Millionaire in the machine

Dmitry Itskov dreams of immortality. It’s a dream that the Russian multimillionaire is hoping to engineer into reality in a relatively short 32 years with his creation of the “2045 Initiative” – a project devoted to the kind of “life extension technologies” that currently populate science fiction.

Mr Itskov’s second attempt at promoting those technologies to a wider audience is the “Global Future 2045 International Congress,” held in New York on the 13th and 14th of June, and a follow-up to a similar gathering that took place in Moscow last year.

The New York congress promises a host of high-profile experts who will muse about the scientific possibility of everlasting life, alongside the unveiling of the “The Dmitry Avatar-A” – an exact mechanical reproduction of Mr Itskov’s head.

The “world’s most human-like android head” will feature “facial expressions with 36 degrees of freedom” and skin made out of a new nanotech material called “Frubber,” a press release teases. The head, designed by robotics engineer David Hanson, will be displayed alongside the famed ‘geminoid’ created by Hiroshi Ishiguro.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the promise of immortality and nifty robots is a draw; some 800 people stump up as much as $750 a ticket to attend the two-day congress in New York.

In the audience are physics students, documentarians, “bio-hacking” bloggers, a New York musician who raps about futurism, and an Austin-based law professor eager to explore whether the legal system can keep up with new technologies.

The congress starts with a bang. Mr Itskov declares in his opening remarks: “In the future people will be young, beautiful. They’ll be free from disease. People will have multiple bodies.”

It’s an alluring vision but one that immediately throws up a number of questions; Who, exactly, will be able to have these multiple bodies? What will the effects be on our arguably already over-laden planet? Will it be possible to ‘upload’ your mind to a brand new technological system, and, if so, will that mind really be yours?

Peter Diamandis, the influential author and co-founder of the Singularity University, notes in his own speech that humans are already “beginning to incorporate technology into our beings.” Cochlear implants and bionic limbs are two oft-trotted out examples.

The kind of robots Mr Itskov is thinking of go steps beyond, however.

These are affordable, sophisticated androids that will be able to perfectly replicate the human experience. “We don’t want to look like borgs from Star Trek,” Mr Itskov quips.

———

Personable and surprisingly young at 32, Mr Itskov already appears to have done the impossible; make money through the medium of print. He has founded a glossy magazine and book publisher, alongside a host of web-based media offerings.

The Russian businessman, for his part, does not strike one as particularly crazy though terms such as “evolutionary transhumanism” roll of his tongue regularly.

Millionaire in the machine

Immortality, he intones earnestly, will one day be a basic human right. His job is to help spearhead a social movement that will help humanity reach that basic right.

That thread of technological evangelising runs through large chunks of the conference.

“Dmitry is not just bringing us avatar technology but he’s bringing us an ethos which is to absorb as much [information] as you share,” enthuses Martine Rothblatt, the chief executive of United Therapeutics and entrepreneur who helped develop BINA48, an android that has been lauded as the world’s most sentient robot.

On the congress’s second day, Mr Itskov announces that an afternoon session exploring “science, spirituality, evolution of humanity and the avatar project” will be open to the public, with the aim of boosting public discourse of the idea of a death-free world.

The session features spiritual leaders ranging from a “self realised” yoga master to a Buddhist monk (the Dalai Lamai has supposedly lent his support to Mr Itskov’s project). In an audience of science enthusiasts the winding religious discussions appear to fall flat. Some attendees fall asleep. Others openly mock the speakers.

Mr Itskov says he believes an earlier wave of transhumanism failed because its proponents neglected to incorporate spirituality into their movement. His own forays into the sphere began with a “spiritual awakening” in 2005, when he realised there was more to life than making money through his (vast) media empire, he says.

If the former media tycoon does manage to achieve immortality, then Mr Itskov says he will use his extra time to better himself spiritually and help other human beings.

———

As for the idea of human beings reaching immortality through robots, the congress ranges from the exuberant to the diplomatic.

Ray Kurzweil, the futurist who was recently hired by Google’s Larry Page to develop a ‘synthetic brain’ that can read and analyse the internet, talks ardently in a speech called “immortality by 2045”

“It’s an open question for a lot of us who think it’s a really interesting idea and want to talk about it,” says Dr Theodore Berger, a well-respected professor at the University of South California who has developed artificial memory chips for rats.

“I think that Dimitry is a student,” says George Church, a scientist who helped pioneer genome sequencing and who is now professor of genetics at Harvard. “But I think that conferences like this allow us to exchange ideas. If the ideas are inappropriate or don’t sit properly, they’ll be dropped from the agenda at some point.”

Mr Itskov’s own dedication to the agenda appears tenacious.

He will have reportedly sunk $3m of his own money into the 2045 Initiative by the time the second congress is over and says he is willing to spend more. His own finances may be relatively vast but they are finite. He pleads for businessmen and governments to devote more of their resources to the field of life extension.

“Human beings should be free from death, free from limitations, free from themselves,” Mr Itskov muses in his closing speech.

For now, those limitations persist.

Dmitry Avatar A, perhaps Mr Itskov’s first step towards the immortal replacement body he dreams off, is never unveiled. The congress ends without a promised speech by Dr Hanson, the roboticist charged with developing Mr Itskov’s doppelganger.

Perplexed, I ask a spokeswoman for the congress what happened to the avatar.

“It isn’t functioning properly,” she replies. “Dmitry doesn’t like it.”

Tracy Alloway is the US financial correspondent for the Financial Times. When she takes a break from parsing Wall Street, she sometimes writes about androids and future technologies as an Upgrade contributor.