Motherboard recently caught up with Itskov, who opened up on immortality, spirituality, and the coming age of cybernetic, avatar-based living.
Humanity is more or less doomed, unless we put our brains into immortal robot bodies by 2045. So rang the warning at the second annual Global Future 2045 Congress, organized by 32-year-old Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov and attended by the who’s who of the robotics and AI industry, including Dr. James Martin, Peter Diamandis, and Ray Kurzweil.
Itskov's goal is to bring robotic telepresence to the masses, and eventually allow humans to download digital copies of themselves into android bodies, which he calls avatars. While that future was taken as a given by most conference attendees, whether or not the tech required will be widely available, or even popular, by 2045 remains to be seen.
Held at the Lincoln Center and attended by hundreds of futurists, scientists, and journalists, the conference was both a celebration of science and transhumanism—in which we merge with machines—as well as a sales pitch to the general public on this human-controlled form of evolution.
Evolution is Itskov's own term, as he describes his plan for increased longevity through the use of artificial avatars as a "new evolutionary strategy." It's referential of his own blend of science, philosophy, and spirituality. The conference featured religious figures and yogis alongside renowned futurists and scientists, all of which fit into Itskov's ideal of making better humans. To Itskov, the project is less about escaping death and more about letting people enjoy more life.
Of course, there's still a current of futurist pragmatism underpinning the movement. Aside from living as long as you want, the main selling point for synthetic bodies is that they can survive the various catastrophes that will befall our civilization by 2045. The possibilities are relatively endless. For example, we could use them to colonize Mars, too, because Earth will no longer be able to sustain us.
Onstage Saturday morning, Dr. James Martin—described by the conference as a “visionary tech entrepreneur—called these society-ending upheavals that will destroy everything we know in less than 50 years “crunches,” and there are many crunches coming. The rate at which we consume the Earth's resources requires the need for another planet for us to call home, and unless we reverse current consumption trends Earth's climate “will be irreversibly damaged,” with extreme weather wrecking havoc on cities, and severe famine and water shortages killing off the poor at rates unprecedented in history.
Based off his mathematical models, Dr. Martin also predicts terrorists will deploy a nuke before 2045, and called the 21st century the “make or break century” because if we don't address these issues the world will “collapse into extreme chaos” before millennials get to be cranky 75-year-olds. Robot bodies that don't age, however, could survive starvation, dehydration, extreme weather, nuclear war, and even the cold vacuum of space.
Hiroshi Ishiguro with his Geminoid (the one that looks like him) and Telenoid android systems. Photo by Derek Mead
In a interview with Itskov on the challenges of his avatar agenda on Monday, he explained that primitive avatars could potentially already be here and walking among us. Building them is just a matter of combining technology that already exists. Itskov's assertion is evidenced by the likes of former precious metals smelter Nigel Ackland and his bebionic3 prosthetic arm, as well as the work of Japanese professor and “genius android creator” Hiroshi Ishiguro. Both spoke at the conference and wowed crowds with their respective innovations.
However, they also highlight how far off a working android body really is. Ishiguro's robots—his clone-of-himself Geminoid and the robot-ghost-baby Telenoid—are both remote controlled and lack AI. Despite being realistic enough to land smack in the middle of the uncanny valley, there's no way for Ishiguro to implant his brain or memories into his Geminoid. Ackland's state-of-the-art arm, while a marvel of prosthetic technology and utility, is controlled by his existing arm muscles, not his brain, and he feels no sensation at all through the prosthetic's nimble fingers.
Both technologies illustrate my main concerns with Itskov's plan: while we can replicate human movement, we still can't quite replicate human sensation and feeling. I, for one, don't want to be just a brain in a metal can that cannot feel the softness of a kitten, the smoothness of chocolate in my mouth, or even orgasm.
Todd Huffman, founder of the microscope company 3scan and whose images of nerves were used by various speakers in their slides over the weekend, calmed my fears of sensory deprivation when he told me nerve replication technology already exists. He predicts it will be available for medical clinical trials in roughly five years. Ackland, who currently acts as a tester of new bionic tech and will soon be testing prosthetics designed for children, will likely be one of the first to test this new tech out. Considering that he spent much of the weekend wowing passersby on the street and generally being the perfect spokesman for advanced prosthetics, Ackland seems like the perfect choice.
Nigel Ackland with his bebionic3 prosthetic. Photo by Derek Mead
But beyond sensation, does a robotic future mean the end of sex? I first asked Ishiguro, who brought both his Geminoid and Telenoid for display and interaction. He said that he prefers to focus on "communication and empathy” in his own research, but that he believes “love is important." He then asked me a rather difficult question: if you start treating an android (particularly one that has AI and a nervous system) as "your girlfriend or boyfriend, are they tools or are they human?" I was stumped. Clearly, moving into a posthuman world will shake up our current social norms.
Mapping and reconstructing the brain, and therefore developing human-like AI and robots with artificial nervous systems, will be complete by or before 2045, according to various scientists that spoke at the conference. While that is great for Itskov's neohumanity timeline, it also gives rise to an old problem on a new platform: once we digitize our brains, how can we keep them from being hacked? Angry exes and sociopathic strangers, among others, already have the ability to cyberstalk without abandon, so what will prevent them from stalking or hacking other people's thoughts, dreams, and memories?
Computational neuroscientist Randal Koene addressed the issue of hacked cyberbrains on Sunday, calling it a “huge problem” and “something we need to worry about in the future.” In terms of solutions however, Koene could only offer “having a backup” somewhere, which would mean, at the very least, having extra copies of yourself in cold storage. That opens up a whole new can of worms: Can you revert to an old version of yourself after a hack attack and still be you?
Treating the human body remains fraught with difficulty, so could repairing a mechanized, digital version be easier? Itskov thinks so.
Governments spying on their citizens through direct access to their brains is also a potential reality, but Koene pointed out in an interview this is a social issue that is “bigger than the development of technology." According to him, it's up to us to make sure governments adhere to society’s privacy rules. We could either turn into a true “big brother state, or one that is liberty for all."
In our interview, Itskov took a more philosophical route to answer the hacking question. He argued that our bodies are already hacked by viruses and diseases, and our minds are corrupted by depression. Treating the human body remains fraught with difficulty, so could repairing a mechanized, digital version be easier? Itskov thinks so.
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 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.”
Still, digital humans are the path Itskov has chosen. The highlight of the conference was supposed to be the unveiling of an android head made in Itskov’s likeness by David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, which was touted by the 2045 Initiative as being “the most lifelike android the world has ever seen.” Only, the world has yet to see it.
Saturday's schedule clearly stated that the head would be out for viewing, but by Sunday, it became apparent that it wouldn't be revealed to the couple hundred conference-goers and press. Some scientists I spoke to blamed Hanson's inability to meet the deadline as indicative of his typical MO as an “artist."
In our interview, Itskov instead said he was responsible for disappointing the conference-goers and not Hanson, even if Hanson had promised to deliver. While Itskov has said he's spent $3 million of his own fortune on the 2045 Initiative—and hasn't taken outside funding—he wouldn't disclose how much he'd spent on the development of his new head.
Regardless of what happened, the android head's delay is indicative of just how audacious Itskov's timeline is. He told Motherboard that he expects to have working telepresence avatars—essentially a second body for you to use remotely—within seven years. The clock is ticking.