How to live forever

The rich are now working on ‘digital immortality’. How does it work? The thoughts and memories stored in your brain are transferred to a computer, which then controls an artificially intelligent robot that is a replica of you

     Since science still has not found the immortality gene, it is perhaps not surprising that in Silicon Valley and on the outskirts of Moscow the eccentric wealthy (and it always is the eccentric wealthy) are now turning their attention — and their money — to projects that are promising to deliver a new version of the age-old fantasy (or folly) of everlasting life: digital immortality. And this time it may actually work.

    “So your brain is scanned and your essence uploaded into a digital form of bits and bytes, and this whole brain emulation can be saved in a computer’s memory banks ready to be brought back to life as an avatar in a virtual world like Second Life, or even in the body of an artificially intelligent robot that is a replica of who we were,” says writer Stephen Cave, author of the new book Immortality.

    Currently, however, this is still “almost science fiction”, as there are “three big challenges” that stand between us and digital immortality — challenges that projects such as Carbon Copies and Russia 2045 already believe they can overcome within 40 years.

    “The first is that we have to be able to read all the information that makes up who you are, and this is likely to be achieved destructively by removing the human brain from the body and then preserving, slicing and scanning in the data it contains. Then there is the challenge of storing an amount of information many millions of orders of magnitude bigger than the current computer systems. And finally we need to find a way to animate it.”

    Others are more positive.

    For Dr Stuart Armstrong, the rise of the idea of digital immortality is due to the realisation that this time — perhaps — we actually have the key to immortality in our hands. Dr Armstrong is research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford.

    “The problems that digital immortality is facing are merely engineering problems — albeit complicated and difficult ones — that could be solved within the decade if we decided to set up a scheme on the scale of the Manhattan Project.”

    In particular, he feels that “scanning is the critical problem” and that if you “spent stupid amounts of cash then within a decade many of the limitations of scanning, such as its resolution, could be solved”.

    Dr Randal A. Koene, though, is determined to take digital immortality from the pages of books like Cave’s and turn it into reality. Koene is founder of the nonprofit Carbon Copies Project in California, which is tasked with creating a networking community of scientists to advance digital immortality — “although I prefer to talk about substrate-independent minds, as digital immortality is too much about how long you live, not what you can do with it”.

    And for Koene this “replica” is very much “you”, there being a “continuity of self” in the same way that “the person you are today is still the same person you were when you were age five”.

    Furthermore, he feels, the tide of science is moving his way, with India expecting to have built by 2017 a supercomputer big enough to handle the one exaflop of memory required for one brain upload, and such institutions as the Allen Institute for Brain Science spending $300 million on trying to crack problems he also needs to solve, such as how the brain encodes, stores and processes information.

    But in the end, in Stephen Cave’s opinion, digital immortality may well turn out to be a curse, as it always does in mythology. “If my child died and I replaced her with a digital avatar to help me overcome the grieving, would I let her grow up or even have children of her own? Would I tell her she was a copy? I can imagine just how easy it would be to tell her in a row.”

    The complications have more serious implications if humans cannot resist the temptation to “tweak their digital avatars”, which may — as Stuart Armstrong argues — lead us closer to a world of “superupgraded copies” and “the real game changer, multiple copies or clones”.

    “You could copy the best five programmers in the world a million times or the best call centre worker and these copies would simply replace the humans, who would no longer have any economic value,” Armstrong says. “Humans would be left to die, face a life on welfare or live under coercive regulation to control the technology.


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