- Thought to Implant 4: OnNet, please.
- Hundreds of shimmering thumbnail images mist into view,
spread fairly evenly across the entire field of pseudovision.
- Thought: Zoom upper left, higher, into Winston's image.
- Transmit: It's Nellie. Let's connect and chat over croissants.
Rue des Enfants, Paris in the spring, our favorite table, yes?
- Four-second pause.
- Background thought: Damn it. What's taking him so long?
- Receive: I'm here, ma chêre, I'm here! Let's do
- The thumbnail field mists away, and a café scene
swirls into place. Scent of honeysuckle. Paté. Wine. Light breeze.
Nellie is seated at a quaint table with a plain white tablecloth. An image
of Winston looking 20 and buff mists in across from her. Message thumbnails
occasionally blink against the sky.
- Winston: It's so good to see you again, ma chêre!
It's been months! And what a gorgeous choice of bodies! The eyes are a
dead giveaway, though. You always pick those raspberry eyes. Trés
bold, Nellita. So what's the occasion? Part of me is in the middle of a
business meeting in Chicago, so I can't dally.
- Nellie: Why do you always put on that muscleman body,
Winston? You know how much I like your real one. Winston morphs into a
man in his early 50s, still overly muscular.
- Winston: (laughing) My real body? How droll! No one but
my neurotechnician has seen it for years! Believe me, that's not what you
want. I can do much better! He fans rapidly through a thousand images,
and Nellie grimaces.
- Nellie: Damn it! You're just one of Winston's MI's! Where
is the real Winston? I know I used the right connection!
- Winston: Nellie, I'm sorry to have to tell you this.
There was a transporter accident a few weeks ago in Evanston, and well,
I'm lucky they got to me in time for the full upload. I'm all of Winston
that's left. The body's gone.
- When Nellie contacts her friend Winston through the Internet
connection in her brain, he is already, biologically speaking, dead. It
is his electronic mind double, a virtual reality twin, that greets Nellie
in their virtual Parisian café. What's surprising here is not so
much the notion that human minds may someday live on inside computers after
their bodies have expired. It's the fact that this vignette is closer at
hand than most people realize. Within 30 years, the minds in those computers
may just be our own.
- The history of technology has shown over and over that
as one mode of technology exhausts its potential, a new more sophisticated
paradigm emerges to keep us moving at an exponential pace. Between 1910
and 1950, computer technology doubled in power every three years; between
1950 and 1966, it doubled every two years; and it has recently been doubling
- By the year 2020, your $1,000 personal computer will
have the processing power of the human brain-20 million billion calculations
per second (100 billion neurons times 1,000 connections per neuron times
200 calculations per second per connection). By 2030, it will take a village
of human brains to match a $1,000 computer. By 2050, $1,000 worth of computing
will equal the processing power of all human brains on earth.
- Of course, achieving the processing power of the human
brain is necessary but not sufficient for creating human level intelligence
in a machine. But by 2030, we'll have the means to scan the human brain
and re-create its design electronically.
- Most people don't realize the revolutionary impact of
that. The development of computers that match and vastly exceed the capabilities
of the human brain will be no less important than the evolution of human
intelligence itself some thousands of generations ago. Current predictions
overlook the imminence of a world in which machines become more like humans-programmed
with replicated brain synapses that re-create the ability to respond appropriately
to human emotion, and humans become more like machines-our biological bodies
and brains enhanced with billions of "nanobots," swarms of microscopic
robots transporting us in and out of virtual reality. We have already started
down this road: Human and machine have already begun to meld.
- It starts with uploading, or scanning the brain into
a computer. One scenario is invasive: One very thin slice at a time, scientists
input a brain of choice-having been frozen just slightly before it was
going to die-at an extremely high speed. This way, they can easily see
every neuron, every connection and every neurotransmitter concentration
represented in each synapse-thin layer.
- Seven years ago, a condemned killer allowed his brain
and body to be scanned in this way, and you can access all 10 billion
bytes of him on the Internet. You can see for yourself every bone, muscle
and section of gray matter in his body. But the scan is not yet at a high
enough resolution to re-create the interneuronal connections, synapses
and neurotransmitter concentrations that are the key to capturing the individuality
within a human brain.
- Our scanning machines today can clearly capture neural
features as long as the scanner is very close to the source. Within 30
years, however, we will be able to send billions of nanobots-blood cell-size
scanning machines-through every capillary of the brain to create a complete
noninvasive scan of every neural feature. A shot full of nanobots will
someday allow the most subtle details of our knowledge, skills and personalities
to be copied into a file and stored in a computer.
