Creating Machine Avatars For All

June 3rd, 2013

Dmitry Itskov wants to unlock us from the prisons of our physical bodies and upload “us”—the sum of our brain’s connections that create “us”—into affordable machine bodies. He believes this will free us to live better, more meaningful lives:

Mr. Itskov says he will invest at least part of his fortune in such ventures, but his primary goal with 2045 is not to become richer. In fact, the more you know about Mr. Itskov, the less he seems like a businessman and the more he seems like the world’s most ambitious utopian. He maintains that his avatars would not just end world hunger — because a machine needs maintenance but not food — but that they would also usher in a more peaceful and spiritual age, when people could stop worrying about the petty anxieties of day-to-day living.

“We need to show that we’re actually here to save lives,” he said. “To help the disabled, to cure diseases, to create technology that will allow us in the future to answer some existential questions. Like what is the brain, what is life, what is consciousness and, finally, what is the universe?”

As seems to happen, this is perfectly timed with my piece on Google Glass last week.

Perhaps I’m just cynical, but this story seems very much like a microcosm for much of technology, and especially Google Glass. There’s a very nice veneer on top of Itskov’s avatar idea, a veneer that says it’s to help people and to solve real problems like curing diseases (because our bodies will no longer be organic) and ending hunger (because the only sustenance we will require is electricity and maintenance), and to free people of the “petty anxieties” of day-to-day life like providing a living for you and your family. As a result, humanity will be free to tackle much larger issues.

I say it’s a veneer because whether Itskov’s vision has any chance at being realized or not (it certainly doesn’t in the relatively near future), his solution to these “problems” solves them by eliminating much of what makes us “human” in the first place. Who we are as individuals is not merely defined by the connections in our brains, but also by how we experience the physical world and interact with it, and our struggle to survive and improve our lot. Even if you can successfully map a person’s brain and re-create the individual within a computer as a result, they inherently won’t be the same person, or feel the same way, by nature of their new body. Sudden immortality, coupled with no need to ever seek food and survive, could play havoc with a brain evolutionarily-designed to focus primarily on it.

In other words, the “solution” may destroy what’s worth saving in the first place: humanity.