Science and Tech
Immortality Now? Living Forever In Self/Less And The Real World

Marshall Lemon | 10 Jul 2015 15:00
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Wouldn't it be great to live forever?

That's a question asked by countless science fiction films - this week's Self/Less being no exception - but the answer is usually that immorality isn't as fun as you'd think. While sticking around for as long we'd like sounds great in theory, actually doing so has a lot of consequences not everyone would be ready for, and that's without getting into whether it's even possible in the first place.

That's why The Escapist recently spoke with Dr. Wolfgang Fink, an associate professor from the University of Arizona in the Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Biomedical Engineering. It turns out that a great many scientific minds are trying to fight that pesky death problem with some interesting solutions - and in some ways we're actually quite successful on that score.

"In getting towards immortality or longer life, there are of course medications which prolong life," Dr. Fink said. "If you look at life expectancy from 200 years ago people live on average much longer. That's something which is happening right now."


But what options do we have for extending human life even further? Let's start with the version of immortality put forward in Self/Less. In the film, Ben Kingsley plays a man near the end of his life. He's approached by a wealthy cabal that claims to have a solution: Downloading his brain into a mindless clone that's been grown in a genetics laboratory. Within a very short span of time he completes the procedure and starts his new life as a younger man - only to realize that his body doesn't belong to a clone. It's a body wiped of memories and given to Kingsley no questions asked, which he only learns when the man's thoughts start coming back.

"Clearly the film is still located in the realm of science-fiction to some extent," Dr. Fink explained, forever dashing our hopes of becoming Ryan Reynolds. "Every person has a different brain and is differently wired. So it's not just a matter of getting all the memories transferred but you also have to get enough of the "wiring" transferred of how your brain is wired in order to ensure thought-generating processes."

It turns out that even among members of the same species, we all have very personalized brains that change over the course of our lives. Our personalities and thoughts are tied to neural connections in our brains that aren't guaranteed to exist in the brains of another person. Think of our brains like computer hardware, and our minds as software - simply copying one to the other doesn't mean anything if the other brain doesn't recognize it.

"If your hard drive was formatted for a Windows system, and mine was formatted for OSX, then you can't just dump your hard drive content onto the OSX drive or vice versa," Dr. Fink said. "It will not work." That means even if we had Self/Less' mind-wiping technology, the empty brain still uses the neural wiring of the old personality - which might explain why the old personality started reasserting itself.

One possible workaround for this is using clones to preserve our memories in fresh young bodies. On the surface, this seems like a solid idea - it removes the ethical concerns of erasing another person's personality, and could let you extend your lifespan indefinitely.

Of course those pesky ethics come back when you realize that in reality, clones don't grow conveniently and quickly with no minds of their own. To create an adult brain that's developed enough to accommodate your neural patterns, it has to have a long adult lifespan just like you. "Cloning doesn't mean you get your body like in Self/Less over the weekend," Dr. Fink notes. "It would mean the body would still have to grow at a natural rate and it will take equally long for that body to become an adult that would take you." And of course, this all assumes that your clone's neural patterns happen to be compatible with yours - since you're living two different lives up until that point, that might not be the case.

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