Room 8 and the Meaning of Life

Nick Smith
Joseph Adolphe

Ray Kurzweil, inventor and futurist, has often been called a whack job, Smith tells the class. But he's also considered a genius, and his technological predictions have come true so many times that his ideas are considered worthy of study at an institute at Oxford. Kurzweil has predicted that the human brain, as a processing organ, will be accurately simulated by the 2020s, and that by 2045, the brain and consciousness will be able to be uploaded onto the Internet—and into another body, or beyond the realm of needing a body at all. At that moment, which has been dubbed "the singularity," humans would become immortal.

Smith starts with a broad-brush timeline of history over the 14 billion years since the Big Bang, hitting major technological developments, which have been telescoping rapidly since the invention of the light bulb in 1882. He mentions that video games were invented in the year of his birth, 1972, and he easily remembers a time when it could take a whole day with a library and card catalog to retrieve information now available instantaneously through Google. "It starts to look like people who were in college when I was were cognitively disabled," he says.

The conversation turns to Kurzweil's vision of a digital brain. "It's not like they're giving you a new brain or robots are eating your brain and taking you over—it's like you're just getting fresh 'meat,'" says Smith, when asked to clarify the concept of a brain transplant. His eyes are alight—with irony, fervor, or perhaps a combination of both. Like an airplane pilot, he's in charge, but he's also along for the ride. He has the ability to argue any side of an issue or to create a believable world, and one has the sense that once the door to Room 8 closes, he, too, may not know exactly where the words will take him and his class.

"But wouldn't you be not yourself?" a student asks. "Because part of you is your body." And adjusting to a different body, perhaps even gender, would lead to everyone "being a screwed-up mess."

"You'll have a little bit of a learning curve," says Smith, smiling. "But it's better than being dead." Then he notes that she's raised the question, What do we mean by you, your brain, and your mind? "In what we call materialism, humans are just material beings. There's no magic, no mystery. A materialist, like Kurzweil, thinks the brain is like the knee but more complex, just more pieces to figure out." But dualists believe that "you'd never be able to capture the human soul or spirit."

Kurzweil's concept, so far, is shocking, but perhaps not threatening. Now Smith takes a different tack. "My mother has had both knees replaced," he says, because titanium lasts longer than bones. "But we don't think of her as a robot."

"She's a cyborg," says a student who sports her own metal enhancement, a bull-ring nose piercing.

"In some ways, literally, she's synthetic," acknowledges Smith. "Just like all of you are synthetic. You have glasses, you've got caffeine coursing through your body, you're working in this artificial environment with heat and light. We're all a little bit like cyborgs. There's no clear line between us and the machines eventually.

"The way science fiction describes it, the robots rise, and then they kill us. That's not what Kurzweil is saying at all. The technology gets better and better, and we integrate more and more of it into the body because it's effective." Compared to where we were in the 1950s, says Smith, "we're already one foot in the superhuman, and no one is saying, 'Whoa! We need to slow down cellphone technology!' Instead, everyone's, like, 'When's the next iPhone coming out?'"

The students keep asking questions, thinking aloud: If everyone's uploaded on the Internet, are there even barriers between people anymore? Are we like one superintelligence?

"Like uber-Facebook," muses Smith.

A young woman, perplexed, says, "If you're soon going to have your consciousness put into mechanical form and you can access anything, you don't have to have experienced it. I feel like it takes away a lot of what it is to be human and almost eliminates the point of being alive."

"I hate to say it," Smith says with a grin, "but what you're asking is, 'What is the meaning of life?' You start thinking maybe this technological direction isn't what I meant by the good life. What would relationships look like? Maybe death is good and important and gives meaning to life in some weird way."

As Smith describes it, the march of computers toward integration with the brain starts to feel inexorable: First there was the giant machine in another room, then a box on the desktop, now a phone in the palm of the hand, and next—coming soon to a nose near you?—Google's glasses. Moreover, he adds, aliens looking down on Earth would surely see a civilization of screen-dwellers.

"You have X number of hours to live on this planet," Smith tells the class. "What percentage of those hours do you want to spend in front of a screen? When it comes time to die, are you going to think, 'Oh! I should have had more screen time!'" He pauses.

"If only I'd checked Facebook one last time ... " someone deadpans, and knowing laughter breaks out around the table.

After a quick discussion of Facebook—who's on, who's off, and who's back on after feeling like a social outcast—Smith mentions his ambivalence about the possibility of running an online version of this course next year. "There are a lot of economic incentives," he admits, "and any student in any country could sign up if they pay a fee, which is interesting.

"But in the end what is the value in this—humans around a table versus screens interacting? I honestly don't know if this place will exist in 25 years, the bricks, the tables where students—humanoids—sit around and talk." ~

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