At first I didn’t understand. Everyone kept talking about Tupac and something ‘gram. I thought they were saying Tupac’s using Instagram. But that didn’t make sense. How can you use social media if you’re dead?
Then I realized they were referring to the hologram of the deceased rapper Tupac Shakur displayed alongside Snoop Dog at this year’s Coachella music festival. By now virtually everyone’s heard of this and it’s spreading like a nerdcore meme wildfire across the Internet. And rightly so. It’s pretty darn neat. Some would say mind-blowing. I would say ‘just the beginning.’
Already people are calling out their lists of dead celebrities who they’d like to see resurrected by the new hologram technology. Sinatra. Elvis. Mozart. John Candy….? The Beatles sons’ may not be needed to reanimate the Fab Four anymore—we’ve got holograms!
What most people aren’t quite connecting the dots on yet is the full implication of what we’ve seen. The incredible ease with which groundbreaking technological innovations—Watson, exoplanet detection, augmented reality, nanotechnology, etc—are now streaming into our daily lives may blind us from seeing that the Tupac hologram represents more than just the ability to project the digital likeness of someone for entertainment purposes. It represents the ability of technology to essentially recreate someone.
The company that created the Tupac hologram, the Digital Domain Media Group, did so by piecing together video recordings of Tupac performing during his life. Advanced computer graphics were used to reanimate not only his mannerisms, movements, and voice but smaller details like jewelry and tattoos.
Prominent transhuman scholars and Singularitarians, such as Ray Kurzweil, maintain that a vastly more complex form of simulation will be possible in the future, in which not only our likeness but our subjective existence will be able to be resurrected. This would entail uploading our minds onto software and instantiating them onto an entirely non-biological substrate. Once our physical bodies die our minds would then be projected into a virtual universe, which by then will probably be the village square of choice. In this sense, I guess I’ve answered my initial question of how a dead person could use social media.
We may look back on this year’s Coachella as more than just the birth of a mainstream consumer love affair with holograms. This could go down as an oddly pop culture-friendly watershed moment in transhumanism.
Guerilla Marketing And The Singularity
Could we find there’s no limit to the reach of guerilla marketing? As we hurl ourselves toward a future of sentient nanobots and global AI networks, what will become of advertising and its sneaky, drug-addled step-brother, marketing? I found myself thinking about this at the 2011 Singularity Summit, when filmmaker Jason Silva (a self-described “techno-optimist transhumanist wunderkind”) presented a film in the vein of his “The Immortalist”, a work of ‘art’ that feels more like Ashton Kutcher describing quantum mechanics at a poetry slam. This film, and in fact Silva’s entire presentation, felt curiously out of place. Smacking of hackneyed Hollywood orchestration, the film wielded roughly the intellectual curiosity of Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” video.
Roland Emmerich Likes The Singularity
What makes this guerilla marketing? Well, Jason Silva’s presence there, and his presentation itself, was being filmed by a documentary film crew embedded by director Roland Emmerich, who is in development on a 2013 feature film called Singularity, which has reportedly tapped Ray Kurzweil as its top consultant. My theory is that Jason Silva will play a naïve proponent who cheerleads the positive possibilities behind the singularity before being killed off by either rampant self-replicating nanotechnology or malevolent artificial intelligence. I submit that his short films and his appearance at the Summit will be featured in the film, as a fictional cautionary tale. Speaking of fictional cautionary tales, the fact that Silva is dating Heather Graham, who was present at the Summit and appeared in some of the shots, bodes well for my theory. If it turns out Graham is in Singularity you can be sure Silva’s appearance at the Summit was a cunningly leveraged marketing ploy by Emmerich that will pay off big time in 2013.
Advertising In An Accelerating Future
I found myself shocked that even a community as savvy and future-shocked as the Singularity Institute could let themselves be infiltrated by a Hollywood guerilla marketing team. While some analysts have speculated that the actual Singularity will make human endeavors such as advertising and marketing obsolete—as this staggering schism in history will surely render new industries and modalities that will fundamentally change the nature of capitalism—I have to respectfully disagree. The global economy relies on advertising and consumerism as its bone marrow. In the coming decades I see us likely to descend even further into a technocratic nightmare fueled by a savvy corporatocracy that harvests consumers like an abbatoir to lifestock, using new technologies to vacuum away the noxious fumes.
“Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?”
Over the weekend I attended the 2011 Singularity Summit in New York to assist my friends, filmmakers Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado, who are shooting a documentary, The Methuselah Generation, about the science of life extension. Along the way, we filmed a lively conversation between life extensionist Aubrey de Grey and economist Robin Hanson about the implications and probability of extending the human lifespan through biotechnology and cryonics. And I was lucky enough meet science fiction author David Brin (creator of the Uplift series), who agreed to give my short story about an AI charter city a shake.
