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Immortality Is as Inevitable as Death

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As a young child I had a recurring dream of darkness.

Chased by robbers, I would run to the roof of my home and be forced to jump, only to fall through endless black and awake in panic.

Even then, I saw the dream as a metaphor for death. Buried beneath the covers I imagined some darker species of black and felt the searing pain of knowing I would one day vanish.

As a balm, I would imagine that I would be the first to cheat the reaper.

Those who cling to a similar hope got some good news recently. Google announced the launch of Calico, a company devoted to life extension.

But not everyone thinks radically longer lives are a good idea. Many feel the endeavour is grossly unnatural and will somehow upset the very meaning of what it is to be human.

How will we appreciate any one moment if the supply is inexhaustible? Will we become like the Olympian gods: Bored, vindictive, incapable of real love and always jealous of the mortals for whom life is so sweet?

Rid your mind of those worries. Immortality is coming, but it won't be a physical life courtesy of Google's new company. It will be in the form of a robotic afterlife, something that scares me just as much as dying.

The last 100 years already saw a radical jump forward in life expectancy without a radical reshaping of the human condition. We still love. We still fear death.

Throughout almost all of human history, average life expectancy was usually less than 30 years and never more than 40. Today, it's nearly 90 years in Monaco and 81 in Canada. For all of humanity it's 68 years.

Put quite simply, we're already living unnaturally long lives. Antibiotics aren't natural. Chemotherapy isn't natural.

From an evolutionary perspective, why we age at all continues to baffle scientists and many species live much longer than we do.

From 250-year-old tortoises, to 80,000-year-old aspen colonies, to actinobacteria that were around before homo sapiens evolved, the natural world is filled with examples that illustrate the potential for very long lives.

Perhaps most amazing are the immortal creatures already among us. The turritopsis nutricula jellyfish is capable of cycling back and forth between its adult and immature polyp state, a gelatinous 'Benjamin Button' on repeat.

But while scientists believe the Benjamin Button jellyfish has the potential to live forever, in nature it simply never would. It readily succumbs to disease, accident and the appetites of other animals.

And that's why we shouldn't worry too much about Google's quest for eternal life. No matter how much we learn about telomeres and transdifferentiation, nanobots and neurons, there will always be a virus, mishap or enemy to end our existence.

The essential shape of life, no matter how long, will remain the same -- birth, life, death -- and this should assuage our fears about life extension.

But there is the potential for another kind of immorality, one which will ironically resemble the myth of everlasting life in the Judeo-Christian religions. And that's what I'm really afraid of.

First, we will live a human life, with the sweetness and sorrow that comes from impermanence. Then will come second life -- cerebral, painless and without end.

Except, instead of passing through the Pearly Gates, we'll pass through a processor.

The strongest hope for giving a human intelligence eternal life comes from the promise of mapping the human brain and downloading it into a computer model.

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Legendary physicist Stephen Hawking recently suggested this may soon be possible.,

"I think the brain is like a program in the mind, which is like a computer," Hawking said. "So it's theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and so provide a form of life after death."

Russian media mogul Dmitry Itskov is already at work on a project to do just that by 2045. Last year, he baited the world's billionaires to get involved with promises of immortality.

And that's where things get more than a little problematic.

Beyond removing the knowledge of impermanence that forces us to value life, the enterprise of eternal life seems destined to be dominated by the super-rich.

Justin Timberlake flops aside, machine immortality presents the very real possibility of giving the ultra-wealthy yet another leg-up on everyone else. And it doesn't get much more dystopian than a world ruled by a wealthy-elite whose brains have been uploaded to super-powerful robots.

But as with most moral quandaries presented by technological advancement, I doubt there is much we can do about it.

Plenty of people foresaw the danger of nuclear and chemical weapons, but those fears did not prevent their development. Tellingly, Google's head of so-called X projects, Astro Teller, is actually the son of the man who invented the hydrogen bomb.

When governments ban work on new technologies, work simply shifts to other countries. Strict limits on stem cell research in the U.S. have just pushed other nations to take the lead.

In short, the advance of technology has thus far been impervious to our moral misgivings.

People like Ray Kurzweil just can't be stopped. The pill-popping prophet, futurist and Google director of engineering believes the exponential growth in the power of computer processing foretold in Moore's Law will soon lead to breakthrough advancements in the sophistication of artificial intelligence. At a crucial point, machines will become so intelligent that they will begin to improve upon themselves. At that moment, technological innovation will radically accelerate and human beings and computers will begin to merge. Kurzweil refers to this juncture as the "singularity."

But Kurzweil and the world's billionaires may find that becoming a robot isn't as much fun as it seems. Imagine the inauthenticity of the Matrix, coupled with the boredom of eternity. Oh, and no sex.

Like the near-immortal Sibyl of Cumae of Greco-Roman myth, the gilded gods of the future could end up begging for death.

But the rest of us will still scrimp, save and scramble to buy our way to the afterlife. No matter how lifeless, many will prefer the machine to the mystery of mortality.

Family members will cling to their dying loved ones with hitherto impossible fervour. Instead of DNRs, people will need "do not deify" orders.

And there's nothing we can do to stop it. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, technology rolls on its relentless way.

So that's what I have nightmares about now. It's the things we can't change that scare us most -- and immortality is just as inevitable as death

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