The Tomorrow Children. Human (and animal) immortality as science fact and not fiction.
Longevity & The Death of Mortality
The Tomorrow Children
"...but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."
-- Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 1789
Ol' Ben was no doubt correct about taxes, but when it comes to death, things are not quite so...certain. As the human species heads into the 21st century, the disease of dying from natural causes has taken its place among the long list of other ailments -- dreaded killers such as cancer, AIDS, heart attacks, and Alzheimers -- which doctors now claim is only a matter of time until cures are found.
But since when is Death itself something that can be cured? The notion sounds preposterous because the immediate implication is that humans would become immortal, godlike, the heroic characters right out of some ancient Greek myth-- a regular Greek Tragedy some might argue. Like it or not, just as with cloning, stem-cell research, and the creation of artificial life, the causes of aging, organ degeneration, and heart disease will one day -- in all likelihood -- be conquered altogether.
The following inscription is placed on all the tombs of unknown soldiers throughout the U.S.: Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God. The purpose of this essay is to describe a convincing case for a future day that, all things being equal, will see the erection of other tombs, but ones dedicated to the very last human beings who died from illness, aging, or any other cause short of catastrophic destruction. The inscription on those tombs might well read: Here Rests in Honored Glory the last American Death Known But To God.
The chances are extremely good that a child has already been born who will be the last person to die. At least in an industrial, First World country. This also means that most of his or her playmates, classmates, and peers will never know death. State-sanctioned suicide (somewhat already in effect) will definitely be provided (if not encouraged) for those who wish, for whatever reason, to end their life.
A third possibility will likely always exist, which is the catastrophic destruction of both life and limb, such as from a plane crash or bomb. Even for these folks, if they live long enough, not even a cataclysmic termination of their physical body would necessarily represent an end to their existence. Nor would it be necessarily the case for those who killed themselves. Instead of cryogenically prolonging one's existence, we may need only dispose of the old brain and faltering body occupied by our memories at any given time.
So you think such future scenarios are absurd or impossible? That no one would even want to live forever? Please read on and see if I can convince you otherwise. The chances are very good that I can.
In the meantime, while I prepare to debate the issues involved, life expectancy for people living in developed countries continues to grow. Many folks are alive today because sufficient advances were made in medicine -- during their lifetime -- so as to delay or cure what would otherwise have killed them. The importance and relevance of this "formula-for-life", if you will, cannot be overemphasized.
Now apply this same equation again to the fact that human lifespans are increasing almost daily. The good news for the kids of today is that they'll probably live very long lives and may never die at all; the bad news is that such a prognosis is extremely conditional. It presumes that the world will continue along pretty much as it has for the last century, with no end in sight. Except for occasional bumps-in-the-road, the rise and fall of this and that, an earthquake or hurricane here, a terrorist attack or minor war or two there, industry, science, and especially medicine, will steadily advance and continue to improve human life -- as well as prolong it.
Unfortunately some major hurtles stand in the way of this endless progress. The road ahead is filled with a variety of potholes (and sinkholes) that may ultimately change the game, so to speak, and while unlikely, possibly eject the players from the game altogether. And if not banned from the field forever, be forced to sit in the bleachers indefinitely.
Some of these obstacles are natural disasters in one form or another, a few of which are already overdue and could be very nasty if they happen too soon. Other impairments such as terrorism, economic collapse, civil wars or larger conflicts could slow things to a technological crawl, if not a complete stop. Or worse, reversals from which recoveries are lengthy if not impossible.
Thus the path for our kids is either rosy or filled with little more than flowerless briar patches. But I've written enough about all the bad things that can happen to us. So let's lighten up, chill out, and imagine that while tomorrow's children will have to fight all the usual battles, they'll generally plow their way into an ever more technologically advanced future. And although the "warp-drive" spaceships of Star Trek and Star Wars might be long in coming, indefinitely extended human lifespans may be relatively right-around-the corner.
Running simultaneously alongside ongoing medical developments, a propitious, parallel technology is on a course-of-convergence with medicine. We don't usually think of the two as being related, despite a close working relationship. This second industry involves the unlimited realm of robotics. More typically we envision doctors being assisted by robot helpers of one kind or another.
Whether enhancing a physician's ability to perform surgery, diagnose disease, or create new drugs and artificial organs, many people are not aware that lots of scientists are working independently of the traditional medical community and developing two, separately exciting technologies: artificial whole bodies (as compared to individual organs), and the ability to record and transfer one's memories (and personality) to storage devices from which personal (uploaded) information might be retrieved (downloaded) for later use.