Ray Kurzweil started up the Summit with a presentation about how accelerating computational powers and AI technologies will lead to the Singularity sometime during the 2040’s. Perhaps to his chagrin, Kurweil has become somewhat of a guru for technophiles who wish to herald a “Rapture for the Nerds”. To his credit, Kurzweil fans this fire only with scrupulous research and a fairly remarkable track record for predicting trends in technology. Much has been said in recent years about Kurzweil shaping the timeline of the Singularity to coincide with his lifespan (the man has openly said he does not expect to die), and there is probably some truth to this—the part not in parentheses, that is. But as far as delightful ruminations and thought experiments, backed up by hard science, Kurzweil’s a powerful force in the world of futurism.
Other presenters included Peter Thiel, Sonia Arrison, Jason Silva (who I believe was doing guerilla marketing for a Roland Emmerich 2013 feature about the Singularity—more about this theory in future blog), David Brin, and Ken Jennings, former Jeapordy champion who recently lost to IBM’s Watson. Elizier Yudkowsky presented research pertaining to problems we are encountering in trying to program friendly AI. Max Tegmark attempted to explain why he thinks we’re alone in the universe and why it will be up to humans to allow for the meaningful dissemination of intelligence throughout the universe.
Mix that in with interviewing a 16 year old cryonics customer who fully expects to be amphibious someday, screening the trailer for The Methuselah Generation (parts of which will be in 3D!), and taking an inside tour of the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zucati Park—thanks to my new friend Sage—and I’d have to say my first trip to New York was one big miraculous mind-fuck.
Curiously enough, I saw the same meme presented at both the Singularity Summit and Occupy–“The Beginning is Near”. It seems as though both advocates of transhumanism and protesters against rabid economic inequality share subtle religious undertones: the faith in vaguely defined concepts bringing clarity to a chaotic and unjust world that is in dire need of planetary evolution. Part of me still fears that the Singularity may end up exponentially fueling the very Corporatocracy that Occupy and myself fear is currently strangling the life out of our mental and physical environments. Though, perhaps it’s nothing a few nanobots can’t fix.
A few weeks ago I met science fiction author Gregory Benford. My friends Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado were shooting for their documentary about radical life extension, so I tagged along and went with them to Irvine for the interview with Benford regarding the work of his company Genescient. My copy of In the Ocean of Night tucked into my jacket pocket, I relished the opportunity to chew the fat with a major juggernaut of the sci-fi world.
Benford’s biotechnology company, Genescient, researches and develops a new field of science known as Genomics 2.0. More specifically they’ve been testing proprietary gene sequencing on a strain of Drosophila fruit flies, known as the “Methuselah flies.” Three decades of selective breeding has created reproductive longevity and optimal health in these buggers. Benford sees a way to parlay the knowledge gleaned from the fly experiments to fashion lines of pharmacogenomics that may greatly increase the human lifespan. Ultimately Benford envisions a future of advanced gene therapy that allows humans to regularly live to over 150 years-old.
He’s hardly the only one who believes in life extension. A vast panoply of futurists now maintain it is more than possible that 21st century humans will use the overlapping bridges of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and mind uploading to not only reverse the effects of aging but to evolve to new, machine-based, substrates of consciousness entirely. Once buoyed by artificial intelligence, these efforts will reach the point at which technology is progressing so exponentially the future will be unpredictable and incomprehensible. This is known as the Singularity.
My friends’ documentary, The Methuselah Generation, will delve headlong into these theories, primarily investigating biotechnological methods to life extension. Other futurists, like economist Robin Hanson and the world renown Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation, will present rousing thought experiments pertaining to the future of human life. The documentary, which the filmmakers are shooting in both 3D and 2D codecs, will also explore the social, economic, judicial, and emotional impacts of extended lifespans. For example, does a person convicted of a life sentence get to live forever in prison, eternally sapping taxpayer dollars? Will poor people be able to come along for the ride, or will the future be a rich-and-privileged only society? Say your friends and family can’t afford the life extension therapies. How appealing is a future in which everyone you know is dead?
Gregory Benford’s interview took place at his home in Irvine. Though I made a conscious effort not to be nosey I couldn’t help but notice that beside his 1975 Nebula Award (one of the two he claimed) lay a Big Bang Theory DVD nestled in it’s Netflix sleeve. I was currently writing a spec script for the show and thought about querying Benford about what he thought about the pop nerd sci sitcom. Instead I asked him about the original Chesley Bonestell paintings bedecking his office.
“I guess life extension is bad for art,” Jason quipped.
During his interview, Benford touched upon the Methuselah flies, biotechnology, intersections between science and science fiction, the death of his first wife, which motivated him to create Genescient in the first place, and the Singularity. With the “Rapture of the nerds” becoming so conversationally popular these days–what with Ray Kurzweil’s Transcendent Man release, Patton Oswalt’s #Etewaf meme in Wired, and Time Magazine’s recent state-of-the-singularity piece–it was simply too tempting not to ask the man who first created the computer virus what he thought the Singularity would be like. The answer, which I’ll remember until the day I die (or, in the event I don’t die, for several hundred years), was rather simple:
If that’s the case, the human economy itself will be up for grabs. Who knows how capital will be generated in an age of immortality and abundance? But Genescient will always have its flies. And if the whole biotechnology thing doesn’t work out they can always sell a new line of the fake ice cubes with dead flies in their centers.
After all, we’ll still need practical jokes after the Singularity.