How Digital Immortality Works

One vision of the future includes conquering death with technology. But how can we do it?

Humans have been chasing immortality for millennia. In some cultures, you attain a kind of immortality by doing great deeds, which people will talk about long after you pass away. Several religions feature some concept of immortality -- the body may die but some part of you will exist forever. But what if science made it possible to be truly immortal? What if there were a way for you to live forever?

That's the basic concept behind digital immortality. Some futurists, perhaps most notably inventor Ray Kurzweil, believe that we will uncover a way to extend the human lifespan indefinitely. They've identified several potential paths that could lead to this destination. Perhaps we'll identify the genes that govern aging and tweak them so that our bodies stop aging once they reach maturity. Maybe we'll create new techniques for creating artificial organs that combine organic matter with technology and then replace our original parts with the new and improved versions. Or maybe we'll just dump our memories, thoughts, feelings and everything else that makes us who we are into a computer and live in cyberspace.


These predictions may sound like they belong in a science-fiction film, but there are people all over the world who are contributing work that may one day allow humans to live forever. Some of the work relates directly to the goal -- scientists at Harvard have succeeded in altering genes that regulate aging in mice, for example [source: Sample]. If it's possible for scientists to apply these techniques to humans, we may be able to prevent our bodies from aging and live to ages far beyond the average lifespan of today.

Other projects like Blue Brain may eventually provide other insights into achieving digital immortality. The Blue Brain project's goal is to reverse engineer the human brain and create a virtual model that would allow neuroscientists to test procedures and treatments on a digital brain to see how a real human brain might react [source: The Blue Brain Project]. Perhaps through this work we'll achieve a greater understanding of how the human brain works and its relationship to what we call the mind. Is it possible to reverse engineer the process of thinking by building a sophisticated virtual model of a brain?

Ray Kurzweil has written extensively about this concept. He foresees a diverse set of disciplines approaching the problem through different methods, some of which may ultimately converge and convert digital immortality from a concept into reality. He identified three bridges that could provide us a way to live as long as we care to.

Let's take a closer look at the foundations for Kurzweil's vision.



The Three Bridges

Kurzweil advocates healthy living and dietary supplements to stay healthy until technology makes digital immortality a reality.
Paul Tearle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Ray Kurzweil has written several books and articles about digital immortality, including the one he coauthored with Terry Grossman titled "Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever." In that book, Grossman and Kurzweil propose that there will be three bridges that will lead to immortality. The first is something we have some control over right now: Living well and limiting the effects of aging and disease as much as possible.

Kurzweil practices what he preaches. In an interview with Enlightenment Next, he says he eats well, exercises, tries to avoid stress and takes around 250 dietary supplements per day to minimize the effects of aging and ward off disease. While some of his approaches have nearly universal approval from doctors -- there's not much controversy about eating well and exercising -- others have less scientific support. While some dietary supplements may contribute positively to health, many appear to have little or no effect based upon scientific studies [source: Hellerman].


But living well will increase your chances of living longer, which is Kurzweil's point. Because we don't have the technology to stay alive indefinitely right now, we need to keep ourselves in good shape until technology can catch up. That leads to the second bridge, which involves tweaking biology to reduce or remove the effects of aging while eliminating diseases. Through a deeper understanding of an individual's biochemistry and genes, doctors will be able to customize treatments to each patient, which in theory would greatly increase the treatment's effectiveness.

We've made some progress in this field. Doctors and scientists around the world experiment every day with new treatments and approaches to preventing or curing illnesses. Kurzweil believes that there'll come a time when science has advanced to the point that we'll be able to optimize our biological chemistry and manipulate genetic expression to give us the best chance of living for a long time. That should give us time enough to reach the third bridge: the nanotechnology phase.

Nanotechnology deals with a world so tiny that it approaches the atomic scale. A nanometer is just one-billionth of a meter. At that scale, we can manipulate individual molecules. Nanoscience is still very young and our tools are relatively unsophisticated. We can manipulate matter on a small scale but only to a limited degree. Kurzweil believes that nanotechnology will give us the ability to bolster or perhaps even replace our organs -- including our brains -- with improved constructs that won't break down over time. We may even have the ability to heal extensive damage by using self-replicating and self-healing devices built at the nanoscale.

