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Panel Discusses Robots, Opera, Death, and the Singularity

Watch a video of the panel here.

What happens to us when we die?

Or, more importantly, what would happen to us if we didn’t die — if our minds and souls were downloaded into a computer system, only to haunt our descendants forever?

That’s what Tod Machover, professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab, aims to ask in his new opera, “Death and the Powers.” Machover was at the McCormick School of Engineering on March 2 to discuss the opera, robots, and the pursuit of immortality as part of the McCormick Dean’s Seminar Series. Moderated by McCormick Dean Julio Ottino, the panel also included Malcolm MacIver, associate professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering who is a robotics expert and a scientific consultant to Hollywood.

The opera tells the story of Simon Powers, a successful and powerful businessman and inventor who reaches the end of his life and creates an electronic system where he can live forever. His family, friends and associates must decide what this means, how it affects them, and whether to follow. The performance uses 12 robots on stage that eventually “come alive” with Simon’s thoughts and feelings using a new technique called “disembodied performance,” which uses sensors and analysis software to translate Simon’s actual sounds and gestures into the robots’ behaviors.

“You’re meant to think about the limits where human life stops and where the machines begin,” Machover said. The opera provides an ideal setting for such an exploration of questions — the music and drama plays out before the audience’s eyes — and using moving robots, walls, and illusions provides a new way of showing mankind’s relationship to technology.

The idea that machines and humans will eventually become one is championed by the futurist Ray Kurzweil, who predicts it will happen in 2045. Yet Machover said he did not have Kurzweil in mind when writing the play. Instead, he was thinking about his own family — how life is ephemeral, and how incredibly difficult it is to share the entire texture of our lives with someone else. How we transmit that essence before we die — how we attempt to become, in a sense, immortal — is a question most humans ask before they die.

But transhumanism — the term for transforming the human condition by using technology to eliminate aging — is the logical conclusion to human evolution, MacIver said. Humans have always used technology to go beyond the limits of humanity — without clothes, for example, we would not be able to live this far north. As our technology becomes more powerful, the idea of transhumanism has pervaded human discourse — and has given us a new way of looking at the afterlife.

“Perhaps this is one way that people who no longer have religion can sanction public discourse on mortality or death,” he said.

Yet, as audience members brought up, there are a host of ethical questions about transhumanism, including questions of whether such beings could truly have the human condition. Could they create art? Could they have a human experience without the sensors of a physical body?

MacIver said he would be most worried about the potential impact on our physical world — if no one died, how could there be enough resources for everyone? Machover, too, raised the question of cycling: What would it mean if everyone was here forever, if there was no natural cycling of the population? If transhumanism becomes possible, it would like be available only to the elite. That, Machover said, shouldn’t be what technology is ultimately used for.

“How can we use our skills to enrich most of our lives rather than have a few of us live forever?” he said.

Alas, the idea of machines carrying on our souls is still far away — they are still fallible. Machover’s robots, for example, needed major software and hardware changes after the first performance six months ago.

“Technology is actually incredibly ephemeral,” he said. No word on whether Simon Powers’ system is backed up.