- We can touch and feel this technology today. We just
can't make the nanobots small enough, not yet anyway. But miniaturization
is another one of those accelerating technology trends. We're currently
shrinking the size of technology by a factor of 5.6 per linear dimension
per decade, so it is conservative to say that this scenario will be feasible
in a few decades. The nanobots will capture the locations, interconnections
and contents of all the nerve cell bodies, axons, dendrites, presynaptic
vesicles, neurotransmitter concentrations and other relevant neural components.
Using high-speed wireless communication, the nanobots will then communicate
with each other and with other computers that are compiling the brain-scan
- If this seems daunting, another scanning project, that
of the human genome, was also considered ambitious when it was first introduced
12 years ago. At the time, skeptics said the task would take thousands
of years, given current scanning capabilities. But the project is finishing
on time nevertheless because the speed with which we can sequence DNA has
- Brain scanning is a prerequisite to Winston and Nellie's
virtual life-and apparent immortality.
- In 2029, we will swallow or inject billions of nanobots
into our veins to enter a three dimensional cyberspace-a virtual reality
environment. Already, neural implants are used to counteract tremors from
Parkinson's disease as well as multiple sclerosis. I have a deaf friend
who can now hear what I'm saying because of his cochlear implant. Under
development is a retinal implant that will perform a similar function for
blind people, basically replacing certain visual processing circuits of
the brain. Recently, scientists from Emory University placed a chip in
the brain of a paralyzed stroke victim who can now begin to communicate
and control his environment directly from his brain.
- But while a surgically introduced neural implant can
be placed in only one or at most a few locations, nanobots can take up
billions or trillions of positions throughout the brain. We already have
electronic devices called neuron transistors that, noninvasively, allow
communication between electronics and biological neurons. Using this technology,
developed at Germany's Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, scientists
were recently able to control from their computer the movements of a living
- By taking up positions next to specific neurons, the
nanobots will be able to detect and control their activity. For virtual
reality applications, the nanobots will take up positions next to every
nerve fiber coming from all five of our senses. When we want to enter a
specific virtual environment, the nanobots will suppress the signals coming
from our real senses and replace them with new, virtual ones. We can then
cause our virtual body to move, speak and otherwise interact in the virtual
environment. The nanobots would prevent our real bodies from moving; instead,
we would have a virtual body in a virtual environment, which need not be
the same as our real body.
- Like the experiences Winston and Nellie enjoyed, this
technology will enable us to have virtual interactions with other people-or
simulated people-without requiring any equipment not already in our heads.
And virtual reality will not be as crude as what you experience in today's
arcade games. It will be as detailed and subtle as real life. So instead
of just phoning a friend, you can meet in a virtual Italian bistro or stroll
down a virtual tropical beach, and it will all seem real. People will be
able to share any type of experience-business, social, romantic or sexual-
regardless of physical proximity.
- The trip to virtual reality will be readily reversible
since, with your thoughts alone, you will be able to shut the nanobots
off, or even direct them to leave your body. Nanobots are programmable,
in that they can provide virtual reality one minute and a variety of brain
extensions the next. They can change their configuration, and even alter
- While the combination of human-level intelligence in
a machine and a computer's inherent superiority in the speed, accuracy
and sharing ability of its memory will be formidable-this is not an alien
invasion. It is emerging from within our human- machine civilization.
- But will virtual life and its promise of immortality
obviate the fear of death? Once we upload our knowledge, memories and insights
into a computer, will we have acquired eternal life? First we must determine
what human life is. What is consciousness anyway? If my thoughts, knowledge,
experience, skills and memories achieve eternal life without me, what does
that mean for me?
- Consciousness-a seemingly basic tenet of "living"-is
perplexing and reflects issues that have been debated since the Platonic
dialogues. We assume, for instance, that other humans are conscious, but
when we consider the possibility that nonhuman animals may be conscious,
our understanding of consciousness is called into question.
- The issue of consciousness will become even more contentious
in the 21st century because nonbiological entities-read: machines-will
be able to convince most of us that they are conscious. They will master
all the subtle cues that we now use to determine that humans are conscious.
And they will get mad if we refute their claims.
- Consider this: If we scan me, for example, and record
the exact state, level and position of my every neurotransmitter, synapse,
neural connection and other relevant details, and then reinstantiate this
massive database into a neural computer, then who is the real me? If you
ask the machine, it will vehemently claim to be the original Ray. Since
it will have all of my memories, it will say, "I grew up in Queens,
New York, went to college at MIT, stayed in the Boston area, sold a few
artificial intelligence companies, walked into a scanner there and woke
up in the machine here. Hey, this technology really works."