Some preliminary experiments in these areas have already shown both promise and amazing possibilities. And if that doesn't grab your attention, it sure did my own.
We need to backtrack, however, and return to the current and upcoming generations of children, one or more of which will benefit from the single greatest achievement in the history of life on Earth, if not the entire universe. To wit the defeat of both aging and the subsequent mortality that results. It is likely that Americans and others will soon live routinely to 150 years of age -- or more.
Assuming that a child born today is still alive (and still has a quality-of-life) 150 years from now, then we may also assume some other things. Given the current rate of new discoveries which, like computing, continue to escalate, then during the next century and a half we can expect to see the development and invention of a multitude of medical advancements. Thus the majority of diseases and/or other health problems that normally would have killed someone over 100 years old, are no longer an issue. Many if not most of these individuals will, at an age of 150 years, receive treatments, organ transplants, and cures for conditions that will, in turn, extend their life by another 50-100 years.
We've now traveled almost 250 years into the future. During that time, advancements in medicine have occurred that we today could hardly even imagine. One we can, however, which is human longevity. Cancer would be a thing of the past. AIDs as well as heart disease. Just about any disease that can be found in a contemporary medical text will be either treatable or curable in 300 years.
Like surfers riding an endless wave, the elderly children of today find themselves carried along on a never-ending tide of continuous medical discoveries. A relatively new and persistent paradigm comes to dominate human life and all but eradicate death, which is to say, the longer one lives, the longer one can (and will) live. Live long enough, and there will simply cease to be any residual mechanisms of death capable of ending one's life -- naturally. Unless one wants to die.
Similar to the movie, Soylent Green, where people were encouraged to voluntarily submit themselves to painless acts of suicide, some futuristic form of this same practice will surely exist. But I think it will rarely be used and here's why. While we've been chatting about longevity, another event has been happening in our future world of only a few hundred years hence. Hey, you're the one who allowed me to proceed on the basis that most things in life will remain relatively stable for the next few centuries or so. Take that off the table and I'd have to write an entirely different, and much more pessimistic essay.
The research and further development pertaining to an ability to reach and populate other planets has not been sitting idle while all other technologies have progressed. In the next couple of hundred years and probably far less, humans will have successfully ventured into space and colonized both the Moon and Mars. A multitude of intriguing moons orbit almost every planet of our solar system, and these will become accessible to explorers for the dual purposes of exploiting natural resources and continued colonization.
Such settlements on what should eventually be a large number of extraterrestrial worlds will appeal to an equally large number of future colonists. Akin to the early pioneers who settled the unexplored continents of Earth, people, en masse, will eagerly volunteer to abandon Earth, travel elsewhere, and establish homes and families in distant, far-off places; it is ingrained in the human heart and soul to do so. Add to this an indefinite lifespan and the ability of science to treat just about any medical problem that might crop up, and we have a winning confluence of circumstances.
The whole question of who would want to live forever becomes rapidly moot when the proposition of finding new life -- a new form of one's own -- is offered with few if any strings attached. Companies, corporations, and thousands of other businesses will needs lots and lots of employees to fill millions of jobs of every imaginable description. And while robots will be our inseparable companions, things will generally be so complex as to leave room for everyone's involvement -- in one way or another.
Speaking for myself, the discussion leaves me sad, almost depressed, that I won't be around to join those who will be able to pack their bags and leave. Let alone never worry about getting sick or dying.
Ask yourself if you'd like to wake up tomorrow and still be alive. If your answer is yes, then consider the logical concept that if you're happy -- and healthy -- then there would never be a time when you wouldn't want to awaken to another day. Assuming we still slept at all. The whole topic quickly grows simple and easy to understand. We're just not used to thinking of the long term consequences should certain situations arise.
Even now, upon reading this, many readers will still shake their heads either in disapproval or disbelief that such a future awaits us. And while it might not be you or I, it will be for many others who are alive today or just now being born. How's that for coming close to the proverbial fountain-of-youth, and just barely missing out? No; I, for one, am extremely envious (even bitterly jealous at times) of the children who surround me today.
