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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"At some point, you'll be younger than your children. So the question is how will we as a society and as individuals deal with that."

So if transferring our memories to another body isn't feasible, what about downloading them into a computer? Living a literal digital existence as an electronic avatar is another time-honored sci-fi concept - only this time wealthy individuals truly are contributing huge funds to make it a reality. "There's another effort out there [called] the 2045 project, where by 2045 people want to be able to download their personality into some kind of artificial avatar," Dr. Fink continued. "And there's lots of money behind these efforts, so people take it seriously, and try to you know, push the boundaries in that direction as it's being displayed in the movies."

Being able to literally live in our computers might sound ridiculous, but given the huge technological leaps we've made in recent years it might not be such a stretch. After all, we've already created computer systems that dwarf the human brain in terms of sheer processing power, and we're always being told that true artificial intelligence is just around the corner. But as Dr. Fink points out, the same neural wiring that makes our minds so unique is even harder to recreate with non-organic tech.

"Our brain has about 10 to the 11 neurons, and each neuron is roughly connected to 10,000 other neurons. So that means you have a mass connectivity of 10 to the 15 connections in the brain," he explains. "You would think then that if you put thousands of these neurons together to create a supercomputer that you would be getting closer to a universal brain or something. And the opposite is actually the case... there's no emergent behavior, nothing... If you take 10 to the 11 rather simple neurons and interconnect them in this intricate way, all of a sudden you have a brain with a much larger capability than any computer, with parallel processing.

"So it's this rather interesting paradox," he continued. "You have simple ingredients [neurons], and you create this complex but not entirely understood brain. Or you have a very complex ingredient [CPU], and you put thousands of them together and it is [less capable]. So that is interesting, just food for thought."

So humanity isn't ready to transfer our brains into computers or other bodies - what other options for immortality do we have? Dr. Fink notes that by next year one procedure will have the chance to prove itself: Transplanting the entire head. It sounds like something from a horror film, but has some scientific basis and doesn't require dealing with neural patterns. You just remove the head and quickly attach it to a donor body.

Self/Less 2

The surgery even has a volunteer - Valery Spiridonov, a Russian computer scientist suffering from Werdnig-Hoffman disease, a rare muscle disorder. Knowing he doesn't have long to live, Spiridonov has dedicated his body to science, and intends to let his head be transplanted onto a brain-dead donor. Such surgery has been conducted in the past on animals, and while admittedly they didn't live long afterwards, the principles behind the surgery are theoretically possible. Italian surgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero will use a fine blade to avoid damage to the spinal cord, then reattach it to connect all bodily functions to the brain.

While we can't say for certain the procedure will work, there probably won't be lines of people looking to casually swap bodies as a standard medical procedure. But it is the nearest feasible comparison to Self/Less that can be achieved with current technology. "That's the claim, and that's closest we can right now," Dr. Fink explained.

Of course all this raises the question of whether we should aim for immortality. Even if technology advances to the point where each of the methods named above were possible, they'd have massive implications for human development and evolution. And that's not getting into social and ethical matters. One obvious problem is wealth. Self/Less' procedure, like the real-world 2045 project, is funded by wealthy citizens - would these practices be made available to anyone without means? Could the rich live forever while the poor are left to die?

Dr. Fink adds that overpopulation could be a huge concern, since any functional immortals would continue to have children. Which brings up another side effect of messing with human progression. "At some point, you'll be younger than your children," Dr. Fink says. "So the question is how will we as a society and as individuals deal with that."

On the plus side, given the current state of technology, we probably won't be the ones needing to answer these questions - but our children might be.

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