You, Me, and Your Avatar Makes Three

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By Ji Lee; from August 9, 2010 New York Times op-ed piece

Like the cylons  – the fictional mechno-human hybrids from Battlestar Galactica – Russian online media magnate and millionaire Dmitry Itskov has a plan for the future. By the year 2045, he hopes to see – indeed he plans to catalyze – the mass production of lifelike, inexpensive avatars. Into such a vessel would be poured the contents of a human mind – its memories, recollections, and experiences.  The result would be an avatar, a robotic version of our sentient selves, a digital copy of our minds encased in a lifelike shell. I attended a Singularity Summit in 2010 and saw one of the robotic protoypes. Creepy? Yes. Liifelike? If this is the superhighway to the future, I’ll take the side road please.  Easily dismissed, stories such as this do provoke valuable consideration of what we want or imagine the future to be.

Itskov is doing more than just speculate though. To accelerate us toward avatar-ness, he started a social initiative called Next week, a cohort of scientific and religious leaders will meet in New York City for the Global Future Conference and discuss the nature of consciousness, robotics, neuroscience, and the reconciliation of transhumanism with spirituality.

Meanwhile, a version of Itskov is already under construction. A company in Texas is making a replica of him, at least from the neck up.

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From caption that accompanied the June 2, 2013 article: “David Hanson, founder of Hanson Robotics, says his robotic model of Dmitry Itskov’s head will use 36 motors to reproduce his facial expressions and voice. “

But this technology would benefit more than Itskov. His creations, he says, would end hunger – who needs to feed an avatar? – and usher in a more peaceful era as the stresses of daily life yield to a more relaxed and spiritual existence. Transcendence through technology – rapture for the nerds.

If none of this sounds new, it’s because it isn’t. 18th century Hindu mythology once used “avatar” to refer to deities which had descended to earth in a physical form. On the cusp of the Space Race, science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Frederick Pohl incorporated the idea of transferring one’s memories and consciousness into a machine. Before Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard left the earth’s atmosphere, medical researchers discussed the possibility of augmenting space travelers’ biological capabilities with machines, coining the word “cyborg” in the process.1

These ideas were taken up again in the late 1980s and 1990 by the nascent transhumanist community.

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Extropy, c. 1993

Extropy magazine, for example, appeared as a “Vaccine for Future Shock” – an inoculation against Tofflerism, I guess – covering the a wide range of technological topics that “promise to radically transform virtually every aspect of our existence.” This list, remarkable in its catholicity, included “intelligence-increase technologies, life extension, cryonics and biostasis, nanotechnology.” To this, they added space colonization, “economics and politics (especially libertarian),” and the “intelligent use of psychochemicals.”

By the late 1990s, some transhumanists began to embrace a radical unifying concept called the “Singularity.” Its proponents gathered together a wide range of technological ideas – space exploration, nanotechnologies, life extension, artificial intelligence, biological enhancement – into a broader vision for the technological future. Although the Singularity began attracting considerable mainstream attention in the early 21st century, it was directly descended from something that appeared decades earlier in the pages of, not surprisingly, in Omni magazine.2

Debated among technological enthusiasts for several years, the Singularity received considerably more attention after Ray Kurzweil began to promote his visions for the merger of people and machines. As a futurist, Kurzweil imagined “our biological bodies and brains enhanced with billions of “nanobots,” swarms of microscopic robots transporting us in and out of virtual reality…Human and machine have already begun to meld.” Kurzweil wasn’t alone in imagining this marriage of silico and vivo. Larry Page, one of Google’s cofounders, described a future where people wouldn’t need an Internet search engine. “Eventually you’ll have an implant,” he mused, “where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer.”3.  I guess Google Glass is the realization of Page’s vision.

Kurzweil based his expectations for the Singularity on exponential growth. Following the example of Moore’s Law, he formulated his own “Law of Accelerating Returns.” Kurzweil’s maxim posited that technological advances in areas such as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology will occur exponentially until some sort of rupture in the fabric of history occurs. Rooted as it was in selective observations about previous technological trends, critics however saw the Singularity as an “untestable set of assumptions about our near future.”4

What are the common denominator in all of these visions? From visions of science-fiction writers (which I think we can properly consider equivalent to the sociology of the future) to cyborgs to Singularities and now Dmitry Itskov’s avatars – all share a concern and obsession with people’s relationships to machines. The 1950s was the heyday of Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics while the possible automation of heavy manufacturing – in 1952, John Diebold wrote his classic book Automation – stirred interest and concern among business managers and labor leaders.

