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What If We Could Save Our Lives Onto A Digital File?

VO: Ashley Bowman WRITTEN BY: Michael Wynands
The human body is an incredible, adaptable and awe-inspiring thing. But, it does have some shortcomings - not least that it will, eventually, fail. But throughout human history we've tried to extend our lives for as long as possible, on an ultimate sci-fi quest toward one day living forever. So, what if immortality was achievable, but in digital form? What if humans could save and upload their past lives onto a microchip or computer drive? How would that technology change the world?
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What If We Could Save Our Lives onto a Digital File?


A complex organic machine, this structure that we call home is capable of functions and feats that, although usually taken for granted, are nothing short of awe-inspiring. From its basic automated processes like breathing to its ability to respond to a person’s specific needs (like those of a long-distance runner or bodybuilder), the human body is both incredible and incredibly adaptable. And yet… it is not without its shortcomings. The human body can heal itself, but it can’t replace a severed limb. When appropriately cared for, the body can be kept running for decades, but aging and illness are inevitable - at a certain point, like all machines, the human body fails.

Blessed as we are with highly developed brains, we navigate our time on this earth carrying a weighty mental burden - the knowledge that our corporeal existence is fleeting. We’re doomed to die and we can’t help but think about it. And so, for millennia, humans have endeavored to extend their lives as long as possible, or better yet, indefinitely. It’s a long and storied history of attempting to cheat death. In the early 20th Century, doctor and philosopher Alexander Bogdanov claimed to have found the key in blood transfusions - only to later die from one. Qin Shi Huang, the legendary Emperor who unified China, died in 210 BC, reportedly as a result of drinking a mercury-based “elixir of life”, and he wasn’t the only Chinese emperor to meet this fate. Even Sir Isaac Newton spent significant time in the field of alchemy, pursuing the philosopher’s stone and, by extension, immortality.

While we can laugh at these ludicrous concepts in hindsight, we’re still pursuing the same goal today. Regenerative medicine is already doing things that sound like they’re straight out of science fiction. In 2015, a seven year old Syrian boy with a rare medical condition had a new set of skin grafted to his body – skin that was genetically corrected to eliminate the blistering triggered by his disease. Artificial organs, both inorganic and lab-grown, are in development, giving rise to hopes that when crucial organs begin to fail, they might soon be easily replaceable. Other researchers, like geneticist Dan Rokhsar, are looking to sea anemones for the answer - given that these animals are functionally immortal. Others yet are developing anti-aging drugs to tackle the issue at its very root rather combatting its symptoms.

Though medicine advances, immortality remains elusive. But what if the key isn’t in preserving the body, but moving beyond it all together? As we develop an ever greater understanding of our brains and how they function, it becomes increasingly less hard to imagine that we could eventually transfer not just our memories to a digital medium, but our entire consciousness. It’s called digital immortality, and depending on who you ask, it’s inevitable. According to futurist Ian Pearson, it will be a reality as soon as 2050. Meanwhile, Russian entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov is committed to making it happen by 2045.

Of course, these progressive thinkers have their work cut out for them. Considering Moore’s law of ever rapidly increasing computational power, we will likely have the machines to handle it, but biotech capable of interfacing with the brain and transferring all that organic information… that’s a whole other story. Brain-computer interfaces (or BCIs for short) are being tested, but with more straightforward tasks in mind, like helping to bridge the gap between brain and limb following neural damage or a stroke. Such developments are undeniably groundbreaking, but seem rudimentary compared to a full brain transfer. There are pioneers out there, like Theodore Berger, pushing BCI development in the direction of memory storage, but until we can figure out how to safely preserve brains at death, digitally map them, and design programs allowing said consciousness to “run”, digital immortality still feels far away.

