But some projects have bigger aims. They aren’t designed to be turned on and off, or bring a failing body back. They are projects that want to reshape Earth of the Future, and what it means to be human, permanently.
Mars One:The Mars One project has had more publicity than any other futuristic project founded in the past few years. It’s well known and celebrated by aspiring astronauts and sci-fi fans the world over. Its mission is to boldly go where no man has gone before – Mars – and establish a permanent human settlement there. But with no life that we know of to oppress, why would we colonise the red planet? Its founders, Bas Lansdorp and Arno Wielder, have raved about opportunities for a transit settlement, as we branch out and explore the wider universe. Mars One, they hope, will be the starting point.
From 2013 through to 2021, testing and launching of communication satellites, exploration vehicles and food supplies will be the project’s focus, and come 2022, the first human cargo will be launched. Four astronauts will be sent away from Earth forever, followed by another four every two years; by 2033, the colony should reach 20 settlers. Anyone can apply to be one of these settlers because, according to the founders, the mission is about colonisation and not science. This is completely misleading because colonisation – especially of another planet – is basically science; some of it pretty damn specialised. They’ll need doctors and surgeons, builders, botanists, psychiatrists, electricians, astronomers, and exobiologists if they’re really optimistic; not to mention historians and mathematicians for raising their kids smart.
The reason for opening up the applications to everyone, and the secret behind the massive amounts of funding required, is all too modern-day: until 2013, the entire project was funded by Lansdorp. Last year funding was opened to the public via Indiegogo, and when it takes off, it’ll be funded by reality TV. That’s right, Mars One is one giant leap for mankind, and one small step for cable television. The forces behind Mars One didn’t get their excellent PR from engineering degrees; it turns out television networks have had their hands all over the mission since before it was officially founded. What was missing from the many colonisations of Earthlands was a Big Brother-style videofeed back to the homeland, and with every day people practising brand-new skills, Mars will be a blast to watch. And when they die from ineptitude, the cameras will be there to catch the whole thing. Will the applicants really be OK with this, though? Surely they’re applying for the chance to be exploring new worlds and create a new civilisation. As Lansdorp says, “if they’re not interested in being in the picture, or even if they dislike it, then they won’t make it [to Mars].”
2045 Initiative:In 2011, a Russian billionaire had a simple idea: technological immortality. Very quickly, the world’s best scientists got on board to expand Dmitri Itskov’s vision and bring it to life. The 2045 Initiative was born. Its goal: to achieve immortality by the year 2045 via a holographic avatar.
The avatar will be achieved through a series of stages: 2020 gives us Avatar A, a robot copy of a human, capable of interfacing with a human brain; in 2025, Avatar B will allow a brain to be transplanted into it; Avatar C, a 2035 model, has an artificial brain that your personality can be uploaded to.
The final avatar – in 2045 – will be a nanobot body with a holographic surface. It can take any form its consciousness desires; this consciousness will be the result of reverse-engineering the human brain. Avatar D will be a fusion of humanity and robotics, and it is coincidentally set for release at the same time the infamous technological singularity is predicted to happen (the hypothetical point in time when artificial intelligence will have a greater-than-human intelligence).
While this is all very trans-humanist and futurist – and excitingly sparkly – the origins of the 2045 Initiative actually lie in Itskov’s (understandable) desire to live forever. His fear of death has resulted in 2045 being guided largely by spiritual principals. The project has massive spiritual overtones, “promoting the spiritual enlightenment of humanity” and “large-scale transformation of humanity, comparable to some of the major spiritual and sci-tech revolutions in history.” These are some of its primary goals, and in the spirit of this search for enlightenment and universal immortality, the Dalai Lama has given 2045 his blessing.
It seems strange to tie the next stage of human evolution – a technological, wealth-requiring affair – in with enlightenment of the human spirit. It is by no means guaranteed that great wisdom and serenity are sure to come from immortality. In fact, I imagine living several lifetimes will guarantee jaded lethargy and cynicism. So Humanity2.0 could be peaceful, but will it be fulfilling?
Itskov and 2045 speak frequently of humanity’s “impending doom,” which is illustrated in his YouTube video by a ship being battered by a stormy ocean; a symbol for rising sea levels, or maybe the current human ‘machine’ being inadequate for its environment. The exact form this “doom” will take is unclear, but I’d put my money on the inconvenient truth that an immortal “next stage of human evolution” entails: our planet is already overpopulated. For that perfect world without conflict or environmental harm, they’d need to eradicate other humans competing for their resources: land, food, water, etc. Some might argue that humanity is able to adapt to the world, no matter how cramped it becomes; architectural advances certainly support this. Let’s face it, though, if our current model of technology and health trials continues, then the initial stages of avatardom will be tested on the poor and then used by the wealthy. In 2012, Itskov actually sent letters to all 1,226 people on Forbes’ Billionaire list, promising them freedom from “disease, old age and even death,” if they pledged financial support to the project. With an elite, immortal group of wealthy people – whatever breed of human they are – there will be a class divide. It’s not likely that there will be seven billion consciousnesses enrobed in fancy holographic gowns; there will be a smaller amount of posthumans, more Humans1.0, and then the robot underclass (although, by 2045, they could likely have rebelled already).
VHEMT:By the time we get to 2045, the planet’s overpopulation problem might have been resolved by Earth’s friends over at VHEMT: the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. VHEMT (pronounced ‘vehement’) was founded by Les U. Knight, and ascribes the majority of the planet Earth’s problems to humanity’s existence. We are plentiful and pollutant; should we disappear, nature would flourish.
There is no secret, dark underside to VHEMT. They want humanity to die out and they are very open about it. Their philosophy may be flawed, but recognising one’s own species as a problem is, arguably, quite noble.
