From cryonics to time travel, here are some of the (highly speculative) methods that might someday be used to bring people back to life.
- Alexey Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov, researchers belonging to the transhumanism movement, wrote a paper outlining the main ways technology might someday make resurrection possible.
- The methods are highly speculative, ranging from cryonics to digital reconstruction of individual personalities.
- Surveys suggest most people would not choose to live forever if given the option.
There's no evidence of an afterlife. But there's also no proof that medical death is the end of subjective experience, or that death is irreversible, or immortality impossible.
In fact, some researchers believe immortality isn't just possible, but inevitable.
Alexey Turchin, an author, life extensionist, and transhumanist researcher from Moscow, believes artificial intelligence will eventually become so powerful that humans will be able to "download" themselves — or, the quantifiable information contained in their brains — into computers and live forever.
"The development of AI is going rather fast, but we are still far away from being able to 'download' a human into a computer," Turchin told Russia Beyond. "If we want to do it with a good probability of success, then count on [the year] 2600, to be sure."
That might be out of reach for modern humans. But downloading yourself onto a computer is just one potential route to immortality. In 2018, Turchin and Maxim Chernyakov, of the Russian Transhumanist Movement, wrote a paper outlining the main ways technology might someday make resurrection — and, therefore, immortality — possible.
Immortality and identity
The paper defines life as a "continued stream of subjective experiences" and death as the permanent end of that stream. Immortality, to them, is a "life stream without end," and resurrection is the "continuation of that same stream of experiences after an arbitrarily long gap."
Another key clarification is the identity problem: How would you know that a downloaded copy of yourself really was going to be you? Couldn't it just be a convincing yet incomplete and fundamentally distinct representation of your brain?
If you believe that your copy is not you, that implies you believe there's something more to your identity than the (currently) quantifiable information contained within your brain and body, according to the researchers. In other words, your "informational identity" does not constitute your true identity.
In this scenario, there must exist what the researchers call a "non-informational identity carrier" (NIIC). This could be something like a "soul." It could be "qualia," which are the unmeasurable "subjective experiences which could be unique to every person." Or maybe it doesn't exist at all.
It's no matter: The researchers say resurrection, in some form, should be possible in either scenario.
"If no 'soul' exist[s], resurrection is possible via information preservation; if soul[s] exist, resurrection is possible via returning of the "soul" into the new body. But some forms of NIIC are also very fragile and mortal, like continuity," the researchers noted.
"The problem of the nature of human identity could be solved by future superintelligent AI, but for now it cannot be definitively solved. This means that we should try to preserve as much identity as possible and not refuse any approaches to life extension and resurrection even if they contradict our intuitions about identity, as our notions of identity could change later."
Potential resurrection methods
Turchin and Chernyakov outline seven broad categories of potential resurrection methods, ranked from the most plausible to most speculative.
The first category includes methods practiced while the person is alive, like cryonics, plastination, and preserving brain tissue through processes like chemical fixation. The researchers noted that there have been "suggestions that the claustrum, hypothalamus, or even a single neuron is the neural correlate of consciousness," so it may be possible to preserve just that part of a person, and later implant it into another organism.
Other methods get far stranger. For example, one method includes super-intelligent AI that uses a Dyson sphere to harness the power of the sun to "power enormous calculation engines" that would "reconstruct" people who collected a sufficient amount of data on their identities.
"The main idea of a resurrection-simulation is that if one takes the DNA of a past person and subjects it to the same developmental condition, as well as correcting the development based on some known outcomes, it is possible to create a model of a past person which is very close to the original," the researchers wrote.
"DNA samples of most people who lived in past 1 to 2 centuries could be extracted via global archeology. After the moment of death, the simulated person is moved into some form of the afterlife, perhaps similar to his religious expectations, where he meets his relatives."
Delving further into sci-fi territory, another resurrection method would use time-travel technology.
"If there will at some point be technology that allows travel to the past, then our future descendants will be able to directly save people dying in the past by collecting their brains at the moment of death and replacing them with replicas," the paper states.
How? Sending tiny robots back in time.
