Futurist author Ray Kurzweil has a few dreams about humans and machines. Departing from the standard fear of robots which may become smarter than us (but not really), he envisions a world in which humans will combine with machines so much, we’ll leave our bodies behind and download ourselves into computer chips or intelligent nanobots that will explore the universe at the speed of light. All the we are and all we will be, resting in a few nanometers of a computer chip.
At first, it sounds plausible. We’re already creating cyborgs when we try to replace bones, joints and limbs in trauma patients, help the deaf hear and the blind see. Patients who became paralyzed or had a massive stroke that took away their normal ability to communicate have had computer chips implanted in their brains, allowing them to manipulate computer programs by thought alone. It seems very likely that as the technology is tested and proven over time, even healthy people will be able to get enhancements and we’ll be part human, part machine.
Kurzweil takes all these developments and pushes them one degree farther. But the problem is that they’re not intended to go that one degree farther. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that human brains are not about raw computational power. This is why he assumes that when the typical computer “surpasses” the human brain in how many operations per second it could do, humans should have no trouble fitting their brains into a hard drive. However, the brain’s job is to come up with creative solutions. It doesn’t matter how fast we come up with ideas. In fact, some of the greatest ideas humanity ever had (atoms, gravity, relativity, the heliocentric solar system, other planets around other stars) took decades and centuries to ferment. It doesn’t matter how many teraflops your brain can do. What matters is the end result. A supercomputer like Red Storm can solve a complex mathematical problem a billion times faster than a human. But only we know what to do with the result or even what the result means.
Then theres the problem of what happens if you download a brain into a computer. Kurzweil is from the school of thought which believes the conscious and the personality are nothing more than some data in the recesses of our brain. We dont know that for sure. The way our brain is wired does more than just store information. Its also really important for our basic functions, instincts and drives, something which makes up a great deal of our personality and makes us human. Our love for a juicy cut of steak, our desire of money and status, our passion for other humans and our need for sexual release For Kurzweil to unceremoniously toss all of these important things aside like a monk beckoning us to ascetic lives whizzing through the stars in the circuit boards of a cosmic probe, shows a major oversight in his theories.
So if were able to dump all the data in our brains into a computer as done in some 1990s sci-fi movies and cartoons based on comic books, what wed have is a repository of facts and figures in our heads rather than a human being. All of the creativity, flexibility and self-awareness that reside in our biological wiring wouldnt transfer over. The end product would be totally useless and the human whos brain was drained to make this happen would suffer from an odd kind of death. A personality death. Her brain would be fine, but well empty. A lifetime of knowledge would be gone and she would have to start over from scratch and grow into a totally new and different person than was once there. (Which makes me wonder if the doctors who were trying to download her brain into a computer could be charged with homicide in this case.)
As we can see, the fantasy world of immortal humans who don’t need their bodies just wouldnt work. The mechanics of Kurzweils proposition are literally the digital equivalent of jamming a square peg into a round hole. But what motivates his desire to see this happen is transparently obvious. Since the late 19th century, various Occultists like Helena Blavatsky and Max Heindel wrote popular texts which wondered about possible methods for humans to become powerful immortals. Futurists like Kurzweil are just the latest incarnations of the long trend of pundits trying to predict the future as theyd like to see it when we seem to be at a crossroads. What he does is no different than Theosophists or Rosicrucian Mystics of the industrial revolution. Its just updated with modern technology.
Human brains are very powerful tools that are always evolving. Our biological wiring makes us who we are to a large extent and how we feel about our memories and what we desire make up our personalities. Rather than living up to another incarnation of old fantasies of immortality and total transcendence by leaping into things we dont quite understand headfirst, we should probably hold on to our brains for the foreseeable future. Theyve been quite handy so far and as of right now, they’re not showing any sign of slowing us down.