Mind Over Matter?
A Bristol nonprofit wants to replicate your brain and bequeath it to a robot
Meet MIA, the newest hire at LifeNaut.com: Personable and attractive, MIA doesn’t complain or roll her eyes. After a year on the job, in fact, she has yet to take a sick day or rise to use the restroom.
MIA is an “avatar” — a digital character who mimics the speech and behavioral patterns of human beings, and whose every move is programmed by the Bristol-based nonprofit Terasem Movement Foundation. She’s the (inter)face of LifeNaut.com, one of the Foundation’s online presences. Bruce Duncan, MIA’s gregarious “boss,” admits that his star employee, with her perma-grin and pixilated complexion, is still laughably un-human. Then again, Duncan says, the current artificial-intelligence software she runs on is hampered by “fuzzy logic.”
Emphasis on “current.” Launched last summer, LifeNaut operates on the assumption that humans will achieve immortality within the next 30 years. Computer technology that replicates human brains is being developed, Duncan assures. If and when it comes online, our replicated brains could be transferred into robotic bodies. Such an advance would, in theory, allow someone like Duncan — or, more precisely, a robot piloted by a perfect facsimile of his brain — to overcome the constraints of his mortal coil.
The Terasem Movement Foundation subscribes to the basic notion of “transhumanism.” (Its name comes from the Latin roots “terra” [Earth] and “sem-” [seed], explains Duncan’s colleague Nick Mayer.) Generally speaking, transhumanists believe that the human condition can be enhanced by technology. Some transhumanists are interested in eliminating certain diseases, or in slowing down the aging process. More ambitious ones, such as Duncan or the folks at the Willington, Connecticut-based World Transhumanist Association, believe that technology could eventually help us outlive death.
In the meantime, Duncan, the managing director, and Mayer are encouraging anyone with a computer to upload personal — including medical — information into “mindfiles” on their colorful LifeNaut website, http://www.LifeNaut.com. The files provide marching orders for your personal avatar clone, while a commercial satellite in Burlington beams your mindfile to a satellite located 22,300 miles over the equator. From there, the mindfile travels into outer space at the speed of light. (Imagine Contact, the movie where Jodie Foster hears signals from outer space, but in reverse.) Duncan reports that, so far, no extraterrestrial ambassadors have responded to the ongoing “spacecast.”
Social networkers and gamers — also frequent avatar users — are always trying to make virtual life more “real,” says Elaine Young, a professor of e-Business and Marketing at Champlain College in Burlington. In that sense, LifeNaut.com isn’t so unusual. Still, Duncan claims LifeNaut.com is unique in that it allows ordinary people to upload an unprecedented amount of autobiographical info: Mindfiling is like blogging, he says, or spinning a yarn for National Public Radio’s "StoryCorps,” only on a much bigger scale. Young, who evaluated LifeNaut at Seven Days’ request, confirms the site is a “digital ethnography” project of epic proportions.
Young has ethical reservations about replacing consciousness — she resists the notion that Duncan, or anyone, can actually duplicate a soul. But despite her skepticism about LifeNaut’s ethical and spiritual implications, the professor speaks enthusiastically of Duncan’s project. “It’s like MySpace/Facebook social networking on steroids,” she says.
On a recent afternoon in Bristol, a reporter finds the 53-year-old Duncan seated before a black flat-screen monitor. Compared to its next-door neighbor — the Bristol Discount Beverage & Redemption Center — Terasem’s spacious, wood-floored office is incongruously dot-com-ish. But Duncan, a bearded dude wearing shorts and sandals, looks like he could just as easily be selling homebrew kits and scratch-off lottery tickets.
After greeting MIA on the LifeNaut homepage, Duncan opens his mindfile. Since a given file is an “interactive time capsule,” he explains, everything about you is potential avatar material. On Duncan’s avatar page, for example, there’s a graphic displaying results from a personality test. (Duncan scored 47 percent on “reflection” and 21 percent on “nurturance.”)
Only about 200 of the 7000 registered users on the LifeNaut site have created mindfile-based avatars, as opposed to just uploading their text or video info. But that’s not for lack of promotion. “Create your Free Talking Avatar with YOUR Photo!” the site urges. “What makes you YOU? What do you do for fun? Your lifestyle? Your ethnicity, spirituality, mannerisms?”
Has the Terasem Movement Foundation addressed security or privacy concerns related to its LifeNaut project? Duncan explains that he and his web team decided early on to make all mindfile information available to the public.
Duncan, whose black T-shirt reads “Eternalize,” admits that religious folks such as Elaine Young might have reservations about replicating a human being based on genetic information. But brain replication, he argues, could have its perks: For example, the only “archival information” he has of his grandfather is a collection of letters written during World War I and a few scratchy sound recordings. But if gramps had uploaded more info into a mindfile, Duncan could be talking with him today. “One of the motivations for this project,” Duncan says, “is to help save peoples’ lives for future generations.”
It’s an ambitious mission, and not a cheap one. Terasem’s principal sponsors are Martine Rothblatt, CEO of the Maryland-based biotechnology corporation United Therapeutics, who has a home in Lincoln, and her partner Bina. Last year, the Rothblatts’ Lincoln-based World Against Racism Foundation gave Terasem $1.6 million, including $64,243 for computer equipment and $236,937 toward production of an “educational film.” (According to its tax form, the World Against Racism Foundation aims to “educate the public about the fiction of race.”)