Whether we'll achieve this mastery of nanotechnology is currently a matter of debate. While scientists and doctors have developed some medical treatments that use nanoparticles as a delivery mechanism, the science is in its infancy. Skeptics point out that we don't yet know if complex devices -- such as nanorobots -- are feasible at the nanoscale.


A Singular Challenge

A replica of the first transistor. Moore's Law predicts the size of transistors will decrease by half every 24 months.
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

The bridges to immortality tie into another of Kurzweil's hypotheses: the singularity. In a nutshell, the singularity is an era in which technological development is so rapid that the world is constantly evolving at a blistering pace. During this time, biology and technology will merge and humans will evolve into a new type of life form.

You can see the seeds for the idea of the singularity in an observation that Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made in 1965. Moore saw that because of technological advancements, improvements in manufacturing and leaps in efficiency, chip manufacturers could double the number of transistors on a chip every 12 months. Since then, we've called this observation Moore's Law and tweaked it a bit -- now the time frame to double the number of transistors on a chip is more like 24 months.


Today, Intel makes chips for consumer products that have nearly 1 billion transistors on them. This allows Intel to design processors that can handle increasingly heavy computational demands. Kurzweil's hypothesis somewhat depends upon this trend continuing. While scientists and doctors have made progress building artificial organs and even using 3-D printers to build real organs, we've got a long way to go to reach the level of mastery required to meet Kurzweil's vision.

Part of the challenge of describing digital immortality to someone is that you have to imagine technology that doesn't exist. For that reason, any discussion of digital immortality must remain somewhat vague -- it's all conjecture. It's possible such technology will never exist. Kurzweil describes what we need to do to conquer death -- we need to live healthy lifestyles, develop techniques to bolster or replace our organs and switch off all the genetic markers that govern aging. But knowing what we have to do and learning how to do it are two different things.

People, including Moore himself, have predicted the end of Moore's law several times over the years. But engineers have discovered new ways to stay true to the spirit of Moore's law, doubling the power of processors every two years or so. If this trend should finally slow down -- or worse, end -- it could take much longer to achieve immortality than Kurzweil's vision. It might not be possible to create the technological infrastructure necessary to engineer immortality at all.

Assuming that such technological advances are possible, there are other problems to overcome. How do you test the science? What sort of problems could arise? If we fiddle with genes that govern aging, will we run the risk of creating new degenerative conditions? Is there a cancer risk that comes along with eliminating cellular death? We can't really answer these questions yet. Kurzweil and his supporters believe that one day we'll answer all of these questions in time. Kurzweil calls his theory the Law of Accelerating Returns.

But there may be another way to achieve digital immortality. It involves getting to know your computer on an unprecedented level.


Deep Thought

What if we could take what makes us who we are and put it into a digital format? What if you could upload your mind into a computer?

It's a tall order. Despite centuries of study and incredible advances in neuroscience, we still don't have a full understanding of the human brain. How does our sense of self relate to the brain? What is consciousness? What elements of human intelligence are fundamental? Can we simulate those functions within a virtual environment? How would you actually port a person's identity into a digital machine? Will it just be a scan that creates a copy or will it physically remove you from your body in some way?


Then there are questions that require more than technology to answer. If you are able to actually transfer yourself into a computer, what happens to your body? How would your digital consciousness react to seeing your body without you in it? If you just make a digital copy of yourself, what happens when the organic version of you dies? Will your computer copy mourn your loss? Will it even be able to feel real emotions? Who defines what is real versus what is merely simulated?

Then there are questions that are the real brain twisters. If you exist as a digital construct, would it be possible to merge with other digital consciousnesses? Could two people become one person? What about a population of people? Would we all become like the Borg in the "Star Trek" universe? What about the dangers of the digital realm -- could someone erase you? Could you be infected by some sort of computer virus?

Digital immortality may end up being more modest. We may just create artificially intelligent simulations of ourselves. This wouldn't really make you immortal but you might be somewhat comforted that a simulated version of yourself will keep your Facebook and Twitter statuses up to date long after you're gone.

Stage magician and technology journalist Brian Brushwood has already set up a primitive version of this concept. Every year on his birthday, Brushwood must check in to prove he's alive. The first year he fails to do so, his system will kick into gear. It will mine his past Facebook and Twitter updates and post them regularly indefinitely. Brushwood will effectively haunt his social network profiles forever [source: Brushwood].

