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Monday, June 16, 2008

Death special: The plan for eternal life

Quest for immortality
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Watch our exclusive video interviews with Anders Sandberg, Aubrey de Grey and Nick Bostrom

I'M SITTING in a darkened hall listening to neuroscientist Anders Sandberg describe how to scan ultra-thin sections of brain. First, embed the brain in plastic, then use a camera combined with laser beam and diamond blade to capture images of the tissue as it is sliced.

The method is being developed (in mice, so far) to better understand the architecture of the brain. But Sandberg, who is based at the University of Oxford, has a rather more ambitious aim in mind. For him, this work is merely the first step towards uploading the contents of human brains - memories, emotions and all - onto a computer.

This is the opening session of the ninth annual meeting of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) in Chicago. Sandberg and his fellow transhumanists plan to bypass death by using technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), genetic engineering and nanotechnology to radically accelerate human evolution, eventually merging people with machines to make us immortal. This may not be possible yet, the transhumanists reason, but as long as they live long enough - a few decades perhaps - the technology will surely catch up.

To many, these ideas sound seriously scary, and transhumanists have been attacked for jeopardising the future of humanity. What if they ended up creating a race of elite superhumans bent on enslaving the unmodified masses, or unwittingly programmed an army of self-replicating nanobots that would turn us all into grey goo? In 2004, political scientist Francis Fukuyama singled out transhumanism as the world's "most dangerous idea".

Now this small-scale movement aims to go mainstream. WTA membership has risen from 2000 to almost 5000 in the past seven years, and transhumanist student groups have sprung up at university campuses from California to Nairobi. It has attracted a series of wealthy backers, including Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, who recently donated $4 million to the cause, and music producer Charlie Kam, who paid for the Chicago conference. For the first time the organisation has recruited celebrity speakers, such as actor-environmentalist Ed Begley Jr and Star Trek veteran William Shatner.

Other well-known speakers are also on the roster, including AI developer Ben Goertzel, longevity biologist Aubrey de Grey and futurist Ray Kurzweil, the group's unofficial prophet. Kurzweil has recently caused a stir with his best-selling book The Singularity is Near, which explores what happens when our technologies become smarter than us. With transhumanists looking to woo the masses to their cause, I've come to Chicago to find out whether they deserve their dangerous reputation.

Saving humanity

They don't look very threatening, though perhaps not very diverse either. Most WTA members are white, middle-aged men, but WTA secretary and former Buddhist monk James Hughes (see "Essay: The end of death?") hopes to attract a wider range of people by highlighting the organisation's democratic aims. The WTA insists that any new technology is used in a fair and ethical way, he says, with global treaties set up to regulate progress. Some transhumanists campaign for equal access to healthcare and for safeguards on new technology.

AI theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky also believes the movement is driven by an ethical imperative. He sees creating a superhuman AI as humanity's best chance of solving its problems: "Saying AI will save the world or cure cancer sounds better than saying 'I don't know what's going to happen'." Yudkowsky thinks it is crucial to create a "friendly" super-intelligence before someone creates a malevolent one, purposefully or otherwise. "Sooner or later someone is going to create these technologies," he says. "If a self-improving AI is thrown together in a slapdash fashion, we could be in for big trouble."

The theme of saving humanity continues with presentations on cyborgs, cryonics and raising baby AIs in the virtual world of Second Life, as well as surveillance tactics for weeding out techno-terrorists and a suggested solution for the population explosion: uploading 10 million people onto a 50-cent computer chip. More immediate issues facing humanity, such as poverty, pollution and the devastation of war, tend to get ignored.

I discover the less egalitarian side to the transhumanist community when I meet Marvin Minsky, the 80-year-old originator of artificial neural networks and co-founder of the AI lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Ordinary citizens wouldn't know what to do with eternal life," says Minsky. "The masses don't have any clear-cut goals or purpose." Only scientists, who work on problems that might take decades to solve appreciate the need for extended lifespans, he argues.

He is also staunchly against regulating the development of new technologies. "Scientists shouldn't have ethical responsibility for their inventions, they should be able to do what they want," he says. "You shouldn't ask them to have the same values as other people."

The transhumanist movement has been struggling in recent years with bitter arguments between democrats like Hughes and libertarians like Minsky. Can Kurzweil's keynote speech unite the opposing factions? On the final day of the meeting, the diminutive 59-year-old takes the podium, complete with horn-rimmed glasses, utilitarian blue suit and Mickey Mouse watch. Kurzweil offers a few possible solutions to today's global dilemmas, such as nano-engineered solar panels to free the world from its addiction to fossil fuels. But he is opposed to taxpayer-funded programmes such as universal healthcare as well as any regulation of new technology, and believes that even outright bans will be powerless to control or delay the end of humanity as we know it.

"People sometimes say, 'Are we going to allow transhumanism and artificial intelligence to occur?'" he tells the audience. "Well, I don't recall when we voted that there would be an internet."

Death - Delve deeper into the riddle of human mortality in our special report.

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