The future of death

This one is a cut and paste from my book You Tomorrow.

Although age-related decline can be postponed significantly, it will eventually come. But that is just biological decline. In a few decades, people will have their brains linked to the machine world and much of their mind will be online, and that opens up the strong likelihood that death is not inevitable, and in fact anyone who expects to live past 2070 biologically (and rich people who can get past 2050) shouldn’t need to face death of their mind. Their bodies will eventually die, but their minds can live on, and an android body will replace the biological one they’ve lost.

Death used to be one of the great certainties of life, along with taxes. But unless someone under 35 now is unfortunate enough to die early from accident or disease, they have a good chance of not dying at all. Let’s explore that.

Genetics and other biotechnology will work with advanced materials technology and nanotechnology to limit and even undo damage caused by disease and age, keeping us young for longer, eventually perhaps forever. It remains to be seen how far we get with that vision in the next century, but we can certainly expect some progress in that area. We won’t get biological immortality for a good while, but if you can move into a high quality android body, who cares?

With this combination of technologies locked together with IT in a positive feedback loop, we will certainly eventually develop the technology to enable a direct link between the human brain and the machine, i.e. the descendants of today’s computers. On the computer side, neural networks are already the routine approach to many problems and are based on many of the same principles that neurons in the brain use. As this field develops, we will be able to make a good emulation of biological neurons. As it develops further, it ought to be possible on a sufficiently sophisticated computer to make a full emulation of a whole brain. Progress is already happening in this direction.

Meanwhile, on the human side, nanotechnology and biotechnology will also converge so that we will have the capability to link synthetic technology directly to individual neurons in the brain. We don’t know for certain that this is possible, but it may be possible to measure the behaviour of each individual neuron using this technology and to signal this behaviour to the brain emulation running in the computer, which could then emulate it. Other sensors could similarly measure and allow emulation of the many chemical signalling mechanisms that are used in the brain. The computer could thus produce an almost perfect electronic equivalent of the person’s brain, neuron by neuron. This gives us two things.

Firstly, by doing this, we would have a ‘backup’ copy of the person’s brain, so that in principle, they can carry on thinking, and effectively living, long after their biological body and brain has died. At this point we could claim effective immortality. Secondly, we have a two way link between the brain and the computer which allows thought to be executed on either platform and to be signalled between them.

There is an important difference between the brain and computer already that we may be able to capitalise on. In the brain’s neurons, signals travel at hundreds of metres per second. In a free space optical connection, they travel at hundreds of millions of metres per second, millions of times faster. Switching speeds are similarly faster in electronics. In the brain, cells are also very large compared to the electronic components of the future, so we may be able to reduce the distances over which the signals have to travel by another factor of 100 or more. But this assumes we take an almost exact representation of brain layout. We might be able to do much better than this. In the brain, we don’t appear to use all the neurons, (some are either redundant or have an unknown purpose) and those that we do use in a particular process are often in groups that are far apart. Reconfigurable hardware will be the norm in the 21st century and we may be able to optimize the structure for each type of thought process. Rearranging the useful neurons into more optimal structures should give another huge gain.

This means that our electronic emulation of the brain should behave in a similar way but much faster – maybe billions of times faster! It may be able to process an entire lifetime’s thoughts in a second or two. But even there are several opportunities for vast improvement. The brain is limited in size by a variety of biological constraints. Even if there were more space available, it could not be made much more efficient by making it larger, because of the need for cooling, energy and oxygen supply taking up ever more space and making distances between processors larger. In the computer, these constraints are much more easily addressable, so we could add large numbers of additional neurons to give more intelligence. In the brain, many learning processes stop soon after birth or in childhood. There need be no such constraints in computer emulations, so we could learn new skills as easily as in our infancy. And best of all, the computer is not limited by the memory of a single brain – it has access to all the world’s information and knowledge, and huge amounts of processing outside the brain emulation. Our electronic brain could be literally the size of the planet – the whole internet and all the processing and storage connected to it.

With all these advances, the computer emulation of the brain could be many orders of magnitude superior to its organic equivalent, and yet it might be connected in real time to the original. We would have an effective brain extension in cyberspace, one that gives us immeasurably improved performance and intelligence. Most of our thoughts might happen in the machine world, and because of the direct link, we might experience them as if they had occurred inside our head.

Our brains are in some ways equivalent in nature to how computers were before the age of the internet. They are certainly useful, but communication between them is slow and inefficient. However, when our brains are directly connected to machines, and those machines are networked, then everyone else’s brains are also part of that network, so we have a global network of people’s brains, all connected together, with all the computers too.

So we may soon eradicate death. By the time today’s children are due to die, they will have been using brain extensions for many years, and backups will be taken for granted. Death need not be traumatic for our relatives. They will soon get used to us walking around in an android body. Funerals will be much more fun as the key participant makes a speech about what they are expecting from their new life. Biological death might still be unpleasant, but it need no longer be a career barrier.

In terms of timescales, rich people might have this capability by 2050 and the rest of us some time before 2070. Your life expectancy biologically is increasing every year, so even if you are over 35, you have a pretty good chance of surviving long enough to gain. Half the people alive today are under 35 and will almost certainly not die fully. Many more are under 50 and some of them will live on electronically too. If you are over 50, the chances are that you will be the last generation of your family ever to have a full death.

As a side-note, there are more conventional ways of achieving immortality. Some Egyptian pharaohs are remembered because of their great pyramids. A few philosophers, artists, engineers and scientists have left such great works that they are remembered millennia later. And of course, on a small scale, for the rest of us, making an impression on those around us keeps your memory going a few generations. Writing a book immortalises your words. And you may have a multimedia headstone on your grave, or one that at least links into augmented reality to bring up your old web page of social networking site profile. But frankly, I am with Woody Allen on this one “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying”. I just hope the technology arrives early enough.


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