An article in the Sunday New York Times profiles Russian media tycoon Dmitry Itskov. The 32 year-old is the driving force behind the 2045 Initiative to create cyborg avatars into which people can upload the contents of their brains, i.e., memories, personality, dreams, etc. Itskov has organized the second annual 2045 Global Future Congress which will take place on June 15 and 16 in New York City. Participants in the conference include Harvard genetics maven George Church, X Prize visionary Peter Diamandis, MIT computer genius Marvin Minsky, and Singularity prophet Ray Kurzweil, among others.
What motivates Itskov to pursue this audacious goal? Recall that after Siddhartha Gautama confronted the inevitable suffering of the life he became enlightened, breaking the endless cycle of rebirth and suffering.
According to the Times, at the point of cashing in on his company's successes Itskov also had an epiphany, but unlike the Buddha, he believes that rebirth (of a sort) is the truly enlightened solution to the problems encountered in life:
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 realized, given what the offer meant for the valuation of the company, that I could live very well. And then I realized 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 slide show with one heartbreaking statistic after another: Almost one billion people are now starving. Forty-nine countries are currently involved in military conflict. Ten percent 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 behavior 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 favorite 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.
One participant in the Congress, a former Orthodox Christian archbishop, Lazar Puhalo believes that "immortality sounds like a ghastly idea."
But how about instead framing the issue as one of making death optional? If immortality turns out to be ghastly, one can always choose oblivion.
Go here for more information on Itskov's 2045 Initiative. See also my review of Stephen Cave's book Immortality: "Do You Really Want to Live Forever?" Cave argues that all forms of immortality would unbearable, and I disagree.