Author: Vinicius Bastos De Sousa
"Death gives meaning to our lives. It gives importance and value to time. Time would become meaningless if there were too much of it."
- Ray Kurzweil
I never imagined that one day I would be writing a preface to a science fiction article made by myself. However, given the immense opportunity, it would be remarkably wrong for me not to do so. But first, let me introduce myself.
My name is Vinícius Bastos de Sousa, and I'm just a mere dreamer who lives in the city of Cachoeira Paulista, in the State of São Paulo, Brazil. I am the middle child between an older brother and a younger sister. With that said, let's start to talk about this article.
I believe that my story never took me to definite points that made me write this article for you, but I feel that my passion for the future and my curiosity are enough to fuel the flame of knowledge. For a long time, I tried to reflect on what our humanity would be in the distant future. I imagined flying cars, people with super skills, drones flying everywhere, and skyscrapers that stretched until we lost sight of them. However, this article came up when I started to reflect on my own life, and with it, my death.
We humans always tried to understand where we came from and where we are going to. And imbued with this primordial doubt, there was the meaning of life, and more deeply, life itself. Who has never heard of the legendary alchemists, who, through the creation of the philosopher's stone, would reach the precious elixir of immortality? Or something even more rooted in our origins, the most diverse religions, that in one way or another, try to give some meaning to life, and show us what comes after it?
With so many questions, I decided to dive into the world of immortality.
I believe that this text is very contemporary since our human desire to achieve immortality, or only lengthen lifetime, continues to circulate in society. We live in a period where cryogenics has ceased to be fiction and is now a natural part of humankind, and even research that seeks to develop a way to scan the human brain and upload it to a computer is present.
With such complex themes to talk about, I decided to bring a reflection to all of us: if it is possible to achieve immortality and, of course, if it will be worth it. I will treat the topic as a simple sci-fi article, to make it more digestive for everyone, and I will try to address as many things as possible in this field of study.
Finally, I would like to thank all my friends and colleagues who were at my side during the production of this work, always supporting me and providing me with reliable sources to base myself on. A special thanks go to my parents, but also to my mentor, Nicolas Van Veen, who empowered me to participate in an event as incredible as this.
Now, I hope you like what lies ahead!
- Vinícius Bastos de Sousa
THE PRESENT SCENARIO
Since the dawn of humanity, something has always been present among us: the need to survive. At that time, everything was a matter of adaptability. The average life span of a Homo Neanderthalensis was around 40 years of age, something unimaginable today, even in societies with longevity below the global average. It is clear that in extraordinarily poor and violent countries, this average drops dramatically, but considering the world scenario, we have taken an immense step!
Currently, we have found several ways to extend our lives as long as possible. Medicine has reached such a point that the deadliest diseases of past centuries do not even show relevant signs of infection in the population. People who have never had access to basic sanitation before now have it, and that also includes a considerable increase in access to food for everyone.
Despite such progress, it seems that we are reaching the limit of the human body. You will hardly see a 100-year-old person with the same strength and vigor that he would have 40 years before. The human body is fragile, as is everything that exists in nature. But then, how do we manage to overcome this barrier? Presumably, science came up with some solutions.
It is difficult to assert that we are witnessing the last generations that will die of old age, but something is evident: the scientific community is working hard to let death become something arbitrary, rather than inevitable. With this in mind, I examined some possible and unimaginable methods that could prolong our lives indefinitely.
REPLACEMENT OF COMPONENTS
A viable and more realistic solution is to treat old age as a physical problem, not a biological one. Have you ever imagined changing parts of your body as they age? Or, after having your arm amputated, make it regenerate? Well, people are investing in research in this context.
The regeneration process aims to make the body respond to a wound by sending signals to rebuild the damaged tissue, as opposed to what commonly occurs, which is to repair the tissue. All of this happens through the cellular matrix, a compound of macromolecules that assists from the growth of different tissues to the maintenance of an entire organ. In the future, this will enable us to replace whole systems of our body, even before they age.
A group from the University of Pittsburgh, in the United States, decided to create the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, an organization focused on regenerative medicine. Among their objectives, the researchers seek to develop solutions that help in the restoration of tissues and organs, either through the biological synthesis of the components or through the creation of inorganic parts, such as artificial organs. Such technology would enable us to live in a world of cyborgs!
Imagine people who, when they lose their sight, can replace their eyes. Or someone who needs an urgent transplant of a vital organ. With such a scenario in mind, we can say, in theory, that we would arrive at immortality since the human body would continue to be renewed forever and would cease to be a barrier for us.
THE CRYOGENIC AGE
Very popular in pop culture, cryogenics seems to have turned into reality. Conceptualized by Robert Ettinger in The Prospect of Immortality (1962), a technology that years ago seemed inconceivable, has won over hundreds of enthusiasts around the world, who have accepted to have their bodies frozen for decades, with the hope of being revived when science get to that point.