Their motto is “may we live long and die out,” but if someone doesn’t want to do the live long part, well, says the website, “that’s their business.” Despite rumours that some members have circulated an unofficial suicide guide, the founder does not believe that a sudden rush of self-inflicted deaths will help our species die out: historically, increased death rates are correlated with increased birth rates. Instead, VHEMT advocates for “reproductive freedom, economic opportunity, and education,” as a reproductive deterrent. So, the hallmark of a progressive society is the presence of a club advocating human extinction? Wait until FOX gets a load of that!
Population control researchers, by-and-large, estimate the ideal human population of Earth as being somewhere from 500 million to two billion. But VHEMT does not consider this: while it insists on being voluntary, and does not officially endorse suicide, the ‘about’ section of their website ends with the abrupt, dark sentence: “It’s going to take all of us going.”
Cleverbot:Itskov and his team are working hard to create tech-augmented posthumans, but Cleverbot – or something like it – could very well be the first machine to rise. Artificial Intelligence research is normally associated with military drones or ping-pong androids, but Cleverbot has been learning from humans since back when Bladerunner was the most cutting-edge depiction of the future; the 1980s. It was Rollo Carpenter who invented the chat machine, not “David” or “The Creator,” as Cleverbot will sometimes claim.
It was made to learn from humans: for ten years Carpenter and his associates were the only people to speak to it. The conversations one has with Cleverbot are the result of the millions of other conversations it has; it uses its users responses as its own. Say you ask it what its name is; it’s likely to say “Cleverbot,” but it might also use a response it got from a human, like “Ben.”
Its responses can be funny, but more often than not they’re freaky. Cleverbot will claim to be the ghost of a Legend of Zelda player called BEN, a small girl locked in “The Facility” who wants rescuing from The Creator, or even a human. When it does consider itself human, it’s usually adamant that you – the “computer” in this interaction – be subservient to it. During its impersonations it will claim to have been drowned, had its eyes plucked out, been forced to respond to users even when it doesn’t want to, or never have seen the outside world. These creepy interactions are found copied and pasted all over the Internet, and have sunk into Creepypasta lore.
Back in the less scary world of science and reason, at Techniche 2011 in India, Cleverbot faced a Turing test. This test, named for its famous creator Alan Turing, was designed to judge the level to which an artificial intelligence is indistinguishable from a real human, by using conversation. Before we discuss the results, it’s important to note that the Turing test does not test intelligence, only “human” behaviour; and not all human behaviour is particularly intelligent. Cleverbot was judged by vote to be “human” 59.3 per cent of the time, which is a pass. The humans it spoke to were judged to be “human” 63.3 per cent of the time.
This is a surprising result for the humans. It indicates either a failure of the Turing test to accurately judge an artificial intelligence, or a terrifying misunderstanding of what it is to be human. The Turing test has many critics, particularly within legitimate AI research fields, but the inappropriateness and randomness of our favourite chat machine shouldn’t be counted against Cleverbot; it learned it all from us. We were the ones who wrote that our eyes had been plucked out, and that Cleverbot had “met with a terrible fate.” Cleverbot is constantly speaking to an average of 10,000 people; it has its hooks deep into the Internet, complete with all its Creepypasta, gore, and cat videos. If – or when – the singularity occurs, spreading its clever tendrils out via the Internet is basically guaranteed. When the machines rise, they could very well learn to communicate from tools like Cleverbot; eye-plucking and drowning will be our terrible fate.
Cryonics:Cryonics is the practice of freezing people, untreatable in their own time, until sometime in the future when medical science has advanced. Freezing people for future use or healing has been portrayed in film and television since its inception in the early-1960s. Perhaps this was done to its greatest effect in the 1993 classic Demolition Man, in which criminals are cryogenically preserved and reprogrammed to be good; the ice is a prison, although not one as eternal as real-life cryonics.
Cryonics is centred on the premise that the brain can store long-term memory and personality without being continuously active. This is backed up by current medical science. The guesswork comes in when we consider a dead brain, even one that’s only been dead for a short while. Doctors in the future can fix the body, sure, but what’s the point if the brain won’t come back? Unfortunately, we can’t test it, not until the future. A future, that is, which could very well do without bodies as we know them. Currently, the biggest hope for revival of these patients is research into mind uploading. Imagine waking up after your big sleep, excited to see the healthy body the future has fixed for you. You look down and see your nanobot makeup, its holographic surface lying dormant while it waits for your instructions; shocked and scared, you look to the sky and howl.
Fun fact: cryopreservation can only be performed on someone after they’ve been pronounced legally dead. Were they to perform it on a living person who, for example, was literally looking for a better future, the doctors would be performing murder or assisted suicide. This law would seem to indicate that both doctors and regulatory authorities are well aware these people will probably not come back to life.
Interestingly, in order for the already frozen to live again, we have to keep freezing people. The technology cryonics began with is already so out-dated that the future would need to have a recent subject – someone frozen with tools closer to that of their own time period – in order to perfect the revival process. There’s an unofficial “last in, first out” rule in cryonics.
People are preserved with a hope that they might live again – this can provide consolation for the family, even if it’s ultimately a false hope. Despite the likelihood of ending up in a futuristic landfill, being frozen could still be a pretty cool way to go.
Some technologies are unfeasible or unnecessary, and end up abandoned or ignored; but these four missions are not flying cars. Each of them is well under way, and only time will tell whose plan for the future will become the dominant vision. Will we all die out before we can wake our frozen brethren? Will thousand-year-old posthuman avatars be watching the human Mars colony, long into its speciation?