Following in the footsteps of director James Cameron, young Russian media magnate Dmitry Itskov recently launched his own Avatar project. But unlike the heroes of the film, Itskov isn’t planning on exploring new planets. He “merely” wants to make the human brain immortal by transferring it into the body of a robot. His ambitious plan, while seemingly fanciful, is deeply rooted in Russia’s recent past when the country’s leaders regularly backed research and experimentation in their quest for immortality.

Itskov, a graduate of the corporate management faculty of the Russian Academy of Economics, only turned his attention to biotechnology in 2005. “I was sitting in the office when it dawned on me that I wanted to do more than just business,” he says. “Earning and spending money had started to bore me — I wanted to be part of some large social project.” The result was the 2045 Initiative, a campaign he launched two years ago to unite humanity around a new global idea — achieving cybernetic immortality in 30 years. Despite the arguably impossible task at hand, Itskov has pushed ahead undeterred. Not only has he pulled together a team of leading Russian and American scientists (he says names will be revealed at the Global Future 2045 World Congress this June), he has even discussed the ramifications of the project with the Dalai Lama, who has reportedly given his blessing.

As early as 2020, the team plan to have demonstrated an artificial copy of a person — an “avatar”, controlled by neural interfaces. The next step will be the creation of an artificial body into which the brain of a dying person could be transplanted, extending their life by up to 200 to 300 years. The finishing touch will be the transfer of a conscious mind into a hologram-like host. While the team behind the project is not yet known, Itskov’s second annual Global Future 2045 World Congress to be held in New York this June has attracted a number of high-profile individuals from a diverse range of fields. The congress will focus on how humanity can overcome the challenges of the 21st century using science and technology, and speakers include Ray Kurzwell, director of engineering at Google; Dr Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese roboticist at Osaka University best known for creating his mechanical twin from silicone, electronics and hair from his own scalp; and Phakyab Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist Lama.

The project naturally provokes an avalanche of philosophical, ethical and practical questions. What will the effect of a digital brain be on the body? How will the planet cope with inhabitants who have achieved immortality? Outside of the confines of the congress, those wishing to dwell upon these questions and others, or indeed express their scepticism, can air their thoughts on the 2045’s discussion board. Reproaches range from accusations of demagoguery and pseudo-science to the biting observation that “Maybe we should learn to assemble a Lada right first…” Itskov remains certain, however, that his ambitious plan is our only salvation from the impending crisis of civilisation. “In the past the motor of evolution was natural selection,” he explains. “Now more and more often scientists are saying that natural selection is not working anymore. Humanity as a species will go through significant degradation and we are calling on people to save their own species.”

Dmitry Itskov wants to make the human brain immortal by transferring it into the body of a robot

As part of his mission to raise the profile of the project and get others on board, in June 2012, Itskov published an appeal to all the members of the Forbes billionaires list, calling on them to invest in his idea. He says he didn’t receive a public response, but claims that there was some interest behind closed doors. The project’s manifesto states that it is Russia that should play the leading role in the initiative, but Russian officials have also been slow to show their support. “I managed to speak to some of them, but it was inconclusive,” says Istkov.

This hesitancy seems somewhat strange for Russia: after all, as history shows, Russian leaders have long yearned for immortality. In the 1920s, Soviet politician and doctor Alexander Bogdanov suggested that old age could be defeated by blood transfusions, arguing that acquiring blood from the young would not only prevent top party members from aging but also help them commune with the masses. The argument went that in time all of mankind would share ties of blood. In 1925 Bogdanov was put in charge of the new Institute of Blood Transfusion, where he conducted hundreds of experiments over the course of three years. The prospect of immortality fired the imagination of the upper ranks of the party, but not for long. Three years and 11 blood transfusions later, Bogdanov died of a side-effect that we now know to be a rhesus conflict with the donor. He was soon denounced as a medical heretic and his ideas were suppressed. 

Russian leaders have long yearned for immortality

In the same decade, physiologist Sergei Bryukhonenko created the world’s first artificial circulatory system – the autojector, a device that could keep a dog’s head alive for nearly two hours. The head responded to stimuli, ate food and even responded to its name. In the Seventies, Moscow biologist Viktor Sarayev extracted a substance from the tissues of young domestic animals that allowed him to radically increase the life and fertility of adults. After the fall of the USSR he was forced to shut down his experiments due to lack of financing, although some say his experiments continue in secret, sponsored by the state.

"Humanity as a species will go through significant degradation and we are calling on people to save their own species"

In contrast to the Soviet pioneers of immortality, the danger for Itskov’s project is not repression or persecution, but simple lack of interest. Back then, the era of technological and military high-achievement meant there was no need to convince the citizens of the USSR of their special destiny. But now, after 20 years of chaos and ideological vacuum, Russians treat ambitious abstract ideas with distrust and indifference, even at a time when the EU and US maintain interest in visionary science projects. In January of this year the EU set aside a billion euros for the creation of a virtual model of the human brain, and in the US, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been working on creating a human-like robot for some time. 

Itskov, however, is optimistic. “If we manage to create something valuable, then our work will be needed,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what country it is in, the most important thing is for the world to see these technologies.” Perhaps he’s right: at the end of the day, mankind has always opposed radical changes. And if Itskov manages to achieve even a third of what he’s got planned, he’ll have no shortage of supporters.

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