Winston Churchill once said that Russia was “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. The same thing could perhaps be said of the recently unveiled Russia 2045 project. The project appears to have goals so ambitious that they make even Ray Kurzweil’s predictions seem tame by comparison. The Russia 2045 project is privately funded and has provided few details regarding the technologies to be developed. In an interview with Sander Olson, Russia 2045 founder Dmitry Itskov discusses avatars, robotic bodies, and reverse-engineering the human brain.
Question: You recently gave a talk at the Singularity Summit 2045. How did that conference go? What was the reaction to your talk? This was the first Russian speech at such an important international conference and I would like to thank the organizers for the opportunity to give a talk. The audience reaction was certainly important to us. We monitored social networks, Twitter, blogs. The responses were varied—for instance, one user, apparently hinting at the achievements of Soviet science, wrote that “Whatever you might think about the viability of 2045 movement, Russian brute force engineering has accomplished breakthroughs before”. I would like to add something here: Russian engineering is famous not for a brute-force approach, but for inventive problem solving given limited resources. It is very Russian to implement a cheap and clever way of doing something instead of spending unlimited funds to achieve something through brute force. Some viewers enjoyed my appeal to forget the long history of tense relations between Russia and the U.S. and to combine our efforts to achieve cybernetic immortality. Others expressed agreement with the statement that eternal life is our right and that if someone does not like it, they may remain in whichever world they choose, but that they should not question our right to be free and immortal. Americans have always respected man’s personal freedom, his freedom of choice. It is important for the modern Russian as well.
At the same time I realize that our ideas are quite radical even for the U.S. And it was with some trepidation that I submitted our plans to my American colleagues for their approval. Nevertheless, people applauded at the end of my speech. Perhaps this was merely the applause of well-mannered people. It’s difficult for me to judge what exactly each spectator thought about the project, but after the conference people thanked me and said that this was the only way to change the future. Question: What is the Russia 2045 project? It is impossible to describe the project in only a few sentences. My multipage presentation at the Singularity Summit could not present all information about the project and all the ideas I wanted to put forth. At the moment, the most detailed description of the plans of the Russia 2045 project can be found only on the Russian-language version of the web site www.2045.ru, but we are constantly translating new materials. But, to communicate what the essence of the project is in brief: the most important thing is that we want to eliminate death and disease for all—to overcome the limitations of our protein-based body; to find a way out of the chain of various crises our civilization is facing. 2045 is a project of international scope, a project for humankind as a whole and for every single person individually. The project is multistep and will be active in many different areas of human life—from conducting our own scientific research to educational programs, social networks, computer games, etc. For us today it is important to win the support of people who share our views, to expand the ranks of our followers. The more who believe in these ideas, the sooner we will achieve results. Question: What is the “internet laboratory” of the Russia 2045 project? The Internet laboratory is not fully functioning yet – it is under development. The movement is just seven months old and many initiatives are still in the development stage. But when the site is launched, every participant in the movement will be able to remotely access and work with research databases and test results; to control an avatar robot in the research laboratory remotely, through the Internet; to participate remotely in experiments using medical devices and gaming devices; and much more. Question: Who funds the Russia 2045 project? What are its current funding levels? Today these are mainly my own funds, though I also take advantage of the capabilities of my media company. Since there are many volunteers involved in the project, on the whole the activity of the movement is not very costly at the moment. On the other hand, we realize that achieving immortality will take billions. We have already developed some scientific innovations—their quantity is growing all the time and they require additional investment. Therefore, in Russia we have established a specialized foundation, and we plan to establish a system of foundations and open branches in the U.S. in order to attract private investors and, down the road, governmental resources. I would also like to reiterate that there are examples of large, successful projects that do not need corporate money per se, since they have a huge number of supporters. Take Wikipedia, for example. And if an idea has a billion supporters, perhaps it would not take billions of dollars from corporations and governments to make it a reality. Question: Your roadmap calls for the first avatar to be created by 2015. How sophisticated will this avatar be? What computing resources will this avatar require? Indeed, the creation of the avatar will require several years of work. There are already robot prototypes that look almost like people. In April a meeting was even held between three famous androids, including Geminoid-DK, and their “natural” doubles. Pictures of this group of six are just astonishing. The android and humanoid robots of Hanson Robotics are also interesting: Their faces articulate, laugh, express anger, wrinkle, etc., in a way quite similar to humans. An electoactive polymer (EAP) has already been developed for producing facial expressions—it changes form when a current goes through it, and using EAP it is possible to perfectly imitate human facial expressions. New model of Petman bipedal robot from Boston Dynamics, constructed and build from the scratch in 30 months clearly shows that building agile and dexterious anthropomorthic artifical bodies becomes today’s reality. All manner of exoskeletons have been built, with limbs that have the same degrees of freedom as people have. Scientists have made rather significant progress in developing remotely operated devices. There are also so called “virtual hand” telepresence experiments in which a person can actually feel a hand that is not really his. All that had to be done for this was to coordinate contact with the artificial hand in a place the person could see with contact with his real hand out of sight.
