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Michael Bolen


Immortality Is as Inevitable as Death

Posted: 10/08/2013 9:08 am

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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  • Love Stinks: Romantic Regrets

    If you stop and think about the stuff of sad love song lyrics — the one who got away, the one who broke your heart, and the one you should never have gotten involved with in the first place — you won’t be too surprised to learn that 18 per cent of people surveyed put a <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/how-to-have-a-healthy-relationship.aspx" target="_hplink">romantic relationship</a> at the top of their regret list. Want to keep your current or next relationship from imploding? Learn how to fight fair. “Avoiding conflict can be the kiss of death in relationships, but don’t vent anger toward each other [either],” says Christine M. Allen, PhD, a psychologist and a life coach in New York City. “Instead, use awareness of hurt and anger to express more directly and constructively your needs and concerns.”

  • Family Feuds: Relative Regrets

    Haven’t spoken to your sister since you lived under the same roof? The next most common type of regrets were <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/family-health/index.aspx" target="_hplink">family-related</a>, which 16 per cent of people reported. Among the more prevalent issues were disagreements or arguments that got out of hand. “In many cases, people wished that they had resolved family issues sooner, if they’d been resolved at all,” says study co-author Neal Roese, a marketing professor at Northwestern University. It can be difficult to resolve conflicts with people we’re closest to, especially after a lot of time has passed. Consider family therapy if you can’t work things out on your own.

  • School of Hard Knocks: Education Regrets

    Wish you’d cracked the books more in college or gotten your act together to apply to grad school? The survey found that 13 per cent of people had a school-related regret, such as not studying harder, not pursuing a different major in college, and not staying in school longer. Those with lower levels of education were more likely to have education regrets than those who went on to receive advanced degrees.

  • The Job That Got Away: Career Regrets

    If you’ve ever <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/health-center/managing-job-stress-info.aspx" target="_hplink">turned down a job</a> only to be plagued by “what-ifs” months or years later, you can relate to the 12 per cent of participants who reported a career-related regret. Many people reported feeling that they chose the wrong path. Interestingly, the more education participants had, the more likely they were to wish they had made a different career choice.

  • Money Changes Everything: Financial Regrets

    Passed on a stock or investment deal that turned out to be lucrative? Sunk your <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/longevity/does-money-buy-happiness.aspx" target="_hplink">life savings</a> in a home only to watch its value take a nosedive? If you’re grappling with money mistakes — mentioned by 10 per cent of those surveyed — try these tips for <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/managing-stress-in-bad-economy.aspx" target="_hplink">managing stress</a> in tough economic times.

  • Motherlode: Parenting Regrets

    <strong>Motherlode: Parenting Regrets</strong> It’s not easy <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/kids-health/parenting.aspx" target="_hplink">raising children</a>, as admitted by the 9 per cent of survey participants who regretted something related to their kids. “Several people said they wished that they had spent more time with their children, and that they should have been more or less strict,” said Roese. Other common parental missteps: being too critical of a child’s behavior, not paying closer attention to schoolwork, and failing to recognize the signs of a serious problem, such as drug abuse or an eating disorder.

  • Making Yourself Sick: Health Regrets

    Six per cent of people surveyed most regretted something about their health, such as not visiting the doctor more often, eating poorly, and not exercising. “Most of the people with health regrets had experienced significant health issues,” says Morrison. “They felt that such problems could have been prevented or would have been less serious if they’d taken better care of themselves.” Luckily, it’s never too late to make positive health changes, and even tiny tweaks — like these <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/101/benefits-of-healthy-eating/50-ways-to-be-healthier.aspx" target="_hplink">50 little ways to be healthier</a> — can have a huge impact on your overall well-being.

  • From BFFs to Frenemies: Friendship Regrets

    Those with friendship regrets — about 4 per cent of those surveyed — often expressed remorse about <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/social-support.aspx" target="_hplink">letting a friendship fall by the wayside</a>. As with family, many faded friendships resulted from a misunderstanding or disagreement, says Roese. If you’re feeling guilty about a forgotten friendship, pick up the phone or shoot off an email. Make concrete plans with that friend you keep swearing you’ll meet for lunch, or offer up a “let’s-bury-the-hatchet” apology to a long-lost pal. Chances are, your friend misses you too and is ready to rekindle the friendship.

  • Losing Your Religion: Spirituality Regrets

    According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 6 in 10 U.S. adults say that religion is very important in their lives. However, despite these relatively high numbers — or, maybe because of them — 3 per cent of those surveyed felt sorry about <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/emotional-health/power-of-prayer.aspx" target="_hplink">something spiritual</a>. “Common issues included not going to church enough or making choices that people later felt were immoral and not in line with their religious beliefs,” says Morrison. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by spiritual guilt, try to reconnect with your faith in a positive way. Prayer and meditation help us relax, causing blood pressure to dip, heart rate to decrease, and muscle tension to ease up — all very healthy side effects, says Michael Stefanek, PhD, director of the Behavioral Research Center of the American Cancer Society.

