Opinion | Our species might soon be able to hack death and live forever3 min read . Updated: 23 Jan 2020, 09:46 PM IST
We had better be equipped to deal with artificial humans well before we have them all around us
And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made…" were the words I started humming when I read about Samsung’s Neon. The Korean tech giant created perhaps the most buzz at the Consumer Electronics Show held this month in Las Vegas when it unveiled its latest experiment, called Neon. Described by Samsung as “a computationally created virtual being that looks and behaves like a real human, with the ability to show emotions and intelligence", this Neon was quickly termed an “artificial human" by the gawking crowds.
Neons were created by Samsung’s STAR Labs, and the stated long-term goal is to turn them into avatars that act and respond like real human beings. They will be designed for specific roles. They are expected to be newsreaders, tour guides, concierges, and music teachers. At present, a Neon adopts the likeness of a real human, and then has artificial intelligence layered over it to create millions of possible animations, gestures and speech reactions. What STAR Labs chief executive officer Pranav Mistry wants to do eventually is build these avatars from scratch, and then open the platform up for other developers to build their narrow intelligence on top of it.
Cyborgs, or cybernetic organisms, were first conceived way back in 1960 and defined as beings “with both organic and biomechatronic body parts". Cyborgs live among us already. Motorized prosthetic limbs was the first cyborg application, and these have evolved to integrate biological communication from the brain to manipulate them. Further advances have helped mitigate the phantom limb syndrome, and even help paraplegics walk. Neil Harbisson, a Briton, became perhaps the first person to be legally recognized as a cyborg by a government. Born colour-blind, he had an antenna-like sensor implanted in his head in 2003 that allowed him to “hear colour". His viral TED Talk reveals how this even allowed him to dream in colour. Moon Ribas, another famous cyborg who senses earthquakes in her elbow, is his co-founder for the Cyborg Foundation, which promotes the rights of trans-species or humans who seek to empower themselves by grafting mutant body parts or machines onto their bodies.
Exoskeletons, which came later, have been adopted much more widely. Conceived as early as the 1890s and massively popularized by Tony Stark in Iron Man, an exoskeleton is a wearable mobile machine powered by a system of electric motors and hydraulics that allow for limb movement with increased strength and endurance. These powered exoskeletons are being worn at construction sites and factories to lift heavy equipment, in the military to create super-soldiers (much like Iron Man), and in medical science to enable people without limbs to walk.
The other way of creating artificial humans is what are called brain-machine interfaces, or BMIs. Though BMIs have existed for 20 years, it was the prolific entrepreneur Elon Musk who made them famous when he unveiled his latest company, Neuralink. Musk wants to merge brains and computers very deeply, through a brain chip that both sends and receives information. This would make it possible to control objects through thought; say, switching on a light bulb by thinking. It could give you perfect memory and enable you to drive a Tesla with your mind. Musk believes that as we control machines today through typing, which is inexorably slow, at “about 10 bits a second, computers can communicate with each other at “a trillion bits a second", so we need our own computer, the brain, to be directly and seamlessly connected to a mobile phone or a computer. It is not a coincidence, therefore, that it is Musk who is widely supposed to be the inspiration for the Iron Man movie.
A far-out application for BMI is to “hack death". Ray Kurzweil, the renowned futurist, has declared that he wants to do precisely that and live forever. Perhaps, one way is to download your mind into a computer, so even after your body dies, your mind lives on. Soon, once the technology is available, perhaps your mind can be downloaded back into a biological body, and you live again forever. Ray is also the man behind the idea of “singularity", the point when human intelligence and artificial intelligence (AI) would merge into each other, and then diverge in favour of AI, creating far more powerful and intelligent AIs than humans. This singularity, he says, is scheduled for 2045. The possibilities of artificial humans, thus, are wildly exciting and highly frightening at the same time.
Jaspreet Bindra is a digital transformation and technology expert, and authorof the book ‘The Tech Whisperer’