The Magazine

Brain Drain

A tale of old minds in new bodies, and the meaning of consciousness.

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Ray Kurzweil—director of engineering at Google, inventor of a half-dozen clever machines, and promoter, in a series of popular books, of “trans-humanism”—has claimed in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near that human brains will be uploadable by 2045 and that, around this time, artificial intelligence will claim consciousness for itself. He even wants to bring his father back by way of a DNA sample and his own memories of him, a project that The Procedure tackles from a different angle. (See “So You Want to Live Forever” by Charlotte Allen, May 12.)

The broader culture knows something is afoot. Last year’s film Her nods to both the issue of when AI becomes indistinguishable from human intelligence (the so-called Turing Test) and the impulse to embody AI in a human. The film’s popularity, moreover, speaks to audiences’ inchoate interest in these issues—and in the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Charles Stross’s 2005 novel Accelerando, about The Singularity and the centuries (!) following, also considers the issue of moving minds between different bodies—even to animal bodies.

Kurzweil and many of the sci-fi novels that deal with these issues often take for granted the need to defeat death, and there’s a last-moment plot twist in Strange Bodies that suggests Nicholas may be able to accomplish the feat not just once but twice. Still, he muses, as his end comes upon him: “And the dead are dead for good reasons, profound reasons, that we ignore at our peril.”

Strange Bodies is an astounding work that grows in power as it unwinds its surprises. It also tackles, head-on, the ultimate questions about identity, personhood, and the human condition that many contemporary novelists dodge with irony.

Ann Marlowe is a writer in New York.