Get right up close to Dmitry Itskov and sniff all you like — you will not pick up even the faintest hint of crazy. He is soft-spoken and a bit shy, but expansive once he gets talking, and endearingly mild-mannered. He never seems ruffled, no matter what question you ask. Even if you ask the obvious one, which he has encountered more than a few times since 2011, when he started “this project,” as he sometimes calls it.
Namely: Are you insane?
“I hear that often,” he said with a smile, over lunch one recent afternoon in Manhattan. “There are quotes from people like Arthur C. Clarke and Gandhi saying that when people come up with new ideas they’re called ‘nuts.’ Then everybody starts believing in the idea and nobody can remember a time when it seemed strange.”
It is hard to imagine a day when the ideas championed by Itskov, 32, a Russian multimillionaire and former online media magnate, will not seem at least far-fetched and unfeasible. His project, called the 2045 Initiative, for the year he hopes it is completed, envisions the mass production of lifelike, low-cost avatars that can be uploaded with the contents of a human brain, complete with all the particulars of consciousness and personality.
What Itskov is striving for makes wearable computers, like Google Glass, seem as about as futuristic as Lincoln Logs. This would be a digital copy of your mind in a nonbiological carrier, a version of a fully sentient person that could live for hundreds or thousands of years. Or longer. Itskov unabashedly drops the word “immortality” into conversation.
It’s quite possible that Itskov’s plans, in the fullness of time, will prove to be nothing more than sci-fi bunk. But he has the attention, and in some cases the avid support, of august figures at Harvard, MIT and Berkeley and leaders in fields like molecular genetics, neuroprosthetics and other realms that you’ve probably never heard of. People like Sir Roger Penrose, an emeritus professor of mathematical physics at Oxford, who appears on the 2045.com website with a video teaser about “the quantum nature of consciousness,” and George M. Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, whose video on the site concerns “brain healthspan extension.”
As these videos suggest, scientists are taking tiny, incremental steps toward melding humans and machine all the time. Ray Kurzweil, the futurist and now Google’s director of engineering, argued in “The Singularity Is Near,” a 2005 book, that technology is advancing exponentially and that “human life will be irreversibly transformed” to the point that there will be no difference between “human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.”
Technological achievements have continued their march since he wrote the book — from creating computers that can outplay humans (like Watson, the “Jeopardy” winner from IBM) to technology that tracks a game player’s heartbeat and perhaps his excitement (like the new Kinect) to digital tools for those with disabilities (like brain implants that can help quadriplegics move robotic arms).
But most researchers do not aspire to upload our minds to cyborgs; even in this crowd, the concept is a little out there. Academics seem to regard Itskov as sincere and well-intentioned, and if he wants to play global cheerleader for fields that generally toil in obscurity, fine. Ask participants in the 2045 conference if Itskov’s dreams could ultimately be realized and you’ll hear everything from lukewarm versions of “maybe” to flat-out enthusiasm.
“I have a rule against saying something is impossible unless it violates laws of physics,” Church says, adding about Itskov: “I just think that there’s a lot of dots that aren’t connected in his plans. It’s not a real road map.”
Martine Rothblatt, founder of United Therapeutics, a biotech company that makes cardiovascular products, sounds more optimistic.
“This is no more wild than in the early ’60s, when we saw the advent of liver and kidney transplants,” Rothblatt says. “People said at the time, ‘This is totally crazy.’ Now, about 400 people have organs transplanted every day.”
At a minimum, she and others believe that interest in building Itskovian avatars will give birth to and propel legions of startups. Some of these far-flung projects have caught the eyes of angel investors.
Itskov says he will invest at least part of his fortune in such ventures, but his primary goal with 2045 is not to become richer. In fact, the more you know about Itskov, the less he seems like a businessman and the more he seems like the world’s most ambitious utopian. He maintains that his avatars would not just end world hunger — because a machine needs maintenance but not food — but that they would also usher in a more peaceful and spiritual age, when people could stop worrying about the petty anxieties of day-to-day living.
“We need to show that we’re actually here to save lives,” he said.
Itskov’s role in the 2045 Initiative is bit like that of a producer in the Hollywood sense of the word: the guy who helps underwrite the production, shapes the script and oversees publicity. He says he will have spent roughly $3 million of his own money by the time the end of this month, and though he is reluctant to disclose his net worth he is ready to spend much more.
For now, he is buying a lot of plane tickets. He flies around the globe introducing himself to scientists, introducing scientists to one another and prepping the public for what he regards as the inevitable age of avatars. In the span of two weeks, his schedule took him from New York (for an interview), to India (to enlist the support of a renowned yogi), home to Moscow, then to Berkeley, Calif. (to meet with scientists), back to Moscow and then to Shanghai (to meet with a potential investor).
When he isn’t pushing his initiative, he leads a life that could best be described as monastic. He meditates and occasionally spends days in silent retreat in the Russian countryside. He is single and childless, and he asked to keep mention of his personal life to a minimum.
A few weeks ago, Itskov, wearing a Borelli blazer, traveled to the University of California, Berkeley, where a group of researchers and professors gave him a tour of their labs. It was basically show-and-tell time for brain-tech fanboys, and it started at the Berkeley Wireless Research Center. The center is sponsored by Intel, Samsung and other companies eager for a first look at whatever is being conceived there. The day ended on the other side of the campus, at the Swarm Lab, which is subsidized by Qualcomm.