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 4.49.55 PMBut the Singularity and its cousins presents something different – a secular and technologized version of the Apocalypse. Discussions about the Singularity isn’t just “rupture talk”5 but also “rapture talk.” Contemporary discourse about emerging technologies often is shaded by apocalypticism. Secular in nature but eschatological nonetheless, this “rapture talk” frames emerging technologies as taking humanity and the planet to some unknown edge, a future precipice beyond which is either an existential threat or a transformation so profound that it might challenge the very nature of what it means to be human.

Such ideas about the technological future shouldn’t be trivialized. Yes, Kurzweil has appeared to millions of people worldwide via major magazines and television shows. Transhumanist ideas percolate through TED talks. But, running more deeper than pop culture press coverage, is the ideology underpinning Singularity-speak (and Itskov’s avatars). Silicon Valley is increasingly becoming a cultural, political, as well as economic force in American culture.6 Technologists, Jaron Lanier wrote a few years ago, are perhaps “creating their own ultramodern religion.” Computer scientists are human, Lanier argues, and, as such “are as terrified by the human condition as anyone else.” Avatars and Singularities are their response to pressing existential questions. While hypothetical entities like Itskov’s avatars may provoke bemusement and ridicule – the Comments page on the New York Times web site after it ran the article on Itskov trended toward the critical – such ideas have, Lanier noted, “tremendous currency in Silicon Valley; these are guiding principles, not just amusements, for many of the most influential technologists.” It’s not hard to imagine Silicon Valley’s “rapture talk” finding a greater hold in public discourse and discussion.7

Itskov is a classic visioneer, cut from the traditional cloth of earlier technological utopians. Motivated by a vision of the future, he has invested time, money, and engineering into advancing toward his vision, creating a community of like-minded (or at least curious) people that have coalesced to consider his ideas. Like Gerry O’Neill imagined his space colonies, Itskov has grand imagining for how his particular technological future will alleviate world ills and ameliorate society. Like many of the people pushing ideas about the Singularity and associated “rapture talk,” Itskov made his fortune in the world where manipulating 0s and 1s give rise to the hubristic belief that matter and memories can be thus controlled.

And even if we assume such a creation is possible, who would Itskov’s avatars be valuable for? Maybe the real hope isn’t for dot-com millionaires afraid of dying but for people with high risk of dementia or people who can’t control their physical bodies. The New York Times paired its article on Itskov with another front-page story on the crazy cost of health care in the U.S.. When new medical technologies were first introduced, the article suggests, engineers and scientists didn’t anticipate how they would drive medical costs. So, how would Itskov’s utopian aspirations (“solve world hunger”) change when it comes down to making money? What happens when the engineering aspirations encounters the market?

Like visioneers who advocated space colonies (O’Neill), better human-computer interactions (Doug Englebart, Ted Nelson), nanotechnology (Drexler), or synthetic biology (Church), visions from Itskov (and Kurzweil) have the potential to stimulate deeper discussions. They can catalyze conversation about the relationships we have with technology, machines, and ourselves and one another. I don’t expect to see Itskov’s avatars anytime soon. But the conversations about what they might mean is absolutely worth having.

  1. Manfred  E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, “Cyborgs and Space,” Astronautics, 1960, 26-27, 74-75; “Spaceman Is Seen as Man-Machine,” The New York Times, May 22, 1960, 31. []
  2. In 1983, Omni published a short essay by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge that considered a future where technological change accelerated at an increasing pace. “When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity,” Vinge proposed, “and the world will pass far beyond our understanding.” Vinge later acknowledged that the term originated, so far as he knew, with a tribute by mathematician Stanislaw Ulam to John von Neumann. []
  3. James Gleick, “How Google Dominates Us,” The New York Review of Books, August 18, 2011 []
  4. From Susan Hassler. “Un-assuming the Singularity,” p. 9 of IEEE Spectrum, June 2008. []
  5. To borrow a phrase from historian of technology Gabrielle Hecht, who uses it in a much different fashion and context. []
  6. George Packer’s new book The Unwinding of America as well as a spin-off piece in The New Yorker presents this nicely. []
  7. The confluence of high technology with spiritual issues has been a mainstay of films and television shows for years – Spielberg’s AI, Battlestar Galactica, Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, etc. and many many more. There’s a whole Wikipedia page devoted just to the appearance of “mind uploading in fiction.” []