Thursday, August 26, 2010

who wants to live forever?

while i for one have no hesitation in answering that question with an "ooh-ooh-ooooh! me, me, me! pick me!" and an enthusiasm that would embarrass arnold horshack, quite a number of people roll their eyes and "pshaw!" the very notion, as if their contemptuous dismissal of the question were based on principle rather than sour grapes. truthfully, as long as the fantasy lies far beyond the furthest demonstrated capabilities of our best doctors and scientists, it's a sane response. still, one need only pick up the news on any given day to conclude that the instinct for self-preservation handily trumps the instinct for sanity-preservation and i would even argue that the will to survive — or more fundamentally, resistance to entropy — is intrinsic to the very nature of life itself.


immortality through licensing: not everyone's first choice.
curiously though, many of the same folks who look down their wrinkled nostrils at what appears to be a selfish and unseemly desire also fail to see the hypocrisy in adopting a religion, every example of which, without exception, dangles the promise of everlasting life as the ultimate door prize for membership. immortality of course resurfaces again and again as a favorite literary trope in science fiction and fantasy, and would merit inclusion among my "great fictions of science fiction" were even the most credulous trekwars fanboy actually taken in by any of sci-fi's most seductive claims. clearly, religion continues to win this contest.

why most popular conceptions of technology-conferred immortality remain so wanting was recently summarized by commenter cerberus at pz myers' science blog pharyngula, in a conversation originally catapulted from futurist ray kurzweil's claim that within ten years we could "reverse-engineer" the human brain, which would allow us, in myers' words, "to write software that simulates all the functions of the human brain":

creating a robotic brain to "download your consciousnes" into or the "i'll make a clone version of myself with all my memories" sci-fi fiction immortality ideas are kinda false immortalities.

it's at best, assuming a complete successful procedure a process of ending one's consciousness so that a puppet version of yourself can emulate your life possibly for all eternity.

great, but what does that do for [the] real you?

real you is just as dead and gone and unable to be a part of and appreciate what your puppet is doing in its absence. i'm sure this has been repeatedly addressed in the various thread wars during my absence, but it seems kind of stupid.

i'd love to extend lifespans, i'd love to live forever if that was possible, but as long as we're talking fantasies, asking for the power to fart sparkly flying unicorns seems less stupid than asking for a robot facsimile to live forever on your behalf.

i mean, if you're going to be all cult about this, pick something that wouldn't be completely contrary to your intended desire if you got it.


the problem is that neither of these techniques provides any continuity between the real, original you — the unique, dynamic but amorphous energy pattern that emerges as a product of your brain activity — and whatever it is that will emerge from your shiny new robot body or your baby-fresh clone body, even if it seems identical. this is the component that must be bodily transferred (pun intended), and not merely copied or "downloaded", to its new host, in order for the real you to live past your expiration date. otherwise, if all you're accomplishing is creating a vanity being as a monument to yourself, there's still nothing more simple, more efficient, more tried and tested, more mundane and less controversial than finding a partner and just having a child.

however ... since we're already vacationing here on futurist fantasy island with a white-suited ray kurzweil, where we already have his schematics for building an entire artificial brain right in front of us, it's suddenly possible to provide the continuity we need in order to engineer our transference into everlasting life. the means is in fact quite simple: by replacing the brain, in a series of discrete, stepwise procedures, with kurzweil's robot circuitry, we can preserve the continuity of consciousness by progressively swapping out sections of the original organic substrate (ie, the gray matter) with new artificial upgrades until we've completely replaced it, right from under the still actively running pattern! by conducting each procedure without rendering the subject unconscious for even a moment, but instead continuously maintaining communication with and monitoring feedback from the subject and assessing our progress after each procedure, we can assure ourselves that the same person who laid down on our operating table is the same person getting back up.

let's say that kurzweil's brain can be broken down into 100 discrete modules, and let's say that the first step is replacing the area that processes smell. so we open up our patient, reroute her smell center to the new robot smell module, turn it on, then shut down the corresponding area of her gray matter, excise it, and pop the module into place, all the while maintaining a continuous stream of realtime communication with her. now, if we were to end the operation right here with just this one module, with our patient's brain now 1% artificial and sporting a new (and perhaps even improved) smell center, no one would credibly question whether she was in fact still the same person who woke up that morning instead of some soulless android changeling. she'd certainly be no more android than anyone else who's ever received any other kind of artificial limb or organ.

and if we fast-forward to the end of the hundredth and final procedure, in which, let's say, we've replaced her libido, making her brain now 100% artificial, could anyone credibly argue that this individual was not the same person who successfully emerged from the 99th procedure, and who successfully emerged from the 98 procedures before it? it would be very difficult to make that argument without being able to pinpoint any moment or period when our patient, or more precisely, when her uninterrupted brain pattern changed in such a way that would no longer allow us to still call it "the real her". it is precisely because that pattern was not allowed to be interrupted that "the real her" was preserved as we built its new chassis under it. so, in geekspeak, instead of attempting to "download" our nebulous and intangible consciousness into a new machine, we've merely installed a live upgrade or "sidegrade" of its existing hardware and firmware as a series of modular patches, without turning off or rebooting the system. voilà — immortality v1.0! or at the very least a new lease on life until her android body is finished, but considering what we've already accomplished, the rest is just child's play.


afterword: of course, immortality does become somewhat problematic in about five billion years from now, when our friend the sun finally implodes. we'd most certainly want a ticket out of town, preferably on a ship capable of faster-than-light travel (not bloody likely) with lots of dvds on board for the tens — perhaps hundreds — of thousands of years ahead of us in the tractless void before we arrive anywhere interesting. of course, we need not be awake for the whole adventure: i know my android body will definitely have a "sleep" mode installed.

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