"Impossible" Technologies #3: Immortality
There are two aspects of life which everyone can expect: paying taxes and death.
Though tax evasion is a thing, that’s not what I’m talking about today.
The concept of living forever is a fundamental aspect of our existence. Almost every major religion, from Christianity and Hinduism to the ancient Egyptian and Greek mythologies, has some element of eternal life baked into its ethos. Most cultures that exist or ever existed have societal practices around the dead. The earliest burial grounds are dated as being around 100,000 years old. The Pyramid at Giza were built for the sole purpose of allowing nobles and pharaohs an avenue for bringing their possessions into the afterlife. Countless stories which span nearly the entirety of writing covers the subject of eternal life - immortality.
But is it possible to truly have eternal life?
Time to go Deeper…
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of “eternal” is “having infinite duration; everlasting.” Taking this at face value, the first answer to our discussion on immortality is clear: it really is impossible to literally live forever. Even theories surrounding the fate of the universe mostly paint a picture of an ultimate end in one form or another, despite that end occurring at timescales truly inconceivable. (We’ll get back to those timescales a bit later…)
However, that doesn’t mean we couldn’t theoretically get pretty damned close.
Human life expectancy has increased considerably over the last one hundred years. In 1915 the average life expectancy in the United States was 55 years. By 2015 that increased to 79 years. Similar increases can be found throughout the developed and developing world over the same time period.
Several factors play into why we’re living longer, but at the core it is thanks to advances in technology and medicine that we’re starting to see more and more people live to become centenarians.
But we don’t want to just live for a mere hundred years.
A Human Lifetime, Extended
Surprisingly, we are only now getting a better understanding of why humans and animals age. One well-known process of biology today is called telomere shortening. This is a natural “defect” in which, over the course of a lifetime, sees the length of our chromosomes shorten with every DNA replication. As our chromosomes shorten, the body slowly becomes more susceptible to cancers and diseases. Telomere shortening is a one-way street, with the chromosomal breakdown eventually leading to the prevention of healthy cell division; your body effectively fails.
Gene therapy could be the solution to slowing telomere shortening down, if not halt it altogether. A Science News article from 2012 explains a study which proved that it was possible to, in summary, grow telomeres. This was accomplished by introducing manufactured viruses which repaired the telomerase enzyme, a “key role in aging.” Mice which were given this gene therapy had their lifespans increased by up to 24%.
Manipulating our bodies via genetics is one pathway, but modding our genes won’t prevent other malicious interior (ex: cancer, heart disease) or exterior (ex: broken bones) assaults on the body from cutting our lives short. Enter nanotechnology.
Yup, we’re going there.
It may be possible, in the near-future, to have tiny machines inserted into our bodies for the purpose of repairing our cells and eradicating diseases when natural processes fail to do so. Researchers around the world are already exploring this realm, with a group from UC Santa Barbara successfully treating cardiovascular disease in mice using “nanoparticles” to deliver drug treatments directly to the source. Extending this technology to another level, one can imagine swarms of nanomachines not just repairing damaged cells, but also regenerating our bodies from the inside out. Given the right resources, I personally could see such nanotechnology even assist in regenerating severed limbs.
Even with nanotechnology flowing through our veins, our bodies will, in the end, fail. There’s only so much we can do with biology and chemistry where maintaining life is concerned.
Therefore, remove the biology altogether. Shed the human physical form and become integrated with our technology. To put it another way: transfer your consciousness into a cybernetic body or a virtual world, not unlike Black Mirror’s “San Junipero.”
Who wouldn’t want to permanently eliminate eating, using the bathroom, dandruff, feeling physical pain, and stubbed toes?
Shedding the human body by way of mind uploading isn’t as far-fetched as it used to be. Neuroscientist Randal Koene believes the primary wall standing between us and such a reality is our understanding of the human brain and, in effect, being able to simulate an entire brain within a computer. We already can build artificial limbs which respond to neural responses sent by their wearers. As these technologies improve we’ll be able to build additional portions of the brain, to the point where, in theory, we’d be able to construct an entire brain in a digital environment.
Once you’ve escaped the confines of the body, however… are you still human? If you want to live as close to forever as possible, transcending all that we understand as life must be achieved.
The Ends of the Universe and Immortality
Our universe is 13.7 billion years old. However, it has a LONG way to go before it meets its ultimate fate. Assuming that the universe doesn’t collapse into itself (“The Big Crunch”) or rip itself to shreds from expanding too fast (“The Big Rip”), it could find itself simply expanding… forever. As in, the literal “forever” that I said earlier wasn’t possible. <shrug>
The universe, if you accept “The Big Freeze” or “Heat Death” scenario, could simply never die. It just will be. However, our understanding of physics tells us everything in the universe, given enough time, will radiate away into nothingness - even supermassive black holes. How long could this take?
About 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years from today; or 1 duodecillion years; or 10^39 years. Once we reach this period of time, even black holes will begin their inevitable march toward annihilation by evaporation.
Despite numbers like the above being tossed around in hypothetical scenarios within the scientific community, I doubt that even they could truly wrap their heads around the implications of such timescales for a human being. Would you want to live THAT long?
Stretching the bounds of our understanding of life, it may be possible to build a network of computers around black holes - perhaps a ringworld that served as a single giant computer which revolved around one. The intention here is to construct a machine that was designed to consume as little energy as possible while being able to subsist on the scant radiative energy that emitted from the poles of an active black hole. We want to conserve our energy because the matter within our universe, over these epic spans of time, will become rarer and rarer as it breaks apart into radiative energy. Therefore, we’d want to bring our machine as close to absolute zero as possible.
If you had your mind - your entire civilization’s “mind” - uploaded to this black hole computer, and then designed it to run as slow as possible (again, we want to consume very little energy), then you could see yourself having a life which was longer than the age of our universe (as of today) millions of times over.
Wanting to live forever and actually experiencing such a life is very hard to actually appreciate. There’s just no way for us to understand what it would mean to live one million years, let alone one duodecillion. Could the human mind, even in digital form, comprehend such spans of time without going insane?
How would you feel, being on the last planet orbiting the last star in a universe blacker than black surrounding you, slowly (always slowly) encroaching on the last piece of what you understand as a way of living? No more stars. No more asteroids. No more life as you once understood it as being in all its natural forms.
When you are billions of years away from the snuffing out of that star - after witnessing over tens of trillions of years pass by - the idea of time and “forever” kind of lose all meaning.