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So, Does Your Health Insurance Cover a New Robot Body?

One of the more WTF "topics": last at last week's AAAS conference in D.C. was, basically, "downloading." Like, in the Battlestar sense, the transfer of...

by Michael Byrne
Feb 21 2011, 8:40pm

One of the more WTF topics last at last week’s AAAS conference in D.C. was, basically, “downloading.” Like, in the Battlestar sense, the transfer of consciousness from a human brain into something else. Manufactured out-of-body experiences, super-advanced neuroprosthetics, the dawn of the most real avatar.

Turns out that it's at once more difficult and more attainable (read: attainable at all) than you might expect. Researcher Olaf Blanke, of Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, thinks we can be there within 10 years, at least to the point of that ultimate avatar, or the dumping of the brain, consciousness and all, into a machine. He addressed it Friday at a conference Q&A.

The particular question was simply How close are we to direct brain links. . . . making the cyberworld seem as real as this one? "I estimate that using non/invasive brain/machine interfaces in the next 10 years humans will be linked online to computers, avatars and virtual worlds, be it for improved communication over long distances, embodiment of avatars, as well as robotic surrogate bodies," Blanke answered. "These techniques and associated research will have to show whether this world is perceived as real or not."

There probably aren't too many people in the world that have as much handle on what self-awareness is than Blanke. And his research has to do with real-world problems: making life easier for amputees, working around spinal cord injuries, "freeing" patients that are "locked in," which is the ultimate nightmare scenario of being fully awake and aware, but fully unable to move or respond. So, then, the goal is what amounts to an out-of-body experience, or an experience of being liberated from your body.

"Out of body experiences (OBEs) are characterized by three elements; disembodied self-location, elevated first person perspective, and seeing your own body from an elevated perspective," Blanke explained in a later question. "Research has shown that a deficit in integrating signals from vision, touch, and positions sense is one important mechanisms. Imagine you see your arm in a certain position, but that you feel it at a different position, what happens in an OBE is the same mechanisms but not just for an arm, but for the entire body."

The method involves "distorting" the signals in the brain that coordinate your everyday real-life avatar—how you see and feel yourself right now—and sort of remapping your own brain onto a mechanism that isn't your body. Which is massively hard because everyone's brain is very different. And any machine linked to your self-awareness would need to learn how your own self-awareness functions. There is no generic brain.

"Of course, in a sense, humans already achieve consciousness on a machine, the brain," Blanke says. "What our data show is that using virtual reality and robotic technologies the brain refers conscious experience, at this point at least partly, to a virtual body or avatar."

All of this leads back to the amazingly spooky question of Cylon downloading. Everything talked about here is an out-if-body experience, importantly, not out-of-brain. But you have wonder about some day in the future when we look back at the idea of “lifespan” as quaint and what human ailment there is beyond full-on body-death to, you know, actually kill us.

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