The research, writing, and editing of this post was part of an undergraduate project undertaken for a Rutgers Honors College seminar in Fall 2020, “Literatures of Artificial Intelligence.” The author’s bio follows the post.
What if you could live forever? What if your brain could be scanned, and all its contents – your memories, knowledge, thoughts, and personality – were uploaded onto a computer or into a cloud where you could achieve a kind of immortality through a digital afterlife? The idea of uploading the human mind to a digital or simulated reality is a popular scenario often explored in science fiction, including in movies like The Matrix, Victor LaValle’s graphic novel Destroyer, and Jeanette Winterson’s novel FranKISStein. But what if this idea were not science fiction alone? What if it really was possible for us to upload our minds onto a computer?
When we say someone’s got their “head in the clouds” we are suggesting that they have impractical dreams and ideas, or that they are out of touch with reality. Wealthy CEOs and multimillionaires like Elon Musk, Dmitry Itskov, and Bryan Johnson are determined to convince us that with the rapid advancement of technology, including artificial intelligence (AI), the possibility of creating a digital afterlife by uploading one’s mind to the cloud, or achieving enhanced human intelligence via implanted microchips, is a near-future possibility. Are these claims rooted in real science or are they extravagant proclamations promoted by wealthy businessman with their “head in the clouds”?
There is currently an immense hype around artificial intelligence and what it means for our future. One of the biggest attractions towards AI revolves around the power human beings might gain from developing human-like AI technology. In the early nineteenth century when Mary Shelly published Frankenstein, we saw a vision of what a non-human form of intelligence might look like, as well as an early instance of the human desire to become god-like by taking control of life and death. In Destroyer, a recent graphic novel reinterpretation of Frankenstein, the main character, Josephine Baker, notes that “as the sciences make greater and greater leaps, the things that once seemed like myths and fairy tales become reality…Power over life and death will soon become commonplace” (LaValle Vol.1). While this is the statement of a fictional character, it is also the belief held by Russian billionaire and businessman Dimitry Itskov. Itskov is the founder of the 2045 Initiative, an organization working to develop “cybernetic (digital) immortality”. In an interview with the BBC, Itskov has stated, “within the next 30 years, I am going to make sure that we can all live forever. I’m 100 percent confident it will happen.” But Itskov is not a scientist and so the claim that he is “100% confident” about achieving digital immortality is either preposterous or not serious—especially when it has little scientific support.
According to the 2045 Initiative, neuroprostheses, or robots that can be controlled by the mind and send feedback to a user’s brain through a brain-computer interface, can eventually be developed to allow “whole brain emulation” and the literal uploading of a mind to a computer. At first glance, the argument of using neuroprostheses as a stepping stone to mind-uploading technology may not seem far-fetched; but upon further inspection, it becomes clear that the two techniques are fundamentally different. Neuroprostheses and similar brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) already exist and use long-existing knowledge of electrical signals and EEGs to translate brain signals into actions. By contrast, mind-uploading technology would involve encoding the whole brain and replicating it in a digital platform—a significantly more difficult task, especially since so much of the brain still remains a mystery. Experts like neurobiologist Rafael Yuste and neuroscientist Dr. Miguel Nicolelis disagree with Itskov’s hyped-up claims and the theory behind mind-uploading, expressing their uncertainty about whether the brain works like a computer. Dr. Nicolelis even argues that “there is no way you will ever see a human brain reduced to a digital medium” because “the brain’s dynamic complexity – from which the human condition emerges – cannot be replicated” (BBC).
Itskov is not the only wealthy businessman guilty of perpetuating hype around AI. Elon Musk, billionaire and businessman known for several notable companies like Tesla, SpaceX, OpenAI, and Neuralink, has made hyped-up claims about the future of technology and AI as well. In recent years, Musk has used Twitter to make statements asserting that the Tesla flying cars could be a possibility, or that AI may be the “the single biggest existential crisis that we face.” Both of these claims are overly exaggerated and have little evidence to support them.
