Get me outta here. Image Source: Digital Journal.
People are so literal-minded these days. The staunchly faithful believe the end is nigh. The staunchly un-faithful believe the end is not nigh. Either way, the new Millennium's opposing camps of the very religious and the very atheistic seek exactly the same goal: immortality. The irony in this fact - that those who go in for the apocalypse are on the same page as those who go in for the technological singularity - derives from an excess of literal-mindedness.
Here is an example of Millennial literal-mindedness, from a Gen X neuroscientist at Harvard who is attempting to figure out how to download his consciousness onto a computer interface so that he can live forever. From a Chronicle of Higher Education report:
Extreme literal-mindedness boils immortality down to an "enormous engineering challenge." The connectome idea also has a metaphysical side. The connectome curiously reworks the concept of fate. This is a really seductive concept in a troubled (or if one prefers, fallen) world: a proposal to alter destiny on the cellular, genetic, atomic, and sub-atomic levels. Change destiny, whether it comes from nature or nurture, like changing a spark plug.In the basement of the Northwest Science Building here at Harvard University, a locked door is marked with a pink and yellow sign: "Caution: Radioactive Material." Inside researchers buzz around wearing dour expressions and plastic gloves. Among them is Kenneth Hayworth. ...
Hayworth has spent much of the past few years in a windowless room carving brains into very thin slices. He is by all accounts a curious man, known for casually saying things like, "The human race is on a beeline to mind uploading: We will preserve a brain, slice it up, simulate it on a computer, and hook it up to a robot body." He wants that brain to be his brain. He wants his 100 billion neurons and more than 100 trillion synapses to be encased in a block of transparent, amber-colored resin—before he dies of natural causes.
Why? Ken Hayworth believes that he can live forever.
But first he has to die.
"If your body stops functioning, it starts to eat itself," he explains to me one drab morning this spring, "so you have to shut down the enzymes that destroy the tissue." If all goes according to plan, he says cheerfully, "I'll be a perfect fossil." Then one day, not too long from now, his consciousness will be revived on a computer. By 2110, Hayworth predicts, mind uploading—the transfer of a biological brain to a silicon-based operating system—will be as common as laser eye surgery is today.
It's the kind of scheme you expect to encounter in science fiction, not an Ivy League laboratory. But little is conventional about Hayworth, 41, a veteran of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a self-described "outlandishly futuristic thinker." While a graduate student at the University of Southern California, he built a machine in his garage that changed the way brain tissue is cut and imaged in electron microscopes. The combination of technical smarts and entrepreneurial gumption earned him a grant from the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience, a subsidiary of the McKnight Foundation, and an invitation to Harvard, where he stayed, on a postdoctoral fellowship, until April.
To understand why Hayworth wants to plastinate his own brain you have to understand his field—connectomics, a new branch of neuroscience. A connectome is a complete map of a brain's neural circuitry. Some scientists believe that human connectomes will one day explain consciousness, memory, emotion, even diseases like autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's—the cures for which might be akin to repairing a wiring error. In 2010 the National Institutes of Health established the Human Connectome Project, a $40-million, multi-institution effort to study the field's medical potential.
Among some connectomics scholars, there is a grand theory: We are our connectomes. Our unique selves—the way we think, act, feel—is etched into the wiring of our brains. Unlike genomes, which never change, connectomes are forever being molded and remolded by life experience. Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a prominent proponent of the grand theory, describes the connectome as the place where "nature meets nurture."
Hayworth takes this theory a few steps further. He looks at the growth of connectomics—especially advances in brain preservation, tissue imaging, and computer simulations of neural networks—and sees something else: a cure for death. In a new paper in the International Journal of Machine Consciousness, he argues that mind uploading is an "enormous engineering challenge" but one that can be accomplished without "radically new science and technologies."
The article paints Hayworth as a dedicated figure, a futurist ahead of his time. And in that regard, he is a great visionary. His work may inadvertently cure terrible diseases or vastly expand our grasp of neural, or even cerebral, processes. But these would be incidental to his primary aim to 'cure' us of death. There is no moment where Hayworth stops and asks: should we be immortal? If death is hard-wired into every living thing on the planet, and even non-living things die, then maybe death exists for a good reason? Maybe it is the lynchpin in the order of the universe? Aside from the possibility that an immortal human could be horrifying, perhaps conquering death would destroy the balance of nature? I am not talking about hocus-pocus. Nor am I talking about cells and synapses, genes and enzymes. I am talking about the purpose of death, which we do not understand. There is a purpose for death in the universe, because even galaxies die. For Hayworth, these are non-issues:
Yes. Madness arrives, on schedule, when science heads too far into the outer reaches without support. Hayworth may see philosophers as part of the problem. But it looks like he needs one or two of them to watch his back. It does not matter whether you think the world was created by a divine being (or beings) who set in motion a grand battle between the forces of good and evil - or that the universe (or multiverses) exploded in the Big Bang and can be rationally dissected. The real cultural and historically relevant Millennial phenomenon across the board is a literal-mindedness about everything that formerly belonged to the realm of mystery.One hundred years from now, he believes, our descendants will not understand how so many of us failed for so long to embrace immortality. In an unpublished essay, "Killed by Bad Philosophy," he writes, "Our grandchildren will say that we died not because of heart disease, cancer, or stroke, but instead that we died pathetically out of ignorance and superstition"—by which he means the belief that there is something fundamentally unknowable about consciousness, and that therefore it can never be replicated on a computer. ...