We can't really answer any of these questions right now -- they remain in the realm of philosophy. If we never conquer the technological challenges that stand in the way all the questions are moot. But if we ever develop the technology that can actually support such a thing we need to consider the implications. The obstacles to digital immortality aren't merely technological in nature.

Next, we'll look at more questions we may have to answer before digital immortality becomes a reality.


Social and Philosophical Questions

What would digital immortality mean to the world's religions?
Design Pics/John Short/Valueline/Thinkstock

We've already looked at the technological barriers that stand between us and digital immortality. But what about addressing what it really means to be immortal?

Immortality would undoubtedly cause numerous social problems. Assuming that the process will be expensive -- at least in the beginning -- it could create a new gap between classes. The wealthy could pay to live forever while those with less money must still face their own mortality. Or perhaps some countries would have access to the technology while others lack the money or technology to support it. That could lead to upheaval on a global scale.


Then there's the question of timing: When should you alter yourself to live forever? Should you do it in the prime of life? When you're a child? When you've grown old? Since every day you could risk dying in an accident, is it better to transform yourself as early as possible? If you do alter yourself, will you continue to develop as you did when you were mortal? If you upload your mind into a computer, will your development freeze or will you continue to grow as a person?

How would digital immortality mesh with the world's religions? Many religions include some form of an afterlife. According to these religions, some part of what makes you who you are survives after death and moves on to a different type of existence. But if we create the ability to become immortal through technology, what does that mean for these religions? Would these religions conclude that it's wrong to live forever since you'd never move beyond this life into the next?

What about population control? If we gain the ability to halt aging, could we remain at an age that allows us to have children whenever we like? Would the population escalate out of control since few people would ever die? And what would it be like to live in a world where your children could become the same physical age of their parents, or even surpass it? Physically, parents and their children could be the same age.

If a byproduct of digital immortality is a decrease in the number of births, what does that mean for the human race? Many of our ideas and achievements exist because new generations build upon what the previous generations created. But if we become a stagnate population, will creativity stifle? How will we remain engaged and interested in the world around us? How long would it take before we become bored or unhappy with life? How will it affect the global economy?

Kurzweil's predictions have us reaching the technological capacity for digital immortality as early as 2029. But even if the technology is at our disposal, will we ever really be ready to take that leap?

Learn more about the singularity, futurism and cutting-edge technology by following the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Blue Brain Project. "In brief." 2010. (Mar 25, 2011)
  • Brushwood, Brian. "On Becoming a Virtual Ghost." Brian Brushwood: Bizarre Magic. Jan 15, 2011. (March 29, 2011)
  • Dehekker, Matt. "Futuristic Ray Kurzweil Sees The Future Of Immortality." Digital Journal. Apr. 28, 2009. (Mar 25, 2011)
  • Fish, Greg. "Ray Kurzweil's Digital Religion." Weird Things. May 22, 2009. (March 28, 2011)
  • Frank, Lee. "The Dream of Immortality." Digital Immortality Institute. 2009, (March 24, 2011)
  • Hamilton, Craig. "Chasing Immortality." EnlightenNext Magazine. September-November 2005. (March 23, 2011)
  • Hellerman, Caleb. "No scientific evidence diet supplements work." CNN Health. April 6, 2007. (March 24, 2011)
  • Kurzweil, Ray and Grossman, Terry. "Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough To Live Forever." Rodale Books. 2004.
  • Kurzweil, Ray. "The Singularity is Near." Penguin Group. Hudson Street, N.Y. 2005.
  • Lyons, Daniel. "I, Robot." Newsweek. May 16, 2009, (March 28, 2011)
  • Marks, Todd. "The Singularity is HERE." SXSW Interactive session. March 11, 2011, (March 25, 2011)
  • Moore, Gordon. "Cramming more components onto integrated circuits." Electronics, Vol. 38, Number 8, April 19, 1965.
  • Sample, Ian. "Harvard scientists reverse the ageing process in mice - now for humans." The Guardian. Nov. 28, 2010. (March 25, 2011)
  • Willis, Amy. "Immortality only 20 years away says scientist." The Telegraph. Sept. 22, 2009, (March 29, 2011)