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GF2045 Congress – Avatars, Immortality, and Selfhood

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

Professor Ishiguro and his robotic avatar.

Professor Ishiguro and his robotic avatar.

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 :D ).
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.
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.
Peter Diamandis gave an inspiring talk based on his book Abundance.

Peter Diamandis gave an inspiring talk based on his book: Abundance.

 

Miscellaneous

Soylent – The whole foods version

Mikko Ikola's whole-foods reformulation of soylent

Mikko Ikola’s whole-foods reformulation of soylent

 
 
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)

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.
Diamandis - Abundance
Gwern on Plastination for human preservation.
Brain Preservation Foundation - Plastination is their goal.
The H+ Agenda – A concise and free introduction to (H+) transhumanity by David Wood.
 
 
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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Artin 2013/06/25, 22:25

    Hi Winslow!

    I surfed in to this blog about two months ago, unfortunately at that time as was preparing for my PhD-defense (in neuroscience) so I had not the time to really put in the necessary time. However now I have more time… and the blog is great! I recommend it to everybody at the department and my friends. You have really taken the biohack to a new level. My limited biohack (in progress now that I have more time) is more in lines with magnetic perception and perceptual training (all modalities). But that is not the reason why I write to you. First I want to recommend a recent review article (you may have read it) about dietary fats and health:
    http://advances.nutrition.org/content/4/3/294.full.pdf+html (Dietary Fats and Health: Dietary Recommendations in the Context of Scientific Evidence).

    Secondly, I would like to comment about Stuart Hameroff and the quantum model. First I want to start by saying that he is a great guy and does great things. I had the fortunate to be invited to give a talk at Toward a Science of Consciousness Conferences a couple of years ago. And I also had the opportunity to meet him in 2009 when he came to our department to give a talk about his quantum model. I actually invited the whole physics department to join so they could all discuss the model. The reason for this was that I a couple of years before had read that a quantum effect would not be possible in room temperature, and that it could only work if it was very, very cold.

    Anyway the physicists came and they did not agree with him in any way to put it mildly. Actually they kind of made fun of him. However, they really made a great point to disproof his case. (I am not going to explain it to you as you are a physicist and I am only a wannabe). But I can say that the more I have read about it over the years the more unnecessary and absurd I find the whole concept. You do not need quantum physics to explain or study consciousness. More importantly, the quantum model is impossible to test and it is impossible to falsify. When Hameroff got the question of how the model could be falsified he had no answer! As an experimentalist I find that very troubling. The first thing I do when I design an experiment and test a hypothesis is to make a design of how to falsify it. Show me the data I say, give me an experiment.

    Anyway, your blog is great and I will keep reading it. Keep up the good work!

    All the best

    • Winslow Strong 2013/06/26, 18:43

      Hi Artin,

      I’m glad that you find the blog useful, and thanks for the info. I find the quantum/consciousness idea very interesting, but at this point its pretty much just an idea and not a worked out theory. To make it a theory, I agree that it needs to make falsifiable predictions. I haven’t looked into much of the details on it so don’t have much of a scientific opinion one way or another myself. But the fact that Roger Penrose is a collaborator with Hameroff makes it unlikely that current establishment physics totally rules out the idea. Probably most physicists just find it implausible/untestable (and this tends to piss off right-brain dominant types). Ask the subset of those researchers who are string theorists how they are progressing towards testable predictions :P The whole thing is academic at this point, as nothing currently hinges on whether or not QM is crucial to consciousness.

      One reason why I wouldn’t personally discard the idea outright based on what I know is that other science has made so little progress towards a theory of consciousness. Indeed QM may be totally unnecessary, but that remains to be seen by a non-QM theory that can predict degrees of consciousness in a system. It’s disappointing to me that science has by and large failed to even take the matter of consciousness seriously as a phenomenon worthy of scientific inquiry. I like that at least Hameroff’s idea is bringing it into scientific discourse.

      Re: dietary fats paper – yes this one has been making the rounds in the Paleo circles recently. One critique that I’ve heard is that it’s not a proper systematic review, hence bias is quite possible (the author was also a lifetime PUFA researcher). It backs the notion that PUFAs are carcinogenic, and the anti-SAFA advice of western health authorities has been very largely biased towards the avoidance of heart disease, the evidence for which is much weaker now than it appeared originally.

      A picture that I see emerging at a higher level is that we need to stop making the very bad assumption that nutrients should be tailored towards diseases in isolation. We need to focus on total health metrics (all-cause mortality and quality of life metrics) in our epidemiology and RCTs. We’ve been lead astray in the past so often by assuming that tailoring the diet to avoid one prominent pathology (e.g. heart disease) will improve total health/mortality.

      Hope to hear from you more in the future!

      W

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