At the Swarm Lab, Peter Ledochowitsch, a researcher with a thick red beard, described a minimally invasive brain implant designed to read intentions from the surface of the brain. So far, the device has been implanted in an anesthetized rat; a prototype for alert animals is in the works. But eventually, he said, it would allow paralyzed people to communicate, or to control a robotic arm or a wheelchair. It could also allow you to start your car if you think, “Start my car.”
Like other researchers on campus, Ledochowitsch has founded a company — his is called Cortera Neurotechnologies — that he hopes will eventually mass-produce and market this device.
“We’ve talked to a number of venture capitalists,” he said. “The problem is that they’re spoiled by Silicon Valley, where six guys can turn around some stupid social networking software in six months. If your timeline is 2021, it makes them very nervous.”
Itskov’s timeline is even further out, but he is still eager for progress.
“It’s worth meeting, in person, everyone who is in this field,” he said.
Itskov has apparently never done anything halfway. He was raised in Bryansk, a city about 230 miles southwest of Moscow, with a father who directed musical theater and a mother who was a schoolteacher. The father, Ilya Itskov, said through an interpreter in a phone interview that his son was a perfectionist who would not stop trying to learn a subject — be it a foreign language or windsurfing — until he’d mastered it.
“From the very beginning,” he said, “we realized that Dmitry is not an ordinary person.”
He attended the Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics, where he met his future business partner, Konstantin Rykov. In 1998, Rykov started an e-zine with an English-language obscenity for a name, which was loaded with jokes about culture, showbiz and relationships. Itskov came on board the next year, and the two began branding their collaborations as Goodoo Media.
Its websites sites earned money through ads, Itskov says, but the company, renamed New Media Stars, also came to have very highly placed allies. Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the tangle of Russian politics and the Web, writes that the company and its media empire have churned out “heaps of highly propagandistic video content” for the United Russia party of President Vladimir Putin.
Rykov declined a request for an interview. Itskov, whose principal roles were business development and managing New Media’s roughly 250 employees, says has never met Putin, he adds, though he voted for him. “In Russia, the majority of people love him,” he said.
Itskov was helping to build New Media Stars when he had an uncomfortable epiphany. 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 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 slideshow with one heartbreaking statistic after another: Almost 1 billion people are starving. Forty-nine countries are 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.
Hence, avatars. They may sound like an improbable way to solve the real problems on Itskov’s laptop, or like the perfect gift for the superrich of the future. But the laws of supply and demand abide in Itskov’s utopia, and he assumes that once production of avatars is ramped up, costs will plunge. He also assumes that charities now devoted to feeding, clothing and healing the poor will focus on the goal of making and distributing affordable bodies, which in this case means machines.
For now, just acquiring a lifelike robotic head is a splurge. A replica of Itskov from the neck up has been under construction in Plano, home of Hanson Robotics, a company founded by David Hanson, who has a doctorate in interactive arts and engineering and who has previously fabricated robotic heads for research labs around the world. (Itskov said Hanson would not allow him to discuss price.) Itskov describes it as the most sophisticated mechanical head in history.
“Most robotic heads have 20 motors,” Hanson said in a phone interview. “Mine have 32. This one will have 36. So, more facial expressions, simulating all the major muscle groups. We’ve had four people working on this full time since March.”
The even more remarkable expectation is that while Itskov is in another room, sitting before a screen with sensors to pick up his every movement, the head will be able to reproduce his expressions and voice. “He’s controlling that robot, controlling its gestures, its expression and its speaking with his voice in real time,” Hanson says. “It’s somewhere between a cellphone call and teleportation.”
Itskov’s initiative is nothing if not forward-looking, but he sees it as a present-day end in itself.
“The whole problem with humanity is that we don’t currently plan for the future,” he said. “Our leaders are focused on stability. We don’t have something which will unite the whole of humanity. The initiative will inspire people. It’s about changing the whole picture, and it’s not just a science-fiction book. It’s a strategy already being developed by scientists.”
The road to avatars
Random stops along the way to joining humans and machines.
1784: First known use of the word “avatar,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. From Sanskrit, it refers to a Hindu deity in human form.
1924: Hans Berger begins the history of brain-computer interfaces by developing EEG, which measures electrical activity in the brain.
1958: In Sweden, Arne Larsson becomes the first person to receive a surgically implanted pacemaker.
1961: The first cochlear implant, called a bionic ear. It marks the first time a machine is able “to restore a human sense,” as The New York Times puts it.
1987: “Max Headroom,” about a fictional avatar, makes its debut on ABC. In the story line, Max was created by downloading the memories of a TV reporter into a computer.
1992: “Snow Crash,” a Neal Stephenson novel, helps popularize avatars. “If you’re ugly,” he writes, “you can make your avatar beautiful.”
1997: Researchers at Emory University teach a stroke victim to use electrodes implanted in his brain, and sensors taped to his body, to move a cursor and spell words with his thoughts.
2003: Linden Lab starts Second Life, an online world that allows users to create avatars that can interact with other avatars.
2008: At Duke University, a monkey implanted with a brain-computer interface controls a robot on a treadmill in Japan.
2011: Dmitry Itskov starts the 2045 Initiative.
2012: At the University of Pittsburgh, a quadriplegic woman, Jan Scheuermann, eats a chocolate bar attached to a robotic arm controlled by implants in her brain.
2013: The MIT Technology Review reports that Samsung is working on a tablet computer that can be controlled by your mind.