Tag Archives: androids

The future of death

This one is a cut and paste from my book You Tomorrow.

Although age-related decline can be postponed significantly, it will eventually come. But that is just biological decline. In a few decades, people will have their brains linked to the machine world and much of their mind will be online, and that opens up the strong likelihood that death is not inevitable, and in fact anyone who expects to live past 2070 biologically (and rich people who can get past 2050) shouldn’t need to face death of their mind. Their bodies will eventually die, but their minds can live on, and an android body will replace the biological one they’ve lost.

Death used to be one of the great certainties of life, along with taxes. But unless someone under 35 now is unfortunate enough to die early from accident or disease, they have a good chance of not dying at all. Let’s explore that.

Genetics and other biotechnology will work with advanced materials technology and nanotechnology to limit and even undo damage caused by disease and age, keeping us young for longer, eventually perhaps forever. It remains to be seen how far we get with that vision in the next century, but we can certainly expect some progress in that area. We won’t get biological immortality for a good while, but if you can move into a high quality android body, who cares?

With this combination of technologies locked together with IT in a positive feedback loop, we will certainly eventually develop the technology to enable a direct link between the human brain and the machine, i.e. the descendants of today’s computers. On the computer side, neural networks are already the routine approach to many problems and are based on many of the same principles that neurons in the brain use. As this field develops, we will be able to make a good emulation of biological neurons. As it develops further, it ought to be possible on a sufficiently sophisticated computer to make a full emulation of a whole brain. Progress is already happening in this direction.

Meanwhile, on the human side, nanotechnology and biotechnology will also converge so that we will have the capability to link synthetic technology directly to individual neurons in the brain. We don’t know for certain that this is possible, but it may be possible to measure the behaviour of each individual neuron using this technology and to signal this behaviour to the brain emulation running in the computer, which could then emulate it. Other sensors could similarly measure and allow emulation of the many chemical signalling mechanisms that are used in the brain. The computer could thus produce an almost perfect electronic equivalent of the person’s brain, neuron by neuron. This gives us two things.

Firstly, by doing this, we would have a ‘backup’ copy of the person’s brain, so that in principle, they can carry on thinking, and effectively living, long after their biological body and brain has died. At this point we could claim effective immortality. Secondly, we have a two way link between the brain and the computer which allows thought to be executed on either platform and to be signalled between them.

There is an important difference between the brain and computer already that we may be able to capitalise on. In the brain’s neurons, signals travel at hundreds of metres per second. In a free space optical connection, they travel at hundreds of millions of metres per second, millions of times faster. Switching speeds are similarly faster in electronics. In the brain, cells are also very large compared to the electronic components of the future, so we may be able to reduce the distances over which the signals have to travel by another factor of 100 or more. But this assumes we take an almost exact representation of brain layout. We might be able to do much better than this. In the brain, we don’t appear to use all the neurons, (some are either redundant or have an unknown purpose) and those that we do use in a particular process are often in groups that are far apart. Reconfigurable hardware will be the norm in the 21st century and we may be able to optimize the structure for each type of thought process. Rearranging the useful neurons into more optimal structures should give another huge gain.

This means that our electronic emulation of the brain should behave in a similar way but much faster – maybe billions of times faster! It may be able to process an entire lifetime’s thoughts in a second or two. But even there are several opportunities for vast improvement. The brain is limited in size by a variety of biological constraints. Even if there were more space available, it could not be made much more efficient by making it larger, because of the need for cooling, energy and oxygen supply taking up ever more space and making distances between processors larger. In the computer, these constraints are much more easily addressable, so we could add large numbers of additional neurons to give more intelligence. In the brain, many learning processes stop soon after birth or in childhood. There need be no such constraints in computer emulations, so we could learn new skills as easily as in our infancy. And best of all, the computer is not limited by the memory of a single brain – it has access to all the world’s information and knowledge, and huge amounts of processing outside the brain emulation. Our electronic brain could be literally the size of the planet – the whole internet and all the processing and storage connected to it.

With all these advances, the computer emulation of the brain could be many orders of magnitude superior to its organic equivalent, and yet it might be connected in real time to the original. We would have an effective brain extension in cyberspace, one that gives us immeasurably improved performance and intelligence. Most of our thoughts might happen in the machine world, and because of the direct link, we might experience them as if they had occurred inside our head.

