Image created by Louis Rosenberg using Midjouney software
Image Credit: Image created by Louis Rosenberg using Midjouney software
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Many “futurists” insist that technological advances will enable humans to “upload our minds” into computer systems, thereby allowing us to “live forever,” defying our biological limitations. This concept is deeply flawed but has gained popular attention in recent years. So much so, Amazon has a TV series based on the premise called Upload, not to mention countless other pop-culture references.
As background, the concept of “mind uploading” is rooted in the very reasonable premise that the human brain, like any system that obeys the laws of physics, can be modeled in software if sufficient computing power is devoted to the problem. To be clear, mind-uploading is not about modeling human brains in the abstract, but modeling specific people, their unique minds represented in such detail that every neuron is accurately simulated, including the massive tangle of connections among them.
Is it even possible?
Of course, this is an extremely challenging task. There are more than 85 billion neurons in your brain, each with thousands of links to other neurons. That’s around 100 trillion connections – a thousand times more than the number of stars in the Milky Way. It’s those trillions of connections that make you who you are – your personality and memories, your fears and skills and ambitions. To reproduce your mind in software (sometimes called an infomorph), a computer system would need to precisely simulate the vast majority of those connections down to their most subtle interactions.
That level of modeling will not be done by hand. Futurists who believe in “mind uploading” often envision an automated process using some kind of super-charged MRI machine, that captures the biology down to the molecular level. They further envision the use of artificial intelligence (AI) software to turn that detailed scan into a simulation of each unique neuron and its thousands of connections to other neurons.
MetaBeat will bring together thought leaders to give guidance on how metaverse technology will transform the way all industries communicate and do business on October 4 in San Francisco, CA.
This is a wildly challenging task but is theoretically feasible. It is also theoretically feasible that large numbers of simulated minds could coexist inside a rich simulation of physical reality. Still, the notion that “mind uploading” will enable any biological human to extend their life is deeply flawed.
The real issue is that the key words in that prior sentence are “their life.” While it is theoretically possible — with sufficient technological advances — to copy and reproduce the form and function of a unique human brain within a computer simulation, that human who was copied would still exist in their biological body. Their brain would still be safely housed inside their skull.
The person that would exist in the computer would be a copy.
In other words, if you signed yourself up for “mind uploading,” you would not feel like you suddenly transported yourself into a computer simulation. In fact, you would not feel anything at all. The brain copying process could have happened without your knowledge while you were asleep or sedated, and you wouldn’t have the slightest inkling that a reproduction of your mind existed in a simulation.
Mind uploading and the digital twin — you, but not really YOU
We can think of the copy as a digital clone or twin, but it would not be you. It would be a mental copy of you, including all of your memories up to the moment your brain was scanned. But from that time on, the copy would generate its own memories inside whatever simulated world it was installed in. It might interact with other simulated people, learning new things and having new experiences. Or maybe it would interact with the physical world through robotic interfaces. At the same time, the biological you would be generating new memories and skills and knowledge.
In other words, your biological mind and your digital copy would immediately begin to diverge. They would be identical for one instant and then grow apart. Your skills and abilities would diverge. Your knowledge and understanding would diverge. Your personality and objectives would diverge. After a few years, there would be significant differences. And yet, both versions would “feel like the real you.”
This is a critical point – the copy would have the same feelings of individuality that you have. It would feel just as entitled to own its own property and earn its own wages and make its own decisions. In fact, you and the copy would likely have a dispute as to who gets to use your name, as you would both feel like you had used it your entire life.
If I made a copy of myself, it would wake up in a simulated reality and fully believe it was the real Louis Barry Rosenberg, a lifelong technologist. If it were able to interact with the physical world through robotic means, the copy would feel like it had every right to live in my house and drive my car and go to my job. After all, the copy would remember buying that house and getting that job and doing everything else that I can remember doing.
In other words, creating a digital copy through “mind uploading” has nothing to do with allowing you to live forever. Instead, it would create a competitor who has identical skills, capabilities, and memories and who feels equally justified to be the owner of your identity.
And yes, the copy would feel equally married to your spouse and parent to your children. In fact, if this technology was possible, we could imagine the digital copy suing you for joint custody of your kids, or at least visitation rights.
To address the paradox of creating a copy of an individual rather than enabling digital immortality, some futurists suggest an alternate approach. Instead of scanning and uploading a mind to a computer, they hypothesize the possibility of gradually transforming a person’s brain, neuron by neuron, to a non-biological substrate. This is often referred to as “cyborging” rather than “uploading” and is an even more challenging technical task than scanning and simulating. In addition, it’s unclear if gradual replacement actually solves the identity problem, so I’d call this direction uncertain at best.