- But there are strong arguments that this is really a
different person. For one thing, old biological Ray (that's me) still exists.
I'll still be here in my carbon, cell-based brain. Alas, I (the old biological
Ray) will have to sit back and watch the new Ray succeed in endeavors that
I could only dream of.
- But New Ray will have some strong claims as well. He
will say that while he is not absolutely identical to Old Ray, neither
is the current version of Old Ray, since the particles making up my biological
brain and body are constantly changing. It is the patterns of matter and
energy that are semipermanent (that is, changing only gradually), while
the actual material content changes constantly and very quickly.
- Viewed in this way, my identity is rather like the pattern
that water makes when rushing around a rock in a stream. The pattern remains
relatively unchanged for hours, even years, while the actual material constituting
the pattern-the water-is replaced in milliseconds.
- This idea is consistent with the philosophical notion
that we should not associate our fundamental identity with a set of particles,
but rather with the pattern of matter and energy that we represent. In
other words, if we change our definition of consciousness to value patterns
over particles, then New Ray may have an equal claim to be the continuation
of Old Ray.
- One could scan my brain and reinstantiate the new Ray
while I was sleeping, and I would not necessarily even know about it. If
you then came to me, and said, "Good news, Ray, we've successfully
reinstantiated your mind file so we won't be needing your old body and
brain anymore," I may quickly realize the philosophical flaw in the
argument that New Ray is a continuation of my consciousness. I may wish
New Ray well, and realize that he shares my pattern, but I would nonetheless
conclude that he is not me, because I'm still here.
- Wherever you wind up on this debate, it is worth noting
that data do not necessarily last forever. The longevity of information
depends on its relevance, utility and accessibility. If you've ever tried
to retrieve information from an obsolete form of data storage in an old
obscure format (e.g., a reel of magnetic tape from a 1970s minicomputer),
you understand the challenge of keeping software viable. But if we are
diligent in maintaining our mind file, keeping current backups and porting
to the latest formats and mediums, then at least a crucial aspect of who
we are will attain a longevity independent of our bodies.
- What does this super technological intelligence mean
for the future? There will certainly be grave dangers associated with 21st
century technologies. Consider unrestrained nanobot replication. The technology
requires billions or trillions of nanobots in order to be useful, and the
most cost-effective way to reach such levels is through self-replication,
essentially the same approach used in the biological world, by bacteria,
for example. So in the same way that biological self-replication gone awry
(i.e., cancer) results in biological destruction, a defect in the mechanism
curtailing nanobot self-replication would endanger all physical entities,
biological or otherwise.
- Other salient questions are: Who is controlling the nanobots?
Who else might the nanobots be talking to?
- Organizations, including governments, extremist groups
or even a clever individual, could put trillions of undetectable nanobots
in the water or food supply of an entire population. These "spy"
nanobots could then monitor, influence and even control our thoughts and
actions. In addition, authorized nanobots could be influenced by software
viruses and other hacking techniques. Just as technology poses dangers
today, there will be a panoply of risks in the decades ahead.
- On a personal level, I am an optimist, and I expect that
the creative and constructive applications of this technology will persevere,
as I believe they do today. But there will be a valuable and increasingly
vocal role for a concerned movement of Luddites-those anti-technologists
inspired by early-19th-century weavers who in protest destroyed machinery
that was threatening their livelihood.
- Still, I regard the freeing of the human mind from its
severe physical limitations as a necessary next step in evolution. Evolution,
in my view, is the purpose of life, meaning that the purpose of life-and
of our lives-is to evolve.
- What does it mean to evolve? Evolution moves toward greater
complexity, elegance, intelligence, beauty, creativity and love. And God
has been called all these things, only without any limitation, infinite.
While evolution never reaches an infinite level, it advances exponentially,
certainly moving in that direction. Technological evolution, therefore,
moves us inexorably closer to becoming like God. And the freeing of our
thinking from the severe limitations of our biological form may be regarded
as an essential spiritual quest.
- By the close of the next century, nonbiological intelligence
will be ubiquitous. There will be few humans without some form of artificial
intelligence, which is growing at a double exponential rate, whereas biological
intelligence is basically at a standstill. Nonbiological thinking will
be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than that of its biological
progenitors, although it will be still of human origin.
- Ultimately, however, the earth's technology-creating
species will merge with its own computational technology. After all, what
is the difference between a human brain enhanced a trillion-fold by nanobot-based
implants, and a computer whose design is based on high-resolution scans
of the human brain, and then extended a trillion-fold?
- This may be the ominous, existential question that our
own children, certainly our grandchildren, will face. But at this point,
there's no turning back. And there's no slowing down.