Can Science Give Us Immortality?

If death is the end of us our best response to that grave tragedy is hope and optimism. But perhaps we don’t have to die! Although we previously rejected the reality of a spiritual afterlife as a fanciful solution to the disaster of death, many respectable scientists and futurists suggest that humans can overcome death through the use of future technologies. By immortality in this sense we refer roughly to the uninterrupted, eternal continuation of an individual consciousness—let us call this physical immortality in contrast to religious immortality. And we all might be immortal if technology develops fast enough, which may entail any number of technologies in any number of combinations.

The first way we might achieve physical immortality is by conquering our biological limitations—we age, become diseased, and suffer trauma. Aging research, while woefully underfunded, has yielded positive results. Average life expectancies have tripled since ancient times, increased by more than fifty percent in the industrial world in the last hundred years, and most scientists think we will continue to extend our life spans. We know that we can further increase our life span by restricting calories, and we increasingly understand the role that telomeres play in the aging process. We also know that certain jellyfish and bacteria are essentially immortal, and the bristlecone pine may be as well. There is no thermodynamic necessity for senescence—aging is presumed to be a byproduct of evolution —although why mortality should be selected for remains a mystery. There are even reputable scientists who believe we can conquer aging altogether—in the next few decades with sufficient investment—most notably the Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Grey.1[i] Still, not all researchers are convinced that our biological limitations will be eliminated.

If we do unlock the secrets of aging, we will simultaneously defeat many other diseases as well, since so many of them are symptoms of aging. (Many researches now consider aging itself to be a disease; as you age, the disease progresses.) There are also a number of strategies that could render disease mostly inconsequential. Nanotechnology may give us nanobot cell-repair machines and robotic blood cells; biotechnology may supply replacement tissues and organs; genetics may offer genetic medicine and engineering; and full-fledge genetic engineering could produce beings impervious to disease. Trauma is a more intransigent problem from the biological perspective, although it too could be defeated through some combination of cloning, regenerative medicine, and genetic engineering. We can even imagine that your physicality could be recreated from a bit of your DNA, and other technologies could then fast forward your regenerated body to the age of your traumatic death, where a backup file with all your experiences and memories would be implanted in your brain. Even the dead may be eventually resuscitated if they have undergone the process of cryonics—preserving organisms at very low temperatures in glass-like states. Ideally these clinically dead would be brought back to life when future technology was sufficiently advanced. This is a long shot, but if nanotechnology fulfills its promise, there is a reasonably good chance that cryonics may be successful.

In addition to biological strategies for eliminating death, there are a number of technological scenarios for immortality which would utilize advanced brain scanning techniques, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The most prominent scenarios have been advanced by the renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil and Carnegie-Mellon roboticist Hans Moravec.Both have argued that the exponential growth of computing power in combination with other technologies will make it possible to upload the contents of one’s consciousness into a virtual reality. This could be accomplished by cybernetics, whereby hardware would be gradually installed in the brain until the entire brain was running on that hardware, or via scanning the brain and simulating or transferring its contents to a computer with sufficient artificial intelligence. Either way we would no longer be living in a physical world. (We will discuss both of these scenarios in detail in a moment.)

In fact we may already be living in a computer simulation! Nick Bostrom has argued that it is possible that advanced civilizations have created computer simulations containing individuals with artificial intelligence, and, if they have, we might unknowingly be in the simulation.[ii] He then asks which is more likely: that we are the one civilization not in a simulation or that we are one of billions of simulations being run? Needless to say he thinks the latter more likely. So either civilizations never have the technology to run simulations, they have the technology but decided not to use it, or we almost certainly live in a simulation. Think of it this way. If the human race could develop and use simulation technology then they would likely run ancestor simulations to study their past which would lead to sub-simulations ad infinitum. And, since we cannot know if we live in the original universe or one of the multitudes of simulations, it is more likely we live in a simulation.

If one doesn’t like the idea of being immortal in a virtual reality—or one doesn’t like the idea that they may already be in one now—one could upload one’s brain to a genetically engineered body, if they liked the feel of flesh, or to a robotic body, if they liked the feel of silicon or whatever materials comprised the robotic body. MIT’s Rodney Brooks envisions the merger of human flesh and machines, wherein humans slowly incorporate technology into their bodies, thus becoming more machine-like and indestructible.[iii]So it seems a cyborg future may await us.

The rationale underlying most of these speculative scenarios has to do with adopting an evolutionary perspective. Once one embraces that perspective, it is not difficult to imagine that our descendants will resemble us about as much as we do the amino acids from which we sprang. Our knowledge is growing exponentially and, given eons of time for future innovation, it easy to envisage that humans will defeat death and evolve in unimaginable ways. For the skeptical, remember that our evolution is no longer moved be the painstakingly slow process of Darwinian evolution—where bodies exchange information through genes—but by cultural evolution—where brains exchange information  through memes. The most prominent feature of the cultural evolution driving change is the exponentially increasing pace of technological evolution—an evolution that may soon culminate in a technological singularity.

The technological singularity, an idea first proposed by the mathematician Vernor Vinge, refers to the hypothetical future emergence of greater than human intelligence. (A number of futurists, in particular Ray Kurzweil, predict that the singularity will happen in our lifetimes.) Since the capabilities of such an intelligence would be difficult for our minds to comprehend, the singularity is seen as an event horizon beyond which the future becomes nearly impossible to understand or predict. Nevertheless, we may surmise that this intelligence explosion will lead to increasingly powerful minds for which the problem of death will be solvable. Science may well vanquish death—quit possibly in the lifetime of some of my readers.


[ii] Nick Bostrom, “The Simulation Argument,” Philosophical Quarterly, 2003, Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255.

[iii] Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us(New York: Vintage, 2003).

 

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