All this said, mind uploading is not the clear path to immortality that is represented in popular culture. Most likely, it’s a path for creating a duplicate that would react exactly the way you would if you woke up one day and were told – Sorry, I know you remember getting married and having kids and a career, but your spouse isn’t really your spouse and your kids aren’t really your kids and your job isn’t really...
Is that something anyone would want to subject a copy of yourself to?
Personally, I see this as deeply unethical. So unethical, I wrote a cautionary graphic novel over a decade ago called UPGRADE that explores the dangers of mind uploading. The book takes place in a future world where everyone spends the majority of their lives in the metaverse.
What the inhabitants of this world don’t realize is that their lives in the metaverse are continuously profiled by an AI system that observes all their actions and reactions, so it can build a digital model of their minds from a behavioral perspective (no scanning required). When the profiles are complete, the fictional AI convinces people to “upgrade themselves” by ending their life and allowing their digital copies to fully replace them.
When I wrote that book 14 years ago, it was intended as irony. And yet there’s an emerging field today that is headed in this very direction. Euphemistically called the “digital afterlife” industry, there are many startups pushing to “digitize” loved ones so that family members can interact with them after their death. There are even startups that want to profile your actions in the metaverse so you too can “live forever” in their digital world. Even Amazon recently stepped into this space by demonstrating how Alexa can clone the voice of your dead grandmother and allow you to hear her speak.
With so much activity in this space, how long before a startup begins touting the cost-saving benefits of ending your life early and allowing your digital replacement to live on? I fear it’s just a matter of time. My only hope is that entrepreneurs will be honest with the public about the reality of mind uploading – it’s not a pathway to immortality.
At least, not the way many people think.
Louis Rosenberg, Ph.D., is a pioneer in fields of VR, AR and AI. He earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University, has been awarded over 300 patents, and founded a number of successful companies. Rosenberg began his work at Air Force Research Laboratory where he developed the first functional augmented reality system to merge real and virtual worlds. Rosenberg is currently CEO of Unanimous AI, the chief scientist of the Responsible Metaverse Alliance and global technology advisor to the XR Safety Initiative (XRSI).
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NASA Says Hurricane Didn’t Hurt Artemis I Hardware, Sets New Launch Window
NASA’s Artemis I moon mission launch, stalled by Hurricane Ian, has a new target for takeoff. The launch window for step one of NASA’s bold plan to return humans to the lunar surface now opens Nov. 12 and closes Nov. 27, the space agency said Friday.
The news comes after the pending storm caused NASA to scrub the latest Artemis I Iaunch, which had been scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 2. As Hurricane Ian threatened to travel north across Cuba and into Florida, bringing rain and extreme winds to the launch pad’s vicinity, NASA on Monday rolled its monster Space Launch System rocket, and the Orion spacecraft it’ll propel, back indoors to the Vehicle Assembly Building at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
The hurricane made landfall in Florida on Wednesday, bringing with it a catastrophic storm surge, winds and flooding that left dozens of people dead, caused widespread power outages and ripped buildings from their foundations. Hurricane Ian is “likely to rank among the worst in the nation’s history,” US President Joe Biden said on Friday, adding that it will take “months, years, to rebuild.”
Initial inspections Friday to assess potential impacts of the devastating storm to Artemis I flight hardware showed no damage, NASA said. “Facilities are in good shape with only minor water intrusion identified in a few locations,” the agency said in a statement.
Next up, teams will complete post-storm recovery operations, which will include further inspections and retests of the flight termination system before a more specific launch date can be set. The new November launch window, NASA said, will also give Kennedy employees time to address what their families and homes need post-storm.
Artemis I is set to send instruments to lunar orbit to gather vital information for Artemis II, a crewed mission targeted for 2024 that will carry astronauts around the moon and hopefully pave the way for Artemis III in 2025. Astronauts on that high-stakes mission will, if all goes according to plan, put boots on the lunar ground, collect samples and study the water ice that’s been confirmed at the moon’s South Pole.
The hurricane-related Artemis I rollback follows two other launch delays, the first due to an engine problem and the second because of a hydrogen leak.
Hurricane Ian has been downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone but is still bringing heavy rains and gusty winds to the Mid-Atlantic region and the New England coast.
