Monday, January 13, 2014

Google wants to live forever

Originally published at Overland

It used to be Microsoft that had the inside track on immortality. After Bill Gates wrote his vision of a documented life, one of the company’s senior executives – a man by the name of Gordon Bell – was charged with turning that vision into reality. To this end, Bell took to wearing an array of recording devices and uploading the resulting data into a software suite he dubbed MyLifeBits. But recording every moment of one’s conscious life – which has since become one of the ways in which people think of social media, hence commonplace – was not all that the executive had in mind. In a paper he co-authored in 2000 for Microsoft Research, Bell outlined how that idea fitted into the larger project of ‘digital immortality’.
Current technology can extend corporal life for a few decades. Both one-way and two-way immortality require part of a person to be converted to information (Cyberized), and stored in a more durable media. We believe that two-way immortality where one’s experiences are digitally preserved, and which then take on a life of their own will be possible within this century.

The idea has a long and illustrious pedigree. It may have found its first expression when Norbert Wiener declared, in 1964, that it would be ‘conceptually possible for a human being to be sent over a telegraph line’. From the early 1980s onwards, the idea was taken on and expanded upon in quick succession by Vernor Vinge, Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky, Bell and Gates, and many others. It became a trope of science fiction, most famously in Gibson’s Neuromancer (remember the Dixie Flatline?) and Vinge’s own novella True Names. But, in fact, it has always oscillated between science fiction, science proper, futurology and the discourse of popular culture, all of which are enmeshed in works like Moravec’s highly influential Mind Children.

There is at least one big name I left out of that list, and it is Ray Kurzweil’s. While the first person to christen the coming technological singularity was Vernor Vinge, it was Kurzweil who turned it into the pervasive meme it is today, notably in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Simply put, the idea is that at some point in the near future technological progress will reach a critical point in which machines will be capable of greater complexity than the human mind and senses. What will happen then is the source of much breathless speculation, but the main element of all of these visions is that it will become possible to transfer human consciousness onto a whole new kind of hardware, thereby extending its (our) lifespan indefinitely.

A highly successful inventor, Kurzweil is the most engaging, witty and human-sounding of the proponents of the singularity (although that’s not necessarily saying much). He is also notable for his desire not just to outrun death himself, but also to bring back to life his father, who died in 1970 of a heart attack. To this end he is not collecting genetic material but rather assembling an archive of documents and testimonies concerning his father, underscoring how in this iteration of the Frankenstein myth the goal is no longer to bring back to life the flesh but rather to simulate, or copy, the mind. However, Kurzweil is also in the business of selling ‘longevity products’ (chiefly in the area of dietary supplements), and hopes that in fifteen years – that is to say, by the time he turns 80 – medical technology will be able to prolong life by one year every year. His desire to live forever, in other words, comes in a mix of forms, both old and new.

As the Microsoft story suggests, American technology companies have been involved in this project in various forms since its inception. Immortality is one hell of a mission statement, and if you’re current one is ‘Don’t be evil’, then your metaphysics is already primed to accommodate it. So earlier this year Ray Kurzweil was hired by Google. They gave him the old-fashioned title of director of engineering, but an interview with the Wall Street Journal suggests that Kurzweil was hired to work on what has become his full-time obsession, and that what the company had to offer him above all was direct access to the cloud.

A Google data centre, or a vision of Heaven on Earth
Then last July a rumour took shape, in the form of a blog post on ZDNet: that what Kurzweil could represent for Google is a powerful pull to recruit the top software engineers in what is one of the most intensely competitive job markets on the planet. Think about it: what if one company could offer not the best salary or benefits, but the first shot at the indefinite extension of life – the ultimate health plan? It doesn’t matter how likely you think this might be. Silicon Valley has been steeped in these prognostications for decades. To them these things are real. Kurzweil himself has revealed to the Journal that he takes ‘more than 150 pills and supplements a day’. Not to live longer, but to still be alive when the End of Death comes.

It’s a peculiar vision to entertain on a dying planet. And of course, as in all religions, there is the question of who will be chosen. If ZDNet is right, Google may have just taken a step towards becoming a cult whose acolytes get to be first in line for the new salvation. Thence, as with cryonics – if only cryonics worked – immortality would most likely be the preserve of those who can afford to purchase it, pace Kurzweil’s protestations that the technology will be as widely available as cellphones are today. But it’s not just a question of money in the present, but also of inequality over time – of fortunes that are no longer to be inherited, but that will remain in the possession of the eternally rich.

The 1%, forever. Who wouldn’t rise up against that?

Normal programming will resume next week, with a greater focus on memory than has been the case for the past year or so. On the subject of my long-term research concerns, and what used to be the over topic of this blog, I've had a piece published in the recently relaunched New Humanist (to which you can subscribe) and picked up by The Guardian (with the predictable, but not unwelcome, volume of comments one expects to find therein). 


Unknown said...

The ultimate franchise; you.

Megan Clayton said...

Who wants to live forever on the job?