[ExI] Uploading article in the New York Times:
johnkclark at gmail.com
Mon Jun 3 15:02:55 UTC 2013
The following was on the front page of the business section of Sunday's New
Get right up close to Dmitry Itskov and sniff all you like - you will not
pick up even the faintest hint of crazy. He is soft-spoken and a bit shy,
but expansive once he gets talking, and endearingly mild-mannered. He never
seems ruffled, no matter what question you ask. Even if you ask the obvious
one, which he has encountered more than a few times since 2011, when he
started "this project," as he sometimes calls it.
Namely: Are you insane?
This is no more wild than in the early '60s, when we saw the advent of
liver and kidney transplants.
"I hear that often," he said with a smile, over lunch one recent afternoon.
"There are quotes from people like Arthur C. Clarke and Gandhi saying that
when people come up with new ideas they're called 'nuts'. Then everybody
starts believing in the idea and nobody can remember a time when it seemed
Photographs of Dmitry Itskov making different facial expressions were used
in building the model.
It is hard to imagine a day when the ideas championed by Itskov, 32, a
Russian multimillionaire and former online media magnate, will not seem
strange, or at least far-fetched and unfeasible. His project, called the
2045 Initiative, for the year he hopes it is completed, envisions the mass
production of lifelike, low-cost avatars that can be uploaded with the
contents of a human brain, complete with all the particulars of
consciousness and personality.
What Itskov is striving for makes wearable computers, like Google Glass,
seem as about as futuristic as Lego. This would be a digital copy of your
mind in a nonbiological carrier, a version of a fully sentient person that
could live for hundreds or thousands of years. Or longer. Itskov
unabashedly drops the word "immortality" into conversation.
Yes, we have seen this movie and, yes, it always leads to evil robots
enslaving humanity, the Earth reduced to smouldering ruins. And it's quite
possible that Itskov's plans, in the fullness of time, will prove to be
nothing more than sci-fi bunk.
Dmitry Itskov: a Russian multimillionaire and former online media magnate.
But he has the attention, and in some cases the avid support, of august
figures at Harvard, MIT and Berkeley and leaders in fields like molecular
genetics, neuroprosthetics and other realms that you've probably never
heard of. Roughly 30 speakers from these and other disciplines will appear
at the second annual 2045 Global Future Congress on June 15 and 16 in New
Though billed as a congress, the event is more like a showcase and
conference that is open to the public, with general admission tickets
starting at $US750. (About 400 tickets, roughly half the total available,
have been sold so far.) Attendees will hear people like Sir Roger Penrose,
an emeritus professor of mathematical physics at Oxford, who appears on the
2045.com website with a video teaser about "the quantum nature of
consciousness", and George M. Church, a genetics professor at Harvard
Medical School, whose video on the site concerns "brain healthspan
As these videos suggest, scientists are taking tiny, incremental steps
towards melding humans and machine all the time. Ray Kurzweil, the futurist
and now Google's director of engineering, argued in The Singularity Is
Near, a 2005 book, that technology is advancing exponentially and that
"human life will be irreversibly transformed" to the point that there will
be no difference between "human and machine or between physical and virtual
Kurzweil was projecting based on the scientific and intellectual ferment of
the time. And technological achievements have continued their march since
he wrote the book - from creating computers that can that can outplay
humans to technology that tracks a game player's heartbeat and perhaps his
excitement (like the new Kinect) to digital tools for those with
disabilities (like brain implants that can help quadriplegics move robotic
But most researchers do not aspire to upload our minds to cyborgs; even in
this crowd, the concept is a little out there. Academics seem to regard
Itskov as sincere and well-intentioned, and if he wants to play global
cheerleader for fields that generally toil in obscurity, fine. Ask
participants in the 2045 conference if Itskov's dreams could ultimately be
realised and you'll hear everything from lukewarm versions of "maybe" to
"I have a rule against saying something is impossible unless it violates
laws of physics," Church says, adding about Itskov: "I just think that
there's a lot of dots that aren't connected in his plans. It's not a real
Martine A. Rothblatt, another speaker at the coming conference and founder
of United Therapeutics, a biotech company that makes cardiovascular
products, sounds more optimistic.