Musk is not alone in promoting extravagant and unsubstantiated statements, many articles, some written to serve as “clickbait,” contribute to the hype around AI by overestimating the scope (and potential danger) of new technologies. In a recent Medium article about Musk’s Neuralink, author Glen Hendrix writes, “The Neuralink could eventually lead to a transhuman capable of controlling machines directly with the mind and controlling emotions and pain through artificial ‘glands’ interfaced with the machine component. Temporary greater-than-normal strength might be attainable on demand with such glands injecting hormones, drugs, or other enhancing agents directly into the bloodstream. The ability to enter altered states of consciousness at will may be a given, bypassing the legal and illegal drug cartels and the DEA. Learning something new may become as simple as downloading a file to a USB inside your head interfaced with your brain.” Throughout the article, descriptions about the scope of Neuralink are sprinkled with imaginary scenarios and words like “may”, “might”, “could”, and “possible”. But none of these hypotheses are backed up with any real facts or science and the article does little to describe how Neuralink really works. The reality of Neuralink is that it is still in the animal testing stage and has not yet been tested on humans. In the event that Neuralink advances to human trials and is successful, the device would likely be used to help people with neurological or spinal cord problems gain control of their movements. As it stands, Neuralink (or any other device that currently exists), does not have the capabilities to give humans the “superhuman cognition” that Hendrix describes in his article.
Reports like Hendrix’s article on Neuralink are becoming increasingly common. In October 2019, computational genomics researcher Benjamin Haibe-Kains and his team criticized a Google Health Report that claimed that their AI program had outperformed humans in diagnosing breast cancer by arguing that the report was “more an advertisement for cool technology than a legitimate, reproducible scientific study” due to its “lack of details of the methods and algorithm code”. Haibe-Kains, backed by a review that found that only 15 percent of AI studies shared their code, went on to report that the same issue is true of other reported advances in AI (Horgan).
These several examples provide ample evidence of hyped-up claims exaggerating the possibilities of AI. But beyond simply acknowledging hype, it is important to recognize that these exaggerations are often perpetuated by billionaires and/or big companies to promote their profitability and desire for certain technological advances. As investors of large companies, billionaires like Itskov and Musk have the power to determine what AI research is being funded. Take Bryan Johnson, for example. Johnson, another billionaire and businessman, is the founder of Kernel, OS Fund and Braintree. In recent years, he has invested over $200 million in OS Fund and Kernel with the objective of investing in “entrepreneurs and companies that develop breakthrough discoveries in hard science to address our most pressing global problems” and “building brain-machine interfaces with the intention of providing humans with the option to radically enhance their cognition” (Ford 511). In his interview with Martin Ford, Johnson discusses his interest in using AI technology to achieve extended cognition, possibly through the use of implanted microchips: “Imagine a scenario,” he says, “where we can develop AI to a point where AI largely runs the logistical aspects of everyone’s lives: transportation, clothing, personal care, health— everything is automated. In that world, our brain is now freed from doing what it does for 80% of the day. It’s free to pursue higher-order complexities” (Ford 519). While Johnson’s intentions may not necessarily be bad, there are two fundamental problems with his proposed vision of the future.
The first problem is his assumption that everyone would want to be rid of the logistical low complexity tasks. Unfortunately, this problem is not exclusive to Johnson, but instead is prominent across the tech industry. In her memoir, Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener highlights this problem as she writes,
“…the endgame was the same for everyone: Growth at any cost. Scale above all… A world of actionable metrics… A world freed of decision-making, the unnecessary friction of human behavior, where everything—whittled down to the fastest, simplest, sleekest version of itself—could be optimized, prioritized, monetized, and controlled. Unfortunately for me, I liked my inefficient life. I liked listening to the radio and cooking with excessive utensils; slivering onions, detangling wet herbs. Long showers and stoned museum-wandering. I liked riding public transportation: watching strangers talk to their children; watching strangers stare out the window at the sunset, and at photos of the sunset on their phones.” (Wiener 127).
It is highly likely that, like Wiener, millions of other people also enjoy the inefficient tasks in their life. Yet, if left up to tech CEOs, all these inefficient tasks that the industry considers mundane would be optimized to become more efficient. The question that remains is whether CEOs of large tech companies should have the power to dictate how technology shapes our future by actively funding projects that fulfill their personal desires without consideration of the desires of the general population.
The second problem with Johnson’s vision for the future is his assumption that, if this technology were to exist, everyone would have equal access to it. Developing the technology to create microchips that grant extended cognition is certain to be expensive, meaning that the price of the device would be expensive as well. In his interview with Johnson, Martin Ford brings up the point that access to this kind of technology will not be equal, and states that “Initially, it’s going to only be accessible to wealthy people. Even if the devices get cheaper and more people can afford them, it seems certain that there would be different versions of this technology, with the better models only accessible to the wealthy” (Ford 517).
