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On the Road to Immortality

Christian Darkin/Photo Researchers
A computer rendering of nanobots—tiny robots operating at the molecular level—working on brain cells

The highest point of order in Kurzweil’s account is a kind of cosmic consciousness—a state in which human individuality, at least in the forms in which it has been known hitherto, has been extinguished. Even a partial move toward such a mode of consciousness could undermine human values. A novella by George Eliot, “The Lifted Veil” (1859), tells how the narrator, gifted with the ability to read the thoughts of others, is repulsed by what he learns of their motivations; the unwanted ability destroys his marriage, and he dies soon after his wife leaves him. The emergence of a type of planetary consciousness could have similar dangers. Numerous writers have looked forward to such a development in the hope that that it would enable humankind to overcome its problems. The idea that the human species might evolve into a collective mind was anticipated by the science fiction author Olaf Stapledon in Last and First Men (1930) and by H.G. Wells in a collection of essays, World Brain (1938).2

More recently, Michael Chorost in World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet3 has welcomed the development of what he calls “collective telempathy”—a state in which neural activity can be transferred directly between individuals. “With humanity telempathically linked in a World Wide Mind,” Chorost writes, “moods would spread among far larger groups. Entire ethnic groups, or entire countries, might have moods from day to day. We would hope, of course, that the collective effect is positive.”

As Sue Halpern has suggested in her recent review of World Wide Mind, new processes may be developing that could allow us to read each others’ thoughts. But it is hard to see how the effects of more fully developed technologies of thought-reading could be uniformly benign. With enmities among groups and divisions in society more transparent than they are now, moods of animosity would likely spread far more quickly. Perhaps these dangers would be transitional, so that evils such as ethnic hatred would disappear once full-scale collective consciousness was attained. The trouble is that much of what is good in human lives would also disappear. The experiences we find most valuable—love and courage, glimpses of beauty and acts of heroism, together with the joys of everyday life—require a form of personal identity in which human beings are separate and different from one another. As the differences between people were erased, these goods would cease to be possible. The question remains: Why should anyone devote themselves to furthering an idea of progress when it involves the loss of so much that gives meaning to our lives?

One answer may be found in Kurzweil’s belief that a technological version of human immortality can be achieved as a byproduct of the increase of knowledge. Let us leave on one side whether the kind of immortality he envisions is scientifically feasible. No one can know how far science may advance; it may be that the development of nano robots and other advances of the magnitude he forecasts will come to pass, perhaps in the near future. The issue is whether the immortality that Kurzweil believes science can make possible is humanly valuable. Here Kurzweil encounters some of the difficulties faced by more overtly religious thinking. It has always been unclear just what it is that survives death in traditional accounts of the afterlife: If it is a soul or spirit of some kind that survives, can that disembodied entity truly be the person who once lived?

Kurzweil’s account is equally open to question. Immortality as he understands it involves uploading information stored in our brains and preserving it in virtual form:

Currently, when our human hardware crashes, the software of our lives—our personal “mind file”—dies with it. However, this will not continue to be the case when we have the means to store and restore the thousands of trillions of bytes of information represented in the pattern that we call our brains…. Ultimately software-based humans will be vastly extended beyond the severe limitations of humans as we know them today. They will live out on the Web, projecting bodies wherever they need or want them, including virtual bodies in diverse realms of virtual reality.

Kurzweil attempts to answer the objection that this will not be the person who once lived: “Is this form of immortality the same concept as a physical human, as we know it today, living forever? In one sense it is, because today one’s self is not a constant collection of matter, either.” But the discontinuity between the person who once lived and the information scanned from their brain that is stored on the Web may be greater than he implies.

Without denying their importance, Kurzweil sidesteps questions about consciousness throughout much of his discussion. “There exists no objective test that can conclusively determine its presence,” he writes, whereas “science is about objective measurements and their logical implications.” However, the fact that it cannot be objectively measured does not mean that consciousness poses no difficulties for Kurzweil’s idea of immortality. The problem is not only that there is a radical difference between the sentient individual and the information that has been preserved in cyberspace. It is that only aspects of the person that can be rendered into bits of information will be preserved. Plainly, a file containing all the data that can be extracted from a living person’s brain can survive the death of that person. But the file is not the person, for the file leaves out anything that cannot be programmed. What survives is a shadow of the person, lacking even the vestigial self-awareness of the shades that populate the afterworld in ancient Greek myth.

Interestingly, Kurzweil accepts that this shadow may not be immortal:

For eons the longevity of our mental software has been inexorably linked to the survival of our biological hardware. Being able to capture and reinstatiate all the details of our information processes would indeed separate these two aspects of our mortality. But…software itself does not necessarily survive forever, and there are formidable obstacles to its enduring very long at all.

Any hope of immortality must then depend on his claim that a type of human-machine intelligence is evolving, which will eventually extend to the rest of the universe:

Our civilization will…expand outward, turning all the dumb matter and energy we encounter into sublimely intelligent—transcendent—matter and energy…. The Singularity will ultimately infuse the universe with spirit…. So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God.

By his own admission, the Singularity is a religious conception. Yet presumably an intelligent universe would still be a material structure, with a finite lifetime like the universe in current cosmology. Kurzweil tries to avoid any clash with scientific materialism, writing, “Although I have been called a materialist, I regard myself as a ‘patternist.’ It’s through the emergent powers of the pattern that we transcend.” No doubt patterns can persist throughout many changes in the material structures in which they are embodied; but unless they have some independent reality—like Plato’s timeless forms—they will vanish when their material substratum is destroyed. Without a metaphysic of this kind, Kurzweil can have no reason for thinking that a divinized cosmos would not collapse on itself just as our own universe is expected to do—or for believing that patterns extracted from human brains could somehow be everlasting.

If the prospect of living forever that is held out in Transcend is unconvincing, it is not because the science Kurzweil invokes is necessarily mistaken. On that one can reasonably remain agnostic. The difficulty is that little of human value will be preserved in the afterlife he envisions, while much continues to be at risk in the world below. The memory files that float in the ether will depend for their continued existence on disks and computers—material things that decay and fail. A regime of diet, exercise, and preventive medicine may extend longevity beyond its natural limit, but will not prevent an untimely death if society breaks down in war or economic collapse. Nor can a type of ersatz immortality in a virtual world protect humanity or the planet from the destructive effects of climate change. Kurzweil may be sustained by a vision of deathless existence on the Web. But the civilization that maintains the Web stands on mortal human beings, whose problems cannot be solved by fleeing into cyberspace.

  1. 2

    For a discussion of Stapledon and Wells’s ideas, see George B. Dyson, Darwin among the Machines (Helix, 1997), pp. 10–11, 199–217. Dyson’s book remains one of the best discussions of the issues raised by artificial intelligence. 

  2. 3

    Free Press, 2011; reviewed in these pages by Sue Halpern, June 23, 2011. 

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