Richard Smith: Will I make it to 2045 and become immortal?

richard_smith_2014The Singularity, when men merge with machines and become immortal, is “pencilled in” for 2045. I learn this from Irish journalist Mark O’Connell’s meetings with transhumanists described in his book To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death. If I’m still alive in 2045 I’ll be 93, so my chances of achieving immortality are less than 50:50.

The concept of the Singularity has been around since the late 1950s and exists in various versions, but its essence is that machines by 2045 will have capabilities way beyond humans and that humans by merging with machines will acquire superhuman capabilities, including immortality and hugely enhanced cognitive abilities. Problems that are currently insuperable—like travelling to and colonising distant planets—will be solved. Humans will effectively be a new species, finally released from the innumerable frailties so far inherent in being human, including death.

Just in case you’ve jumped to the conclusion that this is a crazy idea, you should know that the high priest of Singularity is Ray Kurzweil, who has invented many devices, including the flat bed scanner, and is director of engineering for Google. In his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology he writes: “Our version 1.0 biological bodies are frail and subject to a myriad of failure modes, not to mention the cumbersome maintenance rituals they require. While human intelligence is sometimes capable of soaring in its creativity and expressiveness, much human thought is derivative, petty, and circumscribed . . . The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever). We will fully understand human thinking and will vastly extend and expand its reach. By the end of this century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.”

The most likely way that this will be achieved will be by downloading into code our brains: all our knowledge, memories, emotions, and dreams—our “meat machines,” as they have been christened by Marvin Minsky, one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence. That code can then be combined with other code, replicated, sent to Mars, put into a robot with capabilities way beyond those of any human, or used in many other ways.

When I discussed this with my wife in a cottage in North Uist without internet access or even the possibility to send a text, my wife imagined our descendants 4000 years from now, presumably on another unpolluted planet, wondering “What our ancestor Richard would know about this?” They would download me, ask me the question, hear the answer, and then switch me off and put me back into storage. Would I have been “alive” during the question and answer session?

You probably think brain downloading to be impossible, but O’Connell met several people working hard to make it happen. These may not have been mainstream academics, but they were smart people with PhDs in all the relevant sciences. He remained sceptical about the possibility (and actually horrified by it) but couldn’t argue that it could never happen. He writes too about the “intelligence explosion,” first conceived by I J Good, a British statistician, which will happen when artificial intelligence creates a machine smarter than any human: it will then set about creating ever smarter machines, and knowledge and understanding that took centuries to achieve will be equalled in days. For these machines brain downloading may be a simple problem, although will it be a problem they are interested in solving?

O’Connell, who is Irish and presumably brought up a Catholic, is quick to notice the religious overtones of the Singularity. Christians believe that at death the soul leaves the body and heads either for heaven or hell. The Gnostics, an early Christian sect, believed that the soul was good and the body bad, so any chance of leaving the body but preserving the soul would be a blessing.

St Augustine in The City of God, O’Connell observes, imagined a state very like the Singularity, a state of “universal knowledge.” “Think how great, how beautiful,” St Augustine wrote, “how certain, how unerring, how easily acquired this knowledge will be. And what a body, too, we shall have, a body utterly subject to our spirit and one so kept alive by spirit that there will be no need of any other food.”

So if I make it to 2045, will I be tempted to have my brain downloaded? Kurzweil is older than me and will be 97 in 2045, but he has little doubt that he will make it (he has a sideline in vitamins and potions to fend off death) and will be first in line to have his brain downloaded. I must confess that I share O’Connell’s doubts that my downloaded brain will be me: flabby and unattractive as my body might be, it seems to be me in a way that once it’s discarded I will be less than me. But by 2045 my body will probably be in a sorry state—and perhaps I’ll be pleased to be rid of it.

But in 2045 the brain downloaders are unlikely to be able to download every brain, and I can’t see any reason why my brain might be selected for downloading. My brain might be unique and be valuable to me (and even some of my family), but it’s a run of the mill, ordinary brain, unworthy of any special effort. (This is not, I must make clear, false modesty or self-pity but just a simple statement with a strong evidence base.)

Brain downloading can be seen as a triumph of capitalism, and so probably there will be a substantial price—just as with having your body or head (cephalon) frozen: $200 000 for a body, $80 000 for a head. Let’s imagine it will be $500 000. With the sale of my London house I could run to it, but surely it would be better to leave the money for my children. Imagine the awful choice for them: “Would you like to have the money or your dad’s brain downloaded so that he can be around forever offering you advice on how to live the good life?”

I worry too that the early days of brain downloading may, as with all technologies, be accompanied by many errors. Perhaps they’d download only part of my brain, perhaps the least attractive part. Maybe one part—perhaps my capacity for not finishing sentences—would be copied again and again, making me even more tiresome than I am now. Or might they mix me up with someone else, so that I’d be partly me and partly Nigel Farage or somebody equally unattractive.

I’m being flippant as if the whole idea of brain downloading is just a silly joke, but many people much smarter than me think it will become possible. But I’m unlikely to make it to 2045 and unlikely to be first in line even if brain downloading is possible. I may be among the last humans to die in the old fashioned way, and I’m not sorry about that. In fact, I’m glad.

Richard Smith was the editor of The BMJ until 2004.

Competing interests: None declared.