But what is cryogenics and how is it made?
In short, cryogenics is a technique that keeps corpses frozen for several years, with the promise of bringing them back to life someday. However, the process is far from easy.
After a declared clinical death, the patient's body is promptly cooled with ice, preventing the proliferation of bacteria that rot the body. Then, an anticoagulant substance is inserted into the corpse, to unblock the blood vessels and draw blood. Thus, an antifreeze substance is placed in the body, to prevent that, in the freezing process, ice crystals are formed and corrupt the cellular structure.
Finally, the body is sent to a gate of dry ice to be cooled evenly, and, after that, it is placed in a liquid nitrogen chamber, where it will wait for its return to life.
Probably, a person resurrected a century later would have numerous difficulties in adaptation. Imagine you, waking up in an extremely different civilization from which you left. How would people treat you? How would you accommodate with a hundred-year-old brain? It is something to reflect on. Like any technologies, cryogenics has its pros and cons, but it is up to each of us to venture into such a medium and, who knows, to reach eternal life.
However, we still have a long way to go, since science has not yet discovered how to bring someone back to life, and many believe that this day will never come.
THE IMMORTAL MIND
We finally arrived at the most intriguing technology of all: the complete emulation of the human brain. If you ever imagined being immortalized within the digital world, then this is the right technology for you. Through mental upload, it is believed that a person can transform his personality, memory, and emotion into computer data. Thus, that person could live forever inside a computer system, in case something happened to his organic body, making the human body a mere optional accessory. We see similar technology in the cinematic world in the Altered Carbon series.
In the series, a person's memories can be decanted into a disk-shaped device called a cortical stack, which is implanted in the vertebrae at the back of the neck. However, to get to that point, the process is very complex and still far beyond our reach, and it is worth remembering that, in Altered Carbon, these devices are of alien engineering, something that complicates things a little more for us.
In the emulation of the mind - or whole brain emulation - notably powerful software would have to be developed and be able to scan and model the smallest details of the human brain. But, as such technology does not yet exist, and it is still a hypothetical process, some steps must be taken to reach that point and for that, I tried to base myself on Nick Bostrom's book, "Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. "
According to the author, we would need three steps to reach the upload of the mind:
- A detailed scan of a specific brain, going through processes of vitrification of the cerebrum and dissection of parts for thorough analysis;
- Three-dimensional reconstruction of the neural network;
- A sufficiently powerful computer to reproduce the resulting neurocomputational structure.
If we accomplished all these, we would have a complete simulation of the human brain! However, in all these steps, we need significant technological advances, from a very powerful microscopic scanning to a machine capable of emulating the analyzed mind.
Until there, we are still mere mortals.
Through this text, I hope that I have shown you, dear reader, the fantastic world that awaits us. Technologies never imagined are becoming real, and some have not even left the world of ideas. However, it is the ability to dream that makes us humans. Who knows, in a few decades, we may find ourselves in the digital world, immortalized in the global internet network. Or perhaps in cryogenic chambers, we will rise to contemplate the world in 2100. Whatever our future is, I am sure that science and imagination will continue to guide us towards progress!
Lastly, as you may have noticed, I started my preface with an iconic phrase from Ray Kurzweil. I believe that this phrase summarizes my feeling about immortality: our life would lose its full meaning if we had infinite time. Imagine, what would be our daily motivation if there was no fear of death? Living with limitations is what gives meaning to life. I believe that, like Ray Kurzweil, the reason why our life has a beginning, middle, and end is vital to understand the relevance of everything we live. Everything in life is a reflection of our challenges, and death is just one more of them.
Therefore, I believe that, despite the many benefits that immortality can provide us, it can end up turning into one of our biggest rivals. Immortality can become a miracle, but it can also be the beginning of the destruction of humankind.
"Can't you see, Captain? For us, the disease is immortality."
- Quinn, Star Trek
- “A framework for approaches to transfer of a mind's substrate”, Sim Bamford
- “Evidence for a limit to human lifespan”, Xiao Dong, Brandon Milholland & Jan Vijg, 2016
- “Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies”, Nick Bostrom, 2014
- “The extracellular matrix at a glance”, Christian Frantz, Kathleen M. Stewart, Valerie M. Weaver, 2010
- “The Prospect of Immortality”, Robert Ettinger, 1962
- “The Emerging Relationship Between Regenerative Medicine and Physical Therapeutics”, Fabrisia Ambrosio, Steven L. Wolf, Anthony Delitto, G. Kelley Fitzgerald, Stephen F. Badylak, Michael L. Boninger, Alan J. Russell, 2010