that.
Konovalenko believes this is a visionary step toward immortality, in which a human’s entire consciousness can be mapped and preserved. She, and most of the other life-extension theorists putting their eggs in the information basket, believe this procedure will be feasible in this century. Damned soon, in fact, because the concept of “the singularity” means a feedback loop will accelerate technology exponentially. The progress required to go from beating another monkey on the head with a buffalo bone to watching Roomba Cat on YouTube and Facebooking Ben Bova — that’ll be nothing compared to the advances made in the next 100 years.
Or, at least…that’s what the believers say.
My opinion is that if you fileshare me, you haven’t fileshared me; you’ve fileshared a copy of me. Which is a little too Shatterday for my taste. And as for the “feedback loop?” I think getting clean water in Africa and eliminating religious violence. would be a better goal than letting uploads of the extremely rich live to see the heat death of the universe. But that’s just me.
In any event, Seung’s worm had 300 neurons; you have 100 billion. Don’t hit Best Buy for a 100-petabyte hard drive just yet. They’ll probably go on sale for Christmas, anyway, right?