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So, You Wanna Be an Android?

Inside the evolution movement that wants machines to replace people.

The day before travelling to New York City to attend Global Future 2045, a gathering last weekend of so-called transhumanists who hope to download their minds into android bodies, I put in a call to the American Psychiatric Association.

I wanted to know if the desire to become a machine is recognized by experts as a mental disturbance. I’d checked their thick manual of mental disorders, the DSM-V, but hadn’t come up with anything closer than computer addiction. An official at the association promised to get back to me soon on my “very esoteric subject.”

Wanting to become a machine is a lot more common than the shrinks think. The New York conference, held in the 1,089-seat Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, drew an energetic crowd including more than 230 journalists, as well as an Eastern Orthodox archbishop, a Tibetan lama, engineers from Google, along with several scientists influential in setting United States science funding priorities.

man and baby androids on stage
Mechanical men: A robotic version of Japanese researcher Hiroshi Ishiguro on stage. Beside it is a “telenoid,” a sexless, ageless, android able to hold simple conversations.

The event’s convener and patron, Dmitry Itskov, is a wealthy Russian Internet entrepreneur who a couple of years back had a “spiritual change” that made him stop collecting $20,000 watches and instead launch a what he calls a global initiative to create “a new species free from the limits of biology.”

The apex of the event was to be the unveiling of a realistic animatronic bust of Istkov, created by roboticist David Hanson, and an early prototype of what Itskov hopes within 20 years will be “artificial carriers” into which human minds can be placed. “It’s a human right. People need to have the right to live, and not to die,” said Itskov, who has plans to raise several hundred million dollars to speed humanity’s metamorphosis into machine-form.

Itskov’s enthusiasm and his money (the conference cost $3 million, including speaker payments) drew the cream of the so-called Singularity movement, including Ray Kurzweil (see “Don’t Underestimate the Singularity”) and Peter Diamandis, creator of the X Prize Foundation. The Singularity, which forecasts the emergence of true computer intelligence by mid-century, is often called a nerd religion, and the proceedings lived up to that billing.

The event opened with apocalyptic predictions of climate disasters and overpopulation. Mankind is a sinner, right? But then comes the rapture: a new life as peaceful, undying machines. To give a flavor for the meeting, Diamandis’ talk was titled “Intelligent Self-Directed Evolution Guides Mankind’s Metamorphosis into an Immortal Planetary Meta-Intelligence.”

The wish for immortality is probably as old as our species’ consciousness of death. What’s new about the Singularity’s take on things is the role of technology. Specifically, the fetish object is an avatar inside of which stirs, narcissistically enough, not a god or ancestor, but a copy of oneself.

On stage during the conference I saw today’s version of such an android. Created by Japanese roboticist named Hirisho Ishiguro, the device was such an eerily lifelike copy of Ishiguro that, at first, I imagined it was him just pretending to be a robot. Man or machine, it was hard to tell.

Ishiguro says the effect is due to programming the robot to carry out unconscious movements–the batting of the eyelids, a shy lowering of the chin, and a slight swaying to and fro. Such android busts (the arms and legs don’t move) cost about $100,000 to make and are the result of what Ishiguro calls a “constructive” approach. One by one, he’s been adding his own features and mannerisms to his robot, making it more and more realistic.

To inhabit a robot, you also need a way to get your mind, personality and memories into a piece of software. As implausible as this may seem, Itskov’s speaker list included several very senior biologists, including two, MIT’s Ed Boyden and Harvard Medical School’s George Church who only two months ago had joined President Obama at the White House for the launch of the government BRAIN Initiative, funded with $100 million (see “Why Obama’s Brain-Mapping Project Matters”).

The goal of these researchers is to map the cells and molecules of the brain in fine detail—a fantastically ambitious and expensive undertaking. That’s why they need government money, and possibly that of patrons like Itskov, too. Yet if it’s really possible to map the brain, artificial minds might follow as a logical result. “What I cannot build I do not understand,” Boyden told the audience, quoting the physicist Richard Feynman.

I did worry that these highly credentialed academics might have been bamboozled into a conference that also featured discussions of head transplants. One that took the stage was Theodore Berger, of the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, whose technology for storing real memories in silicon we picked this year as one of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies (see “Memory Implants”).

“Fifteen years ago when we first started talking about building replacement parts for the brain there were many dismissive voices. Now it’s accepted,” said Berger. He says Itskov began courting him a couple of months ago and that he and the Russian had “hit it off.”

I pressed Berger on the android question. Does he actually want to become a machine? “Age has changed my response to that question in ways that I would never have predicted. I have never wanted to become a machine, but parts of my body are starting to break down in ways that I really don’t like,” he said. “So while I’ve said I don’t want to become a machine, in fact I do. If I needed to become a machine I would.”

So that leaves only the question of when. Will the avatar vessels be ready to receive our mind transplants by 2045?

It could all take a little longer than hoped for. That became clear when Itskov’s specially-ordered android head arrived late to the conference, and then was kept out of sight backstage. The young Russian eventually decided not the reveal the creation to the crowd, apparently dissatisfied with its level of realism.

“He paid a lot of money for it and it was supposed to be ready weeks ago,” a spokeswoman for Itskov told me. “Dmitry was not happy.”

Update 6/18/2013: This morning Itskov sent me a statement about his android head. “Just like many other technological advances, failure is a part of the road to success,” he writes. Read the full letter here.

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