The merger of Humans and Machines has Already Begun

The oldest surviving great work of literature tells the story of a Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, whose historical equivalent may have ruled the city of Uruk some time between 2800 and 2500 BC.

A hero of superhuman strength, Gilgamesh becomes instilled with existential dread after witnessing the death of his friend, and travels the Earth in search of a cure for mortality.

Twice the cure slips through his fingers and he learns the futility of fighting the common fate of man.

Merging With Machines

Transhumanism is the idea that we can transcend our biological limits, by merging with machines. The idea was popularised by the renowned technoprophet Ray Kurzweil (now a director of engineering at Google), who came to public attention in the 1990s with a string of astute predictions about technology.

In his 1990 book, The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT Press), Kurzweil predicted that a computer would beat the world’s best chess player by the year 2000. It happened in 1997.

He also foresaw the explosive growth of the internet, along with the advent of wearable technology, drone warfare and the automated translation of language. Kurzweil’s most famous prediction is what he calls “the singularity”—the emergence of an artificial super-intelligence, triggering runaway technological growth—which he foresees happening somewhere around 2045.

In some sense, the merger of humans and machines has already begun. Bionic implants, such as the cochlear implant, use electrical impulses orchestrated by computer chips to communicate with the brain, and so restore lost senses.

At St Vincent’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne, my colleagues are developing other ways to tap into neuronal activity, thereby giving people natural control of a robotic hand.

These cases involve sending simple signals between a piece of hardware and the brain. To truly merge minds and machines, however, we need some way to send thoughts and memories.

In 2011, scientists at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles took the first step towards this when they implanted rats with a computer chip that worked as a kind of external hard drive for the brain.

First the rats learned a particular skill, pulling a sequence of levers to gain a reward. The silicon implant listened in as that new memory was encoded in the brain’s hippocampus region, and recorded the pattern of electrical signals it detected.

Next the rats were induced to forget the skill, by giving them a drug that impaired the hippocampus. The silicon implant then took over, firing a bunch of electrical signals to mimic the pattern it had recorded during training.

Amazingly, the rats remembered the skill – the electrical signals from the chip were essentially replaying the memory, in a crude version of that scene in The Matrix where Keanu Reeves learns (downloads) kung-fu.

Freezing Death

The central idea of cryonics is to preserve the body after death in the hope that, one day, future civilisations will have the ability (and the desire) to reanimate the dead.

Both Kurzweil and de Grey, along with about 1,500 others (including, apparently, Britney Spears), are signed up to be cryopreserved by Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona.

Offhand, the idea seems crackpot. Even in daily experience, you know that freezing changes stuff: you can tell a strawberry that’s been frozen. Taste, and especially texture, change unmistakably. The problem is that when the strawberry cells freeze, they fill with ice crystals. The ice rips them apart, essentially turning them to mush.

That’s why Alcor don’t freeze you; they turn you to glass.

After you die, your body is drained of blood and replaced with a special cryogenic mixture of antifreeze and preservatives. When cooled, the liquid turns to a glassy state, but without forming dangerous crystals.

You are placed in a giant thermos flask of liquid nitrogen and cooled to -196℃, cold enough to effectively stop biological time. There you can stay without changing, for a year or a century, until science discovers the cure for whatever caused your demise.

“People don’t understand cryonics,” says Alcor president Max More in a YouTube tour of his facility. “They think it’s this strange thing we do to dead people, rather than understanding it really is an extension of emergency medicine.”

The idea may not be as crackpot as it sounds. Similar cryopreservation techniques are already being used to preserve human embryos used in fertility treatments.

“There are people walking around today who have been cryopreserved,” More continues. “They were just embryos at the time.”

Full article: The merger of Humans and Machines has Already Begun (Newsweek)

One response to “The merger of Humans and Machines has Already Begun

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