"This is no more wild than in the early '60s, when we saw the advent of
liver and kidney transplants," Rothblatt says. "People said at the time,
'This is totally crazy.' Now, about 400 people have organs transplanted
At a minimum, she and others believe that interest in building Itskovian
avatars will give birth to and propel legions of startups. Some of these
far-flung projects have caught the eyes of angel investors, and one day
these enterprises may do for the brain and androids what Silicon Valley did
for the internet and computers.
Itskov says he will invest at least part of his fortune in such ventures,
but his primary goal with 2045 is not to become richer. In fact, the more
you know about Itskov, the less he seems like a businessman and the more he
seems like the world's most ambitious utopian. He maintains that his
avatars would not just end world hunger - because a machine needs
maintenance but not food - but that they would also usher in a more
peaceful and spiritual age, when people could stop worrying about the petty
anxieties of day-to-day living.
"We need to show that we're actually here to save lives," he said. "To help
the disabled, to cure diseases, to create technology that will allow us in
the future to answer some existential questions. Like what is the brain,
what is life, what is consciousness and, finally, what is the universe?"
The $3 Million Man
Itskov's role in the 2045 Initiative is bit like that of a producer in the
Hollywood sense of the word: the guy who helps underwrite the production,
shapes the script and oversees publicity. He says he will have spent
roughly $US3 million of his own money by the time the second congress is
over, and though he is reluctant to disclose his net worth - aside from
scoffing at the often-published notion that he's a billionaire - he is
ready to spend much more.
For now, he is buying a lot of plane tickets. He flies around the globe
introducing himself to scientists, introducing scientists to one another
and prepping the public for what he regards as the inevitable age of
avatars. In the span of two weeks, his schedule took him from New York (for
an interview), to India (to enlist the support of a renowned yogi), home to
Moscow, then to Berkeley, California (to meet with scientists), back to
Moscow and then to Shanghai (to meet with a potential investor).
When he isn't pushing his initiative, he leads a life that could best be
described as monastic. He meditates and occasionally spends days in silent
retreat in the Russian countryside. He is single and childless, and he
asked to keep mention of his personal life to a minimum, for fear that he
would come across either as an oddball or an ascetic boasting about his
powers of restraint.
"In some ways, I'm a monk," he said. "Not entirely. Some monks struggle to
stay monks. But I'm happiest when I live like a monk."
A few weeks ago, Itskov travelled to the University of California,
Berkeley, where a group of researchers and professors gave him a tour of
their labs. The main point of his visit was to discuss a brain-related
project that is now under wraps. That happened at a private dinner, and
Itskov politely declined to say anything about it. But during the day, it
was basically show-and-tell time for brain-tech fanboys, and it started at
the Berkeley Wireless Research Centre. The centre is sponsored by Intel,
Samsung and other companies eager for a first look at whatever is being
conceived there. The day ended on the other side of the campus, at the
Swarm Lab, which is subsidised by Qualcomm.
At the Swarm Lab, Peter Ledochowitsch, a researcher with a thick red beard,
described a minimally invasive brain implant designed to read intentions
from the surface of the brain. So far, the device has been implanted in an
anaesthetised rat; a prototype for alert animals is in the works. But
eventually, he said, it would allow paralysed people to communicate, or to
control a robotic arm or a wheelchair. It could also allow you to start
your car if you think, "Start my car."
Like other researchers on campus, Ledochowitsch has founded a company - his
is called Cortera Neurotechnologies - that he hopes will eventually
mass-produce and market this device. He has no expectation that Itskov will
be an angel investor in the business, but angel investor money is what he
"We've talked to a number of venture capitalists," he said. "The problem is
that they're spoiled by Silicon Valley, where six guys can turn around some
stupid social networking software in six months. If your timeline is 2021,
it makes them very nervous."
'Dmitry is not an ordinary person'
Itskov's timeline is even further out, but he is still eager for progress.
