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Imminent Immortality: Do You Really Want to Live Forever?

For as long as humans have wandered the earth, our mortality has been front and center in our long list of woes. In every culture, in every age, many people have attempted to cheat death, one of the most famous examples of which includes Qin Shi Huang, king of the Chinese state of Qin in the third century BCE. Obsessed with living forever, he ordered his alchemists and physicians to concoct an elixir of life. They obliged and presented him with what they believed might grant him eternal life. Unfortunately for Qin Shi Huang, what they gave him was a handful of mercury pills, and he died upon consuming them.

Qin

Maybe they were just tired of looking at his douchey headwear and debilitatingly huge shoes.

We’ve come a long way since Qin’s day, so much so that immortality — or at least unprecedented longevity — appears increasingly plausible sometime this century. Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil seems so sure of it that he allegedly takes upwards of 200 dietary supplements a day to forge a “bridge to a bridge” when long life is the norm. The May 2013 issue of National Geographic, in fact, features this very topic.

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For now, however, they say we die twice: once when we take our last breath, and again when our name is uttered for the last time.

Our greatest literature, both ancient and modern, seems to confirm this attitude. Countless examples suggest that as much as we strive to achieve everlasting life, death is our inescapable fate. To seek a loophole is folly and smacks of the worst kind of hubris. The earliest such tale, over twelve thousand years old, relates the ancient Mesopotamian king Gilgamesh’s quest for everlasting life following the death of his friend Enkidu. Although Gilgamesh ultimately fails in his undertaking, he achieves a sort of immortality in the minds of his people as a result of his heroic exploits. The same arrogance is seen in the character of Greek demigod Achilles, who was said to be impervious to harm in all parts of his body except his ankle, which his mother Thetis failed to immerse in the river Styx. Near the end of the Trojan War, he is slain by the lethal accuracy of Paris’s arrow, but Achilles’s courageous feats guarantee that his name lives on into perpetuity.

He wasn't known for his modesty.

One thing he wasn’t known for was his modesty.

For those of us who lack the godlike strength and derring-do of Gilgamesh, Achilles, Heracles and other ancient and Classical heroes, the only hope we have at gaining immortality is through emerging age-reversing technology and research into the human brain. Our two leading options appear to be an indefinite halt to the aging process or a sort of digital resurrection — uploading our minds into vast computer servers. But are either of these options desirable?

The former option, the perpetuation of our corporal bodies, seems at this point to be more scientifically plausible but far less satisfactory. Many stories warn of the dangers of unnaturally extending the shelf-life of our flesh and bones. The legend of the Wandering Jew, for instance, convinces us that everlasting life is a curse, a waking nightmare that results only in unfathomable despair and desperation. According to the legend, the old man scours the world seeking someone who will exchange his mortality for his cursed immortality. For two centuries now, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus has terrified readers with the personal, societal and religious implications of reanimating dead tissue. Alphaville’s 1980s anthem of youth “Forever Young” rejects the notion of immortality for its own sake:

It’s so hard to get old without a cause
I don’t want to perish like a fading horse
Youth’s like diamonds in the sun
And diamonds are forever

Forever young, I want to be forever young
Do you really want to live forever, forever and ever?

What’s the use of everlasting life, Alphaville argues, if we can’t maintain a youthful spirit? Better to die with a hopeful eye on the future than to trudge meaninglessly though eternity.

Immortality without fabulous hair and colorful jumpsuits? No deal!

Immortality without fabulous hair, eye shadow and colorful jumpsuits? No deal!

Poets routinely insist that the only fulfilling way for us to achieve immortality is through our art and innovations. In Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” the speaker promises a youth or possible lover that “thy eternal summer shall not fade, / … Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade.” Because he has composed the sonnet in her honor, her memory will last for as long as the poem exists: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.”

Of course, there are just as many counterarguments to the idea that art leads to eternal life. Romantic poet Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” tells of a wanderer who comes across a “lifeless,” eroded statue in the desert, whose pedestal reads:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

Despite the once-grandness of the statue, “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” Even this mysterious king’s exploits and fame – whatever they might have been – couldn’t save his memory from the ravishes of time. Not only has he died the first time but, as evidenced by the wasteland of his forgotten realm, the second time as well. American filmmaker Woody Allen echoes this sentiment: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

But the question remains — is not dying desirable?