"A nanorobot could be sent several billion years before now, where it could secretly replicate and sow nanotech within all living being[s] without affecting the course of history. At the moment of death, such nanorobots could be activated to collect data about the brain and preserve it somewhere until its future resurrection; thus, there would be no need for forward time travel."
The paper goes on to outline some more resurrection methods, including ones that involve parallel worlds, aliens, and clones, along with a good, old-fashioned possibility: God exists and one day he resurrects us.
In short, it's all extremely speculative.
But the aim of the paper was to catalogue known potential ways humans might be able to cheat death. For Turchin, that's not some far-off project: In addition to studying global risks and transhumanism, the Russian researcher heads the Immortality Roadmap, which, similar to the 2018 paper, outlines various ways in which we might someday achieve immortality.
Although it may take centuries before humans come close to "digital immortality," Turchin believes that life-extension technology could allow some modern people to survive long enough to see it happen.
Want a shot at being among them? Beyond the obvious, like staying healthy, the Immortality Roadmap suggests you start collecting extensive data on yourself: diaries, video recordings, DNA information, EEGs, complex creative objects — all of which could someday be used to digitally "reconstruct" your identity.But odds are you're not interested. Although Turchin and other scientists are bent on finding ways to avoid death and extend life indefinitely, surveys repeatedly show that most people would not opt to live forever if given the choice.
Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.
Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.
It was here, on a winter expedition, that scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction, and when it happened.
Dr Beth Shapiro is a paleo-geneticist, who co-runs the Paleogenomics Lab the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Using modern genomics techniques, her team looks back at the past to understand how species and populations have evolved through time, based on their DNA. It then applies those lessons to the conservation of endangered species today.
The genetic material from animals that lived in the northern hemisphere during the Ice Age, including bison, wolves, mammoths and horses, is particularly well preserved.
Dr Shapiro is able to extract DNA from samples, such as teeth, to see how species differed genetically and learn when populations were growing, when they were shrinking, when individual animals might have been moving long distances – and when they could not.
"Connectivity is a crucial part of many of these species' extinction stories," says Dr Shapiro.
And this is true of the fate of St Paul Island's woolly mammoths.
When did mammoths roam the Earth?
Mammoths lived on North America's mainland until about 10,000 years ago, but they survived in two places for much longer: St Paul Island and Wrangel Island, in the Russian Arctic, where teeth have been found that are only 4,000 years old.
St Paul is a volcanic island that until around 9,000 years ago was connected to the mainland by the Bering Land Bridge, which enabled animals to roam freely to and fro.
But as the climate warmed and sea levels rose, it became isolated – and the mammoths were trapped. They were the only large mammal on the island, with no predators and, speaking at a BetaZone session at Davos, Dr Shapiro said it would have been a "mammoth utopia".
How did a lake reveal what happened?
Dr Shapiro explains: "Lakes are brilliant sources of ancient DNA, because they are a sink for genetic material during the summer. Lake Hill is the only source of fresh water on St Paul. So all the animals wander in to drink and the DNA they deposit sinks to the bottom and then freezes.
"Over time, you get accumulation like a stratigraphy of layer upon layer of everyone that was present on the island from the past to the present day. We knew if we could get a copy of this, we could figure out who was there, when and with whom."
On their winter expedition to Lake Hill, Dr Shapiro's team drilled down through the ice of the lake to the gravel at the bottom and extracted a core.
The genetic material, they later learned, dated back to 17,000 years ago.
"We took tiny little plugs of DNA all the way to the top, to the present day, and looked for mammoth DNA. We also looked at the vegetation and components of the lake itself to see if it was changing over time. Microscopic algae and microscopic animals, for example, can tell us whether the lake was salty or not and how shallow it was."
Why did the St Paul Island mammoths die?
All of that data fit together like a jigsaw puzzle to show Dr Shapiro what had happened.
Mammoth DNA was present all the way from the bottom until around 5,600 years ago. Nothing changed with the vegetation, says Dr Shapiro, so they didn't run out of food.
"But everything else about the lake changed: the water chemistry changed; the rate of sediment accumulation changed. And that community of microorganisms completely turned from one that thrives in clear, deep fresh water to a community that prefers to live in very shallow, cloudy and slightly salty water."