Martine Rothblatt is president of Terasem Movement Foundation as well as Terasem Movement, a similar nonprofit based in Melbourne, Florida, that promotes “joyful immortality for cybernetic consciousness via geoethical nanotechnology.” She’s also the founder of Sirius Satellite Radio. Rothblatt is the author of several books, including Two Stars for Peace, which proposes incorporating Israel and Palestine into the United States, and Unzipped Genes: Taking Charge of Baby-Making in the New Millennium. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
Duncan, who found his current job on Monster.com, isn’t a web guy by training; for the last 25 years, he has worked as an administrator and conflict mediator for a host of nonprofits, most recently "Seeds of Peace,” a summer camp for Israeli and Palestinian children. But Duncan is a book nerd, and that endeared him to Rothblatt — he recalls that their first conversation was like “talking to four of my favorite science-fiction writers at once.” Duncan says his Terasem gig allows him to exercise his managerial skills on far-out subject matter.
At least two transhumanist thinkers approve of the LifeNaut project. Keith Wiley, a software engineer at the University of Washington in Seattle, is one of several scientists and philosophers whose work is posted on terasemmovementfoundation.com. Wiley’s writing on “mind uploading” claims the “old-fashioned goo that is our biological brains” will eventually be replaced by implanted “artificial” brains. Reached on his cellphone last week, Wiley says that LifeNaut is a logical application of a “materialistic view of matter and science.”
Wiley got into transhumanism after purchasing the book Beyond Humanity: Cyberevolution and Future Minds, by Gregory Paul and Earl Cox, at a 1997 “genetic algorithms” conference. He now dabbles in mind uploading when he isn’t writing code or making art. Assuming you don’t buy into the concept of the “supernatural,” Wiley says of the LifeNaut project, “there’s no particular reason we can’t study [the brain] and understand it in enough conclusive detail to replicate it.”
Wiley’s praise for LifeNaut is seconded by the improbably named Marshall Brain, an author who hosts a National Geographic television show. In addition to running the online science encyclopedia howstuffworks.com, Brain administers whydoesgodhateamputees.com, a site claiming that belief in God is a “silly superstition” unproven by scientific data.
Before speaking with Seven Days last week, Brain was unaware that LifeNaut existed, or that Duncan and co. were linking to his 61-page web manifesto titled “The Day You Discard Your Body.” But Brain doesn’t seem to mind — he suggests that LifeNaut is a “fascinating experiment” making efficient use of the minimal technologies that are currently available for consciousness replication.
Unlike Wiley, however, Brain doesn’t think human brains will be replicated by mid-century — or, for that matter, ever. “[LifeNaut’s] statement is nice, but it’s wildly optimistic that we would be able to recreate a human’s consciousness based on what they could write down,” Brain notes amid fits of giggling. “Even if we wrote down everything we could remember, there are so many things we don’t remember, and we have no way to judge their influence!”
Champlain College’s Young suggests LifeNaut’s “biggest challenge” is that people are going to be “more than mildly creeped out” by brain replication. While Young likes the idea of creating advanced avatars — it would be nice if a robotic clone of herself would teach her classes, she jokes — the professor resists Duncan’s assertion that digital clones could realistically replace human beings. “I’m hip to the soul thing,” asserts Young, a practicing Roman Catholic.
Has Duncan considered the ethical implications of his work? Not in any depth, he says — that would be like asking the Wright Brothers if they considered the ethical implications of flight before completing their first successful take-off. Nevertheless, Duncan says he is looking forward to having conversations about ethics as they come up. One question on his mind, for instance, is this: If a highly advanced avatar were to commit a crime, would he or she “have the right to have any rights?” Duncan expects that the cyborg imbued with consciousness eventually would.
Meanwhile, Duncan says, the line between humans and robots is already beginning to fade. In his reading, for example, he’s learned that Japanese scientists are considering using robots to care for the elderly. Humans won’t necessarily be “fooled” by such advances in robotics technology, he admits. “But they might, after a while, just not care to keep the distinction.”
To explore some real-world implications of the LifeNaut project, Terasem Movement Foundation has commissioned a Brooklyn-based company to make a feature film featuring “MIA 2.0,” a “cybersynthetic” woman created from a mindfile. Tentatively titled Transbeman, the film will be submitted to the Toronto International Film Festival later this year.
Martine Rothblatt is the film’s executive producer, and her World Against Racism Foundation reports that the film addresses the “perils of fleshism” — i.e., the notion that humans must always be tied to their biological bodies. Duncan denies that Transbeman is an advocacy film, however; he and Rothblatt gave the Brooklyn filmmaker a plot to work with, he says, but haven’t “censored” the creative process. (Duncan won’t disclose how much has been spent on Transbeman, saying only that the amount is less than $5 million.)
“The film isn’t designed to, you know, present one narrow point of view and get people to agree with us,” Duncan adds. “It’s basically encouraging people to think for themselves.”
Until, that is, their immortal cybernetic avatars can think for them.