A few weeks ago I celebrated my birthday. While birthdays don't hold the same level of excitement that they did when I was 8, what struck me most was the number of good wishes I received. From a dozen or so greetings a few years ago, I received hundreds, perhaps a thousand messages this year.
So what has changed? Facebook, obviously. Those useful little notifications that appear on the right top of our streams. Sure. But that’s missing a broader trend.
Einstein’s telephone number. The story goes that when someone asked Albert Einstein his phone number, Einstein replied that he didn’t remember it. This startled the man who was well aware of Einstein’s genius. Mr Relativity had to then clarify that when his phone number was easily available in a telephone directory, there was no point of him remembering it and crowding up his memory.
Remembering to forget. Starting with a telephone directory to new digital platforms like Facebook, Google and Outlook calendar, apps like Rememeberthemilk and programs like Basecamp we have started to slowly outsource our brain. By setting up alerts and reminders we are using technology to help us forget days, times and activities that would have otherwise added noise to our already overwhelmed brains. I don’t bother to remember to pay my utility bills anymore as I have set them all up in the automated system that my bank provides. With SMS messages that arrive month after month, I only keep a notional track of bills that have come in and have automatically been paid out. I have gone further, with tools like CarLocator that helps me remember where I parked my car in a busy parking lot. Or whosthat?, an app that I, err, use discreetly, to help me remember names of people who I have met, and may have forgotten, and therefore avoid real world social embarrassments.
Carbon meets silicone. The brain outsourcing business is still in its infancy with simple apps that need our intervention to take over things we want them to. But this could soon change, with scientists finding ways to connect carbon based humans and silicon based computers seamlessly. British Scientist Kevin Warwick has been working on wiring silicon based interfaces that can send signals between a human body and a computer. In fact he has had a chip implanted in his own arm more than a decade ago and has been experimenting with ways to turn analog signals from his body into little pieces of digital software that once activated on a computer will be able to create a reaction in his body.
Others believe we can take it further. With inventor and futurist, Ray Kurzweil foreseeing that we will, in our own lifetimes, be able to download our memories, thoughts, emotions and consciousness into a hard drive. He has written several books on the subject and at 63 is working towards being one of the first humans to be able to seamlessly move from being a man to a machine. Computers are already better than humans at logic, he says and it is just a matter of time when we will be able to transfer our emotional intelligence into a computer.
There are others too who agree with the Kurzweil line of thinking. Ian Pearson, head of the futurology at British Telecom has put a date to when we will be able to seamlessly download minds into a machine. 2050, he says, if you are rich enough, add another 25 years for poor guys like me.
I have seen heaven. So what do happy birthday alerts and online bill payment systems tell us about longevity and immortality? That, unbeknownst to us, we have started our journey from being creatures of carbon, to having our memory and our consciousness preserved in a server farm somewhere else. With Apple launching iOS 5 sometime in October, and the promise of free or low cost digital storage on iCloud and elsewhere, we are slowly and steadily uploading our lives onto silicon. With his ongoing battle with cancer, Steve Jobs may not make it. But his vision could help me live forever, in silicon heaven, on a cloud somewhere.
Here is an interesting social experiment on Facebook, Birthday's and remembering to forget run by Slate's David Plotz.