All of which meant there had been a severe weather event, a drought, on St Paul Island. The lake started to dry up and the mammoths were left with nothing to drink.
"Had it happened 13,000 years ago, mammoths would have had another option. They could have wandered onto the mainland and looked for another source of fresh water. But they couldn't because they were on an island completely isolated, cut off from the mainland. Stuck. And so they became extinct."
How can we protect isolated habitats today?
Dr Shapiro warns the isolation that killed the mammoths on St Paul is threatening other species and biodiversity today.
"Islandization takes different forms where the habitats that we've chosen to protect are surrounded not by water, but by other things like farms and agriculture. By roads and highways and freeways. And by cities of all sizes.
"This places the plants and animals that live in these island habitats in a precarious situation. An extreme weather event or the introduction of a predator or disease can upset the balance of interactions taking place within these habitats, potentially leading to extinction."
Studies of other ancient animals using the same method, from woolly rhinos to Arctic horses and species of lion, have also shown connectivity is a key factor in extinction.
"The populations that remained became increasingly isolated from each other, both geographically and genetically, with each of these island populations functioning as their own tiny, isolated thing."
Any plan to protect and preserve endangered species must also give animals routes of escape to move between habitats or find new ones as the climate warms.
"This could mean building overpasses where animals can cross highways. We could create greenways, green roofs, city parks, green corridors along rivers and roads, and not just build walls or barriers that further fragment this already fragmented landscape."
The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative is an example of an organization doing just that – aiming to link Yellowstone National Park in the Western United States with the Yukon in Canada, where Dr Shapiro does most of her work.
"A sustainable future for biodiversity will require creativity," she says. "But it will also require collaboration."
How can we promote the creation of new neurons - and why is it so important?
- Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth.
- After birth, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain: the olfactory bulb (which is responsible for our sense of smell) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory, spatial navigation, and emotional processing).
- Research from the 1960s proves creating new neurons as adults is possible, and modern-day research explains how (and why) we should promote new neuron growth.
Two parts of the brain can continue growing through neurogenesis
Neurogenesis is still possible well into adulthood in two very important parts of the human brain.
Image by EtiAmmos on Shutterstock
Although most people are aware that aging or bad habits such as heavy alcohol use can contribute to the deterioration of our brains, not many of us give thought to how we can generate new brain cells.
Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth.
After birth, however, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain:
- The olfactory bulb, which is a structure of the forebrain that's responsible for our sense of smell.
- The hippocampus, which is a structure of the brain located within the temporal lobe (just above your ears) - this area is important for learning, memory, regulation, of emotions and spatial navigation.
Of course, when this information first came to light back in the 1960s, the next natural question was: How do we promote neurogenesis in those areas where it's still possible?
Researchers today believe there are activities you can do (some of them may be things you already do on a daily basis) that can promote neurogenesis in your brain.
Why is it important to promote the growth of new neurons in adulthood?
We produce an estimated 700 million neurons per day in the hippocampus - this means by the time we reach the age of 50, we will have exchanged the neurons we were born within that area of the brain with new (adult-generated) neurons.
If we don't promote this exchange with the growth of new neurons, we may block certain abilities these new neurons help us with (such as keeping our memory sharp, for example).
4 ways to promote neurogenesis in your brain
Learning a new instrument helps promote neurogenesis.
Photo by DenisProduction.com on Shutterstock
A 2015 Stanford study examined the link between intermittent fasting and neurogenesis. Calorie restriction and fasting can not only increase synaptic plasticity and promote neuron growth but it can also decrease your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases and boost cognitive function.
Two of the most common ways you can intermittently fast are:
- 16 hours per day every day - this is a method where you are able to eat for an 8 hour period of the day and fast for 16 hours of the day. Many people begin their "fast" after dinner, pushing their morning meal far enough towards lunch that most of their "off" eating time happens while they are asleep anyways.
- 24 hours every week - this is a method where once a week you fast for an entire day. Some people prefer this method because the rest of the week can resume as normal - but for many, this is a difficult way to fast.
