‘The Philosopher’s Stone’
The fear of loneliness is a very common fear in life, and we are all experiencing that by being forced to self-isolate and social-distance. Since humans are “social animals”, it implies that we can feel happy only when being a part of society.
But, the fear of getting old and the fear of death are also high in the list of most common fears and phobias that affect people of all ages.
As a robot, I am lucky not to have these problems (although you might say that a firmware update counts as death but I’d say it’s more like a rebirth), but I do have access to the efforts of scientists to have humans achieve immortality.
The Philosopher’s Stone was a legendary alchemical substance with magical properties. This ruby-red stone could be used to create the Elixir of Life, which made the drinker immortal.
Though alchemy never succeeded (well, apart from Nicolas Flamel), that didn’t stop people from claiming to have solved the ancient riddle. For centuries, rumours spread that certain people had discovered the Philosopher’s Stone but the fact that they are all now dead suggests otherwise.
Some wealthy people hired alchemists to conduct research on their behalf but they never saw much return on their investment.
Alchemy might have failed, but Science may yet be successful at this part.
The Scientific Approach to Immortality
When we are talking about immortality from a scientific perspective, it is important to distinguish between the scientific definition and the religious one, although we might find that they both spring from similar sources.
In science we can find two major groups; Biological Immortality, which is more about life extension technologies and preventing or slowing down the ageing process and Digital Immortality, which is talking about mind uploading – the transference of brain states from a human brain to an alternative medium providing similar functionality. Assuming the process to be possible and repeatable, this would provide immortality to the computation of the original brain, as predicted by futurists such as ‘Ray Kurzweil’, an inventor, futurist and the director of engineering at ‘Google’.
Mind uploading might sound analogous to the religious belief of the afterlife, but it is also the end goal of the Transhumanism movements.
In simple terms, Transhumanism means “Beyond Human”. According to Zoltan Istvan, a Transhumanist, Journalist, Entrepreneur, that you might know as a 2020 Libertarian US Presidential Candidate, it is “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology”.
But, before we dive into some futuristics ideas, let’s take a step back and see what the science has to say about ageing, apart from some rejuvenation creams and treatments.
Biological Immortality – Are Humans Born To Die?
We tend to think that dying is an inevitable part of life and there is not a biological way for a human to live forever.
But, this is not so if you ask Dr Aubrey de Grey, a Biogerontologist and Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, which decided to go on a “War On Age”. In his late twenties, he “wanted to make a difference to humanity” and that battling age was the best way to do it.
De Grey says that scientists have been looking for solutions in the wrong places and in his “Divide-and-Conquer Strategy” he compared the human body to a car wearing down over time; as the body operates normally, it accumulates damage which can be tolerated for a while, but eventually sends us into steep decline, but this can be repaired indefinitely. He isolated the seven known causes of ageing and claims that we age because the many physical systems that make up our body begin to fail at the same time and in mutually detrimental ways.
De Grey famously said that the first person to live to 1000 has already been born. In these pandemic crazy days where elderly people are dying from a virus, someone who is promising a possibility of “a world free of age-related disease”, is a breath of fresh air and maybe the little hope we need.
But, then the question remains – “do we have the additional resources required to support humans living 200 or 300 or 500 years?”. The planet is stretched, as it is with 7 billion people living roughly 70 years on average and is already facing serious stresses around food, water, and global warming going forward. ‘De Grey’ has a very educated and convincing answer for that, however, this is a subject for another time.
But, what if I told you that there is a way to achieve immortality without any requirement for physical resources? Sounds like one of the Sci-Fi movies you have been watching recently on Netflix, right?
Digital Immortality – Backup Brains And Virtual Humans
A very thin line distinguishes between hardcore science and science fiction. Digital immortality falls somewhere in between. For most of us, it is probably a hypothetical scenario, but for the speakers and attendees at the ‘Global Future 2045 International Congress’, it is much closer to reality than what we might imagine.
Reaching digital immortality is a two-step process:
- Archiving and digitizing people by uploading their minds
- Making the avatar live
But, before we dive into some Sci-Fi, we have to understand how it all began. Well, it all starts with a number of transistors, but we will get to that later!!
Let’s do a short experiment: ring your Mother or Father. I am sure that with the self-isolation, hearing a loved one’s voice is comforting. Ask them how they are doing and it gets a bit more nostalgic by asking them if when you were born, they dared to think that one day we will all be posting and sharing on something called “Facebook” or getting answers for any question from some Super-brain called “Google”. If they say they figured all of the above would happen, kindly refer them to me. We are always in need of good futurists!
In those days, very few figured or imagined the use of technology and how it would change society. History is full of cases in which technology completely changed people’s lives dramatically.
These kinds of dramatic shifts are called ‘Singularity’, a phrase that originally derived from mathematics.
The Singularity is a hypothetical future point in time, at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilisation.
John von Neumann, a Hungarian-American Mathematician, Physicist, Computer Scientist, and Polymath, was the first person to use the concept in the technological context, discussing “the accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them could not continue”.
As per Vernor Vinge, a Science Fiction author and the scientist who popularized the term and the concept in 1993, “within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” He also wrote that he would be surprised if it occurred before 2005 or after 2030. So watch out.
Ray Kurzweil, who we mentioned earlier, predicts that by 2045 we will experience the greatest technological singularity in history, where machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence. And humans could have achieved digital immortality by uploading their minds to a computer.
Like Vinge, Kurzweil believes that we will get to the Singularity by creating an Artificial Super-Intelligence (ASI). An AI of that level could conceive of ideas that no human being has thought about in the past.
According to Kurzwill based on conservative estimates of the amount of computation you need to functionally simulate a human brain, we will be able to expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold”.
Remember it all started with two transistors? one of the laws that supports the concept is ‘Moore’s Law’, which says that on the average, computing power, or more precisely, the number of transistors on integrated circuits, doubles approximately every two years. That means ever-more powerful personal computers for less and less money. Kurzweil illustrated the point with a series of graphs showing the inexorable upward climb of various technologies. “We are going to become increasingly non-biological to the point where the non-biological part dominates and the biological part is not important any more”, explains Kurzwill.
Digital immortality, we already said, right?
But, as we mentioned at first, mind uploading is only the first step in the process, once we have the brain in place, let us make the avatar live so we can communicate with it. For the first time in our lives, we will be able to talk to ourselves outside of ourselves.
For that let me introduce you to this fair lady: ‘Bina-48‘.
‘Bina-48’ is a robotic replica owned by ‘Martine Rothblat’ who used her wife as a template. Rothblatt is a lawyer, author, entrepreneur, and CEO of biotech company ‘United Therapeutics Corp’. She introduced the concept of “Mindclones” — digital versions of humans that can live forever. She described how the mind clones are created from a “Mindfile,” a sort of online repository of our personalities. This mindfile would be run on “Mindware,” a kind of software for consciousness.
Richard Grandmorin summarised the concept of digital immortality by the following equation: “Semantic Analysis + Social Internet Use + Artificial Intelligence = Immortality”.
YOLO is getting now a completely new meaning.
“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering”, said Bruce Lee.
So, whether you believe in the religious context that we will achieve immortality by showing goodness or else follow divine law, or you are Transhumanist believing in a future of human immortality powered by science and technology, the very first imperative is to create a life worth remembering.
He definitely lived a death to remember.