Futurology: 5 Ways Society Will Be Affected by Cognitive Technology

We'll Achieve Digital Immortality

Perhaps the biggest limitation of the human intellect is its shelf life. You only have so many years to learn, because no matter how smart you get, eventually the body that carries around your observations and insights will die. Humans have tried to overcome that by writing books and amassing libraries to pass along knowledge, but it's hard to preserve more than a smidgen of the data stored in the roughly 100 billion neurons in the typical human brain [source: University of Washington].

But some futurists see a way around that. What if we could capture and digitize the entire information content of our brains and then upload that data to a computer or a robot? Russian industrialist and media mogul Dmitry Itskov told attendees at a recent futurist conference in Moscow that he hopes to achieve a cruder work-around version of that vision -- transplanting a working human brain into a robot -- in just a decade. But that's just the first step. Within 30 years, Itskov envisions finding a method of copying and uploading human consciousness into a machine, or even a holographic virtual body -- basically, a software replica of a person [source: Dillow].

That may sound totally, impossibly crazy. But given researchers' recent progress in developing neurosynaptic computer chips -- that is, machines that mimic the neurons and synapses of the brain -- it's hard to just scoff at Itskov's bold prediction. Such chips eventually may have the ability not just to store information, but to learn and remember, just as real brain cells do [source: Boyle]. That could mean that we'll not only be able to create complete copies of our brains' content, but that those copies would be able to keep using what we know and build upon it, long after our original meat bodies have vanished. Imagine, for example, how many more great plays William Shakespeare might have written, if he'd had an additional 100 years to further develop his craft and to find new sources of inspiration. Or better yet, how many new dramas he'd be producing today, if a copy of his brain was still at work.

Author's Note: Futurology 5 Ways Society Will Be Affected by Cognitive Technology

When I was growing up in the 1960s, I remember seeing the movie "Charly" -- based on a short story, "Flowers for Algernon," by Daniel Keyes -- in which a mentally challenged janitor, played by Cliff Robertson, undergoes experimental surgery that triples his intelligence, turning him into the world's foremost intellect. That's probably the ultimate form of cognitive technology that anyone can imagine. But the operation's effects turn out to be temporary, and moreover, the protagonist discovers that being vastly smarter doesn't really make him any happier, in part because he's suddenly able to perceive the weaknesses and shortcomings of people he formerly liked and admired with disconcerting clarity. I think that story is still an apt allegory, in the sense that we're not sure where gadgetry or intellect-enhancing drugs will really lead us. As Princeton anthropologist Craig B. Stanford's 2001 book "The Hunting Apes" details, an evolutionary advance in brain size about 200,000 years ago enabled the human species to not only survive but to dominate the planet. But we can also think of examples of extremely smart people throughout history who have sometimes done cruel, destructive and/or stupid things. Personally, I'm hoping someone will develop a technology that will assist us in becoming more empathetic, compassionate and willing to play nice with others.

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