While we’re waiting for science to catch up to science fiction in that regard, leaps and bounds are being made in the world of digital archiving. Detail-oriented databases preserving the thoughts, memories and feelings of individuals are already a reality. It doesn’t scratch the immortality itch, but it does take the concept of “legacy” in interesting directions. Facebook profiles and other such social media accounts already live on as digital windows into the lives of the recently deceased. But services like Eterni.me are taking it a step further, by compiling the information about you online for you to curate, add to, and (should you choose), share with family and friends when you pass on. There are even plans to create an avatar that resembles you, who will serve as the interface through which those with access can navigate your digital backup.

That final detail has admittedly made some people uncomfortable. Though Eterni.me has emphasized that this will by no means be simulating the dead, there are others out there who seek to do just that. In the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”, a grieving woman is signed up for a service that creates a chatbot simulator based on her departed boyfriend’s social media. Things quickly escalate from there. Cautionary tales be damned however, as companies are racing to make this a reality. In 2016, a woman named Eugenia Kuyda brought her dearest friend, Roman Mazurenko, back to life as a chatbot that had been fed his old texts, and according to her, most people close to the deceased found conversing with the bot to be therapeutic.

Though we’ve still got a long way to go before we can create living backups, it also feels like an inevitability. And once we have them, it seems unlikely that our digital selves will be content to lead an entirely disembodied life. The next logical step on the path to digital immortality... is digital reincarnation. If regenerative medicine will soon be able to grow full-sized, fully-functional organs, how long will it be before scientists are growing whole bodies from the ground up? Once the computerized brain is perfected, it’s just a matter of making it more compact and connecting it to a lab-grown body. Of course, in this bright future, you may opt for a fully synthetic body with more bells and whistles. Who knows!

This idea of body transfers is something that has been explored at length in the Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs series, and the Neftflix adaptation of these novels, “Altered Carbon”. In this futuristic sci-fi setting, a person’s consciousness is stored in a small device known as a “stack”. Even in the event of an accident, so long as the stack, stored at the base of the neck, remains undamaged, you can live on in another body. It’s a thrilling and admittedly tantalizing concept, but one that, as seen in the show, comes with a lot of consequences.

Overpopulation is already a growing concern on our planet. Flash forward to a future in which this tech exists, and the situation is likely to have gotten worse. If every person who died continued to exist in virtual space, the digital immortality wouldn’t really create any spatial problems. If everyone had the ability to take physical form however, overpopulation would likely reach a crisis point. Much as China has established laws limiting the number of children per household, a world in which nobody dies would eventually have no other option but to take similar measures. Who knows, having kids could even come with the condition that you accept an expiration date.Then again, with populations currently declining in many countries, this might not prove problematic for a very long time.

Suffice it to say, the economics of such a world are difficult to predict. As explored in “Altered Carbon” however, the disparity between rich and poor would likely be exponentially worsened, as immortality would almost certainly come with a high cost - and those who succeeded in life could continue to flourish and see their investments grow. Immortality could very well elude all but the richest. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, it would be a whole new world of crime. Imagine if, rather than mugging or killing you, someone stole your body?

The questions posed by this distinct brand of digital immortality are many. At the end of the day however, just like we’ve done every other time there has been a major upheaval of civilization, humanity would likely adapt and survive. But what would happen to the individual and the concept of personhood? Legally, medically, socially, even psychologically, we are defined first and foremost by our bodies. Yes, religion has long distinguished between the corporeal and spiritual, but to have to process the distinction between body and mind in such a literal and immediate way would make for an unprecedented human experience. Could your mind even handle such a change, or would it break? Even if the process could go off without a hitch, what would that make us? Can pure sentience, untethered and capable of hopping from one shell to another, even still be called “human”?

The future is impossible to predict, and in terms of humanity's quest for immortality, it's tough to say what will get there first... more traditional medicine, or computer science. Either way, given how long humankind has been struggling to come to terms with their own mortality, you can be certain that the hunt for the fountain of youth will continue, and that the reality of a digital backup is more a question of "when" rather than "if".
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