25 Jun

David Varela looks on as buttoned-down technologists are plied with spirits


Dmitry Itskov is a determined man. To achieve his dream of directing humanity’s next step in evolution, the Russian media mogul drew together an A-list of technologists, futurists and spiritual leaders in New York on June 15-16.

The Global Future 2045 International Congress was the second annual conference convened by Itskov. Among the headliners were Google’s Head of Engineering Ray Kurzweil, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis and philanthropist and author Dr James Martin.

Itskov brought these minds together in support of his 2045 Initiative, named after the prediction that by 2045, human beings will have been overtaken in power and intelligence by their own technology. If that’s even remotely possible, we had better figure out now how we want that tech to develop in order to best serve (and not destroy) mankind.

At the core of the 2045 Initiative is the Avatar Project: a plan to copy the human mind to a different substrate, enabling it to be preserved and transferred into a more durable mechanical body. The effective result: immortality.

It’s an ambitious campaign that touches on many different areas of science, reflected by the wide range of expertise on display at Lincoln Center. Dr Hiroshi Ishiguro (pictured) brought along his latest Geminoid android, which is an uncanny copy of himself – perhaps a model for the physical avatar of the future. There was also a memorable appearance by Nigel Ackland, a former metalworker who suffered a horrific accident and now wears the world’s most advanced artificial arm (designed and manufactured in the UK).

But engineering will only get us so far. Several speakers, including Kurzweil, spoke about possible strategies for “whole brain emulation”, copying the brain electronically and thereby replicating an individual’s identity. This is an enormous technological challenge – the required processing power may be beyond the current generation of supercomputers. It’s also far from clear whether copying a brain’s circuitry like this would really reproduce a conscious mind.

Quantum physicists Sir Roger Penrose and Amit Goswami both argued that the brain has a quantum element to it and that consciousness can never be recreated in a digital, binary substrate. This discussion about the quantum nature of consciousness is when the Congress started to become much more than an ordinary technology conference. As Itskov would later confide, his real interest (and the primary purpose of the event) is the promotion of spiritual approaches to human development.

After the first day of the conference, delegates who had paid up to $1,000 for their tickets were surprised to hear that Itskov was opening up the spiritually oriented sessions on the second day to the general public, for free.

Put simply, he believes that technology is an amplifier and if we do nothing to make human nature more benevolent and wise, we risk amplifying our very worst flaws as technology becomes more powerful. Over and above ethics, the likes of Goswami and Russian spiritualist Swami Vishnudevananda Giri Ji Maharaj strongly argued that the quantum elements that form our individual consciousness are also entangled with a universal consciousness that encompasses all possible states of the universe before they collapse into fixed reality. Goswami suggested that this universal consciousness may be what many religions refer to as god, and that our connection to it opens up the possibility of using our minds to directly influence external events. Swamiji even went so far as to state that a well-trained mind will be able to perform telekinesis.

There was a predictable split in the delegates’ reactions, with Ray Kurzweil summarising Goswami’s logic as: “Consciousness is kinda mysterious; quantum physics is kinda mysterious; so there must be a connection between the two.”

There is certainly no undisputed proof of the connection between the mind and the outside world, but those who dismiss the ability of the mind to control events should have attended the closing round-table debate, where Dr William Bushell referred to the work of Nobel winner Elizabeth Blackburn suggesting that meditation actively wards off ageing at a cellular level by reducing stress. Another speaker at the round table, the Buddhist monk Phakayab Rinpoche, used meditation to cure himself of gangrene and diabetes – a process that has since been studied using MRI scans. And Amit Goswami referred to experiments in which two people who meditated together became “consciously connected” to the extent that when one person in isolation was showed a series of flashing lights, the brain of the other would react in the same pattern as the flashes.

If Itskov wants to persuade the world that spirituality is the key to humans evolving further, he may have an uphill struggle. He already admits to facing a good deal of resistance from his own collaborators on the 2045 Initiative. Despite this, he firmly believes there is a spiritual basis for the mysteries that science seeks to explain, and vice-versa.

Dialogue between scientists and spiritualists should, at least, give our technologists a healthy awareness of the ethical implications of their work – but if Itskov is right, it might just create a few scientific breakthroughs along the way.

Also on the blog: Lee Smolin’s new theory of time puts the future up for grabs.

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