Who Wants to Live Forever?

Jonathan Strickland

© Andrzej Wojcicki/Science Photo Library/Corbis

While writing about transhumanism and rocking out to Queen at my desk, thoughts turn inevitably toward immortality. Now, I'm not saying that we'll ever live in a future where you're going to encounter two ancient swordsmen in an epic battle following a wrestling match at Madison Square Garden (bonus points if you can tell me the wrestlers in that scene). But there are a lot of very smart people trying to figure out how we can cheat the grim reaper out of his due.

Some of those ways we might talk about in future episodes of Fw:Thinking. Like gene therapy, which might eventually lead us to discover which genes govern aging. Maybe with a little flip of the genetic switch we can keep ourselves forever young (or, for someone like me, forever just-under-middle-aged).

I really wanted to talk about the concept of digital immortality. This is something lots of futurists like to bring up as a possible evolutionary leap for humankind. The basic idea is pretty simple -- humans achieve immortality through some sort of computer framework. How? Well, that's where things get complicated.

Maybe we'll find a way to make a digital copy of our neural pathways and processes. Scientists have been working for years to create a computer simulation of the human brain. Most simulations only copy brains on a very small scale and they require enormous amounts of processing power to complete even the simplest of tasks. But maybe we'll get better at it.

But would a digital copy be enough for us? You -- the original version of you -- would still be a human. Presuming we haven't conquered death genetically, you will still age and eventually die. Your copy could go on indefinitely, assuming the computer systems that house your digital consciousness remain powered and operational. But it would just be a copy and you would still be gone.

Now if we could find some way to port our consciousness into a computer world, that would really be something. You could continue to exist long after your organic body would have perished. And maybe you wouldn't be in a computer. Instead, you're in a robot body. Maybe the robot isn't even modeled after the human form. Or maybe you're just one consciousness in a computer cloud, merging with the consciousnesses of other humans who have also become data.

Could the future of the human race actually be a collective consciousness made up of ones and zeros? I'm skeptical. Our understanding of the human brain is still dwarfed by the things we don't know yet. It's my opinion that many futurists have an unrealistic idea of how difficult it will be to create a computerized framework that could allow a person to upload his or her mind. But if it's possible, someone will achieve it. And if it's not possible, imagine what we'll discover as we try to make it happen anyway.