  • Civic Duty: Community Regrets

    Wish you’d gotten more involved in your child’s school’s PTA or the local food pantry? Then you’re among the 1.5 percent of respondents who regretted not <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/longevity/emotional-wellness/volunteering-opportunities-in-retirement.aspx" target="_hplink">volunteering</a> more or being more outspoken about issues in their community. An added bonus: Reams of studies show that lending a hand is good for your mental and physical health. Looking for ways to play a more active role in your community? Consider canvassing your neighborhood for food bank donations or volunteering to cook and serve at your local soup kitchen.

  • NEXT: Celebrity Deaths in 2013

  • Patsy Swayze

    Choreographer and dance instructor Patsy Swayze, the mother of late actor Patrick Swayze, died Sept. 16, 2013. She was 86. No cause of death was given.

  • Jackie Lomax

    Jackie Lomax, a singer-songwriter who worked with The Beatles and enjoyed a long solo career, died Sept. 15, 2013 following a brief illness. He was 69.

  • Lee Thompson Young

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/19/lee-thompson-young-dead_n_3780781.html?ref=topbar" target="_blank">"The Famous Jett Jackson" star was found dead</a> in his apartment by his landlord in Los Angeles on Aug. 19, 2013. Young's rep confirmed that he took his own life. He was 29.

  • Lisa Robin Kelly

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/15/lisa-robin-kelly-dead_n_3763163.html" target="_blank">The former "That '70s Show" actress died</a> at the age of 43 on Aug. 14, 2013. According to TMZ, Kelly died in her sleep at a rehab facility in California.

  • Gia Allemand

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/14/gia-allemand-dead_n_3756940.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular" target="_blank">"The Bachelor" star died from an apparent suicide</a> on Aug. 14, 2013. She was 29.

  • Michael Ansara

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/02/michael-ansara-dead-dies_n_3697009.html" target="_blank">The "Star Trek" actor died</a> on July 31, 2013 at the age of 91.

  • Kidd Kraddick

    Radio personality <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/28/kidd-kraddick-dead_n_3665417.html" target="_blank">David "Kidd" Kraddick died July 27, 2013</a> at age 53.

  • JJ Cale

    Cale, the singer-songwriter and producer known as the main architect of the Tulsa Sound, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/27/jj-cale-dead-dies_n_3664256.html" target="_blank">died on July 26, 2013</a>. His manager, Mike Kappus, said he died of a heart attack. He was 74.

  • Dennis Farina

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/22/dennis-farina-dead_n_3635587.html" target="_blank">The "Law & Order" star died on July 22, 2013 at the age of 69</a> after suffering a blood clot in his lung.

  • Cory Monteith

    Cory Allan Michael Monteith, a Canadian actor best known for playing Finn Hudson on the hit Fox TV show "Glee," was found dead on July 13, 2013 in a Vancouver hotel room. He was 31.

  • James Gandolfini

    James Gandolfini, best known for his role on "The Sopranos," died in Italy on June 19, 2013 after suffering from a heart attack.

  • Slim Whitman

    The high-pitched country singer who sold millions of records through ever-present TV ads in the 1980s and 1990s and whose song saved the world in the film comedy "Mars Attacks!," died June 19, 2013 at a Florida hospital. He was 90.

  • Jean Stapleton

    Stapleton, who played Archie Bunker's wife Edith in the TV series "All in the Family," died May 31, 2013 in New York. She was 90. According to the Chicago Tribune, Stapleton's family announced she had died of natural causes.

  • Ray Manzarek

    Ray Manzarek, most known as a founding member of the '60s rock band "The Doors," died May 20, 2013. According to a message posted on the band's Facebook page, Manzarek died of bile duct cancer while in Rosenheim, Germany. He was 74.

  • Jeanne Cooper

    Jeanne Cooper, who played Katherine Chancellor on the daytime soap opera "The Young and the Restless," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/08/jeanne-cooper-dead-dies_n_3239218.html" target="_blank">died on May 8, 2013</a>. She was 84.

  • Jeff Hanneman

    Hanneman, a founding member of Slayer, died May 1, 2013 of liver failure. He was 49.

  • Chris Kelly

    Chris Kelly, one-half of the 1990s rap duo Kris Kross, died May 1, 2013 of an apparent drug overdose. He was 34.

  • George Jones

    The country music legend died at 81 on April 26, 2013 at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. He was hospitalized April 18 with fever and irregular blood pressure.

  • Richie Havens

    The folk singer and guitarist, who was the first performer at Woodstock, died on April 22, 2013 at age 72. He died of a heart attack in New Jersey, his family said in a statement.

  • Chrissy Amphlett

    The raunchy lead singer of the Australian rock band Divinyls whose hit "I Touch Myself" brought her international fame in the early 1990s, died at her home in New York City on April 21, 2013. She was 53 years old. "Christine Joy Amphlett succumbed to the effects of breast cancer and multiple sclerosis, diseases she vigorously fought with exceptional bravery and dignity," her musician husband Charley Drayton said in a statement.

