It used to be the stuff of science fiction –- uploading our minds to a database, freezing our bodies to be brought back to life years later, robots that could emulate our thoughts, or extending our life spans by melding technology with our human bodies or anti-aging medicine.
But these days, with plenty of investor capital and interest from academics and researchers, some people are treating everlasting life as a more serious possibility. Scientists and researchers are testing the limits of what technology can offer in terms of humanity’s ability to extend and preserve a person.
More than Human
Using technology to replace body parts or to expand our human capabilities isn’t new. After all, we’ve had wooden legs, glasses, and fake teeth for centuries, if not longer. However, human enhancement is becoming more sophisticated as recent developments in technology moves us closer to a transhuman age.
Mark O'Connell, author of To be a Machine, a non-fiction exploration of “Silicon Valley techno-utopians”, explains the central tenants of the transhuman movement:
“It is their belief that we can and should eradicate aging as a cause of death; that we can and should use technology to augment our bodies and our minds; that we can and should merge with machines, remaking ourselves, finally, in the image of our own higher ideals”
Neil Harbisson, an artist born colorblind who had an antenna implanted in his skull to help him extend his perception of color, is just the tip of the iceberg. He’s putting technology to use to expand his possibilities.
“By adding artificial senses to our bodies, we will be able to extend our perception of reality, acquire more knowledge and become more intelligent,” he wrote in the New York Times in 2016.
Another example of technology being used to improve the quality of human life is the recent development of a bionic hand, which allows wearers to reach for an object automatically. Developed at Newcastle University, this new technology revolutionizes the field of prosthetics, as it bypasses the user’s need to see the object and physically manipulate a trigger to move the prosthetic limb. This finding is a huge step forward in connecting human intention with the efficiency of artificial intelligence.
Project leader Kianoush Nazarpour explained their findings in the Journal of Neural Engineering: “Responsiveness has been one of the main barriers to artificial limbs. For many amputees the reference point is their healthy arm or leg so prosthetics seem slow and cumbersome in comparison. Now, for the first time in a century, we have developed an ‘intuitive’ hand that can react without thinking.”
While many of these advances in technological augmentation are promising to assist the injured or the elderly, those who could afford do it just to get ahead could jeopardize the diverse, nuanced society many hope to live in, not to mention draw on its rather finite resources.
O'Connell explains it to the UK’s New Statesman, a political and cultural magazine, like this: "The first enhanced humans will not be ordinary people; they'll be the people who have already made those ordinary people economically obsolete through automation. They'll be tech billionaires."
Senolytics and the Anti-Aging Movement
Anti-aging medicine might also be available soon. A new class of drugs being developed, known as senolytics, could help slow the degradation of the tissue that erodes when we age. Unity Biotechnology, a startup biotechnology company that develops drugs which target senescent cells, launched the first human trial of the first senolytic drug last year. Judith Campisi, professor of biogerontology at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, is a co-founder of Unity Technology and is the main proponent of the discovery that cells enter a phase known as senescence that prevents them from becoming cancerous.
“The correct way to think about senescence is that it’s an evolutionary balancing act. It was selected for the good purpose of preventing cancer – if [cells] don’t divide, [they] can’t form a tumor. It also optimizes tissue repair. But the downside is if these cells persist, which happens during aging, they can now become deleterious,” Campisi explains in a recent interview with the MIT Technology Review.
As the baby boomer generation continues to grow older, many countries around the world are finding that they are making up the single largest group of patients in hospitals. Senolytics could provide healthcare professionals with a more holistic solution to counter many age-related pathologies so as they age, people could stay healthier for longer. This could in turn revolutionize healthcare, shifting it from a reactive system focused on symptoms to a preventative, proactive approach.
Campisi is also quick to note that anti-death and anti-aging are two different things. “I am optimistic that we will experience medical interventions that will extend – the buzzword now is ‘health span’… But we’re still going to die. I’ll remind you of the mouse models, where we eliminate senescent cells. There’s a significant increase in median life span, but there’s no increase in maximum life span. In a way, the mice died healthier.”
While the founders of Nectome are researching a way to upload your mind into the cloud, other researchers and artificial intelligence specialists are considering using digital avatars to replicate users’ personalities by recording their memories, habits, and minds.
Michael Graziano, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, imagines a future where people’s brains can be duplicated in a computer program. He says the technology could be coming that would allow a computer to store consciousness in a way that would let them carry on conversations that would seem more-than familiar.
Hossein Rahnama, a visiting professor at MIT Media Lab, is focused on what he calls “augmented eternity.” He wrote in VentureBeat in May 2017 about how it “curates all of a person’s digital information and stores it as a concierge bot that gives expert advice based on real human opinions.” One of the program’s prospective clients, according to Rahnama, is the founder of a globally successful company who is looking to use the technology to help advise his colleagues as they continue to grow the firm after his death.
“This creates a lot of research questions for us around privacy of the data and accuracy of those responses,” Rahnama said.
His application is to let users ask questions to different AI personas, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have broader applications. It could also allow a community of people to share memories and continue to interact with loved ones who have passed away.
In 2016, an early employee of software development company Luka and Prince fan built a Prince-powered AI to make an “honest and loving tribute to one of the voices that had shaped my life and my thoughts.”
Likewise in Japan, famous roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro has already created robot replicas of a number of Japan’s most famous authors, allowing them to recite their works across the country. Ishiguro says he believes technology can enable something he calls social immortality. This concept will allow the dead to continue to contribute to society after death.
When it comes to social immortality in the West, musicians (and their recording companies) have been doing this for years. Heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio has been touring post-mortem since August 2016, never mind that he died in 2010 from stomach cancer. He’s returning via hologram, following performances by rapper Tupac and also a hologram Michael Jackson, who “performed” at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.
This “artificial immortality” raises many ethical questions, and could be more welcome in some cultures than others, depending on their relationship with death.
For some, having a virtual reminder of a loved one they could speak with could be comforting. However, outsourcing this intimate connection to technology could lead to some mistaking the “simulacrum” of the deceased individual with their memories of the real person they’ve lost.
The Question of Live and Let Die
Extending life or enabling life after death is a tricky topic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that not everyone would have access to the technology. Many people around the world still struggle with basic amenities such as clean water, food, and sanitation, which begs the question as to whether these technologies are society’s best use of resources.
Maybe it’s not, and maybe that doesn’t matter. If people are willing to invest in the idea and pursue the concept, then it’s financially sound and as worthwhile, some would say, as any other business endeavor.
On the other hand, as Daniel Callahan, a biomedical ethics philosopher, suggested in the New York Times in 2013 in reference to the efforts by Google’s Calico and others to “tackle” aging, “We may properly hope that scientific advances help ensure, with ever greater reliability, that young people manage to become old people. We are not, however, obliged to help the old become indefinitely older. Indeed, our duty may be just the reverse: to let death have its day.”