If most of us one day have the opportunity to extend our lives indefinitely, how will that change the dynamics of society and culture? A typical person living to 80 years of age goes through several dramatic changes in his lifetime: his opinions and attitudes change, his interests, his friends, his career, sometimes even how he remembers the past. Imagine how much change would take place in a thousand years of life! You wouldn’t be a shadow of the person you once were. Some workers put in 30 or 40 years’ worth of service at a single company or organization, or work in a single industry for as many years, but how dull it would be to continue beyond that. We celebrate when couples reach fifty years of marriage, but could any of them reach 100 years? Two hundred? A thousand? A little over half of marriages end in divorce already. Would couples, knowing that they are going to live for hundreds of years, wed with the firm understanding that they will eventually split? How would immortality affect patriotism?

Let’s pretend for a moment that the Wandering Jew really exists. For close to two thousand years, he has shuffled down countless roads, cane in hand, trying to find some fool to take his place. He clearly cannot be the same person now as he was during the time of the Romans. He’s seen far too much and met far too many people to hold on to whatever prejudices he once had. What “science” he might have believed as a young man has since been obliterated. The language he spoke for centuries, Aramaic, will soon die out. His ancient brand of Jewish is no longer. He claims no country as his own. Having lived to be two thousand years old, he has seen the rise and fall of dozens of nations and empires. He has come to realize the arbitrariness and fragility of borders as well as tribal and national pride.

Leaving aside the unpleasantness of experiencing eternity as a decrepit old man and being charged with the impossible task of giving away your decripitude, what is it about immortality that attracts people so? As Caesar declares in Shakespeare’s play:

Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.

Digital Rapture

The second option to immortality involves uploading our minds onto computer servers, a solution advocated by thinkers such as Kurzweil and Dmitry Itskov. Doing so would immediately eliminate many of the problems outlined above. You need not age in a digital landscape, for one thing. And since you’re whole existence amounts to lines of computer code, you could conceivably “program” yourself to avoid feeling depression, sadness, doubt and other negative emotions.

But there are other problems in this scenario.

If we upload our minds onto computers, we can “live” for as long as we wish, or as long as the data remains properly archived and resistant to fragmentation, viruses and hacking. After all, the official Space Jam website hasn’t aged a day since it launched back in 1996. But even if every last facet of our memories, temperament, interests, dislikes and habits carry over into the merry old land of ones and zeros,  are the digital copies really “us” — the essential us — or simply clever simulations? What’s lost, if anything, in the transfer from a carbon-based world to a silicon world? Perhaps the earliest available opportunities to experience immortality will be faulty and disastrous, resulting in regretfully botched versions of our psyches.

Something's not... quite... right.

Something’s not… quite… right.

Let’s say you upload your mind today. Now there are two “yous,” the analog you and the digital you. After your analog self dies, your digital self “lives” on. It will no doubt continue to assert that it is just as “real” as you ever were because it has the same memories, the same personality, the same tics and religious beliefs and tastes in women (or men, or both). Otherwise, how can it claim to be you? One of the problems here, if indeed there is one, is that you — the meat sack version — won’t survive to enjoy the immortality you’ve passed on to this immaterial copy of yourself.

Is “good enough” simply not good enough?

We place such a high premium on authenticity. Even if the digital copy of yourself is identical in every possible way, it’s still not the “you” that emerged from your mother’s womb. The same argument can be made with regard to art forgeries, some of the best of which are sold at auction as the real deal. Shaun Greenhalgh, possibly history’s most successful art forger, was so good, he managed to dupe both casual and expert art enthusiasts for years and make close to a million pounds before being caught. Anyone who has one of his remarkably convincing pieces sitting in their house — one of his Rodin knockoffs, for instance — is reasonably entitled to tell visitors that they do indeed have a Rodin. There’s nothing about the piece that gives away its deception, other than the abstract notion of its inauthentic origin. But for most people, that’s enough. No matter what the piece looks like, either Rodin sculpted it with his own hands or he didn’t. Similarly, no matter how convincingly “real” a digital life might be, there are those who would refuse such a life because it lacks the nebulous idea of authenticity.

Of course, like Greenhalgh’s Rodin piece, and as we’ve already discussed, there’s no certifiable way to disprove that what you think is reality is actually a fraud. How do you know you’re not already living in a sophisticated computer simulation right now?

