autotelic, autistic, assonance-hole©.

Virtually omnipresent? Virtually immortal? (Times are changing, as usual)

We live in fascinating and amazing times of change. I often ponder what life must have been like for my great-grandparents; they were born at the turn of the century, and lived through the invention of SO many things we simply take for granted today. I think about the changes and additions brought by technology and I realize that I too, am experiencing the feeling they did; the feeling of the inexorable progression of change, the realization that my time of experiencing it will be but a flicker of a candle’s much longer burning, and the sense that, like my recent ancestors (and all those who went before them), I too, will watch as things come into being that I could only imagine….. and many that I never would have imagined, I suppose.

The latest example I find of this occurring here, now, is the Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-Embodiment project (VERE) (I’ve linked to it for those who care to dive in deeper). The upshot? We are not as far as you might think from the moment in which our experience may be extended across the globe. Not by the physical travel of our bodies, and not as we know it today by video conference and telephony, but by the perceptual and experiential travel of our minds and, perhaps, the ability to extend the life experience by “re-embodiment”.

You read that right.

In essence, the VERE project seeks to map the physiological function of the brain and body well enough to allow you to “be embodied by” a robot or virtual environment. Indeed, they recently announced some success at this by scanning student Tirosh Shapira’s brain in Japan; they used fMRI as he imagined moving various parts of his body and relayed those commands to France, where they were used to control a robot.

Mind you, we’re not fully “there yet”, but I strongly suspect that we may be there in my lifetime and perhaps even “beyond there” to actual re-embodiment. This, to me, introduces all manner of thoughts; most dealing with the concepts of impermanence, death, and immortality, but also those dealing with the philosophical and ethical and even moral (general, not specific to a certain system) considerations of our increasingly over-populated planet.

There is, of course, quite a difference between controlling a robot located somewhere else in the world and, quite literally, being “transferred into” one. I can see interesting and (to me, in this moment) strange applications of the former as both alternative to travel and all manner of business issues, amazing medical applications as well as all manner of abuses from penal implementations to neo-“opium” houses a la any number of science-fiction tales of cautionary nature.

As for re-embodiment, well, on the one hand, I wonder if such a thing will be available in my lifetime and, frankly, I wonder if I would be willing to undertake it if it were. For all I wrestle with the notion of death, mortality, and impermanence, it has been the natural way of things so long as humans have “known of things”; I do realize that is quite the traditionalist perspective, but with such a huge leap of possibility in the consideration, it seems normal for this moment.

This means there are interesting times ahead, friend, since the following items were last year’s presentations and scientific topics at some pretty reputable outlets for such things:

American Association for the Advancement of Science session, February 2011
“From Artificial Limbs to Virtual Reality: How the Brain Represents the Body”, 19th February, 2011

8th International Brain Research Organisation (IBRO) Congress of Neuroscience, July 2011

For even more interesting publications, check out VERE’s publications list for 2011 – it’s pretty mind blowing (no pun intended):

Which, of course, leads me back to my ancestors as they were at the beginning of this century. I recall their tales of friends and colleagues who refused all manner of inventions that we, today, never give second thought; they did so because they were “abnormal” or too far outside their experiential comfort zones to be endured; I strongly suspect the very nature of our humanity demands that non-standard deviations such as technology to my ancestors and now, virtual life, robotic embodiment, etc engender (at least initially) that involuntary shudder and reflexive shrinking away.

Indeed, the “fear of change, difference, and the ill or not understood” seems to be a fundamental mandate of our physiology… which, here at the end of this musing, makes me wonder, how would a change this dramatic affect us as a species?

Interesting times, indeed.