Our brains are in some ways equivalent in nature to how computers were before the age of the internet. They are certainly useful, but communication between them is slow and inefficient. However, when our brains are directly connected to machines, and those machines are networked, then everyone else’s brains are also part of that network, so we have a global network of people’s brains, all connected together, with all the computers too.

So we may soon eradicate death. By the time today’s children are due to die, they will have been using brain extensions for many years, and backups will be taken for granted. Death need not be traumatic for our relatives. They will soon get used to us walking around in an android body. Funerals will be much more fun as the key participant makes a speech about what they are expecting from their new life. Biological death might still be unpleasant, but it need no longer be a career barrier.

In terms of timescales, rich people might have this capability by 2050 and the rest of us some time before 2070. Your life expectancy biologically is increasing every year, so even if you are over 35, you have a pretty good chance of surviving long enough to gain. Half the people alive today are under 35 and will almost certainly not die fully. Many more are under 50 and some of them will live on electronically too. If you are over 50, the chances are that you will be the last generation of your family ever to have a full death.

As a side-note, there are more conventional ways of achieving immortality. Some Egyptian pharaohs are remembered because of their great pyramids. A few philosophers, artists, engineers and scientists have left such great works that they are remembered millennia later. And of course, on a small scale, for the rest of us, making an impression on those around us keeps your memory going a few generations. Writing a book immortalises your words. And you may have a multimedia headstone on your grave, or one that at least links into augmented reality to bring up your old web page of social networking site profile. But frankly, I am with Woody Allen on this one “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying”. I just hope the technology arrives early enough.

What will your next body be like?

Many engineers, including me, think that some time around 2050, we will be able to make very high quality links between the brains and machines. To such an extent that it will thereafter be possible (albeit expensive for some years) to arrange that most of your mind – your thinking, memories, even sensations and emotions, could reside mainly in the machine world. Some (perhaps some memories that are rarely remembered for example) may not be suited to such external accessibility, but the majority should be.

The main aim of this research area is to design electronic solutions to immortality. But actually, that is only one application, and I have discussed electronic immortality a few times now :

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/how-to-live-forever/

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/increasing-longevity-and-electronic-immortality-3bn-people-to-live-forever/

What I want to focus on this time is that you don’t have to die to benefit. If your mind is so well connected, you could inhabit a new body, without having to vacate your existing one. Furthermore, there really isn’t much to stop you getting a new body, using that, and dumping your old one in a life support system. You won’t do that, but you could. Either way, you could get a new body or an extra one, and as I asked in passing in my last blog, what will your new body look like?

Firstly, why would you want to do this? Well, you might be old, suffering the drawbacks of ageing, not as mobile and agile as you want to be, you might be young, but not as pretty or fit as you want to be, or maybe you would prefer to be someone else, like your favourite celebrity, a top sports hero, or maybe you’d prefer to be a different gender perhaps? Or maybe you just generally feel you’d like to have the chance to start over, do it differently. Maybe you want to explore a different lifestyle, or maybe it is a way of expressing your artistic streak. So, with all these reasons and more, there will be plenty of demand for wanting a new body and a potentially new life.

Options

Lets explore some of the options. Don’t be too channelled by assuming you even have to be human. There is a huge range of potential here, but some restrictions will be necessary too. Lots of things will be possible, but not permissible.

Firstly, tastes will vary a lot. People may want their body to look professional for career reasons, others will prefer sexy, others sporty. Most people will only have one at a time, so will choose it carefully. A bit like buying a house. But not everyone will be conservative.

Just like buying a house, some rich people will want to own several for different circumstances, and many others would want several but can’t afford it, so there could be a rental market. But as I will argue shortly, you probably won’t be allowed to use too many at the same time, so that means we will need some form of storage, and ethics dictates that the ‘spare’ bodies mustn’t be ‘alive’ or conscious. There are lots of ways to do this. Using a detachable brain is one, or not to put a brain in at all, using empty immobile husks that are switched on and then linked to your remote mind in the cloud to become alive. This sounds preferable to me. Most likely they would be inorganic. I don’t think it will be ethically acceptable to grow cloned bodies in some sort of farm and remove their brains, so using some sort of android is probably best all round.

