What if you could live forever?

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Eternal life? Is it for you? Do you really want to live forever? Would you like to preserve your consciousness indefinitely and marvel at the future developments of the coming centuries? What if you could grow older but continually renew failing body parts? How about living in a virtual world which is both fulfilling and realistic?

Prolonging a healthy life is the goal of many medical and technical experts around the world. To live a long and healthy life is, after all, the aim for most of us. But now the goals are changing. With the latest technological advancements transforming the way we view the human condition, postponing death indefinitely is now the latest aim for a new generation of scientists and technological innovators. So, what would eternal life look like and is it for you? Let’s take a closer look.

Living in the cloud

Uploading your consciousness into the ‘cloud’ is an idea which is sounding increasingly possible. According to technology expert and renowned futurologist Dr Ian Pearson, by 2050 technology should be sufficiently advanced to permit a range of life extending methods. Assimilating your brain into the digital arena is, perhaps, the most radical.

The first step towards digital immortality is to create brain simulation technology with enough capacity to store human consciousness. To date, experts using IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer have created a digital brain with 1.6 billion neurons. This simulation has a similar number of neurons to a cat’s brain. Its capacity to process information, however, is around 100 times slower than its biological equivalent.

To develop technology powerful enough to support the human brain’s 86 billion neurons and replicate the complex network of cerebral synapses is a more difficult task. If, however, you consider Moore’s Law, which suggests that computer processing power doubles every two years, then in a few years’ time, the technology may be sufficiently advanced.

Investing in eternity

Eternal life is big business. There is a huge market for age-defying products. Recent figures from Orbis Research state that in 2018, consumers spent a staggering £33bn on anti-ageing products. Research also shows that $559 million was invested by venture capitalists in a variety of anti-aging companies. Companies such as Silicon Valley-based BioTime and CohBar are investigating the use of stem cells and genome editing to rebuild cells and reduce cell death while Calico (Google’s sister company) has a £2.2bn budget for research into age-defying technology.

At the more controversial end of the spectrum, US start-up Nectome is also gaining financial backing for its research into brain preservation and consciousness uploading. Nectome is developing technology which will allow the preserving of a brain through a process called vitrifixation. Successfully trialled in 2016 on a rabbit’s brain and again in 2018 using a pig’s brain, the technology uses embalming chemicals to preserve the brain’s neuronal structure, turning it temporarily into glass. Chief Executive at start-up accelerator Y Combinator, Sam Altman has paid a £10,000 deposit to join a list of 25 other people waiting to undergo the process.

The most controversial aspect of vitrifixation is that the process must kill the patient in order to successfully preserve the brain. In states such as California, where euthanasia laws are rigorous and ethical, the technology looks likely to be completely legal. The major downside, however, is that there is currently no method to revive the frozen brain from its cryogenic state. According to the Nectome website, they hope to have developed a full simulation of a ‘biological neural network’ by 2024.

Androids, anatomy and eternal life

One way to preserve life indefinitely is to replace organs and body parts when they fail. For decades, doctors have been extending and enhancing people’s lives through organ transplants and the use of artificial limbs. Scientists’ ability to combine the biological with the mechanical and computerised is becoming more advanced every year. Experts are already working on creating working human organs using 3D printers which would transform medicine and remove the need for risky organ donation.

Thanks to medical advances, life expectancy is at an all-time high and is increasing every year. Although quality of life is improving for the over 70s, there will come a time when health will fail due to illness or old age. To try to counteract the ageing process, scientists are now taking the idea of robotic limbs a step further and asking, ‘what if we could live in an android body?’

Once the technology has advanced to allow human consciousness to be uploaded and stored in the cloud, it should be relatively simple for the consciousness to be linked to any compatible interface. This means that, in theory, your digital mind could be uploaded into an android body anywhere in the world. When brain to machine links are available, human consciousness will essentially be eternal, perpetually fluid and transcending how we currently view the human experience.

The consequences of eternal existence

These new technologies, although exciting, are subject to all manner of ethical and moral implications. Our current understanding of how the human brain works are very limited. Respected scientists and neurosurgeons admit that their understanding of how the brain forms consciousness is extremely restricted. Only 10% of the human brain is made up of neurons, which scientists understand to create the network of electrical signals which enable the brain to function. The other 90% consists of glial cells which support and encapsulate neurons but whose structure and function is not well-understood.

Consciousness itself is an unknown commodity. In the 21st century, many intelligent and well-respected scientists and philosophers still believe that our soul or consciousness separates from our body at death. If this is true, then what would be the result of transferring this consciousness into a machine and is it even possible?

At a societal level, the creation of digital selves would have massive repercussions for the way society functions. As new generations develop new ideas and theories, would the eternal ‘digital’ population hinder the biological populations’ development? Could a virtual human be open to rights abuse from the host server who may harvest ideas? In a nightmare scenario, could your digital self become trapped in a bureaucratic reality where your existence is owned by the corporation who manages the network where you reside?

There are many questions to answer before we fully embrace the next generation of technological advancements. It looks like the next few decades are going to be an interesting time for human development and a time we should approach with caution. One thing that is certain, however, is that humanity will continue to progress and find new ways to advance and diversify the human experience.

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