Physicist and Top Cow Productions president, Matt Hawkins, wants you to take seriously the cyborg science of his property mash-up series, IXth Generation. So much so that last week he published IXth Generation: Hidden Files #1, an issue that devotes about half its real estate to describing the various locales of this particular vision of the future – one where ruling elites govern realms of mechanical citizens – and the rest to an analysis of the science that makes it possible. But does he have an artificial limb to stand on?
Normally I’d say, “Who cares? It’s fiction; it’s fun.” As I pointed out in AiPT’s very first Reality Check column, despite being a big-time science guy, I don’t usually feel the need to reconcile real science with science fiction. I’m willing to overlook a dubious premise if it makes for a neat story. Fantasy isn’t reality.
But since Hawkins went to the deliberate trouble of trying to bridge that gap, I feel like we have to look at the ideas a little more critically. In this case I say, “In for a penny, in for pound”!
Let’s Get This Out of the Way
IXth Generation hinges on humanity achieving immortality, or at least a greatly increased lifespan. Hawkins pays lip service to cryonics – the freezing of the body and/or brain to be (one hopes!) reanimated at a later date – but dismisses it somewhat curtly. I’ll skip it as well, as I’ve already outlined a lot of the problems with that idea.
Let’s also gloss over the moral and philosophical implications of human immortality. I mean, resources aren’t infinite. We already have an overpopulation problem. And social revolution doesn’t usually happen until the fogeys die off, so we might be stuck with intractable racism. Ya know, more than we already are.
Before we finally get to feasibility, we should briefly touch on practicality. Even if creating real-life cyborgs is possible, when push comes to shove, would we actually do it? Hawkins cites the Moon landing as an example of technology playing catch-up to planning, but Apollo might function as a very different parable.
I imagine the Moon is a lot like my mom, wondering why we never visit anymore.
As Chris Edwards points out in his book Spiritual Snake Oil, we got to the Moon really quickly, but haven’t done jack all that’s new in the 46 years since then. Aviation kind of peaked at that level of complexity, and instead of taking day trips to the Sea of Tranquility, as plenty of people once predicted, we all settled into simple jet flights instead.
“Exponential growth can slow, stop or recede very quickly if the energy cost is too much,” Edwards says in the book.
According to the technology research group Gartner, these things tend to follow a pretty identifiable “hype cycle.” People get really excited about an emerging technology, thinking it will solve all the world’s problems. Then we realize how hard it is to work with, at which point people go the other way and think the whole thing is worthless. It’s not until years later that we start to figure out the real uses, and a more realistic “plateau of productivity” is reached.
Take a look on the above figure at where “Hybrid Cloud Computing” will likely be in two to five years. Makes sense for it to be on the pessimistic downslope, as some of the bloom is already coming off that rose. Gartner places “Human Augmentation” squarely on the upslope, where it will likely reside for more than 10 years. As critics like to say, our merger with robotics is only a decade away, and it always will be.
Put Your Brain in a Robot Body
That’s if it can work at all. Hawkins bases his future cyberfolks on the Avatar Project of media mogul Dmitry Itskov. Itskov believes he’ll be able to download human consciousness into an artificial brain within 15 years, although he seems to have no clue how to do it. But hey, space race technology was up to the challenge, right? So why not?
Like getting your grandmother to not clutch her purse when a black man walks by, some problems may just be intractable. You can’t travel through space faster than the speed of light. You can’t forecast the weather more than two weeks in advance. And it’s really hard to reproduce something as complex as the human brain.
“What exactly is our basis for calculating the processing – I mean, I don’t even know what the processing power of a neuron is,” says former Scientific American editor-in-chief, John Rennie. “We only have to be a little bit wrong about some of the neuroscience, and all those calculations fly out the window.”
Unfortunately, Hawkins is more than a little bit wrong when he says that “memories are recorded similarly to how we record information on a [computer] chip.” Despite a recent, widely misinterpreted study that likens the nervous system of a human being to that of a sea slug, it’s pretty well agreed that information isn’t stored within a neuron itself, but in the synapses – that is, the gaps – BETWEEN neurons. That’s an important distinction, as then you’re trying to model not just a simple structure, but a sea of ever-changing chemicals and electric potentials.
Not a good model organism for people.
That’s why neuroscientist Daniel Korostyshevsky doesn’t think you’ll ever truly be able to put “you” into something else.
“I doubt it for the simple reason that we would have to understand the microenvironment of every synapse,” he says. To really recreate a person, the “programmer” would have to know – at every one of the frontal lobe’s trillions of synapses – how quickly neurotransmitters move through the gap, which ones are present, how much each uploads and releases, etc., etc.
“All that affects our behavior, our moods,” Korostyshevsky says. “We would need to understand that in networks, we would need to understand that on an individual synapse level.
“At this point, there’s no technology I can conceive of that could give us this knowledge,” he says.
One of the good things about models, though, is that they don’t have to operate exactly like the thing they’re modeling. If the human brain turns out to be modular, and not a general purpose tool with all functionality spread out over the whole thing, it would be able easier to simulate, limiting the amount of processing power needed.
But then, as Hawkins is right to ask, is that really “you”? Rennie imagines a greedy, A.I. pod person trying to convince its creator of just what it is.
“I’m conscious. I’m John Rennie. That’s me in a box. Give me all those assets.”
Talk about identity theft.