While these feelings have undoubtedly always been true for the elderly who have witnessed the rise of each new generation, things are now different in the sense that newer and older generations may -- for the first time ever -- become meaningless terms, relatively speaking. Can you imagine the kids who grow up watching Star Wars and Star Trek, only to end up, one day, being passengers or crew on real spaceships seeking out brave new worlds? Adults for whom the current perils of old-age are of little or no concern.
These same Tomorrow Children, as I call them, will also sense a certain sadness as they first gallivant about the solar system, then aim for the stars of other systems, maybe other galaxies. The deep melancholia they might indeed feel from time to time, will be a kind of strange grief for the billions of human souls who not only went before, but who succumbed to a strange phenomenon once known as death.
The very idea of death will be as foreign a concept to the Tomorrow Children as is the notion of never dying, to us living today.
Even now, most will scoff at the prospect of immortality; a condition which I insist will soon exist as an utter certainty. And one that may very well affect the youngsters of this current generation. However, go up to any parent and propose the idea that their child will live forever and see what kind of response you provoke. Utter incredulity is exactly the reaction you'll get. And it is the grown children of these same adults who will, at first, grieve the most. For it is they who came so close to never losing their parents.
A couple of last observations, if you'll permit me. I mentioned earlier that business about a Tomorrow Child being blown-up by a bomb or vaporized in a plane crash, or possibly falling into an industrial meat grinder -- perish the thought. I made the seemingly outlandish assertion that in the future, even these people stood a good chance of coming back and living again. How, you ask, might that work exactly? I'm glad you asked because I've been itching to tell you.
Remember that stuff about downloading and uploading a person's memories, including their entire personalities? Scientists have recently discovered that human memories are tangible, and manifested by specific synaptic and neuronal connections in our brains. As you might imagine, each of these connections is unique to a specific individual, and all of them together, working together, is what makes me, me, and you, you.
It isn't our freckles or birthmarks, nor our eyes, big ears, pudgy nose or clumsy feet that defines us. Such physicalities simply represent the awkward husk within which our brains, minds, and personalities reside. Such a proposal does, however, go very much against the grain, so to speak, with respect to what we've always believed was the case with human beings. The idea that who we are is precisely a matter of all we are, and that includes each and every one of our physical qualities and attributes, both good and bad, in sickness and in health. Oh, yeah? You really think this is true? I sure did for most of my life. But not anymore. Here's some of the reasons why I changed my mind about such things.
None of us reside inside the same bodies we were born with. Other than our brains, most of the cells in the human body have finite lifespans and are constantly being replaced by new cells. Though somewhat of a misnomer, it's not completely a falsehood either to acknowledge that we're all an amalgam of new parts growing old, or old parts dying and being constantly rebuilt. A process that no doubt contributes to the phenomenon of aging and death.
Interestingly our brain cells are largely a one-time dole-out and are not replaced like other cells. So try not to abuse the limited supply you were given. Granted some were shorted on what they got, while others possess far more than their share. But I digress. So much for the idea that our brains and bodies are one complete and unified package.
How often have we seen people lose limbs, sometimes multiple limbs, or incur paralysis of one or more limbs, only to become stronger, more dynamic people as a result? Obviously they didn't exactly need those parts to remain who they were before an accident or disease changed them.
The same is true for those who lose other parts of themselves and then rise above the trauma and become better people as a result. Certainly not a situation that is always the case, but often enough to make us realize we are all more than our arms and legs, our eyes, ears, or other senses. And if we're not those things, then what are we? The answer is that we are individual minds which are carried around by a machine of sorts.
The mind doesn't much care about the machine itself, unless it malfunctions. Or unless we develop a narcissistic attachment for what we see in the mirror. Most minds just want to get up in the morning, put something inside our digestion chamber, and go about our business. This may sound very silly to you, but it is actually something deserving of serious consideration.
Keep in mind that the reason for the present discussion is solely to bring us back to my original comment with respect to how someone might be blown to bits, and return to work the following day. Okay, so we'll give them a few days off to get the ringing out of their ears -- their new ears, that is.
Short of a man waking up in a woman's body or vice versa (don't get me started on that one), we have every reason to believe that our minds are very resilient. If we set aside just for a moment the jarring trauma of seeing a different face in the mirror, or maybe a new one that is extremely similar to the old, it is important to understand that all relatively new sensations of touch, sight, hearing, pain -- all of it -- will be assessed by our "old" brains as being pretty much what we've always been used to.
