Who wants to live forever?

Doesn't matter. Futurists, scientists, and multimillionaires are hard at work finding ways to ensure that a pesky thing like the life cycle becomes obsolete. I read with much interest an article on livescience.com about the Global Future 2045 International Congress held in New York this past June, during which much ado was made about uploading human brains so that our minds can live on well past our 'best by' date.

I will quote directly:

[Martine] Rothblatt 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, which she argued humans already have (in the form of Facebook, for example). This mindfile would be run on "mindware," a kind of software for consciousness. "The first company that develops mindware will have [as much success as] a thousand Googles," Rothblatt said.

But would such a mindclone be alive? Rothblatt thinks so. She cited one definition of life as a self-replicating code that maintains itself against disorder.* Some critics have shunned what Rothblatt called "spooky Cartesian dualism," arguing that the mind must be embedded in biology. On the contrary, software and hardware are as good as wet ware, or biological materials, she argued.

The title of her talk? "The Purpose of Biotechnology is the End of Death."

The concept isn't startlingly new; in this summer's Man of Steel, Jor-El is no longer a hologram in the Fortress of Solitude by way of a crystal - he is his actual consciousness uploaded into a ship's mainframe (via pretty much a flash drive). The father that Clark Kent interacts with is a three-dimensional digital clone, with Jor-El's memories, personality, and love.


By 2045, "based on conservative estimates of the amount of computation you need to functionally simulate a human brain, we'll be able to expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold," [Ray] Kurzweil said.

[Dmitry] Itskov and other so-called "transhumanists" interpret this impending singularity as digital immortality. Specifically, they believe that in a few decades, humans will be able to upload their minds to a computer, transcending the need for a biological body. The idea sounds like sci-fi, and it is — at least for now. The reality, however, is that neural engineering is making significant strides toward modeling the brain and developing technologies to restore or replace some of its biological functions.

So, if someone wishes to surpass their mortal limitations - or even if perhaps they are paralyzed and somehow medical science is not quite up to par yet - they can upload their mind and live in a computer. Or something.

I'm no Luddite; this stuff sounds pretty cool. But I do have two main contentions.

Regardless of the speed and complexity that computers achieve in the future, how can we leave biology out of the picture and still believe that total replication of the human mind is possible? It has been incredibly helpful to describe brains in computational terms, but brains are not only computers, and they are not digital, and they certainly weren't created by man. Any mind clone will only ever be a cold calculation, a shadow of the person it claims to be. If people are okay with that, fine; pull up that creepy avatar of your grandmother and shoot the breeze.

Shakespeare's Hamlet said that death is the undiscovered country "from whose bourne no traveler returns." Ultimately we fear death because we have no idea what truly comes next - or because the idea of total annihilation is unacceptable. We will always try to find ways to cheat death, but is that really the answer? Sometimes things are the way they are because that's the way things are. Death is awful - but it also gives live all of its meaning. Perhaps if we focused more of our energy on living correctly and preparing for the end, facing it instead of running from it, we wouldn't be so scared.

But, I could be wrong. In 2045, or later, mind clones might be beautiful digital copies of loved ones we otherwise would never speak to again. In the year 2525 my consciousness just may be tooling around in a digital neighborhood with my digital consciousness friends, reminiscing on the days when most of the population still lived on Earth instead of scattered across the Milky Way.

Only time will tell.

*as opposed to, say, an unborn child

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