He was mostly silent during the tour of the Berkeley labs, aside from
asking variations on the theme of, "When will this be ready?" He could have
discussed Berkeley's secret project over the phone, rather than flying from
Moscow for a dinner, but he relishes visiting any place that could produce
breakthroughs in cybernetic immortality.
"It's good to see the atmosphere," he said the next day over lunch at a
restaurant in Berkeley. "I want my project to be international, a huge
collaboration of different scientists. It's worth meeting, in person,
everyone who is in this field."
Itskov has apparently never done anything halfway. He was raised in
Bryansk, a city about 370 kilometres southwest of Moscow, with a father who
directed musical theatre and a mother who was a schoolteacher. The father,
Ilya Itskov, said through an interpreter in a phone interview that his son
was a perfectionist who would not stop trying to learn a subject - be it a
foreign language or windsurfing - until he'd mastered it.
"From the very beginning," he said, "we realised that Dmitry is not an
He attended the Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics, where he met his
future business partner, Konstantin Rykov. In 1998, Rykov started an e-zine
with an English-language obscenity for a name, which was loaded with jokes
about culture, showbiz and relationships.
Itskov came on board the next year, and the two began branding their
collaborations as Goodoo Media. The company built tarakan.ru, a blog about
the Russian internet, and an online newspaper, Dni.ru, a tabloidy take on
sports, politics and entertainment. Online game sites and other online
newspapers would follow, along with a glossy print magazine, a book
publisher and internet TV channel. A media empire was born. In The Net
Delusion, Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the tangle of Russian politics and
the web, writes that Rykov became "an undisputed Godfather of the Russian
The sites earned money through ads, Itskov says, but the company, renamed
New Media Stars, also came to have very highly placed allies. At some
point, Rykov segued from counterculture bad boy to friend of the Kremlin.
Morozov writes that the company and its media empire have churned out
"heaps of highly propagandistic video content" for the United Russia party
of President Vladimir Putin. One of the company's sites was called
zaputina.ru, which translates to "For Putin!"
Rykov declined a request for an interview. Itskov, whose principal roles
were business development and managing New Media's roughly 250 employees,
says the company never received money from the United Russia party. He has
never met Putin, he adds, though he voted for him. "In Russia, the majority
of people love him," he said.
Itskov was helping to build New Media Stars when he had an uncomfortable
epiphany. It was 2005, and he was staring at his computer screen at the
company's offices, then housed on a barge on the Moscow River. In an
instant, he knew that a life spent accumulating money would not suffice.
"At the time, we'd had a very interesting proposal to sell some shares of
the company," he recalls, "and I realised, given what the offer meant for
the valuation of the company, that I could live very well. And then I
realised that I wouldn't be happy, just working and spending money. I would
just age and then die. I thought there should be something deeper."
At the age of 25, he started to have the symptoms of a midlife crisis. He
anticipated the regrets he might have as an old man - the musical
instruments unlearned, the books unread. The standard span of 80 or so
years suddenly seemed woefully inadequate. He soon was seeking out leaders
from almost every religion, in a search for purpose and peace.
The more he contemplated the world, the more broken it seemed.
"Look at this," he said, opening his laptop on the table and starting a
slideshow with one heartbreaking statistic after another: Almost 1 billion
people are starving. Forty-nine countries are involved in military
conflict. Ten per cent of people are disabled. And so on.
"That is the picture of this world that we created, with the minds we have
today, with our set of values, with our egotism, our selfishness, our
aggression," he went on. "Most of the world is suffering. What we're doing
here does not look like the behaviour of grown-ups. We're killing the
planet and killing ourselves."
To change that picture, he reasons, we must change our minds, or give them
a chance to "evolve," to use one of his favourite words. Before our minds
can evolve, though, we need a new paradigm of what it means to be human.
That requires a transition to a world where most people aren't consumed by
the basic questions of survival.
Hence, avatars. They may sound like an improbable way to solve the real
problems on Itskov's laptop, or like the perfect gift for the superrich of
the future. But the laws of supply and demand abide in Itskov's utopia, and
he assumes that once production of avatars is ramped up, costs will plunge.