  • Richard LeParmentier

    Character actor Richard LeParmentier, who as a young Death Star commander learned the hard way that Darth Vader brooks no disrespect, died April 16, 2013. He was 66.

  • Jonathan Winters

    The comedic film and TV actor died on April 11, 2013 at the age of 87. He passed away of natural causes, surrounded by friends and family.

  • Annette Funicello

    Former child star Annette Funicello died on April 8, 2013 at the age of 70. The actress, who is best remembered for her time as a Mouseketeer on "The Mickey Mouse Club" from 1955 to 1957, died from complications related to multiple sclerosis, which she was diagnosed with more than 20 years ago.

  • Roger Ebert

    Legendary film critic Roger Ebert died April 4, 2013, at the age of 70. Two days prior, Ebert revealed on his blog that his cancer had returned and that he would be reducing his reviewing duties at the Chicago Sun-Times.

  • Shain Gandee

    The 21-year-old "Buckwild" star was found dead in a truck in Sissonville, W. Va., along with two other bodies, on April 1, 2013. It was later said Gandee had died of carbon monoxide poisoning while “mudding," or off-roading through mud, in his 1984 Ford Bronco.

  • Phil Ramone

    A masterful Grammy Award-winning engineer, arranger and producer whose platinum touch included recordings with Ray Charles, Billy Joel and Paul Simon, Ramone died March 30, 2013 of complications stemming from heart surgery. He was 79.

  • Richard Griffiths

    One of the great British stage actors of his generation, also known for playing grumpy Uncle Vernon in the fantastical "Harry Potter" movies. Griffiths died March 28, 2013, from complications following heart surgery. He was 65.

  • Clive Burr

    Former Iron Maiden drummer Clive Burr has died March 12, 2013. He was 56. Burr passed away in his sleep and had suffered poor heath for years after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

  • Claude King

    A country singer-songwriter and original member of the Louisiana Hayride, King was best known for the 1962 hit "Wolverton Mountain." He died on March 7, 2013, at 90 years of age.

  • Peter Banks

    Peter Banks, the original guitarist for the British band Yes, died on March 7, 2013, at the age of 65. A post on his official website stated that Banks died from heart failure and was found in his London home after he didn't show up to a recording session. <br> L-R: Peter Banks, Tony Kaye, Chris Squire, Bill Bruford, Jon Anderson - posed, group shot (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)

  • Alvin Lee

    The British rock guitarist and founder of the band "Ten Years After," who burst to stardom with a memorable Woodstock performance, died March 6, 2013. He was 68. A statement posted on Lee's official website said he died unexpectedly from complications following a routine surgical procedure. Lee's manager, Ron Rainey, said the guitarist died in Spain.

  • Bonnie Franklin

    Bonnie Franklin, the pert, redheaded actress who won fame as a divorced mom on the long-running sitcom "One Day at a Time," has died March 1, 2013 due to complications from pancreatic cancer. She was 69.

  • DJ Ajax (Adrian Thomas)

    Australian producer Adrian Thomas, better known as DJ Ajax, died on the day of his 42nd birthday, Feb. 28, 2013. The Sydney Morning Herald reported DJ Ajax died after he ran out onto a Melbourne road and was hit by an oncoming truck.

  • Richard Street

    Former Motown vocalist Richard Street (top R), a member of the Temptations for 25 years, died on Feb. 27, 2013 at a hospital in Las Vegas after a short illness. He was 70.

  • Dale Robertson

    Dale Robertson, an Oklahoma native who became a star of television and movie Westerns during the genre's heyday, died Feb. 26, 2013 Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., following a brief illness. He was 89.

  • Dan Toler

    Former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dan Toler has died on Feb. 25, 2013, at the age of 65. He passed away in his sleep after a two-year battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.

  • Lou Myers

    Myers, the actor most known for playing Mr. Vernon Gaines on the NBC sitcom "A Different World," died on Feb. 19, 2013 at Charleston Medical Center in West Virginia after undergoing a heart-related emergency and falling into a coma. He was 76.

  • Damon Harris

    Harris (far right), a one-time member of legendary Motown group The Temptations, died on Feb. 18, 2013. According to the Baltimore Sun, Harris (born Otis Robert Harris, Jr.) lost his 14-year-long battle to prostate cancer after spending the last three months in the hospital. He was 62. Also in the photo: Richard Street, Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams and Dennis Edwards in 1972.

  • Mindy McCready

    The country singer was found dead in her Heber Springs, Ark., home on Feb. 17, 2013. The Cleburne County sheriff said in a statement that preliminary autopsy results from Arkansas' state crime lab show McCready's death was a suicide from a single gunshot wound to the head.

  • Rick Huxley

    Bass player Rick Huxley, one of the founding members of the Dave Clark Five, died on Feb. 11, 2013, at the age of 72. Though the band broke up in 1970, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.

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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