This week, UK-based futurologist Ian Pearson announced humanity will achieve immortality by the year 2050. Is he right?
According to the former rocket scientist and IT engineer – who claims to have an 85 percent success rate “when looking 10-15 years ahead” – recent advances in biomedical and computing technology will inevitably lead to victory over death via one of three means:
Pearson, talking to The Sun, highlights the possible adoption of genetic engineering strategies that prevent or reverse cellular aging; though the article is vague, he is perhaps alluding to the bacteria-derived gene editing tool, CRISPR-Cas 9. He also posits that new organs or body parts could simply be replaced, as needed, thanks to 3D printing.
"No one wants to live forever at 95 years old, but if you could rejuvenate the body to 29 or 30, you might want to do that," he said.
To Pearson's credit, CRISPR does indeed represent a revolution in the treatment of genetic disorders and diseases. Existing research shows that the molecular tool can be programmed to alter precisely targeted sequences of DNA without harming other sections of the genome. Additionally, studies released within the last several months indicate that we are getting closer to the ability to regrow organs or body structures using cultured stem cells, often combined with a 3D-printed scaffold to guide the cell’s development into the right shape.
Though intervening to keeping our bodies running indefinitely, like a well-cared for 1990s Toyota, is the least jarring of the possible avenues, Pearson believes the most likely path to immortality involves creating sophisticated brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) that link the entire brain to an operating system. By 2050, the system will be so advanced that we can sit at home (or lay in a pod of goo) while interacting with our surroundings via remote-operated androids.
"A long time before we get to fix our bodies and rejuvenate it every time we feel like, we'll be able to link our minds to the machine world so well, we'll effectively be living in the cloud," he said.
Small, surgically implanted BCIs have already proven capable of facilitating operation of robotic prosthetics or external computers by individuals with paralysis or amputations and externally mounted BCIs allow completely locked-in patients to answer yes or no questions.
As of now, though, the technology is limited to interpreting brain signals that either come from one part of the brain, like the motor cortex, or are completely unambiguous, like the differences in brain activation when thinking “yes” vs “no”.
BCIs that can translate the pattern of neuron firings required to compose poetry in French are thus quite far off, but considering the progress made in the nascent field’s 20-year history, Pearson’s predictions may be reasonable. Plus, the US government, Facebook, and – sorry Pearson – everyone’s favorite futurologist, Elon Musk, are all funding new BCI development.
Of course, the technology behind the physical functionality of the androids will be old hat by 2050, thanks to the current push for realistic robots made by the sex doll industry.
Into the Matrix
Eventually, Pearson surmises that humanity will have the opportunity to eschew a physical form altogether and choose to live in a simulated world. Outside of sci-fi movie plots, this concept has actually been around for some time among followers of the Transhumanist movement. In a 2011 video, Pearson conceded that though his ideas might seem outlandish, they are merely projections of what will be possible given our current rate of innovation.
“The reason I don’t normally talk about 50 years hence is because when you go out that out you’re talking about immortality technology and stuff that you really associate with something beyond the other side of star trek…That’s how fast things are moving. And people then just think you’re being wacky, but really, in a 50-year timeline you can put an end to death, you can download your entire mind onto a computer and store it forever.”
On top of the humongous pile of ethical and existential questions these projections bring up, we add one more to the pile. After biological death has been solved, what do we do about the solar flare that will inevitably cause all the servers storing our consciousnesses to short circuit?