My [The Chronicle reporter's] conversations with Hayworth took place over several months, and I was struck by how his optimism often gave way to despair. "I've become jaded about whether brain preservation will happen in my lifetime," he told me at one point. "I see how much pushback I get. Even most neuroscientists seem to believe that there is something magical about consciousness—that if the brain stops, the magic leaves, and if the magic leaves, you can't bring the magic back."
I asked him if the scope of his ambitions ever gives him pause. If he could achieve immortality, might it usher in a new set of problems, problems that we can't even imagine? "Here's what could happen," he said. "We're going to understand how the brain works like we now understand how a computer works. At some point, we might realize that the stuff we hold onto as human beings—the idea of the self, the role of mortality, the meaning of existence—is fundamentally wrong."
Lowering his voice, he continued. "It may be that we learn so much that we lose part of our humanity because we know too much." He thought this over for a long moment. "I try not to go too far down that road," he said at last, "because I feel that I would go mad."
Again, there is nothing wrong with striving to unlock the secrets of the universe, whether spiritually, mystically, philosophically or scientifically. But being sure about what we will find is another matter. I am continually amazed at how rigid people's thinking has become, how certain they are that they are right about what they believe.
The new Millennium is filled with the blind, who think they can see. It helps to have a healthy respect for the Unknowable, if for no other reason than to prevent the Unknowable from making a stomach-churning Lovecraftian grand entrance.
Instead, at the crossroads of atomic science and information science, between quantum knowledge and virtual communications, technological bounty has filled theorists with false certainty. At the same time, Internet users hyper-communicate about disasters and give the religious faithful fresh confidence in surreal prophecies like the Book of Revelation. This leaves both sets of believers - the rational and the credulous - in danger of following overlapping paths.
There will be a moment when humanity invents something - be it a religion or a robot - that outstrips our capabilities to understand it. Will we cross the Uncanny Valley at the very instant we are lost? Do the engineers at Fukushima face something that has moved beyond them? Can you really tame the dragon?
These are some of the intangibles which surround every feat of science and engineering these days. For me, one of many moments that brought home the enormity of the Millennial change was the Huygens spacecraft landing on Saturn's moon, Titan. That day, news of probes landing on other worlds, post-Moon, post-Mars, post-Venus, finally became the humdrum norm. That norm, so new that it's beyond new, overwhelms historic senses. The world woke up, Huygens landed on Titan on 14 January 2005; the probe sent back the first picture of Titan's landscape at 19:45 UTC. That night, whether earth's population knew it or not, we all went to sleep and were different people. The world had changed, and so had we, over the course of an afternoon. Almost every day now, another world-changing event like that transpires.
As we pass historic milestone after historic milestone, it becomes plain that no one knows what the present means, nor how it will shape the future. We are all flying blind. Old formulas, beliefs, conventions and norms no longer work, or do not apply. And new ways of collectively agreeing on reality have not yet been set. This is the night of first ages.
We need visionaries like Hayworth. But they must pay attention to the intangibles. Dismissing these grey areas as pathetic primitive superstition allows today's thinkers to skim over the surface of genuine problems. Labeling something as a myth - even if it is one - does not diminish that myth's metaphorical representation of things we do not (yet) comprehend.
The other aspect of this is that Hayworth is a Millennial study in and of himself. If Hayworth were less literal-minded, he would see that his ideas are a reflection of his times, a function of the tech boom which makes everyone think a certain way and anticipate particular possiblilities and outcomes (like, say, downloading his brain into a computer). Scientific imagination always has a cultural and historical context.
According to the Chronicle, Harvard finds Hayworth's research unconventional, and so it is literal-mindedly distancing itself from his work. Harvard would do better to continue to support Hayworth, but divert some money to the context surrounding Hayworth's science. What are the origins of these ideas? How are computers changing how we think about the universe and its largest questions? Why now? Why at Harvard? A scientist who sets out literally to manufacture immortality should ask: should we be immortal? If the scientist does not ask it, maybe Harvard should give someone a grant to study why their scientists think that way. It might be a good idea, in case Hayworth succeeds after all.
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