Science and Immortality

I and many other scientists now believe that in around twenty years we will have the means to reprogram our bodies’ stone-age software so we can halt, then reverse, aging. Then nanotechnology will let us live forever. ~ Ray Kurzweil

How Science Will Make Us Immortal

If death is our end, then all we can do is die and hope for the best. But perhaps we don’t have to die. Many respectable scientists now believe that humans can overcome death and achieve immortality through the use of future technologies. But how will we do this?

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 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.

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 researchers now consider aging itself to be a disease. There are 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-fledged genetic engineering could make us 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 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 may now be science fiction, but if nanotechnology fulfills its promise there is a reasonably good chance that cryonics will be successful.

In addition to biological strategies for eliminating death, there are a number of technological scenarios for immortality which utilize advanced brain scanning techniques, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The most prominent scenarios have been advanced by the renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil and the roboticist Hans Moravec. Both have argued that the exponential growth of computing power in combination with advances in 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.

In fact, we may already be living in a computer simulation. The Oxford philosopher and futurist Nick Bostrom has argued that advanced civilizations may have created computer simulations containing individuals with artificial intelligence and, if they have, we might unknowingly be in such a simulation. Bostrom concludes that one of the following must be the case: 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.

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, whereby humans slowly incorporate technology into their bodies, thus becoming more machine-like and indestructible. So 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 skeptics, remember that our evolution is no longer primarily moved by 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 cultural evolution 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. Since the capabilities of such intelligences is 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.

But why conquer death? Why is death bad? It is bad because it ends something which at its best is beautiful; bad because it puts an end to all our projects; bad because all the knowledge and wisdom of a person is lost at death; bad because of the harm it does to the living; bad because it causes people to be unconcerned about the future beyond their short lifespans; bad because it renders fully meaningful lives impossible; and bad because we know that if we had the choice, and if our lives were going well, we would choose to live on. That death is generally bad—especially for the physically, morally, and intellectually vigorous—is nearly self-evident.

Yes, there are indeed fates worse than death and in some circumstances, death may be welcomed. Nevertheless, for most of us most of the time, death is one of the worst fates that can befall us. That is why we think that suicide and murder and starvation are tragic. That is why we cry at the funerals of those we love.

Our lives are not our own if they can be taken from us without our consent. We are not truly free unless death is optional.

7 thoughts on “Science and Immortality

  1. Do you really buy into the idea of mind uploading? Or were you just enumerating different futurist ideas?

  2. I find this topic interesting and ethically challenging. Mostly on the topic of cloning for the purpose of organ harvesting and on the clones identity. While science has moved closer to being able to regenerate individual organs, many still discuss the ability to clone an entire person as an “insurance policy” when it comes to organs. I once read a young adult novel that began to explore the consequences of cloning, which person claimed the identity, and does a clone have rights. While this may be a tangent from your overall discussion I believe that these questions will still effect a transhuman society especially if this transhuman society decides to place value in the ‘meat’ of life.

  3. Cloning will most likely be used as a reproductive technology and for organ replacement as you mention. And it is not scary like its portrayed in movies.

  4. When a person dies, all of their internal/personal thoughts, memories, and opinions go with them; they’re gone. It’s the people around them, the family members and friends, who have trouble coming to terms with that fact. So, what if a person dies and their loved ones decide to upload the brain to a scientifically engineered body, but that is not what the person wanted? Would that person have had to make this decision before he/she died? Would it be a normal occurrence ? Instead of being treated in hospitals people’s brains and entire lives are simply uploaded to a new body?

    Being given the option not to die and truly making your life your own is definitely an interesting and challenging topic. However, I think there are too many conflicting factors to make this a reality. Over-population, lack of resources, and insufficient jobs for medical professionals, to name a few.

  5. Although this may be possible scientifically, I do not think that it would be effective. Reproduction, overpopulation, selective immortality, and other factors would play into whether or not it would be worth it to start giving people a choice to become immortal. With people becoming immortal, while still reproducing other immortal beings, the problem of overpopulation would become out of hand.
    Also, if there was an option to become immortal, it would become selective in choosing only people capable of paying for it, or people “worthy” of becoming immortal, rather than making it a universal option. You would have to get rid greed in people because it would just become another money run feature. Which brings me to my next concern, chips to control humans.
    Chipping people to control their humanity and morality would have to become required. In class you had talked about being able to upload all information that is possible to acquire into a chip so that you can know everything there is to know. At that point, I find life to be meaningless. Most conversations, interactions, experiences, etc. that take place are meant to be learning experiences, which would be worthless if you know everything. Thus, life would be eternally pointless.
    How do you choose who gets to become immortal? Does everyone become immortal? Do we stop reproducing? Is it moral to control how people act and think with chips? How do we keep life interesting after becoming immortal? These are all questions that I would need answers to before I would want to see an option of immortality.

  6. all of your questions are answered at the Humanity+ website or in various posts on this blog. and if you don’t want to live longer don’t.

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