how a russian media mogul pulled a kurzweil

March 1, 2012

cyborg inventor

Roughly a week ago, while I was doing some traveling, someone with a PR group which seems to work for a number of Kurzweil’s Singularity University projects, sent me an e-mail about a Russian tycoon named Dmitry Itskov and his plan to take a DARPA concept to transhumanist extremes that would make Kurzweil proud. Just imagine being kept alive by custom machine bits tacked on as your organs fail with age until you can be uploaded to a supercomputer and live eternity as a digital entity. Basically, it’s Ghost In The Shell amped up and sold as a practical venture and while parts of it are more than plausible and are already in the works, the ultimate goal of this project seems to be completely unworkable unless almost everything we know about the brain so far turns out to be wrong. But since I’m supposed to be objective, I asked if I could take a brief look at some of Itskov’s notes to see how serious he is about this project and whether he’s getting good advice, and being fluent in Russian, inquired if they would be willing to send them to me in their original language. So far, there hasn’t been a response, but the story has been spreading across the web needs to be addressed.

Now we’ve talked about being able to swap out failing organs for synthetic substitutes before, and that it may be easier than a completely biological solution to boot. Obviously, nothing has changed there and it’s more than likely that in the next 25 to 30 years, humans will routinely become cyborgs endowed with critical artificial organs and limbs that interface with the nervous system. Rather than simply age and wear out, we would just swap what’s no longer working for something that will keep us going long into the future. To that extent, we’re testing all sorts of machine-brain interfaces, from mind-controlled computers to artificial arms able to send feedback to the body, to machines that can turn our intent to say something into actual words, and we will keep refining them until we start hitting the limits of the human body to be merged with machines. And even then we could go beyond it provided we have the technology to replace bone and muscle tissue with metals, and electro-sensitive polymers in vitro, sort of like in a science fiction scenario I mentioned once before. So all those parts of Itskov’s project seem quite sound and have newly emerging volumes of sound research as proofs of concepts for many seemingly radical ideas. However, when he starts rehashing Kurzweil’s dreams of digital transcendence, he goes completely off the rails and deep into the realm of wishful thinking.

Uploading human minds into a machine interface just doesn’t work in biology because your mind isn’t just a big hard drive you can swap in and out. If we really had to stretch for a computer analogy, your mind would be more like RAM or a RAM disk, storing everything you need to use in a constantly active state. Power down the computer and the contents of the RAM are lost. In a machine, we could simply write the contents to a store so when the computer is turned back on, we could simply inject the required data back into memory. But human bodies are a lot more complex and finicky than that. The information in our brain is a composite of not just an extremely plastic and constantly changing set of neuron connections, it’s also the constant hum of our brains while we’re alive. If you were to try and map its topology, you would find an ever-shifting web of chemicals and signals churning at different frequencies at different times and with different results, and no two minds would be exactly alike. Furthermore, we know that if this dynamic topology is disrupted enough by a blow to the head or a massive stroke, a completely different person can emerge. You’re a combination of everything your mind does and did and uploading this kind of complex continuum pretty much requires a soul or something rather similar to it to contain and abstract your mind from your body. And it’s doubtful such a thing really exists. It just seems far, far too convenient for nature to oblige us with such a simple solution to all our mortal woes…

[ illustration from the Artiphyciel series by Emanuel Lepas ]

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  • http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com Neuroskeptic

    Yeah, brain-machine interfaces are perfectly possible and are advancing very rapidly. “Uploading” the brain is just a category mistake. The brain is hardware. It’s like saying you want to upload your car.

    Your best bet for immortality might be to encase the brain in a robotic life-support system, but your brain would still get old and eventually degrade unless you first cracked the problem of preventing the ageing process.

    But if you did do that, why bother with the robot? You could just make your whole body immune to ageing.

  • Greg Fish

    Glad to hear from a neuroscientist on a topic like this. Just like you said, a good bet for some sort of immortality would be encasing one’s brain in a machine body and keep it young. And you actually would want to do that if you didn’t want to be confined to Earth. Your vital, youthful organs would be protected by alloys and magnetic fields that deflect harmful radiation while you’re cruising through deep space.

    Why invest a lot of time, energy, and resources into making the kind of technology that would extend human lifespans indefinitely if all we’ll do is let humans do more of the same? Wouldn’t it be akin to building fusion reactors, making them work well enough to power the world, then turn right back around and keep using coal?

  • Bill

    Furthermore, we know that if this dynamic topology is disrupted enough
    by a blow to the head or a massive stroke, a completely different person
    can emerge.

    …because the structure of the brain has been permanently changed by the physical trauma, not because magical soul signals have been temporarily stopped. Interfering with the dynamic processes of the brain can destroy short-term memory, but that’s not synonymous with killing the person or even erasing their long-term memory.

  • Bill

    “Uploading” the brain is just a category mistake. The brain is hardware. It’s like saying you want to upload your car.

    No it’s not. It’s like imaging your computer’s hard drive and uploading it into a virtual machine running on another computer. You’re emulating the hardware of the brain in order to run a copy of the software of the brain, which is the consciousness of the person.

  • gfish3000

    You sound a lot more confident in the biochemistry of memory than any neuroscientist and your dismissive attitude seems to indicate that you’re far too sure of your own opinions of the relevant science.

    No one says anything about magic soul signals except for you (but more on that in a minute), the issue is that the brain’s biochemistry has been disrupted and yes, it can absolutely erase long term memory, as the majority of amnesia patients will attest. Same thing happens with strokes and diseases that attack or inflame the brain. Change the biochemistry and you can change the person. There’s about a century of study to attest to this fact.

    Now, back to the magic soul signals or as you put it…

    You’re emulating the hardware of the brain in order to run a copy of the software of the brain, which is the consciousness of the person.

    That’s not even remotely right. Your analogy with computers relies on the fact that computers have standardized I/O systems and interpret data based on an agreed upon range of protocols such as ASCII, or JPEG, or MPEG, etc and can therefore read data form other computers. There is no standardized brain structure. The physical structure of the neurons and their biochemical states while they’re active is your mind as you were informed by an actual, honest to goodness neuroscientist. You can’t simply save it and swap it outside the realm of wishful thinking.

  • Bill

    Same thing happens with strokes and diseases that attack or inflame the brain.

    This is still damaging the structure of the brain, no? Killing brain cells or breaking their connections?

    There is no standardized brain structure.

    I don’t understand why you’re even saying this. Isn’t it a given that everyone’s brain structure is different, and that’s what makes them individuals and gives them unique memories and personalities? Isn’t that the whole point of Uploading?

    The physical structure of the neurons and their biochemical states while they’re active is your mind

    So.. we agree? I don’t understand your objections, then.

    as you were informed by an actual, honest to goodness neuroscientist.

    I don’t know what this is a reference to.