How would you like to invest in immortality?March 20, 2013: 5:00 AM ET
Russian Internet mogul Dmitry Itskov is looking for backers for the world's first immortality research center.
By Clay Dillow, contributor
FORTUNE -- Startups devise some fairly clever tactics to sell investors on their business models, but Russian tech entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov's newest venture sells itself: Invest in his new research and development interest and the payoff could be immortality. A new corporate entity that the Russian multi-millionaire will formally announce at an event in June will allow investors to bankroll research into neuroscience and human consciousness with the ultimate goal of transferring human minds into robots, extending human life indefinitely. Early investors will be first in line for the technology when it matures, something Itskov believes will happen in the 2040s.
Over lunch with reporters last week, 32-year-old Itskov outlined a rough roadmap for the future of his 2045 Initiative, a multi-decade research and development push to understand human consciousness and ultimately how to transfer it from human bodies into robotic avatars. When Itskov first became serious about selling off his Russian Internet concerns to pursue what he calls "the next evolutionary step for humanity" a few years ago, he had hoped to do so in a non-profit manner. But now, he says, he realizes that a business case is the best case for moving the project forward.
"In the beginning I thought once we raised this question it would be obvious to people that this is possible and everyone would be interested," Itskov says. "It was naive thinking, I have to be honest. I understand now that I shouldn't neglect those business aspects that I tried to avoid when I started thinking about this idea. We have to create business opportunities in this process or nobody will be interested over the next ten or twenty years, especially the entrepreneurs that could potentially afford to do this."
The 2045 Initiative is a complex and expensive research project, but its goals are fairly straightforward. First, by 2020 scientists will figure out how to control robots via brain-machine interfaces (read: mind control). By 2025 the goal is to place a human brain into a working robot and have that person's consciousness (memories, personality, and everything else that makes up the "self") transfer along with it. After that things tip very seriously over into the realm of science fiction, as the later stages of the project aim to create robots with artificial brains to which human consciousness can be uploaded (by 2035) and, finally, completely disembodied consciousness that is something like a hologram version of a person's mind.
If this all sounds a little crazy, Itskov says, that's because it is. But it's certainly not impossible. He likens the initiative to the U.S. space program, whose ultimate achievements seemed impossible in 1939, three decades prior to the moon landing. And, as with the space program, Itskov sees the 2045 Initiative as an engine for technological and economic development, one that will drive discovery in neuroscience, robotics, artificial intelligence—even spirituality. When Itskov begins leafing through slides on his laptop highlighting very real, very sophisticated brain-machine interface technologies that already exist in research labs today, the first phase of his project suddenly feels more realistic. The later phases of the 2045 Initiative still seem to border on the impossible, but Itskov is completely confident that technology will evolve to conquer these seemingly insurmountable challenges.
He's not the only one. Speakers at this year's Global Future 2045 Congress in New York City—the second annual event put on by the 2045 Initiative—include legendary futurist and investor Ray Kurzweil, former X PRIZE Foundation chairman and entrepreneur Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, and Dr. George Church, the molecular biologist who helped initiate the Human Genome Project, as well as a long list of influential thought leaders in business, robotics, neuroscience, and spirituality. (Itskov has even met with the Dalai Lama, who was intrigued by the project.. Several of these backers, including Kurzweil and Diamandis, recently signed a letter sent to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon inviting him to join the 2045 Congress when it convenes in June to talk about the future of both humanity and the 2045 Initiative.
It's at this Congress that Itskov will likely announce the launch of his immortality business, which will quite literally allow investors to purchase a place at the front of the line once the initiative's immortality technology matures in the 2040s. "I think if we approach some high net worth individuals with an interest in neuroscience, they would seize the opportunity to both extend their own lives and to bring this technology to humanity," Itskov says. "And if they are responsible for bringing this technology to everybody, why don't they get their artificial bodies first?"
There is a catch: Though Itskov is looking for initial investors to get in on the ground floor, he envisions this corporate entity—which will enter the world as a research center but expand into a technology incubator as the consciousness/brain-machine-interface/immortality space grows—operating like a non-profit for the first ten years, investing all profits back into the research. After a decade it would shift to a for-profit model and begin paying off for investors.
Of course, the real payoff here isn't the opportunity to dump shares after some future IPO, but the chance to keep one's consciousness alive indefinitely, long after the biological body has given out. Call it a long-term investment, and one with incalculable ROI.