In short, there are many interesting studies that need to be brought together in one project, adjusted so as to target a particular task, and combined with other new, original research. Of course, the first avatar will not be perfect. Most likely, at first a person will operate the artificial body while sitting at a monitor and with the use of additional instruments—eye-glasses, perhaps, or a special suit. But this is just the beginning. As for computer technologies, I don’t see any difficulties in creating the necessary technical and computing resources. I’m more worried about how fully the avatar will be controlled by the operator using the brain-computer interface. I also envision complications arising in creating an uninterrupted energy source for the avatar. In addition, it is evident that such a device will need to exchange a lot of data with the operator, and the data-transfer channels will have to be of proper size. In short, there are questions and challenges, but by 2017, when we plan to start serial production of avatars, I believe the necessary technologies will have arrived, or we will develop them according to our needs. Question: Your roadmap also calls for transplanting this avatar into a robotic body. How exactly would this work? If I understand correctly, you wanted to ask about transplanting a brain into a robotic body? After an artificial body is created—an avatar—one area of research will be, according to our scientists, the transplanting of a human brain into an artificial body. Brain transplantation is a complicated task. You must create a brain life support system, to develop a transplantation procedure, to solve the problem of brain homeostasis support (nutrition, cleaning, oxygenation), to develop systems of communications with the outer world and many other issues. So, the task is truly complicated—it is even easier to transplant a head onto an artificial body than a brain into one. But according to our experts, this problem is quite solvable. And this technology may extend human life to the time we find a way to transfer human personality to a fully artificial carrier. Question: Your plan calls for 4 stages of robotic human bodies, bodies A-D. Could you describe each of these bodies? As regards the Avatar project, everything is likely clear already. This is a project to create a robot copy of a human that can be operated through the brain-computer interface. We just talked about the Body B project, which is to create a brain life support system in order to extend human life by 100-200 years. The Re-Brain project is a purely Russian project to create a computer brain model and a model of the human psyche using the method of reverse engineering, and to develop a way to transfer personality to an artificial carrier. I should mention here that the Russian reverse brain engineering approach is just a starting point for us, a basic way to look at the problem. We expect it to enable us to implement other approaches as well. We of course understand that upgrading that reverse-engineered brain model to include such complicated processes as personality, language and consciousness will probably require serious collaboration with other sciences, including psychophisiology and psychology. And Body D is our vision of the evolution of a personality carrier: a body that is like a hologram. This technology is not yet able to be made, but that is how we envision future human bodies. Question: The 2045 roadmap seems quite ambitious. What reasons do you have for believing that conventional wisdom regarding artificial intelligence and reverse engineering the brain is wrong? Until these technologies are invented, there will be no real certainty that traditional approaches will work. And the task of the Russia 2045 social movement is to raise the level of interest of scientists specializing in these areas, and to draw the attention of young people who have already graduated and are deciding what to do with their lives to the technologies of immortality. And, of course, the goal is also to attract young people who are still considering what area of study to pursue. Perhaps some of the approaches will not prove effective. But, as I said at the summit, we need a social mandate. And perhaps in one, two, or ten years young scientists will come along who will solve problems that we do not even know how to approach today. Question: How many researchers and scientists are contributing to the Russia 2045 project? There are currently 16 projects in progress and 15 projects that are yet to be approved. We have 12 project managers, around 60 scientists on the project teams, and approximately 70 scientists lend support to the project. Question: What artificial intelligence approach do you favor for the creation of an artificial brain? We chose a brain reverse engineering approach because of several reasons. First, we need that brain code schematics to create a movement control system for Avatar. Second, we need it to create a stimulation system for brain life support system. And last but not least – we aim at transferring human personality, individual consciousness, to that AI as an artificial carrier on final stages of the project, and that can not be done with genetic algorithm or intellectual agent based AI. So brain reverse engineering it is. And artificial intelligence is just a means, a servant. In order to connect a personality living in an artificial body to this body, an artificial brain will be needed. There will be an artificial intelligence built into this body that will make the “new” human smarter and faster. Question: If you had a billion dollars to invest in artificial intelligence research, how would you spend it? We, people, are in large part inactive creatures, possessed by fears of the future, and we do not like to made drastic changes in life, in the world, in ourselves. Therefore, any truly bold idea is supported initially by only a few people. A serious social mandate does not yet exist in society for the technologies of immortality. These technologies are not called for as they should be. Nevertheless, humankind will inevitably face this issue when we receive all the fast-growing number of opportunities provided to us by modern achievements in science and technology. Very soon man will reach the stage of development at which his intellectual resources are almost infinite. And 60-80 years of life is a very short time for a person who can easily manipulate terabytes of data. This person will inevitably want to live a long time. What would I do with a first billion? I would use this money to try to explain to people why they need technologies that will make immortality possible, what needs to be done to create them, and what life will be like after these new technologies appear. That is, I would form a social mandate that, in its turn, would bring in other billions that I would spend on research and on arranging mass production of new technologies. As I told you before, I would be spending it on AI as a mean to create a movement control system for Avatar, a stimulation system for brain life support system and building an AI that would work as a host for real person’s memory and consciousness . Question: Are there any projects equivalent to the Russia 2045 project in other nations? There are quite a few interesting projects and scientific institutes in Europe and the U.S. already partially engaged in the development of cybernetic technologies, brain-computer neurointerfaces and other research related to our area of focus. But no one has yet taken the same approach to the immortality problem as we have—a comprehensive approach, a strategic approach. If we are successful in combining our efforts with other scientific teams, we really will be able to achieve our goals within the period we set for ourselves in our strategic plan.