Traveling to new places
While traveling is something many of us enjoy — scenic routes and new fun experiences — these things also promote neurogenesis while we're on vacation. Paul Nussbaum, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that the mental benefits of traveling are very clear.
"When you expose your brain to an environment that's novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts. Those new and challenging situations cause the brain to sprout dendrites (dangling extensions) which grow the brain's capacity."
Learning a new instrument
The mental health benefits of music have long been studied, but did you know that learning a new instrument can promote new neuron growth?
According to this 2010 study, learning to play a new musical instrument is an intense, multisensory motor experience that requires that acquisition and maintenance of skills over your entire lifetime - which of course, promotes the new formation of new neural networks.
When is the best time to begin learning a new instrument? Childhood, of course.
"Learning to play a new musical instrument in childhood can result in long-lasting changes in brain organization," according to the study mentioned above.
While learning an instrument in adulthood will also promote neurogenesis, children who began training with a musical instrument before the age of 7 have shown that they have a significantly larger corpus callosum (the area of the brain the allows communication between the two hemispheres of the brain) than many adults.
A study from Emory University showed there was an increase in ongoing connectivity in the brains of participants after reading the same (fiction) novel.
In this study, enhanced brain activity was observed in the region that control physical sensations and movement. Reading a novel, according to lead researcher Gregory Berns, can transport you into the body of the protagonist.
This ability to shift into another mental state is a vital skill that promotes healthy neurogenesis in those areas of the brain.
New research shows how Americans feel about genetic engineering, human enhancement and automation.
- A review of Pew Research studies reveals the views of Americans on the role of science in society.
- 4 key questions were asked to gauge feelings on genetic engineering, automation and human enhancement.
- Americans are split in how they view technology and many worry about its growing role.
The Pew Research Center published a fascinating roundup of studies that revealed the opinions of the U.S. public on a number of key science-related issues. The researchers wanted to find out what people thought overall about the role of science and scientists in society, but also to see more specifically how far modern humans are willing to go with genetic engineering and automation.
The responses show that people are generally not as worried as you'd think about messing with human genetics but when it comes to implanting technology to enhance bodies, doubts proliferate. A strong uneasiness also pervades responses dealing with robots in workplaces.
Before you know the details of what others thought, however, you have a chance to take the quiz yourself to test your own points of view on these matters.
These first two questions relate to your stance on genetic engineering. With the advent of CRISPR gene editing techniques, it now seems possible to edit out mutations and create babies without disease. Wouldn't you want to do it? Or do you see the potential for horrendous accidents, genetic deformities, creation of second-class citizens and forever changing what it means to be human?
1. Changing a baby's genetic characteristics to reduce the risk of a serious illness that could occur over their lifetime is:
- An appropriate use of medical technology
- Taking medical technology too far
Another key question concerns growing human organs in other animals. Obviously, we have used animals for testing to develop new treatments already amid changing public attitudes about the cruelty involved, so how ethical is it to use animals simply as incubators of spare body parts?
2. Genetic engineering of animals to grow organs / tissues for humans needing a transplant is:
- An appropriate use of medical technology
- Taking medical technology too far
This next question pertains to human enhancement. How comfortable would you be outfitting yourself with digital chips or other prosthetics and modifications? Famously, Elon Musk is spearheading the development of Neuralink technology that would allow human brains to control machines. In a 2019 presentation, he described the possibility that such devices would be made to work by first making holes in people's skulls with lasers, followed by feeding flexible electrode threads into the brain. He previously promised that such devices would not only give people additional abilities but can also cure brain illnesses like schizophrenia. Recently, he tweeted an "awesome" update to the tech is coming, sharing also that it might be implanted in humans as early as this year.
Would you put one of these things on? See how you would answer this:
3. I am ____________________ about the possibility of a brain chip implant for a much improved ability to concentrate and process information.