He also assumes that charities now devoted to feeding, clothing and healing
the poor will focus on the goal of making and distributing affordable
bodies, which in this case means machines.
For now, just acquiring a lifelike robotic head is a splurge. Among the
highlights of the New York congress will be the unveiling of what Itskov
describes as the most sophisticated mechanical head in history. It is a
replica of Itskov from the neck up, and it is now under construction in
Plano, Texas, home of Hanson Robotics, a company founded by David Hanson,
who has a doctorate in interactive arts and engineering and who has
previously fabricated robotic heads for research labs around the world.
(Itskov said Hanson would not allow him to discuss price.)
"Most robotic heads have 20 motors," Hanson said in a phone interview.
"Mine have 32. This one will have 36. So, more facial expressions,
simulating all the major muscle groups. We've had four people working on
this full time since March."
The even more remarkable expectation is that while Itskov is in another
room, sitting before a screen with sensors to pick up his every movement,
the head will be able to reproduce his expressions and voice. "He's
controlling that robot, controlling its gestures, its expression and its
speaking with his voice in real time," Hanson says. "It's somewhere between
a cellphone call and teleportation."
Do people want to live forever?
Itskov's initiative is nothing if not forward-looking, but he sees it as a
present-day end in itself. "The whole problem with humanity is that we
don't currently plan for the future," he said. "Our leaders are focused on
stability. We don't have something which will unite the whole of humanity.
The initiative will inspire people. It's about changing the whole picture,
and it's not just a science-fiction book. It's a strategy already being
developed by scientists."
Do people want to live forever? If yes, would they like to spend that
eternity in a "nonbiological carrier"? What happens to your brain once it's
uploaded? What about your body? If you could choose when to acquire an
avatar body, what's the ideal age to acquire it? Can avatars have sex?
These are just a few of the dozens of questions raised by the 2045
Initiative. (Yes, avatars can have sex, Itskov writes in an email, because
"an artificial body can be designed to receive any sensations.") One point
of the coming congress is to address such issues.
But a larger question hovers above all others: Should Itskov be taken
seriously? Much about his initiative sounds preposterous. On the other
hand, many of those conversant in the esoteric disciplines that would
produce an avatar are huge fans.
So one can imagine two radically different legacies for this singular man.
If he succeeds, history will remember Itskov as a daring visionary whose
money and energy redefined life in ways that solved some of the world's
most intransigent problems. If he fails, the word "cockamamie" is sure to
show up somewhere in his obituary.
On the road to avatars:
Some random stops along the way to joining humans and machines.
1784: First known use of the word "avatar'', according to the
Merriam-Webster dictionary. From Sanskrit, it refers to a Hindu deity in
1924: Hans Berger begins the history of brain-computer interfaces by
developing EEG, which measures electrical activity in the brain.
1958: In Sweden, Arne Larsson becomes the first person to receive a
surgically implanted pacemaker.
1961: The first cochlear implant, called a bionic ear. It marks the first
time a machine is able "to restore a human sense''.
1987: Max Headroom, about a fictional avatar, makes its debut on TV. In the
story line, Max was created by downloading the memories of a TV reporter
into a computer.
1992: Snow Crash, a Neal Stephenson novel, helps popularise avatars. "If
you're ugly," he writes, "you can make your avatar beautiful."
1997: Researchers at Emory University teach a stroke victim to use
electrodes implanted in his brain, and sensors taped to his body, to move a
cursor and spell words with his thoughts.
2003: Linden Lab starts Second Life, an online world that allows users to
create avatars that can interact with other avatars.
2008: At Duke University, a monkey implanted with a brain-computer
interface controls a robot on a treadmill in Japan.
2011: Dmitry Itskov starts the 2045 Initiative.
2012: At the University of Pittsburgh, a quadriplegic woman, Jan
Scheuermann, eats a chocolate bar attached to a robotic arm controlled by
implants in her brain.
2013: The MIT Technology Review reports that Samsung is working on a tablet
computer that can be controlled by your mind.
The New York Times
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