So, although you can do a lot with biotech, and there are some options there, I do think that most replacement bodies, if not all, will be androids using synthetic materials and AI’s, not biological bodies.

As for materials, it is already possible to buy lifelike full sized dolls, but the materials will continue to improve, as will robotics. You could look how you want to look, and your new body would be as youthful, strong, and flexible as you want or need it to be.

Now that we’re in that very broad android/robot creativity space, you could be any species, fantasy character, alien, robot, android or pretty much any imaginary form that could be fabricated. You could be any size or shape from a bacterium to an avatar for an AI spaceship (such as Rommy’s avatar in Andromeda, or Edi in Mass Effect. Noteworthy of course is that both Rommy and Edi felt compelled to get bodies too, so that they could maximise their usefuleness, even though they were both useful in their pure AI form.)

You could be any age. It might be very difficult to make a body that can grow, so you might need a succession of bodies if you want to start off as a child again. Already, warning bells are ringing in my head and I realise that we will need to restrict options and police things. Do we really want to allow adults people to assume the bodies of children, with all the obvious paedophilic dangers that would bring? Probably not, and I suspect this will be one of the first regulations restricting choice. You could become young again, but the law will make it so your appearance must remain adult. For the same obvious reasons, you wouldn’t be allowed to become something like a teddy bear or doll or any other form that would provide easy access to children.

You could be any gender. I wrote about future gender potential recently in:

http://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/the-future-of-gender/

There will be lots of genders and sexuality variations in that time frame.  Getting a new or an extra body with a different gender will obviously appeal to people with transgender desires, but it might go further and appeal to those who want a body of each sex too. Why not? You can be perfectly comfortable with your sexuality in your existing gender, but  still choose a different gender for your new body. If you can have a body in each gender, many people will want to. You may not be restricted to one or two bodies, so you might buy several bodies of different ages, genders, races and appearances. You could have a whole village of variants of you. Again, obvious restrictions loom large. Regulation would not allow people, however rich or powerful, to have huge numbers of bodies running around at the same time. The environmental, social, political and military impacts would get too large. I can’t say what the limits will be, but there will certainly be limits. But within those limits, you could have a lot of flexibility, and fun.

You could be any species. An alien, or an elf, or a dog. Technology can do most shapes and as for how it might feel, noone knows how elves or dogs or aliens feel anyway, so you have a clean slate to work with, customising till you are satisfied that what you create matches your desire. But again, should elves be allowed to interbreed with people, or aliens? Or dogs? The technology is exciting, but it does create a whole new genre of ethical, regulatory and policing problems too. But then again, we need to create new jobs anyway.

Other restrictions on relationships might spring up. If you have two or more bodies, will they be allowed to have sex with each other, marry, adopt kids, or be both parents of your own kids. Bear in mind cloning may well be legal by then and artificial wombs may even exist, so being both parents of your own cloned offspring is possible. If they do have sex, you will be connected into both bodies, so will control and experience both sides. It is worth noting here that you will also be able to link into other people’s nervous systems using similar technology, so the idea of experiencing the ‘other’ side of a sex act will not be unique to using your own bodies.

What about being a superhero? You could do that too, within legal limits, and of course those stretch a bit for police and military roles. Adding extra senses and capabilities is easy if your mind is connected to an entire network of sensors, processors and actuators. Remember, the body you use is just an android so if your superheroing activity gets you killed, it is just a temporary inconvenience. Claim on insurance or expenses and buy a new body for the next performance.

In this future world, you may think it would be hard to juggle mindsets between different bodies, but today’s computer games give us some insight. Many people take on roles every day, as aliens, wizards or any fantasy in their computer gaming. They still achieve sanity in their main life, showing that it is almost certainly possible to safely juggle multiple bodies with their distinct roles and appearances too. The human mind is pretty versatile, and a healthy adult mind is also very robust. With future AI assistance and monitoring it should be even safer. So it ought to be safe to explore and have fun in a world where you can use a different body at will, maybe for an hour or maybe for a lifetime, and even inhabit a few at once.

So, again, what will your next body look like?