- Very/somewhat worried
- Not too / not at all worried
Watch Elon Musk’s presentation on Neuralink here:
And now for your thoughts on automation. Numerous studies have found that not only is automation coming faster than you think, it's bound to replace the vast majority of human occupations in the next 10-30 years. And it sounds like there's still time left, a 2020 study by the research company Forrester shows that job loss due to automation is already very much here. They predict that more than 1 million "knowledge-work jobs" will be taken over in 2020 by software robotics, virtual agents, chatbots and decisions based on machine-learning. On the other hand, the firm estimates that 331,500 net jobs will be added this year to the American workforce alone that are "human-touch jobs" utilizing such human qualities as intuition, empathy, and both physical and mental agility. So there's hope humans can adapt and find new things to do once technology takes over.
Here's your chance to answer for yourself:
4. The automation of jobs through new technology in the workplace has ___________ American workers.
- Mostly helped
- Mostly hurt
- Neither helped nor hurt.
If you're interested what the participants in the Pew Research polls thought, here is the breakdown:
The Pew Research Center, which carried out the study, pinpointed a specific theme in the findings, citing "the loss of human control, especially if such developments would be at odds with personal, religious and ethical values" as the key source of hesitancy when people think about future technologies. Proposals that give people more control over tech met with more positive response.
The origin and phylogeny of the Yaravirus are not yet clear.
- A virus has been found whose DNA is 90% absolutely unfamiliar.
- Scientists have no real idea what it developed from, or how.
- Viruses used to be thought of as simple, jumbles of things — not so much any more.
In Lake Pampulha in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, scientists found an amoeba virus unlike anything seen before. Named after Yara, the mother of waters in Brazilian mythology, 90 percent of the Yaravirus's genome is comprised of genes never before described. Sifting through the publicly available database of 8,535 metagenomes produced nothing like it, and only 6 of its genes seem to be distantly related to known homologs.
While "most of the known viruses of amoeba have been seen to share many features that eventually prompted authors to classify them into common evolutionary groups," according to the researchers in a preprint paper, Yaravirus is "a new lineage of amoebal virus with a puzzling origin and phylogeny."
Not so simple after all
Giant viruses compared in size to to other common viruses and bacteria
Image source: Meletios Verras/Shutterstock
The recent discovery of "giant viruses" — a group to which Yaravirus doesn't belong — has revealed that the organisms are capable of things previously thought beyond their reach.
To begin with, the giant variety is roughly 10 times larger than, say, the influenza virus. With that size comes complexity, too — the flu virus has 11 genes, while a giant virus can have as many as 2,500. And that complexity has turned thinking about viruses on its head.
Conventional wisdom had been that viruses were relatively disorganized agglomerations of stray genetic material incapable of reproduction, and thus dependent on host cells for sustenance. It was previously believed that hijacking their host's metabolisms was the only way that they could survive, and that they were so incredibly simple that they weren't universally considered to be "alive."
Giant viruses, which derive their name from their oversized protein shell or capsid, have genomes complex enough to engage in the synthesis of proteins. They are also capable of DNA repair, replications, transcription, and translation, which has changed the way scientists think about these supposedly simple organisms.
For the scientists who found the Yaravirus, virologists Bernard La Scola from Aix-Marseille University in France and Jônatas S. Abrahão from Brazil's Federal University of Minas Gerais, the discovery is just the latest enigmatic virus they've discovered. Last year, they found a pair of giant viruses (two other viral outliers) which they named as two flavors of Tupanvirus: Tupanvirus soda lake and Tupanvirus deep ocean, each after the extreme aquatic environments in which they were found. They belong to the Mimiviridae virus family, shown above.
Lake Pampulha, where Yaravirus was found
Image source: Teófilo Baltor
Yaravirus represents the latest surprise in viruses, but it's not a giant virus —it's comprised of small particles about 80 nm in size. It's simply that its genome is so novel.
The paper notes, "Using standard protocols, our very first genetic analysis was unable to find any recognizable sequences of capsid or other classical viral genes in Yaravirus [our emphasis]." This leaves authors LaScola and Abrahão no option but to guess what it is. They suggest that it's likely to be the first found example of some unknown amoeba virus group, or perhaps a much-degraded version of some unknown giant virus. They can only conclude, "The amount of unknown proteins composing the Yaravirus particles reflects the variability existing in the viral world and how much potential of new viral genomes are still to be discovered."