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How one Russian millionaire wants to save the world … with immortal cyborgs

Dmitry Itskov

Dmitry Itskov has a plan to save humanity from impending doom. The question is whether we will still be “human,” if Itskov’s dreams come true.

At least, that’s one of the many, many questions.

The 32-year-old Russian mogul, who made his fortune as founder of the Web publishing company New Media Stars, is creator of the 2045 Initiative, a non-profit, and its Avatar project, which seeks to transpose human consciousness into artificial bodies within the next 30 years – cyborgs, in other words, a human-based singularity. It sounds outlandish, even impossible – the stuff of science fiction. But for Itskov, furthering human evolution by combining our consciousness with technology is not only possible, it is imperative; the only way to solve the crises that will one day face us all.

I first met Itskov on a blustery early-March day, in a private dining room beyond the suspiciously beautiful  patrons of Manhattan’s posh Standard Grill. Surrounded by mahogany walls and racks of wine bottles, Itskov laid out his vision of the future for a handful of journalists. For nearly three hours, we sat enraptured by Itskov, who might seem like Tony Stark if he weren’t so soft-spoken, almost bashful.

“Look at Iron Man, look at his suit. I think bodies of the future will be able to travel like that.”

“All the problems that we’re experiencing now are because of the nature of the human being, which is body, of course, and consciousness,” says Itskov, his face glowing behind the screen of his MacBook Air. “The whole Avatar project, the whole 2045 paradigm, is to develop the new body, the new carrier for the consciousness; and to understand what the consciousness is; and to develop the potential of the consciousness in the future.”

Itskov’s people called the meeting to discuss 2045′s release of an open letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, in which Itskov and his coalition of scientists, philosophers, and spiritual leaders asked the global body to embrace their vision of an avatar-filled future.

“Humanity essentially faces this choice: Slide into the abyss of global degradation, or find and realize a new model of development, a model capable of changing human consciousness and giving new meaning to life,” reads the letter.

“We believe that to move to a new stage of human evolution, mankind vitally needs a scientific revolution coupled with significant spiritual changes, inseparably linked, supplementing and supporting of each other. The vector of future development provided by technological advancement should assist the evolution of the consciousness of humanity, the individual and society, and be the transition to neo-humanity.”

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According to Itskov, the current plan to save humanity and the environment from complete destruction – something known as sustainable development – is just not enough. The politicians in charge of carrying out sustainable development projects think too small, too short term, he says. We need another plan.

“This project could be – not a substitution – but it could actually be even better than sustainable development because creating a new body for the human will change everything,” says Itskov. “It will change infrastructure, it will change the way people think, it will completely change the world because we will understand that we are not simply those physical bodies who are born and then die.”

The 2045 Initiative would be easier to write off as the wild vision of a bored billionaire if it didn’t have so much brain power backing its message. The list of scientists involved in 2045 include names like Dr. Hiroshi Ishiguro, creator of the most lifelike humanoid robots in the world; Dr. George Church, a molecular geneticist and Harvard professor; MIT AI Lab co-founder, artificial intelligence pioneer Dr. Marvin Minsky; and nearly 30 other overachievers from a range of applicable disciplines. 

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This “transition to neo-humanity” starts with Avatar A, which involves controlling a robotic human replica remotely through a brain computer interface, or BCI. This step, says Itskov, is not far off.

“Modern science has already developed a way to transfer four senses,” he says. “And I assume the fifth, which is taste, won’t be difficult to develop because there are some examples of chips which can produce some type of data transfer to an artificial tongue.”

Itskov hopes to achieve Avatar A by the year 2020 – less than 10 years from today.

“I see that scenario when a person is given the anesthesia, and when he wakes up, he feels himself in the new body.”

The next step is, of course, Avatar B, which involves transplanting a human brain into an artificial body. This is merely a stepping stone to Avatar C, which will also involve the transplant of a human brain into an artificial body – but this time, the personality, memories, and everything that makes that person a person will remain intact.

“I see that scenario when a person is given the anesthesia, and when he wakes up, he feels himself in the new body,” says Itskov, his face completely straight. “Probably at the very beginning, [it will be] less natural than the original biological one. But he can feel what he’s used to feeling, to walk, to communicate. All the personal experience is saved. All the human knowledge.”

The final step in Initiative 2045 is Avatar D: The transposition of human consciousness in a network not unlike the Internet, which would allow people – if we could still call ourselves that – to jump into holographic “bodies” located all over the globe, in outerspace, or potentially on other planets.

“We will be able to travel just by transferring the consciousness to a new body,” says Itskov. “Look at Iron Man, look at his suit. I think bodies of the future will be able to travel like that. This body won’t need any shelter. The food will just be for memories, for pleasure, just for fun.”

Of course, to achieve his goal, Itskov needs money – more than he has, anyway, which is a detail about himself that he refused to share with our group. And this is where the second annual Global Future 2045 Congress comes in. This June, Itskov, along with leading scientists, robotics experts, and spiritual leaders, will gather at New York City’s Lincoln Center to pitch business and government leaders on the idea of neo-humanity. The hope is that his message will go over better than it did the first time.

Last summer, Itskov made headlines after writing a letter addressed to all 1,226 members of the Forbes World’s Billionaire’s list. “I urge you to take note of the vital importance of funding scientific development in the field of cybernetic immortality and the artificial body,” reads the letter. “Such research has the potential to free you, as well as the majority of all people on our planet, from disease, old age and even death.”

In retrospect, the letter may have been a mistake. Not a single billionaire publicly pitched a cent into the project. And it gave the 2045 Initiative an elitist tinge; cyborg immortality, it seemed, would only be for the rich.

This, says Itskov, is a misconception. The era of neo-humanity is for everyone, rich and poor alike. It will simply be the rich who have access to the life-altering technology first, as a reward for helping finance the mission.

Listening to Itskov tell it, you can’t help but feel that he genuinely, deeply, wants to make the world a better place. In fact, his decision to leave the soullessness of business was what led him to the Avatar project in the first place.

“My desire was to sell all my assets and go to work for the country,” says Itskov. “What would be more social than going to work for the country? But I was lucky enough to find another point to implement my energy. That time coincided with my interest in life extension, and my personal spiritual journey.”

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Now, I know what you might be thinking: How are we taking any of this seriously? Neo-humanism? Cyborgs? Holographic bodies? We can’t even make a smartphone that holds enough juice for more than a few hours of heavy use, and we’re talking about putting human consciousness into a machine?

The short answer is, yes. In fact, many of these technologies are further along than you might think. Scientists have successfully enabled monkeys to control robotic arms just by thinking. The U.S. military is toying with soldiers fighting wars with avatar robot soldiers. And we long ago figured out how to isolate a brain from the body, Itskov points out. Is it really so crazy to think that, after a few more decades of dedicated research, we can achieve something close to Itskov’s goal?

As far as Itskov is concerned, there is no question. “I have no doubts,” he says, “not even a small doubt that this is possible.”

For the skeptics amongst us, Itskov says it will simply take a combination of education and patience. “I think we should be very tolerant to those people,” he says. “Because today, they don’t want to live more, to live longer; they don’t want to be happy, they are full of criticism. But tomorrow, they will change their minds.”