The first human beings who will live to be 1,000 years old have already been born. It’s not the opening line to a science fiction novel. It’s a bold statement from British researcher Aubrey de Grey, who has dedicated his life to ending human aging altogether. Founder and Director of Science at the SENS Research Foundation, de Grey believes that we could defeat aging, achieving what he refers to as “longevity escape velocity,” in the next 30 years.
“I know a lot about what we can already do in the laboratory, and I know what we need to do to defeat aging entirely, or at least I think I know,” de Gray said, in an interview with the 2045 Initiative. “I think that we have really only seven big problems to solve, and I think we’re progressing very rapidly into solving all of them. Until we solve all of them we will really only probably extend healthy life by 10 or 15 years at most.”
But what de Grey is working toward, by his own definition, isn’t immortality. It is a fountain of youth, yes, but even if you could remain young forever, you would still inhabit a human body with all its fragility and frailty. What if you didn’t want to deal with the uncertainty of human life? What if you wanted to truly live forever by transferring your human consciousness into a synthetic, cybernetic body? And what if that cybernetic future held more than just a cure for cancer and aging and death? What if it also held a cure for one of the biggest social challenges of our time?
Sooner than you think
How close are we to achieving our android dreams? If you believe the folks at the 2045 Initiative, then 30 years seems to be the key there as well. It might sound completely crazy, but the Russian-based non-profit organization has mapped out the broad strokes of their plans online, and they’ve been hard at work trying to convince the world of its viability.
The company’s founder, Dmitry Itskov, presented his vision for humanity’s future four years ago at the Global Future 2045 International Congress in Moscow. It’s called the Avatar Project, and it comes in three distinct phases. Phase one is right around the corner, according to 2045. In this first phase, which they say will be implemented by 2020, a humanoid robot, called an Avatar, is controlled through a brain-computer interface.
Phase two is 10 years down the line and involves creating a life support system for a real human brain and connecting it to the Avatar, effectively transplanting a human brain into a robotic body. According to the organization’s literature, this kind of advancement “will save people whose body is completely worn out or irreversibly damaged.” As long as you retain brain function, theoretically, you should be able to inhabit a robotic body.
The final phase of the project is the most ambitious: creating a completely artificial brain in which to transfer the human consciousness. This requires a complete mapping of the human brain into a computer model, and the creation of a synthetic version of the brain which can carry out all necessary processes to sustain both life and conscious thought. That includes memory, emotion, creation, inspiration. It’s a massive undertaking to even consider.
We have the technology
But while the 2045 Initiative’s overall timeline might seem far-fetched, their initial goals aren’t exactly out of reach. They aren’t the only ones working on them. They aren’t even the only ones using the name Avatar.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, also had a project on the books in 2012 called Avatar. The project was remarkably similar to the James Cameron film of the same name, only instead of giant blue aliens attempting to overthrow a native race, these were envisioned as tactical combat drones, agile enough to mimic the movements of real soldiers. They would act as soldier surrogates doing a number of dangerous and difficult jobs during war, all while being controlled by a real soldier.
Still other groups are working on their own version of the same idea. The Human Brain Project, developed by Henry Markham in 2010, and funded three years later, is working specifically toward the most important intermediate step in uploading human consciousness to a synthetic brain: the creation of the brain itself. Not just a computer, but a computer capable of doing everything we need it to do.
The actual timeline for creating robotic replacements for ourselves may differ wildly from those put forward by The 2045 Initiative. Certainly, Itskov's ideas are wildly ambitious, to put it mildly, but it cannot be said that they are necessarily unattainable. Advancements in the field of brain-computer interface technology over just the last few years have allowed patients with locked-in syndrome and other severe neurological disorders to communicate with the world again, advancements in the field of prosthetics are happening rapidly, and computers and robotics become more powerful and more intelligent at exponential rates.
The rate of human advancement is limited only by our imagination.
Putting aside some of the more unbelievable aspects of this for a moment, let’s assume Itskov is correct in his predictions, and in 30 years humanity is offered the ability to choose between our normal, everyday lives as flesh-and-blood humans or essentially endless, synthetic ones. What kinds of possibilities would this future open up for the human race as a species?
Itskov’s goals in establishing the 2045 Initiative are based on the principles of Transhumanism, the idea that we as humans can use science and technology to transcend our own evolution. Take control of our existence and self-direct it to become something beyond human. His vision is to overcome illness and injury and death, but allowing humanity to transcend human bodies would also allow humanity to overcome something else, a topic that has caught fire in recent years, and ignited endless debates on college campuses, in state capitols, and on mommy blogs: gender.
The concept of gender identity and expression has been an extremely hot topic for the last few years, but the concept of gender fluidity is far from new. The earliest gender reassignment surgery was performed more than a century ago. Despite the fact that we have lived on the spectrum of gender for centuries, society, on the whole, is slow to change. But something like this would jumpstart the way we saw ourselves as a human species. Could it also afford us the opportunity to rethink the way we look at other aspects of our society as well? Things like gender and other forms of self-expression?
Gender vs. Sex
So what actually is gender? Is it a biological description or a social construct? I’m so glad you asked, because sex and gender are, in fact, two different things.
Sex refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.
Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women. Gender also refers to someone’s gender identity or the way they present themselves to society, regardless of their biological sex.
In terms of what we’re talking about here, this is specific to gender identity and expression. Reproductive organs have no place in a conversation about robots.
One size fits all
The one thing that the 2045 Initiative’s proposal left out in all their plans for what humanity’s future might look like is what humanity’s future might actually look like. This is likely because they’ve never really thought about it much themselves. They’re far too busy dealing with the question of getting a human consciousness inside a computer. But it begs the question: How does a robotic human replacement physically look? Are we going to have separate girl bodies and boy bodies or will we simply have one standard body for everyone? I would argue that the latter, though possibly a little confusing or off-putting at first, is the better option.
Think of it like, well, an Avatar in a video game — or, if you’re not a gamer, like a paper doll. Everyone starts out with the exact same character at the beginning, but you can customize things to your preferences. People who want to present themselves as more masculine or more feminine are free to do so, regardless of their biological sex, their gender identity, or their sexual orientation. Freed from specific biological markers, those who dress outside of what might have once been considered “culturally acceptable” would be able to walk out into the world free of stigma or judgement, because they look like everyone else. Just as beautiful as you or me.
To infinity and beyond
A world in which free expression of who we are is not marred by what we are, and how we choose to express ourselves isn’t corrupted by the way people believe we should be expressing ourselves might sound just as far-fetched as a world where humanity exists as a race of immortal robotic super beings. Maybe you’re right. But there are teams of passionate people working every day toward both goals, and passionate people rarely like it when you tell them the odds.