Download Your Mind into Another Body? To No Longer Die Changes Everything
At some point this century, we will confront the prospect of immortality, says Steven Kotler. After our bodies die, it will be possible to upload our minds into a computer, and then download them into another body.
Steven Kotler is an award-winning journalist, a New York Times bestselling author, and co-founder and director of research for the Flow Genome Project. His books include the non-fiction works The Rise of Superman, Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer, West of Jesus, and the novel The Angle Quickest for Flight. His works have been translated into over 30 languages. His articles have appeared in over 60 publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, Wired, GQ, Popular Science, and Discover.
His latest book, co-authored with tech CEO Peter Diamandis, is Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World.
Steven Kotler: In the face of immortality, morality is going to radically change, right. We’ve evolved to die. Like for the entire history of life on this planet life has come to an end. There is nothing, you know, consciously there’s nothing period out there that says this is how you behave if you live forever. This is how you start to structure a society if I can store my personality on a computer. This is what I do. I can store that personality onto a computer and download it into another body. These are huge, far flung really strange questions, right. And they seem totally science fiction at this point but everything we’ve seen over the past 25 years, right, is most of the science fiction cannon from the twentith century has turned into science fact in the twenty-first century already. So this twenty-first century sci-fi idea of mind uploading is probably going to be here by the twenty-second century. So we’ve got 50 years, 70 years to start figuring out these really complicated hard questions.
The idea in mind uploading is that we can store ourselves on silicon. We can upload our personalities, our brains, some part of our consciousness onto computers and they can stay around forever. It is a far out there technology for sure even though British Telecom is working on it, even though people are working on it. It’s very early days. Ray Kurzweil has famously kind of pegged the date when we’re going to have to deal with this problem as 2045. That may be really, really enthusiastic. I think it’s a conservative prediction. But the point is that at some point in the century this is probably going to get real. And you’ve got to stop and you’ve got to go for all five of the world’s major religions just to start there. Use the threat of the hereafter, right. What’s going to happen after this life to steer morality and shape behavior. So what happens to theological morality in the face of technological immortality is the big kind of metaphysical question.
If you look at the science fiction work of Richard K. Morgan whose fantastic, he talks about what happens when consciousness becomes downloadable and bodies become expendable and what that means for soldiers and armies and mercenaries and things along those lines. So there’s a really like a gritty cyberpunk underbelly in the mind uploading technology even though it’s being developed for educational purposes so we can preserve the brains of the Einstein’s and the Beethoven’s and the Richard Feynman’s of the world and really kind of get inside them. But it’s sort of like I think of it like television, right. When they created television they thought it was going to be used for educational purposes and that was the only – ask the creator of TV what do you think this would be good for. Well education of course. Fifty years later there’s not much education. There’s a whole lot of crap and I think we can see the same thing with mind uploading. But the difference of course is that mind uploading, storing selves on silicon, even teetering on the edge of so-called immortality changes everything about what it means to be human at a really fundamental deep level. And when I say fundamental deep level I mean we’re starting to muck around and mess around with evolutionary processes. Processes we have no idea what happens if you interrupt them because we’ve never done it before.
At some point this century, we will confront the prospect of immortality, says award-winning journalist Steven Kotler. After our bodies die, it will be possible to upload our minds into a computer, and then download them into another body. The implications for humanity are difficult to fathom.
As Kotler says, the basic engine of evolution is death — by physically adapting to our environment, our genes are preserved long enough to pass to the next generation. But human culture would also be thrown into uncharted territory.
Religious systems claims to guide the morality of human action, and they posit what exists after our natural death, so it's unclear what claim these dogmas would have to human behavior in a world where we live forever.
Kotler's latest book is, Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World.
- A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
- The story we read about in the news? Their drain on social services like Social Security and Medicare.
- But increased longevity is a cause for celebration, says Ashton Applewhite, not doom and gloom.
Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.
Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
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