I am a bit obsessed about immortality. It is probably due to the fact that I don’t want to die, ever. I have given plenty of reasons why here. I have also discussed the possibility that we are already immortal, but today I am going to take a more down-to-Earth approach and assume my crazy theories are wrong.
Today I am going to talk about the possibility of immortality and how far we are from it. Is it a utopia? Will our children see it? Will we see it? Will our parents see it?
There are many roads to immortality. The most straightforward is, of course, the elimination of ageing and illness. We have already gone a long way down this road, but not as much as we would like to. After all, people are still dying and getting sick. We have eliminated or managed to control a great deal of conditions and are getting steadily better at removing others (cancer, for example) but it is far from good enough.
Whether the immortality of our bodies is possible will depend on a series of factors. For example, will we be able to develop an antibiotic that manages to get rid of superbacteria? If we don’t, no matter how good we get at other stuff, people will keep dying. Recent developments have seen the creation of manufactured organs (using 3D models and stem cells) such as bones or a trachea. This could make cancer obsolete, even without curing it: you need new lungs? There you go! The only real problem would be brain cancer, where we can’t just replace your brain with a younger one. Yet.
Ray Kurzweil argues that an army of nanobots will patrol our bloodstream, fighting infection and removing tumors. While that sounds great, nanotechnology is still very far from this goal. So much so it is unlikely we will see this in our lifetime. However, if gene therapies, manufactured organs and antibiotics (as well as anti-viral medication) advance enough, we may still be able to achieve bodily immortality or, at least, get our bodies to last enough for the nanobots to get there.
Another crucial aspect of bodily immortality is brain plasticity. We lose brain plasticity with age, which makes us less receptive to learning and less effective at a number of tasks. Efforts are already under way to restore brain plasticity in older people. Should they succeed, we will see a revolution not only in medicine but also in society (can you imagine our elderly with the mental vigor of teenagers? Yeah, neither can I).
As wonderful as it sounds, though, bodily immortality seems like a bad idea. It is a bad idea because of the laws of probability. Think about this: at any moment, there is a non-zero probability that you have a mortal accident. A rogue brick could crush your skull. You could fall off the stairs. You could get electrocuted in the shower. All kinds of stuff could happen. Now, the odds of your having one such accident during your lifetime are low (though not negligible) but become much higher as you live longer. In fact, if you live long enough, it is almost certain that you will suffer such a misfortune at some stage, therefore rendering the whole immortality thing moot.
The only way to avoid this is by making a back-up of yourself. This way, even if you die, you can still be restored to the last previous configuration that was known to work (sorry, I just keep getting this message in my Windows computer). You could make a back-up in many ways. An obvious one would be to electronically store your brain configuration, so that it could be re-made using 3D modeling and stem cells later. This process would be probably lengthy and costly (we’re talking about a lot of neurons) but probably feasible at some stage.
The other possibility would be to live as an upload. This seems to be the most realistic scenario, unless you belong to the group of people who believe our brains are non-computable, in which case you’re stuck with the latter option. Uploads could live extremely rewarding lives: basically, they could choose their reality. If that sounds like a terrible thing to you, maybe you haven’t read this right: you could choose your reality. Any reality. For example, since I was a teenager I’ve been obsessed with fantasy books. I would give anything (anything!) to really be a wizard that can cast fireballs and ride dragons and melt the One Ring. I could do that. In fact, I could share that reality with a bunch of people with similar obsessions. They would be real people. Our communication would be real. We would just be living in our chosen reality. Since the person you are is defined by the choices you make, isn’t choosing your reality the ultimate choice? The ultimate person-defining experience?
But I’m getting carried away. Sorry: dragons, fireballs and the Ring of Power. It always gets me going.
So which options do we have right now if we don’t want to die? Well, one of my readers suggested being frozen cryogenically. You pay 120$ a year (seriously cheap, don’t you think?) and, if you happen to die, they freeze you. The problem is they don’t know how to thaw you out without destroying your cells yet, but odds are sooner or later they will. Anyway, you’re already dead. It is a risk-free gamble. What’s the worse that could happen? Exactly. You’re dead.
If you’re not into freezing (my wife, for example, seems to have an irrational aversion to it, probably because she doesn’t like the cold) you can always sit and wait.
Oh, and don’t forget to cross your fingers.
Addendum: I owe a lot of this post to this one by Chasing Wild Geese, which covers similar topics in a clear and thought-provoking style. Make sure to check it out.