When I was five, I almost died. I remember the event well. My grandmother had taken me with her and my great-grandmother to the store. On the way home, we had to cross railroad tracks. My grandmother drove, my great-grandmother was in the passenger seat, and I was between them on the armrest. (This was before laws for seat belts and child seats.) Grandma stopped and looked both ways, but the railroad tracks didn’t have signals with lights and automatic arms, so she thought it was fine to cross, but it wasn’t. We were halfway across the tracks. Great-grandma yelled. I turned. The train’s engine was a pale gray that was speeding towards us, and the whistle mixed with the screams produced a high-pitched noise fit for a horror film. Obviously, my grandmother’s reflexes snapped into action. However, I came very close to not being here; if she was a fraction slower, then I would have met a fiery end.
The train incident was not my first brush with death. I almost overdosed on a prescription drug, I’ve had a severe asthma attack, and I had a blood clot in my left leg (I still remember the blank expression on the doctor’s face when he told me that if it dislodged I would die). These experiences shaped my view on death. I know I’m going to die. I’m not eager to die, and I don’t want to die soon, but I’m not afraid to die. I understand many do not share my views on death. Death is the ultimate unknown. The unknown can be terrifying. Religions attempt to offer explanations and solace, and there are many who think the dead try to communicate with the living, but so far, no one has come back and told us exactly what happens after we die. Because death seems to be eternal, many fear it and want to avoid it.
One of the ways to deal with the inevitability of death is to fantasize about immortality. Vampires are alluring because they live forever. Being a vampire is supposed to come with a high price—life without the sun and feasting on human blood. Lately, writers have transformed vampires into vegetarians who drink from blood banks and rabbits and wear magical rings and sparkle, making life as a vampire more attractive than ever. Of course, the idea is to capture yourself at your prime. After all, we don’t see many 65-year-olds being changed into vampires. Most vampire fiction centers on freezing youth, allowing the immortal to gallivant across the world and to see time pass without the fear of impending death. Gone are the cold nights in coffins; today’s vampires get to romp, to play, and to love. This is the idealized vision of immortality. We get to live forever as vital beings that experience all of life’s pleasures without consequences or responsibility.
Vampire stories are not the only realms where this dream resides. Scientists conduct research to find treatments and cures for diseases, but extending the lifespan of humans is not the same as immortality. Dying young from a disease is a tragedy, and science should strive to provide us with as healthy a lifestyle as possible. Most of the public is under the impression that scientists are working towards eradicating diseases, and many are, but there is a group that is actively pursuing immortality.
The Global Future 2045 International Congress was held February 17-20 in Moscow, Russia. Spearheaded by Dmitry Itskov, the event had many discussions about the future of human civilization, the importance of space exploration, and how to achieve immortality. Many of the presentations were in Russian, but a few were in English. Two presentations got my attention. Eric Chaisson, Professor of Astrophysics at Harvard University, gave a presentation called “Cultural Evolution in a Universal Context: Will Si-Based Machines Dominate C-Based Humans in 2045?” Near the end, he discussed the idea that machines transcend humanity. Machines, smart machines, are complex and can complete functions and calculations we cannot. Humans should develop a symbiotic relationship with machines. The progress of technology has influenced human evolution to a point where machines are part of our natural evolution. Societies should embrace a beneficial symbiotic relationship or risk missing out on a better life. Basically, Skynet should not be feared; it should be encouraged and embraced.
The other presentation that intrigued me was “The Engineering Challenge to Make Minds Substrate-Independent via Whole Brain Emulation within our Lifetimes” by Randal Koene, the head of Carboncopies.org, which is an organization developing substrate-independent minds (SIM). The purpose of a SIM is to back up human minds so we can retrieve the information at any time. Also, this is seen as a step towards the complete merger of humans and machines. These two presentations represent the overall goal of GF2045—to achieve immortality with technology.
At the conclusion of the three-day event, the participants drafted a resolution to be sent to the United Nations stating that Avatars are necessary in order to preserve humanity. According to the official press release, the Avatar program is based in Russia and has “three phases. First, to create a humanoid robot dubbed ‘Avatar,’ and a state-of-the-art brain-computer interface system. Next, to create a life support system between the ‘Avatar’ and the human brain. The final step is creating an artificial brain in which to transfer the original individual consciousness.” By the year 2045, humans should have the chance to extend their lives by transferring what is stored in their brain to an artificial host. If successful, the Avatar project would allow a person’s consciousness to go from one synthetic environment to another for as long as possible.
The United States Department of Defense recently started a similar project, but the DOD project is for military use only. GF2045 envisions a future where everyone can have a synthetic body. Is this a practical solution to the woes of humanity? What would the future be like if everyone could be a robot? Would we still reproduce, or would we reach a point where the same “people” populate Earth? I’m not convinced synthetic life is the answer; of course I’m not convinced any form of immortality is the answer. Abandoning the natural course of biological life could render humanity stagnate; it could make humanity extinct. If our minds merge with machines, we would not be humans, be Homo sapiens, anymore. Diseases would no longer be a concern, but the value of life could change if we are just a collection of ones and zeroes.
I can see some practical applications for this technology. Mapping the brain might give us breakthroughs in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Nanotechnology has the potential to repair and rebuild cells, curing many diseases and physical ailments. Artificial mobility systems would help people who are paralyzed. If humans could remotely control robotic devices over long distances, then exploration of the deep sea and space could advance.
I understand the reasons for the goals of GF2045. Death scares many people, and living in a synthetic body would end pain. I’m in pain every day. A car accident damaged my knee and my back, and I have an odd thing happening in my abdomen, but all of my pain, physical and emotional, makes me who I am. Giving up the physical body might appeal to some, but not to me.