Ask a Guy in an Unrelated Field: The Science of Immortality

You have questions, and he has… sort of answers and maybes. That’s right, it’s time for another “Ask a Guy in an Unrelated Field.”

By: Mike Padgen

In your last article, the level of handwaviness  was so astounding.

You’re welcome.

Uh, thanks? Well, as I was saying, it was so astounding, I just can’t help coming back for more. So, let’s get to it. How do I live forever?

Wait, what? That’s your question for me?

582px-White-Rabbit-making-elixir-of-immortality

This apparently has something to do with immortality. Thanks Wikicommons!


Yeah, isn’t technology gonna let us live forever? The singularity is near, and all that?

I’ll get to the singularity in a second, but let’s start with what technology can do for us. Advances in medical science have certainly improved our quality of life and our ability to fight diseases that were once death sentences, and will continue to do so. But extending our lifetimes past the current limit (around 125 years) is far away, unless, of course, you can pull off the Three Stooges Syndrome.

Keep in mind, medical progress is slow. For example, when the Human Genome Project started, it was thought that, once we could sequence someone’s genome quickly and cheaply, we would be able to provide personalized medicine that would, among other things, allow doctors to correct mutations a person inherited from their parents through gene therapy, either preventing or treating a whole range of diseases – essentially revolutionizing every aspect of health care.

[Ed. note: That was an impressive run-on sentence. I’m going to let it slide since I’m not 100 percent sure where to cut it off.]

Mad scientist

He looks legit. I’d trust this fellow with my mortality. Image courtesy of dzingeek on Flikr.

Hey, Ed., get out of here!

Where was I? Basically, personalized medicine was supposed to be available by now. Unfortunately, we are not as simple as the pea pods everybody learns about in high school biology. Craig Venter (also of “synthetic” life fame), whose entire 6 billion nucleotide genome has been published, noted that even his eye color could not be determined from examining his genome. It turns out that knowing the nitty gritty details of things like the epigenome and the microbiome, among other “-omes,” of a person may be required to deliver truly personalized medicine.

Ok. But I want it now.

Well, even if we figure out ways to treat every form of cancer, infectious diseases, and all the other scary ways Mother Nature tries to kill us, our bodies will still age and deteriorate. There are a lot of people trying to understand how and why we age, and from that what can be done to slow the process of aging.
Stem cell therapies might be able to replenish our old tissues, but that becomes a problem with the brain. If your brain cells are replaced, you lose the connections that have been established over your lifetime – you would lose your memories and you wouldn’t necessarily be you.

So this is where technology comes in and saves the day and we all become uploaded… 

I’m gonna stop you right there. Ray Kurzweil and Co. do believe that once a sophisticated enough model of our brains can be created, we will be able to transfer our consciousness onto a computer. And yes, as computer technology advances past the end of Moore’s Law to Post Moore and beyond, we will eventually have computing power that matches our brains.

But our understanding of how our brains work is still in its infancy (Thanks a lot, “Ethics Boards”). Essentially, the hardware isn’t far off, but the software will be.

But let’s say at some point in the future someone copies their consciousness perfectly onto a computer that is somehow attached to a body that provides the same inputs as that person’s actual body. The non-deterministic behavior of the quantum world will cause the person’s brain and the copy to diverge almost instantaneously, meaning the copy will no longer be an exact copy.

Hmm… when do I get my adamantium skeleton then?

I think we’re done here.

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5 thoughts on “Ask a Guy in an Unrelated Field: The Science of Immortality

  1. John Calhoun says:

    More importantly, if I have a perfect copy of my consciousness then haven’t I basically cloned myself? That is to say, won’t the clone get an awesome robot body while I’m still dying of cancer?

  2. mike says:

    The perfect copy of your consciousness wouldn’t last very long as a perfect copy. The clone with the awesome robot body wouldn’t be you, but instead would be a being with a consciousness that at one point (and that point only) was in an identical state as your own.

    There are interesting philosophical questions that arise with this, such as what defines what is “you” and what is not. This is what I touched on in the last section – if the copy diverges from the original, even with the same inputs, can you really say it’s the same thing? If so, how much divergence is allowed before the copy becomes its own?

  3. John Calhoun says:

    That’s great, but how do I (as in my own consciousness) get into the robot body instead of just creating a robo clone that may or may not be me?I want to be a cyborg like today!

  4. mike says:

    The first step would be to create a full map of the brain to understand how each part interacts with the rest of your body. This would be difficult.

    Then, perhaps, you could design a robot body that interacts with your brain in the exact same way that your real body does. So if you could do all that, you might be able to place your brain into a robot body and still be you (although, is all “you” are contained entirely within your brain?)

    Even then, your brain cells will eventually deteriorate. So you might be able to become a cyborg, but at one point you’ll be a senile cyborg: kicking butt, but forgetting to take names.

  5. […] mike: The first step would be to create a full map of the brain to understand how […]

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