Richard Smith: Am I behind the times in expecting to die?

Richard SmithUntil last weekend it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t die. Now after conversations with my brilliant friend Alex Jadad I fear that I might be hopelessly out of step with modern thinking and way behind the times.

Three weeks ago Time magazine asked “Can Google solve death?

The provisional answer is “if anybody can Google can.” But Google’s methods look old fashioned. They plan to examine the genes of 90 year olds and identify those that are associated with long life. Then? This doesn’t look like a plan for immortality, but rather an extension of life.

Let’s hope that unlike Eos, the goddess of dawn, Google remembers to search at the same time for eternal youth. Eos asked Zeus, to give her human lover Tithonus immortality but forgot to ask for youth. The result: “When loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all.”

A better bet than Google is Dmitry Itskov, a 33 year old Russian multimillionaire, who has founded the 2045 Initiative. As billionaires are often old men, it’s not hard to raise money for a search for immortality. Itskov has lots, and he has a plan with targets for defeating death.

Wisely to my mind he’s not betting on flesh. The plan is to “transfer the personality to an alternative carrier.” This should be complete by 2045, when if still alive I will be 93. I could be transplanted into an “alternative carrier.” The chosen carrier is a hologram, which means presumably that I will be able to talk and be seen but will not need to breathe, eat, or excrete. Indeed, the initiative’s manifesto promises that I “will be capable of withstanding extreme external conditions easily: high temperatures, pressure, radiation, lack of oxygen, etc.” I may well need all such capabilities by 2045. I might be close carbon neutral, and presumably it will be possible to switch me off for a while, a function that I can imagine will be very welcome to surviving family and friends.

The first step on this road is to produce Avatar A, a robotic copy of the human body controlled by a “brain-computer interface” between 2015 and 2020. This seems not so hard. We already have artificial hearts, joints, kidneys, and lungs. The brain is, of course, the trickiest organ, and between 2020 and 2025 Itskov and his impressive team of scientists will find a way at the end of life to transplant the human brain into the created body, Avatar B. Next, between 2030 and 2035 they will build Avatar C, a synthetic carrier for the brain, no doubt getting help from the Oxford University Press book published in May this year, How to Build a Brain.
The final step to be complete by 2045 will be to abandon the physical carriers and transplant the “person” (knowledge, memories, emotions, soul, personality, irritating ways) into Avatar D, the hologram.

By this time we will presumably have “solved” the mind body problem, but lest anybody think this to be a crass materialist exercise it is supported by the Dalai Lama. The manifesto of the initiative says: “We suggest the implementation of not just a mechanistic project to create an artificial body, but a whole system of views, values, and technology which will render assistance to humankind in intellectual, moral, physical, mental, and spiritual development.”

The Dalai Lama does, of course, believe in reincarnation: when he dies his soul is transferred to a new born baby, who is found and then becomes the new Dalai Lama. But there is and always has been only one Dalai Lama, so he is spiritually well prepared for the new world. Once the Dalai Lama is a hologram it will surely avoid the need to keep finding a new physical form.

Will these holograms reproduce? One way and another we put a lot of our current energies into reproducing ourselves. All of that will presumably be unnecessary, and as we don’t need to breathe, eat, or excrete or even perhaps sleep we will have a lot of time for spiritual development.

And we won’t be ugly anymore. As the manifesto says: “We believe that before 2045 an artificial body will be created that will not only surpass the existing body in terms of functionality, but will achieve perfection of form and be no less attractive than the human body.” It also promises that we “will be able to operate several bodies of various forms and sizes remotely.” So after 93 years of an ugly Richard Smith we will have several beautiful Richard Smiths, one perhaps that you can hold in a teaspoon and another the size of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Preparing for this world sounds very demanding. I have just 32 years to get ready.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.