Our experienced minds will treat a brand new arm and hand in the same way as it did the former limb. Likewise the mind is, in theory, capable of accepting an entirely new body -- all of it -- as if nothing had changed, provided the brain itself is unaltered by injury or damaged by psychological trauma. It is an interesting idea to contemplate.
What this brings us to, ultimately, is the fact that we are little more than mobile memory recorders. Sensory input devices whose future actions, activities, and behaviors are the result of a perpetual and constant analysis of new memories and new information interacting with old memories and old information. While all of that forms the basis for another essay entirely, it does, in the meantime, validate the supposition that although minds need bodies to function in the world, they are willing to accommodate upgrades if they are either a forced necessity, or the result of a willful choice.
Cosmetic surgery including breast augmentation are powerful examples that should not be lost as part of this discourse. Nor should one be fooled by the cold, metallic descriptions of humans as if they were pieces of unfeeling hardware only; nothing could be further from the truth.
At long last, this leaves us with brains (and minds) themselves. Brains, as complex tissue masses, are virtually identical for everyone. Everybody supposedly gets the same one to start out with. Assuming you weren't, as a baby, dropped on your head like I was. But I digress.
While not blank, meaning a lot of genetic predisposition software comes pre-installed, the basic mechanical structure (soft-wiring) of the brain itself is essentially the same for everyone. But they don't stay that way for long. Probably beginning in utero, what are called, synaptic linkages and connections (wet wiring), combine in distinctive patterns which will be unique for every human being.
So many neurons (brain cells) have so many options when hooking up with other neurons (bridges called synapses) that a near infinite range of possibilities exist. By this it is meant that conscious thought, ideas and dreams, but especially memories are the result of previous linkages having been formed, or new ones being created. Then old "talks" to new, new to old, in an unceasing, ongoing internal dialogue that we hear as a silent voice inside our heads. Over the course of many years, a matrix of connections develops that manifests itself as personality, the tone, tenor, and attitude of who we are, what we think, and how we act.
Inside a modern laboratory, the question arises as to whether a computer could take a fresh, newborn brain with nothing on its mind, and feed it with specific impulses capable of causing neurons to form connections in such ways as to mimic memories never experienced by the physical brain itself. Note that I'm not referring to the sci-fi scenario where we see a brain floating in an aquarium filled with liquid nourishment of some kind. You know the sort of thing I'm talking about.
On the contrary, our brain is already attached to a body, either childlike or older. Except for the brain being a blank slate, the "human" in question is a perfect specimen of genetic harmony. All that's missing is its mind. Which if the transfer were successful, would immediately become a him or her.
If the term, transfer, raised an eyebrow or two, the word refers to those storage devices I mentioned. Like hard-drives as blank as our imaginary brain, a person's entire make-up, meaning every one of their billions or trillions of synaptic connections -- a precise map of some individual's brain -- has been uploaded into whatever storage devices exist at the time.
All that information sits in stasis for an indefinite period -- until needed or desired. At which time the transfer takes place. Sounds a lot like Frankenstein and his monster, I know. But trust me; it's a lot different. Another question immediately asks for more details as to the exact circumstances by which such a seemingly perverse transfer (download) might take place. You'll be pleased to hear that the situation is far less sinister than it may appear at first glance.
Similar to comatose patients who suddenly awaken, the supposition is made that once a transference is complete, meaning all the neural connections have been forced into position via the downloading process (for lack of better terms), a brain thus infused should not only awaken and become self-aware, but for all intents and purposes, actually be the same person who originally had all their engrams uploaded (stored) in the first place.
Just as we might create a complete organism from strands of DNA, so might one's entire personality be duplicated (transferred) from one location to another. From one type of brain to another. Sound outlandish? Hardly. The principles involved are not only sound, but unquestionably doable.
We can't help but speculate whether our new self would be transferred into a normal, flesh and blood brain, or into its mechanical equivalent, or a combination of both. I favor the latter, almost as a backup system, with one supporting the other. Sort of an improvement over the whole bicameral setup of how brains typically function. In any event, when the coroner receives a message that John Doe has died in a plane crash and no usable remains are available, we can see how the next stage of the process might proceed. John's DNA is already on file.
Not unlike the brain question, however, is one that asks whether John's new body will be entirely flesh and blood, wholly mechanical, or a combination of both. Once again, I suspect the latter will be the option of choice, if not necessity.
