Eternal Life Through Robots? The Bizarre Theory That Humans Will Meld With Machines
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Last month a computer -- IBM's famous "Watson" -- trounced the greatest human Jeopardy players of all time, and effectively inaugurated a new era in human-computer relations.
After decades of difficulty -- in which all of the problems that seemed easiest turned out to be the most difficult -- artificial intelligence (AI) experts are now well (or at least better) positioned to tout the potential of computers. Although robots still cannot walk, talk, and chew gum at the same time, enthusiasts hope they will soon equal our intelligence and, perhaps, even provide us with scientific alternatives to the traditional religious promises of salvation.
The AI Apocalypse
Scientists like roboticist Hans Moravec and inventor Ray Kurzweil advocate uploading our minds into robots or virtual reality so that we can live forever. They believe that our minds can be replicated outside of our brains if we simply copy the pattern of neuro-chemical activity taking place in our bodies. That pattern, rather than the brains in which the pattern takes shape, “is” the personality. If it can be transferred to a digital medium, it can be made immortal. Both Moravec and Kurzweil predict that this technological transcendence is rapidly approaching. In the near future, our essential selves will be digital information, capable of infinite replication, rapid learning, and regular backup in case of an accident. Surpassingly intelligent robots -- our Mind Children, according to Moravec -- will populate the universe, converting physical reality into a cosmic interweb of thinking machines.
In the years since these claims were first made in the late 1970s and 1980s, their cultural credibility has grown at an astounding (some would say alarming) rate, and sightings of these Apocalyptic AI authors and their religious ideas have become commonplace in the popular press. In particular, faith in what is called the "Singularity" -- the moment when robots become transcendently intelligent and we, as a consequence, upload our minds into machines -- finds a home in the news, in science fiction, in film festivals, and in prime time television shows.
Even the IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the eminently professional Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, devoted an entire special edition to discussing the Singularity in June of 2008 (a fact which one roboticist told me that he found “a little disturbing”).
Perhaps because journalists think they’re throwing Kurzweil to the wolves when they profile him in their pages or perhaps because they are, themselves, true believers, major news media online and in print have rushed to interview Kurzweil and profile his ideas over the past few years. Most recently, Time magazine has labeled the Singularity a “serious hypothesis…an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.” Where once Kurzweil was listed among the fringe and suspected of being just a bit off-balance, in the past few years (especially since founding his own for-profit school, Singularity University) he has become a legitimate prophet.
Perhaps calling Kurzweil a prophet actually undersells his current popularity; if popular media can make a man into a saint, then Kurzweil has been beatified. Transcendent Man, a biographical documentary about Kurzweil, cruised into film festivals in 2009 and received wide accolades around the time of its 2011 digital release.
Like any good hagiography, the film revels in Kurzweil’s genius as well as his eccentricity: one moment we see blind people praising him for changing their lives with his reading machines and the next moment we hear Kurzweil promising that he will resurrect his father from the dead -- or watch him swallow hundreds of vitamin supplements out of a hope that these will keep him alive until he can upload his mind. Perhaps it is because Kurzweil appeals as both genius inventor and spiritual savior that the film garnered considerable attention. Thanks to the film, Kurzweil and the director, Barry Ptolemy, were able to evangelize in print and in interviews, such as in their recent conversation with PBS's Charlie Rose.