Dec 25, 2010

Living 4 Ever = DNA + Memory + Virtual Environment?

Is it possible to live for ever? How far are we from such technological advances that would allow us to live practically for ever or five, six or ten times our current average life span? Ray Kurzweil the well known American author, inventor and futurist claims that each human being's existence can be boiled down to their genetic information (DNA) and their perception of themselves through memories of experience. As such, Kruzweil believes he can bring his father back to life by through his DNA + collections of pictures, recordings and videos to reconstruct his memory in a new body. Perhaps to some this is a rather crazy notion but I think Kruzweil might be onto something. Our biology, how our bodies form and grow and how we look like depends solely on our DNA and genetics. The DNA is nothing more than a bank of information providing cells with manuals or directions on how to grow. However, our personalities and perceptions of selves and identities are influenced mostly and shaped through our experiences and memories of those experiences. That being said, then, Kruzweil's argument is perhaps starting to make more sense.

I would like to take this idea even further and make the argument that maybe we do not need a new physical body to reside in once our original one runs its course as Kruzweil suggests. Perhaps in the near future we would be able to transfer our consciousness (memories/experiences) and DNA information into a virtual online world such as Second Life and exist forever in this virtual environment as AVATARS. Real, virtual versions of ourselves, an oxymoron for sure but not impossible. Again, I believe our consciousness basically consists of all the information, algorithms for processing that information and their connections to one another. If this information as it is structured in each of our brains can be copied onto a virtual environment on the internet, we might indeed be able to live forever. With no physical body or organs we will never get old or sick, though we might still be vulnerable to computer/internet viruses and programs that might try to delete our information and resulting in our virtual death and nonexistence.

I think my vision for this futuristic realm would fall somewhere between two recent Hollywood movies: The Matrix and Avatar. We experience the world through our senses which are nothing but nerves carrying electrical signals that are meaningless until they get processed in the brain, this includes everything from hearing, vision, temperature, smell, taste and touch. Meaning, that if our brain was hooked up to a computer that provided all those signals, say for a specific activity, we would not be able to distinguish if this event actually was happening in real life or in a virtual environment producing signals in our nerves as the real event would. Video games these days do this to an extend but they usually only involve touch (through the joystick), vision and hearing. Futuristic video consoles would even be able to give us the sensations of running or fighting or playing soccer for example without us even having to move as long as we receive identical signals from the console as we would when running or fighting in real life.

Considering the trend and the rate of technological advances and breakthroughs in the last decades from early computers to iPhones I think our definition of life will start to change in the near future. We already supplement our minds with the internet from storing memories through emails, online videos or picture galleries to using Google to find answers to questions our minds can not find in our memory. Soon we might transfer all of our mind's duties to online programs, algorithms and virtual environments. The overtaking of technology of our daily routine duties and decisions is inevitable, the question is whether we are ready as humans to accept technology's new role, which might soon challenge our definition of life itself.

1 comment:

  1. comment from a friend (Chris) via email:

    This post gets to the heart of a problem in Philosophy of Mind: why is that consciousness emerges from physical systems? You can probably imagine the spectrum of responses to the question. Some people argue that there is nothing more to cognition than brain activity, such that any appearances to the contrary (e.g. introspection or free will) are chimerical, illusions, by products of brain function. On the other end of the spectrum is Descartes, who contended that the mind is an immaterial substance of equal ontological status as matter. There are very people who adhere to either end of the continuum.

    The idea that we will be able to up/download consciousness is feasible, in my opinion. It requires two things: a deeply explanatory answer to the question above (which I think would entail a deep understanding of brain function), and the ability to encode consciousness data. It is really remarkable how much progress we have made on both fronts.

    Check out this link. It describes how scientists implanted a lamprey brain into a robot that could interact with the physical world.

    If that could be done, then it is not that far of a stretch to imagine a human brain connected to a sophisticated computer and environment.