This concern that advanced technology might increase inequality, rather than address it is explored in the Netflix science fiction series Altered Carbon. The series takes place in a future world where humans have achieved virtual immortality via cortical stacks in their spinal columns that store their consciousness. When a person’s body dies, their stack can be downloaded into a new body, or “sleeve”, so that they can continue living. In this world, society is dived into two main social classes: the meths, who make up the wealthy elite and live in grand mansions in the clouds, and the common people who live in filthy conditions on the ground. Hence, while the invention of stacks that grant immortality seemed like a gift to humankind, it turned out to be the opposite. Because people could no longer die, the wealthy continued to get exponentially wealthier, and the common people were increasingly exploited for the benefit of the wealthy. While the meths have storage units of clones and the ability to resleeve at will, the poor are given old or undesirable sleeves—or none at all.
While the ethics of immortality and equal access to clones is not a concern we need to worry about in the near future, it is extremely important to consider the adverse effects of new technology in regard to socioeconomic issues– effects that are already becoming apparent in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. According to Wiener, San Francisco’s landscape changed in response to the booming tech industry of the 2010s,
“…homeless encampments sprouted in the shadows of luxury developments. People slept and shat and shot up in the train stations, lying beneath advertisements for fast fashion and productivity apps, as waves of commuters stepped delicately around them. I woke up one morning to the sound of someone howling for mercy on the corner of my block: a woman screaming bloody murder, dragging one leg, wearing nothing but a torn T-shirt emblazoned with the logo for a multinational consumer-electronics company. This concentration of public pain was new to me, unsettling. I had never seen such a shameful juxtaposition of blatant suffering and affluent idealism. It was a well-publicized disparity, but one I had underestimated” (Wiener 50).
Given that technology has already exacerbated the wealth gap, and that if this pattern continues, the socioeconomic issue will only continue to intensify, it is essential to critically consider how best to achieve true democratization of technology so that the benefits of technology, including the wealth it creates, are felt widely throughout the society, and not solely by wealthy founders, investors, and the elite workers in a single industry.
Next time you come across an article highlighting the potential of technology, take a moment to consider whether the article is grounded in real science or hype. While technology has significantly become more advanced over the course of the past few decades, there is still a clear line between the reality that science offers, and the science-fiction that billionaires try to sell us on. Recognizing the growing presence of “clickbait” articles and understanding the consequences of billionaires holding such a large stake in our future is the first step in staying grounded in reality, as well as advocating for technology that benefits the entire society.
Nidhi Salian is a sophomore at Rutgers University’s Honors College studying Cognitive Science and Economics. She is interested in the intersection between business, technology, and public policy, and she hopes to ultimately pursue a career in law.
2045 Initiative, 2045.com/.
Clifford, Catherine. “9 Of the Most Jaw-Dropping Things Elon Musk Said about Robots and AI in 2017.” CNBC, CNBC, 18 Dec. 2017, http://www.cnbc.com/2017/12/18/9-mind-blowing-things-elon-musk-said-about-robots-and-ai-in-2017.html.
Ford, Martin. Architects of Intelligence: the Truth about AI from the People Building It. Packt Publishing Ltd., 2018.
Hendrix, Glen. “Elon Musk’s Neuralink Hints at Future Pathways for the Human Race.” Medium, Predict, 2 Dec. 2020, medium.com/predict/elon-musks-neuralink-hints-at-future-pathways-for-the-human-race-c081b9eedc2f.
Horgan, John. “Will Artificial Intelligence Ever Live Up to Its Hype?” Scientific American, Scientific American, 4 Dec. 2020, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/will-artificial-intelligence-ever-live-up-to-its-hype/.
“The Immortalist: Uploading the Mind to a Computer.” BBC News, BBC, 14 Mar. 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35786771.
LaValle, Victor D., et al. Destroyer. BOOM! Studios, 2018.
“A Russian Billionaire Wants to Upload His Brain to a Computer so He Can Never Die.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 14 Mar. 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/dmitry-itskov-2045-initiative-immortality-brain-uploading-a6930416.html.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Nick Groom. Frankenstein: or `The Modern Prometheus’: the 1818 Text. Oxford University Press, 2019.
Wiener, Anna. Uncanny Valley: a Memoir. Picador, 2021.
Winterson, Jeanette, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. FranKISStein: a Love Story. Grove Press, 2020.