Immortality - here it comes
26 September 2012
Jump to the more entertaining part.
My few blog posts to date have been on fairly mundane matters - Scottish independence, Wikileaks, football and the Internet. But in fact, my mind is more often than not in the realms of science fiction and the future. It's not that easy to blog about though, not without incurring ridicule from non sci-fi fans.
Let's give it a go though, and talk about immortality. Sci-fi and religion between them have come up with three forms this might take. (1) A spiritual form, where we all have a non-corporeal being which doesn't rely on our physical bodies, (2) a physical form where medical science defeats ageing and death and (3) a digital form, where our minds are scanned, digitised and either live on in virtual worlds or are reimplanted into other biological or mechanical bodies.
(1) The spiritual form has probably been believed in since humankind first became self-aware, with most religions using it as the reward for conforming to their rules, and yet now, in the age of science we have no more evidence that it might be anything other than a fairy tale than we did tens of thousands of years ago.
(2) Medical knowledge today is many orders of magnitude greater than it was only a century ago, and yet we've increased our average lifespan by a trivial amount, and even that can probably be accounted for by improvements in child mortality. There seems no more sign of a miraculous elixir of life to prevent ageing now than there was when fables were being written about it by the ancient Hindu, Persians and Chinese.
(3) We don't understand how memory works, how neurons communicate with each other. We struggle to model even some of the simplest actions our brains are capable of. The idea of capturing the state of a human mind to digitise it is wildly out of our reach - still magic rather than science.
And yet... immortality is just round the corner, a decade, perhaps two, away.
A short diversion...
I'm constantly amazed at the differences in technology between my late teenage years and those of my son. At his age I was a huge fan of CB radio - it had opened up a world of communication to me. Living in a small town in the Highlands, secondary school involved a ten mile bus ride - come the start of the summer holidays I'd say goodbye to many of my friends with no expectation of any contact with them until the start of the next term. CB radio opened a new form of communication, perhaps doubling my casual relationships, my social interaction. I might on average interact with a dozen people in a day.
But today teenagers are in near constant contact with their peers; mobile 'phone calls, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, email, Skype, in-game communications all tell them what their friends are doing in real time, even though they might be thousands of miles away, not the 10 miles which separated me from the same information only 30 years ago.
More subtle forms of information permeate this network - embedded GPS often means you know where your friends are when they Tweet or post on Facebook, check-in services may do this without your friend needing to do anything at all. Spotify tells you what they're listening to. And this information is increasing all the time. Much of this data, along with what we write, the photos and video we take are shared between our devices automatically, and backed up to the Cloud.
Input/Output devices are under constant development, mainly driven by the games market. The Wii and Kinect systems sense your movements and translate them into digital commands. This will soon become more mainstream, replacing TV remote controls for instance. Google's Glass project aims to have us receive online information through a headset display during almost our every waking moment. Very soon we'll be using eye movements to control devices. I/O will soon become almost involuntary, communication with our digital devices as automatic and unthinking as moving your fingers or reading a sentence.
But enought technobabble - let's get to the point.
Imagine the following scenario in five years time:
You're walking through the town, chatting to your friend Charlie on the 'phone. You mention that you haven't seen Bob for a while, and it'd be good to meet him some time. Your 'phone is constantly scanning data from all sorts of sources, and notes from a Facebook post that Bob has just got off a bus a couple of blocks away. It sends a request to Bob's 'phone, which tells him Bob is on his way to the Red Lion for a couple of pints, and that he's not meeting anyone special. The 'phones agree to create an event in both your diaries. The earbud in your ear tells you "turn right at the end of the road, Bob will have a pint ready for you in the Red Lion when you get there".
What's happened here? Based on rules you've agreed with your 'phone, and data it's collecting itself, your 'phone (or the processing power in the cloud it's connected to) has just made a decision for you. You can of course change your mind, but that's the whole point - where is your mind? I submit that at this point, your mind is 99% within your own skull, and 1% in the cloud.
Five years later you're in the Red Lion with Bob. "Remember when we were here 5 years ago?" he says. "No" you reply, "it wasn't here, it was the Blue Lamp". You don't have an earbud in now, you've got a permanent implant in your ear, and it tells you "nope, it was the Red Lion - see, here's a photo", and a picture of the two of you is projected onto the inside of your glasses at the edge of your vision. "Sorry Bob, of course it was here." you say.
Now the cloud is acting as your memory, often more accurately than the one inside your skull. You've got so used to constant communication with your part of the cloud that perhaps 10% of what your mind used to do for you is done there instead.
By 2027 this will be a normal, everyday conversation. Back in the Red Lion again, you 'phone Bob up. (I say 'phone, but you have the implant in your ear and a sub-vocal microphone embedded in your throat wirelessly connected to a processor in your wristwatch.)
"Hey Bob, what're you doing?"
"I'm asleep" Bob replies.
"Well, wake yourself up, Charlie's here and he hasn't seen you in years".
"I'll be there in 20 minutes"
Bobdigital sets off Bobbiological's alarm clock. On the 'phone, Bobdigital sounds just like Bobbiological - the same voice and accent, tells the same stupid jokes etc. You can't tell them apart.
Despite 3 changes of owner and increasing taxes on beer, the Red Lion's still going. You're on your 'phone again.
"Hey Bob, coming down the pub?"
Bob looks back at you from the screen/inside of your contact lenses. He has a sad expression on his face.
"Sorry, mate, I'm afraid I'm dead."
"No way, what happened?"
"Heart attack last night - too much beer over the years I guess - bound to happen sometime."
"Aw man, I'm really gutted. Does Charlie know?"
"No, I haven't told anyone else yet."
"I'll give him a call and let him know."
Youdigital shake Bobdigital's hand, and at the same time the sensory feedback loop implanted in your neck means that youbiological can feel the heat of his palm and the tightness of his grip.
Bobdigital makes up at least 50% of your friend, and he'll continue to exist, potentially for ever.
Not convinced this is immortality? Imagine you could speak to your great-great-great-great-grandfather and talk about life during the industrial revolution. You can see him, ask him questions, have a party where all your other ancestors come along.
Is he dead?
Bob's great-great-great-great-grandchildren can get him to help them with their history homework. Bob is immortal.
Immortality won't come as a result of The Rapture; it won't be the result of a flash of brilliance from a medical genius. Immortality is sneaking up on you right now without you even knowing.