Immortality is no longer a far-flung dream that lives only in the minds of science-fiction authors. It’s a quantifiable goal that, in all likelihood, humanity will soon surpass.
Putting aside ethical discussions (for the moment), how might one practically achieve immortality in the coming decades? I and many others in the longevity field have compiled a short list of four distinct scenarios.
How To Achieve Immortality: 4 Scenarios
Each scenario begins with a brief discussion of its theoretical foundations and perceived difficulty, and ends with a generous prediction.
As we age, different parts of our body break down at different speeds. Hearts, for example, tend to lose their function faster than other organs — this is one of the reasons why heart disease is the leading cause of death in many countries around the world.
The specific reasons for bodily breakdown are many (and they’re beyond the scope of this article) but most can be summarized as either direct or secondary byproducts of normal tissue-level or cell-level metabolic processes.
When your body metabolizes nutrients to form energy, certain metabolic byproducts are released. These are direct results of the chemical reactions involved in producing energy from food — and over time, they build up to cause a drastic breakdown of most bodily processes.
Biological enhancement refers to the incremental improvement of these processes over time, most likely through genetic therapies or complete organ transfer, and the use of each incremental improvement to buy time until the next discovery.
Instead of the heart commonly failing at 80, for example, genetic therapies could extend its lifespan to 120. Those forty added years would then see numerous new medical breakthroughs — one that, perhaps, extends the lifespan of your now-elderly liver from 110 to 160. As time goes on, each successive ‘purchase’ of time becomes larger due to the contributions of medical science, and eventually, you bypass aging entirely.
Because of the incremental nature of biological enhancement, many longevity experts and futurists believe that this is the most plausible immortality scenario. In fact, scientists like Aubrey De Grey believe that the first person to live to 1000 has already been born. Many others in the field hold a more conservative approach, but agree that, in all likelihood, humankind will ‘crack the code’ to longevity long before the twenty second century.
Cybernetics refers to ‘the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things’.
Similar to the concept of biological enhancement above, cybernetic integration rests on the belief that biological organs and tissues are needlessly inefficient, and many of the problems of aging can be alleviated by cybernetic integration with superior devices.
Instead of incrementally improving the efficiency of your liver, for example, one might replace it entirely with either a fully synthetic liver, or a collection of small, microscopic robots that roam your circulatory system metabolizing drugs and alcohol. Iron liver just got a whole new meaning.
Scientists that strongly believe in cybernetic integration suggest that we’re already well on our way. Devices like pacemakers, hearing aids, and cochlear implants improve and (in some cases) completely replace biological function, and it’s only a matter of time before more sophisticated synthetic models replace other, more essential organs and tissues.
Most cybernetic integrationists feel strongly that such advances will be made in the next century. Additionally, more and more are beginning to believe that the most likely cybernetic integration scenario involves miniaturization technologies like nanobots rather than full-scale organ replacements.
Adisclaimer: I believe that this is the most likely scenario by far — and one that we’ll reach within the next twenty to thirty years. My bias comes from my four years spent in neuroscience labs, and thousands of hours eagerly devouring articles on scanning technologies.
High fidelity digital scanning refers to the process of systematically recording and uploading the human brain at a sufficient enough resolution that you can simulate neuronal function.
You are your brain. Your brain is you. If you can simulate, at high enough fidelity, the movements of electrical currents moving throughout your brain and the detailed structures that make it unique, you should be able to create a perfect copy of yourself.
Such an entity, by nature, would instantly cease to be a perfect copy of you the moment that it is scanned due to a divergence of experience between progenitor and copy. However, it would still be you — it would think, experience, and live life exactly like you would (given the same environmental context).
Exponential advancements in computing hardware suggest that such simulations are possible within the next few decades. They would also render you effectively immortal — especially considering the incredibly low corruption rate over time of modern digital storage solutions.
Digital consciousness would open a new realm of possibilities for the human race. Could we transmit ourselves across the stars? Alter our algorithmic structure? Build societies on single hard drives? Such questions are incredibly exciting, and not without merit.
Contrarians to high-fidelity digital scanning often note that this is not true immortality. That, because of the discontinuity in consciousness, you would still subjectively experience aging and death once you leave the scanning booth — your copy and you are distinct entities, after all.
In response, a few researchers have noted that discontinuities in consciousness occur all the time. Sleep, for example, leads to an incredible discontinuity in consciousness. So do concussions. Your brain activity before and after are two distinct patterns. Does that mean that the you that is reading this article dies every time it goes to sleep?
There may be no correct answer. Personally, I would much rather have this form of immortality than nothing at all. I think of it like an insurance policy — even if I do die, knowing that my consciousness is alive elsewhere would give me more hope in the future than the alternative.
Ifthe three scenarios listed above do not occur within a reasonable enough time span, futurologists have a simple cop-out: cryonics.
As explained in the scenario on digital high fidelity scanning, you are your brain. Your brain is you. Everything you know, every experience you’ve ever had, is represented on a microscopic map on your brain constantly bombarded with electrical activity.
Additionally, as described in the rest of the scenarios, exponential advancements in science and technology are turning fiction into fact — new, amazing things are growing increasingly possible every year.
Cryonics takes the two above facts and poises the question: what if, prior to death, you could ‘pause’ your brain activity with no biological repercussions, and then ‘play’ it hundreds of years in the future when immortality is truly possible?
The field is still in its relative infancy. For example, thawing and freezing, due to the kinetics of water molecules, still lead to substantial damage and corruption of brain structures. But progress is being made.
Your Role In How To Achieve Immortality
Asscience and technology continue to progress exponentially, we’ll see swift movement towards each of these scenarios. Eventually, however, our species’ relentless drive for efficiency will lead to us favoring one form of immortality over the other.
For example, if we can achieve high-fidelity digital scanning over the next forty years, the vast majority of humankind will aim to scan and upload as soon as possible, rather than spend their time waiting for metabolic enhancement. The opportunity cost of not doing so is simply too immense.
As mentioned prior, immortality has migrated from the realm of myth to that of cold, calculating science. I have no doubt we will soon achieve this — humans have a habit of reaching and surpassing goals that, at one time, were incomprehensible to our ancestors (like the moon landing, digital computers, and artificial intelligence).
Understandably, many of you reading this have yet to fully internalize that immortality is possible. I urge you to treat the topic not as most people have — like idyllic fantasy at the dinner table — but as an actual, realizable goal that we are mere decades from achieving.
The sooner we can get the bulk of society behind the concept of immortality, the sooner we can eliminate needless death and suffering. And that’s the first step to reaching humankind’s real potential: brave pioneers in a vast and beautiful universe. Go forth and spread the message!