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
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
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
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