Immortality. Something more esoteric than I usually brave to tread, so please cut your mental parachutes and join me in free fall. (Don’t worry, I packed us a backup ‘chute.)
First, some back story:
This March at a science writers mixer, I met Rita King — CEO of Dancing Ink Productions, IBM innovator, mayor of Loveland, writer, and so on. Suffice to say, she wears a lot of hats.
I mined advice from King in anticipation of the then-upcoming social media panel. We spoke about good presenting techniques, social media trends, virtual and augmented reality technology, and increasingly more far-out and futuristic conjectures that nerds tend to have after drinking one too many Black and Tans.
So it goes.
Today, King invited me to comment on her recent post at The Imagination Age about filmmaker/Current TV host/personality Jason Silva‘s Turning Into Gods, a new full-length documentary exploring immortality.
Here’s the trailer:
From my limited vantage point, Silva seems very bright-eyed about a future with immortality in it.
Good for him!
Me? I think it a future with immortality in it is profound and exhilarating. But it also freaks me the hell out.
Allow me explain.
I think it’s only a matter of time before we achieve immortality, given the rapid and continuing advances in materials/nanotechnology, energy, data processing/storage, genetics, neuroscience, etc. That’s not to say there are hurdles — oh my, are there are hurdles!
Topping them all is a complete understanding of the human brain.
Comprised of ~100 billion (100,000,000,000) neurons sharing ~100 trillion (100,000,000,000,000) synaptic connections, the brain is hands-down the most complex machine known to humankind. Except when it’s attached to the human body, of course.
In spite of its complexity, however, I don’t think the brain is irreducible. Given enough time, money, dedication and creativity to research, anything is possible.
Which leads me to a belief that, when I share it, often depresses people: I think the concept of a soul is outdated.
I say that because everything we know thus far indicates that a brain is “just” a vastly complex network of cells working together to produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts. So this so-called impossible task of reproducing or “installing” consciousness in a machine, thereby making an immortal likeness of our race?
Once we know exactly how the human brain manifests consciousness, how it stores memories, accesses those memories, interprets stimuli, and so on, we’ll have the subroutines we need to construct a machine that can think and feel. Kind of similar to how we can reconstruct a supernova with very limited pieces of evidence.
No one can put a delivery date for this — yet (Ray Kurzweil might be the best speculator) — but again I think it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.
The next step in this scenario is figuring out how to transfer a live person’s existence into a shell of a machine. Some of you will disagree — why not gradually turn an existing body into a machine, piece by piece? Or develop biotechnology enough to ensure perpetuity of healthy, living tissues?
Consider this: The sun will only be around for so long, maybe healthy for another 1.1 billion years (Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer himself, can tell you all about that). Short of nudging the Earth into an orbit that’s accommodating to living things, only non-living material will survive the sun’s inevitable onslaught and eventual death. And that’s ignoring asteroids, gamma ray bursts, supernovae, and so on.
Furthermore, would you want to look like that guy? I didn’t think so.
I think non-living stuff is the most immortal way to go.
Good robotic looks aside, things still get dicey:
- Who will be/be uploaded to these machines?
- Should we still consider them human at all?
- Will “they” scour the galaxy for another habitable system to spread or reestablish life?
- Or perhaps compute that it’s a heartbreaking act to continue life because, inevitably, every star system will inevitably destroy life? (the “pet paradox” sounds about right here)
- Or maybe that life is a threat to their existence, and it should be sought out and destroyed?
Some of this sure sounds familiar.
In all seriousness, immortality deserves some astonishingly good, long, hard, old-fashioned thinking. Preferably by things made out of living tissue.
Here’s a start, when it’s not as far-fetched as it seems now: Assess the minds of those who wish to take the ultimate leap in the evolution of our race. Considerations:
- Will they be able to handle it, i.e. not destroy themselves from mechanistic insanity?
- Will they propagate the best of humankind’s legacy?
- Will they stick around to teach us n00b humans everything they’ve accumulated over the eons?
- Will they get bored and start playing 1,000-year practical jokes on us?
- Will they, as Silva figuratively implies, consider themselves gods?
And with that, my mind is positively numb. I’ll leave it to you to pick up anything I might have missed.