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Early PCs had the brainpower of a nematode worm, but they evolve a lot quicker. If we can keep doubling their price/performance every two years or so, as we have been doing, then PCs will have more brainpower than us by 2020. And since they get about ten times faster each decade, they will soon have more brainpower than all of us put together.

This raises some interesting scenarios. One is the familiar dystopia, where we are killed off by Terminator-style robots when Skynet takes over the world. Another is the idea that we will be able to transfer our brains to silicon chips, make backups, and effectively become immortal.

Dmitry Itskov, GF2045 General chair and Founder. Opening roundtable discussion with journalists “Investing in the Future”*

These things are the stuff of science fiction, but Dmitry Itskov, a 31-year-old Russian internet publisher, hopes to turn them into science fact. He already has a small group of scientists working on the problems.

Obviously he doesn’t expect instant immortality, and his Avatar project has four distinct stages. The first aim is to create a human-like robot that can be controlled by a brain-computer interface. This would be invaluable to someone like Professor Stephen Hawking, as well as people seriously injured in accidents, and so on.

The second idea is to create a life support system for the human brain. Most people die from diseases of the body, but Itskov’s theory is that “our brain can live 200 to 300 years”.

The third project is to “reverse-engineer the brain”. If someone had a brain disease, it might be possible — by means we don’t yet know — to port their brain to a computer. That’s 20-25 years away.

The fourth and final part is Itskov’s “dream”. Combine the robot body with a computer brain and you get humanoid robots. You can start evolving those (or they can start evolving themselves) in all sorts of interesting ways. It would certainly make it easier to migrate to the moon or Mars, or even to leave the solar system.

Itskov has even suggested “holographic” bodies like Obi-Wan Kenobi’s hologram in Star Wars.

When I appeared on a radio discussion panel on Voice of Russia last month, following Itskov’s appearance at the Global Future 2045 conference in Moscow, I pointed out that thousands of researchers have been working on various aspects of all these problems for decades. The Japanese in particular have invested vast sums in developing humanoid robots such as Topio, which plays ping-pong, AIST’s HRP-4C Miim, Mitsubishi’s Wakamaru and Honda’s Asimo.

Many more groups of researchers are working to develop mechanisms that help people lead productive lives. These range from Cochlear implants (bionic hearing aids) to artificial arms and legs. However, keeping a disembodied head alive — even a mouse’s head — is well beyond our capabilities. In the movie The Man with Two Brains, Steve Martin’s Dr Michael Hfuhruhurr keeps brains alive in jars, but the reality is a long way from that.

It’s impossible to believe that these very hard problems can be solved by 30 or more Russian researchers in, perhaps, 30 years. But still, these are the sorts of problems we should be thinking about, and America’s Pentagon — which doesn’t like its soldiers being killed or injured — is thinking along the same lines. DARPA, the US military’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, has started its own Avatar project to create robotic surrogate soldiers, presumably inspired by James Cameron’s hit 3D movie.

Back in 1951, British computer scientist Alan Turing, a pioneer of artificial intelligence, said that “once the machine thinking method has started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers”. This “technological singularity” is now predicted to take place in 2045. You could be among the first generation of immortals.


*Photo credit: GF2045

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