What You Get in McDonalds’ New Happy-Meal-Inspired Box for Adults
You’ve pulled up to McDonald’s as a full-on adult. You absolutely do not need a toy with your meal, right? Joking. Of course you do.
The fast-food chain will soon sell boxed meals geared toward adults, and each one has a cool, odd-looking figurine inside.
The meal has an odd name — the Cactus Plant Flea Market Box — that’s based on the fashion brand collaborating with McDonald’s on this promotion.
According to McDonald’s, the box is inspired by the memory of enjoying a Happy Meal as a kid. The outside of the box is multicolored and features the chain’s familiar golden arches.
The first day you can get a Cactus Plant Flea Market Box will be Monday, Oct. 3. Pricing is set by individual restaurants and may vary, according to McDonald’s. It’ll be available in the drive-thru, in-restaurant, by delivery or on the McDonald’s app, while supplies last.
You can choose between a Big Mac or 10-piece Chicken McNuggets. It will also come with fries and a drink.
Now about those toys. The boxes will pack in one of four figurines. Three of the four appear to be artsy takes on the classic McDonald’s characters Grimace, Hamburglar and Birdie the Early Bird, while the fourth is a little yellow guy sporting a McDonald’s shirt called Cactus Buddy.
In other McD news, Halloween buckets could be returning to the chain this fall. So leave some room in your stomach for a return trip.
Why companies like iHeartMedia, NBCU rely on homegrown IP to build metaverse engagements
To avoid potential blowback from a skeptical audience, retailers as well as media and entertainment companies are learning to invest in their homegrown intellectual properties while building virtual brand activations inside Roblox or Fortnite.
Take, for instance, when they get it wrong.
Earlier this week, Walmart launched its own Roblox world — called Walmart Land — and was roundly mocked for it across social media given the announcement’s disjointed brand message and apparent lack of life. In one viral tweet, a Twitter user described a clip of Walmart CMO William White introducing the Roblox space as “one of the saddest videos ever created.”
To some extent, this sort of criticism is to be expected during the early days of the metaverse.
“Walmart is an iconic brand; when you see them coming into a platform like Roblox, people are going to be 10 times more critical of what is being launched,” said Yonatan Raz-Fridman, CEO of the Roblox developer studio Supersocial.
But Walmart’s size is not its only disadvantage as it dips its toes into Roblox. Although Walmart has a widely recognizable brand, it owns few intellectual properties that users are actually interested in experiencing virtually — a shortcoming reflected by the somewhat cavernous emptiness of Roblox’s Walmart Land.
The success of other recent brand activations is evidence that media and entertainment brands are better equipped to build metaverse spaces that can dodge online skepticism, thanks to their wealth of owned IP.
“They are having to reinvent themselves, to a certain degree, but that is in their DNA,” said Jesse Streb, global svp of technology and engineering at the agency DEPT. “So they have a unique advantage over, say, some kludgy company that sells lumber, or a construction company.”
For example, iHeartMedia’s Roblox and Fortnite spaces were inspired by the mass media corporation’s wealth of popular real-life events, such as the Jingle Ball Tour and iHeartRadio Music Festival, with virtual versions of musicians like Charlie Puth performing pre-recorded concerts that allow real-time audience interaction.
“There’s a strong brand association with the IP, down to a station level — you’re in the New York area, you probably know Z100,” said iHeartMedia evp of business development and partnerships Jess Jerrick. “The same is true for the event IP, or the IP that we now have in the podcasting space, and of course our radio broadcast talent. So there’s no shortage of really strong IP we can bring into these spaces.”
Translating real-life properties into the metaverse is also an enticing prospect for brands that view metaverse platforms as an experimental marketing channel, allowing them to bring tried-and-true IP into their virtual activations instead of designing them from the ground level. This was part of the strategy behind the recent Tonight Show activation in Fortnite Creative, which was designed in collaboration between NBCUniversal and Samsung. “We’re looking at it holistically — how do we find fans in new ways, and use IP that fans love in new ways?” said NBCU president of advertising and client partnerships Mark Markshall.
Since opening on Sept. 14, iHeartLand has already enticed over 1.5 million Roblox users to visit. The company aims to retain that attention with a schedule of virtual programming featuring popular musicians and personalities.
“At our core, we are essentially an influencer network; our broadcast talent are some of the most connected, most engaging influencers at work in media today,” said Conal Byrne, CEO of iHeart Digital Audio Group. “That gives us this sort of superpower, to be able to go into new-ish platforms, like Roblox or Fortnite, because we talk to our listeners through those influencers.”
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