Gilgamesh and Qin Shi Huang’s quest for everlasting life might come to a close sometime this century. Before that happens, however, we must discuss the implications and consequences of a world in which death is no longer certain. Emily Dickinson, abandoning the desire to live forever, muses: “That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Since immortality will surely become a reality, we must reassess the sweetness in life.

A Real-Life Matrix by 2045?

If you grew up in the 80s, you might remember a TV show called Tales from the Darkside. It was little more than a poor man’s Twilight Zone, but occasionally an episode aired that surprised and shocked you.

One such episode was titled “Mookie and Pookie.” I know — terrible names, but it gets better. The episode features two teenage twins, one of whom, Mookie, is dying from a terminal illness. In his few remaining days, he frantically works to complete the instructions for a sophisticated computer program that he makes Pookie promise she will carry out after his death. Once he dies, Pookie keeps her promise and obsessively follows her deceased brother’s instructions, buying exotic computer parts, assembling them, writing code. She does this despite not having a clue what might be the result and despite her parents’ insistence that she’s wasting her time and money on a project conceived of out of desperation. So the day arrives when she finishes the final step, and after she eagerly boots up the mystery machine, she hears the voice of — presto! — her late brother Mookie. He had risen from the dead! Sort of. Buried somewhere in the ones and zeros and computer circuitry is his consciousness, as present and aware as any healthy teenager — sans physical body.

The episode ends not with newly-digitized Mookie taking over the world’s electric and information infrastructure, but on a warm note with the entire family, computer-boy included, playing a round of Scrabble.

“What if I told you that living in the Matrix is actually as dull as spending a lazy Sunday afternoon with the fam?”

As hokey as Mookie and Pookie’s story is, cybernetic immortality might very well become a reality. Dmitry Itskov, a Russian businessman and founder of Initiative 2045, is currently seeking investors to fund research that will lead to eternal life — with a catch. The catch, of course, is that your body does not persist indefinitely; instead, your consciousness — what makes you you — lives on in a cybernetic Matrix-like environment.

But what’s a body other than a sack of meat to encase one’s consciousness?

That’s the official stance, at least, of Initiative 2045, whose main scientific goal is to “create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.”

To repeat: a “more advanced non-biological carrier.” The explicit assumption is that what millions of years of biological evolution have granted us is vastly, unfathomably inferior to what a few short decades of computer research can achieve. Which is an amazing testament to human intelligence and ingenuity.

Initiative 2045 sees immortality as entirely plausible, a scientific problem that requires a gradual series of intermediary “trans-humanistic transformations,” starting with the replacement of body parts — limbs as well as organs — with non-biological, cybernetic components… and ultimately ending with the replacement of our meat sacks with ones and zeros.

Your future family portrait?

Your future family portrait?

This step-by-step process is analogous to futurist Ray Kurzweil’s concept of the “bridge to bridge” path to immortality, which is why he allegedly takes between 180 and 210 vitamin and mineral supplements a day: to sustain his carbon-based body long enough to see the day when he no longer needs his carbon-based body. Such a radical change in human existence — when shuffling off our mortal coils results not in our deaths but our cybernetic rebirths — unquestionably qualifies as a Singularity event.

As exciting as this all sounds, what remains to be answered by Dmitry Itskov and others is the existential nature of a life lived in cyberspace. What will people “do” with their time — infinite time for that matter? Will we fall in love, have families, go to work, play Scrabble? Will it be necessary to emulate a “normal” life, complete with the laws of physics and the need to eat and sleep? All we “know” is what we’ve seen in sci-fi classics such as William Gibson’s groundbreaking cyberpunk novel Neuromancer and the films Tron and The Matrix. But of course sci-fi tends to exaggerate the implications of speculative technology. Maybe cyberspace will end up as ho-hum as normal space often is.

Or maybe we’re already living in a computer simulation, as many have earnestly theorized. How would we know? After all, what we think of as “reality” is nothing more than a sophisticated construct our minds have created based on sensory data. Colors, sounds, flavors, pain, euphoria — these are all interpretations of the world beyond our senses. At the rate computer science is accelerating, it’s perfectly plausible to imagine an advanced human culture with the capability and means to replicate the experience of, well, life.

Consequently, if we are indeed living in a future culture’s simulation and, while in that simulation, devise a way to upload our consciousnesses in a separate cyberspace, there’s no end to the levels of Inception-like simulations we’re simultaneously experiencing.

Let’s just hope that at least one of them is more interesting than an afternoon playing Scrabble with our folks.

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