There is Nothing Past the First Step Until You Complete the First Step

People being people, you'll hear vigorous, speculative discussion of the last mile of any journey long before the first step has been planned and completed. It's no different in the community of folk supportive of healthy life extension. We're just about as short-lived today as we were the day before - compared to what is clearly possible and not yet achieved - but you'll still find a thriving conversion taking place on the far future and speculative topics: on uploading; replacing the brain with something more durable via nanotechnology; pattern versus continuity identity as it applies to life and death; cosmological limits on future technology rescuing the dead from the past; whether the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics implies we're already immortal in a way that matters - and back to pattern versus continuity after that.

Here are a couple of recent examples, two amongst the great many:

When are you not you?

Lets say that we have the technology to constantly back up our brains onto a computer through some wireless connection so that at any one time the computer has a snapshot of your brain in its current state. Now lets say that you get in an accident and 50% of your brain is damaged, so they take that backup and use it to replace 50% of your brain. Would you still consider yourself to be you and not some copy? what about 40% or 20%? What about 5%? Are you still you?

Lets say that you get in an accident and need 95% of your brain replaced and you use the backup image of your brain, are you still the original? Lets say that you get in an accident and are killed and lose 100% of your brain. But doctors take the image of your brain and put it into a new body that is exactly like your old body with all your memories right up to and including the accident which caused your death, are you still you? What if they replaced your brain while you were still healthy?

Consider now a future technology which allows for the slow conversion of your brain from flesh and blood to hardware. It's a slow process taking up to 3 years, no one really knows when the process is entirely finished. You notice no difference in your daily life as the process occurs but at some point in the future your brain goes from being 100% natural to being 100% artificial. Are you still you? Are you still the original? You obviously feel like the original but your brain is no longer original it's just a pattern of your old brain running on hardware.

How to be copied into the future?

In Arthur C Clarke's and Stephen Baxter's "The Light Of Other Days", posthumans develop quantum technology that enables them to look back in time, through wormholes in spacetime, at whatever point in time and space they wish (but only all past time and up to their present time). For example, they can watch everything we all have done with our lives, even when we (thought we) were alone. Later on, this technology is further developed by future generations, posthumans, so that they can use it to copy all human beings who have ever lived, and "resurrect" them in the future (the time of those posthumans). By being saved by posthumans in such a way, all humans will get a much longer life, as the future into which they are saved has far more advanced life-prolonging technology than humanity has today. If we are only our information, not our matter, and if this kind of technology will sooner or later be invented, it may seem that we are all already guaranteed immortality even if we die today.

And so forth. For all we know, yes, the projected rise of technology will lead to immensely powerful individuals and societies, as well as a complete understanding of the universe to the point at which every past event can be recreated. It's an idea that has been explored with serious intent by cosmologist Frank J. Tipler as well as in the fiction of other authors, such as Greg Bear. But I don't think it's wise to live one's life under the assumption that any of this is plausible - letting what-if speculation in physics be the guide to your life is just as much a leap of faith as temples, the supernatural and the grave.

There's nothing wrong with looking at the far future and speculating wildly. Just don't let it distract you from the fact that you are aging, and that you can help to do something to defeat aging. There is a first step to be built on the long journey to the future; the step of plausible, projected healthy life extension medicine capable of providing a few additional decades of healthy life.

Until a research and development community is massively funded and well underway towards this first step - and note that, for all the effort of advocates to date, this is not the case today - talk of uploading and cosmology is nothing more than recreation. Nothing wrong with that, so long as you recall that a city is burning beneath the balcony where you play.

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I very much agree with your message presented here. A little dose of pragmatism can often be helpful. In some ways, your examples remind me of the "how many angels can dance on the point of a needle?" question. :)

Posted by: Mike Cooper at March 18th, 2007 8:15 PM
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