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Breeding Robots? Eternal Life? Conversation Series Explores Technology, Spirituality and Art

State of the Arts


Published March 14, 2012 at 9:54 a.m.

Imagine uploading the contents of your brain to a supercomputer, so that even after death, you could live on in a virtual world — hanging out with your resurrected friends and family, having sex with whomever you wanted, feasting on perfected versions of your favorite foods and reaching a kind of digital enlightenment.

It sounds a lot like heaven, no?

It’s actually the vision of robotics professor and futurist Hans Moravec, who, along with popular science authors such as Ray Kurzweil, believes that our exponentially improving technology will eventually lead to what they call “singularity,” a phenomenon in which the human brain becomes one with technology. The anticipated results: greater-than-human intelligence and perpetual happiness.

“If you look at popular science books on [robotics], they tend to tell functionally religious narratives,” says Robert Geraci, a religious studies professor at Manhattan College who explores the idea that advancements in technology could grant us eternal life. He’ll join University of Vermont assistant professor of computer science Josh Bongard on Wednesday afternoon for the first in a series of conversations at Shelburne’s All Souls Interfaith Gathering that will explore the convergence of technology, humanity, spirituality and art.

The talks, moderated by the former host of “Profile” on Vermont Public Television, Fran Stoddard, are cosponsored by the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Farms and All Souls, in conjunction with the museum’s upcoming exhibit, “Time Machines: Rockets, Robots and Steampunk.” Other speakers include Aubrey Shick, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who is developing a therapeutic robot for children with disabilities (she’ll bring the robot along); and Shelburne resident John Abele, the founder and cochair of medical-device company Boston Scientific.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, the crossover of religion, science and technology is fundamental, says Geraci. “Just believing that the scientific method is functional” and that the laws of physics are the same everywhere takes a leap of faith, he says. “There are certain things you have to believe in order to make science work.”

Think of our culture’s unwavering faith that pouring money into nanotechnology and robotics is going to solve humanity’s problems, Geraci suggests. “That particular faith, that technology can save us from ourselves, is really old but doesn’t have a good track record.”

Take, for instance, predator drones. “We could use robots to send them to Mars, to send them to deep-sea canyons to teach ourselves about the world,” Geraci says wistfully. “Or we could send them to kill people in other parts of the world.” The last option, he says, is a mistake.

As for that mind-uploading thing, Geraci is skeptical. While he believes that in the next few decades we may be able to begin learning languages by uploading dictionaries to our brains, he has his doubts about singularity.

Sure, we can continue to increase our machines’ computational power, but there are limits. “A really simple computer tends to work a heck of a lot better than a complicated one,” Geraci notes. “All you need to do is compare your laptop to your calculator and see which one breaks down more often.”

We may never be able to craft a machine as failsafe as the human brain. “For most of us, the brain keeps working, and it doesn’t seem to miscompute in horrible, distressing ways,” he says. “I wonder whether it’s really plausible to have software that complex that’s not incredibly brittle.” When Geraci imagines the great mind-uploaded robot, “It says about three words and then it breaks,” he says. “Or it opens its robotic eyes … and then breaks.”

With robotics rock star Bongard behind such a hypothetical project, though, you never know what could happen. Last fall, Bongard was named one of 94 winners of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, which came with a $500,000 research grant. He doesn’t build robots; he breeds them, creating virtual environments in which digital creatures can evolve.

It sounds a lot like playing God, but Bongard sees his experiments through a practical lens. “As a scientist, I’m agnostic,” he says. “I like to build machines.” Ultimately, he says, he’s interested in developing technology that helps people and exploring what it means to be adaptive.

“We often breed robots that look like they have intelligence,” says Bongard. “That’s where the philosophy comes in — what is the difference [between us and them]? When you interact with someone, they seem to have consciousness, but how do you know?”

As for the future, Bongard notes that the blending of human and technological systems has already begun. Just look at the development of retinal and cochlear implants and glasses that allow the wearer to project the internet right onto their lenses.

“The whole cyborg vision … it’s already occurring,” Bongard says.

“Robotics and Humanity: Conversations on Technology, Spirit and Art,” moderated by Fran Stoddard at All Souls Interfaith Gathering in Shelburne. Wednesdays, March 14, 21 & 28, at 4 p.m. Free. Info, 985-3346, ext. 3368.