Also on file at the lab are John's engrams, all his memories, all neatly encoded and only awaiting the process that will "program" his new brain with a trillion or more synaptic bridges and connections. Once finished, the patient both gains (and regains) consciousness, familiarizes him or herself with the new them, then goes about their business.
This is surely a much oversimplified example of how the real deal might operate, but I believe the basics as described will be surprisingly accurate. Lots of other questions would definitely have to be addressed and resolved. The potential would exist for two or more of the same person to be born. How might that situation be dealt with? Would it matter? A simple microchip might easily identify one version of you from another. If you press me on this issue, I'd probably have to imagine some form of strict management and regulations being enforced. This is especially true in the sense that no copies, per se, would exist. Each persona would be an original, so to speak. Complete with legal and civil rights? Who knows?
What we've now envisioned, of course, are the quintessential astronauts who are perfectly suited for extended periods of space travel. A 100,000-year expedition to another galaxy? No problem. No astronauts. At least not in the traditional sense. As compared to the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the astronauts were enclosed in complicated, biological sleep chambers, our passengers are stored safely away inside hard-drives (of a sort) merely awaiting activation. Or not.
The drives themselves are, of course, not alive. They contain information only. But very personal information. Meanwhile computers (likely robots) run the ship, clean the windows, vacuum the carpets. You get the idea. The empty bodies into which the stored data will eventually be downloaded, may or may not even exist in the beginning. They might well be grown or built only when the need arises.
The only foreseeable problem is that the robot crew turns mutinous and fails to revive their quasi-human superiors. We'll have to be careful to avoid that potential complication. Art imitates life or vice versa? Anyway, while wormholes will be nice if we can use them, they won't be absolutely essential for long distance space travel. Just don't plan on welcoming anybody back home again.
The last little item that's relevant to this discussion involves animals. For all our great intellectual prowess, animal brains possess certain enviable qualities -- characteristics such as enhanced senses -- which scientists of the future may find both appealing and useful. Certainly any and all progress made with respect to what we might achieve using human bodies and brains, would apply equally (if not more so) as regards animal bodies and animal brains.
If you've stayed with me so far and followed along a very logical and predictable path, then an eventual interaction with exotic (and not so exotic) animals should come as no great surprise. On the contrary, it is to be expected and embraced as a beautiful, even romantic concept. The dream of Icarus to fly like a bird will one day be a reality, but maybe literally so. For Icarus will indeed be a bird, complete with feathers, beak, tail, and the rest of it.
Can human minds occupy the brains of animals? We'd still need the instincts and aptitudes that animals possess and require in order to function as themselves. For example, people don't instinctively know how to flap their wings, if they suddenly had them -- let alone fly. Nor is it a given that such abilities could be learned; more likely a bird's primordial agilities would always be necessary.
The quandary is also posed as to the consequences of mixing or blending sentient awareness with nonsentient intelligence. In the movie, Brainstorm, the writers attempted to illustrate such a feat using a chimpanzee -- with near disastrous results. The query begs the question as to whether the animal mind would struggle with sudden self-awareness, or if the human mind should lose its connection to reality (its own sense of self) as a result.
If and when such questions are answered, it would then be possible for human intelligence to occupy (and control) the consciousness (and bodies) of any number of animal species. Other ramifications in the form of human-animal communications (including insects) should also be realized as fringe benefits derived from researches among nonhuman entities. But where would such experiments ultimately lead us? And to what end or purpose? The one that comes to mind (no pun intended) needs no additional followup to justify either.
Terraforming is the act of converting the atmosphere or geology (or both) of an uninhabitable planet into a form which is hospitable to the biological requirements of human beings. The opposite of terraforming would be "bio-designing" humans into forms that were completely compatible with the atmosphere and/or geology of an otherwise hostile planet.
It would be as if humans had evolved naturally on a given world. Essentially, human minds would be placed inside the physical bodies of creatures perfectly suited for life on any particular planet. A situation that in all likelihood could be easily reversed. Yes, I know we saw something very similar in the James Cameron film, Avatar, but we both got the same idea independently. No matter, the benefits of such an arrangement are almost unlimited and well beyond the scope of this specific essay. I wanted to mention the concept, however, because it does represent a kind of technological (and biological) conclusion that seems all but inevitable.
It tells us that human ingenuity and endless potential will lead us to a wide variety of strange and disparate destinies, few of which are predictable. But all of them in one form or another, embracing the full measure of what the universe has to offer.