Please Kill Me (Eventually)

Techno-utopia’s promise of “immortality” is scary and gross.

Apr 16 2015, 2:00pm

Image: ​jamz196/Flickr

"Meet the inventor who plans to live forever," ran the headline of last Sunday's "Breakfast With the ​FT" column, in which Ray Kurzweil, who invented the flatbed scanner and the first text-to-speech systems, invited the Financial Times's Caroline Daniel to breakfast in his San Francisco apartment. The meal consisted of berries, smoked fish, dark chocolate, vanilla WestSoy milk, and, Daniel reported, "a bowl of tepid, dense porridge that [remained] largely uneaten by me." Kurzweil also downed his 30 morning pills, part of a daily supplement regimen that costs "a few thousand dollars a day" and includes coenzyme Q10, lutein and bilberry extract, glutathione IV, vinpocetine and pyridoxal 5-phosphate.

In addition to his work as an inventor and computer scientist, Kurzweil is a co-founder of Singularity University and author of The Singularity is Near. The Singularity is the moment when human biology will be transcended through a merger with The Machines: in other words, when nonbiological intelligence exceeds the human kind. Kurzweil believes the Singularity will occur sometime aro​und 2045. A host of techno-utopians have subscribed to this idea; the Singularity University website boasts the corporate sponsorship of Google, Genentech, Nokia, and Cisco.

Image:  ​Singularity University

Kurzweil means to stay healthy enough to survive until what he calls "Bridge Two," when advances in biotechnology will permit the reprogramming of our genetic makeup, and "Bridge Three," when we'll achieve the ability to rebuild our bodies through nanotechnology. Kurzweil says that artificial intelligence will "go from being in our pockets to inside our bodies and brains."

On closer inspection, the immortality this guy is selling sounds about as appetizing as his breakfast.

If immortality were to mean, as many Singularitarians seem to believe, the "uploading" of your consciousness into a Matrix-like virtual world via some kind of mediating super-nano-Oculus virtual cloud-gizmo, would any halfway sentient human being willingly sign up for such a dependent, uncertain future? The distance between these fairy tales and their coming true is vast, to say the least. But more than this, it would require a leap of faith beyond anything Pope Francis could imagine to believe, as Kurzweil, Larry Page, Peter Thiel, and Peter Diamandis appear to do, that such an existence—even if it could "cure death"—would be a remotely desirable one.

Firstly, Kurzweil & Co.'s vision of immortality, no matter what assurances they may like to give to the contrary, would necessarily entail a significant loss of autonomy and free will. Your whole being, all in the hands of the Machines. And more to the point, subject to the whims of those who run the Machines. Beholden to them. Can they shut you off? Imprison or torture you? What if you make an enemy among them, as free-minded citizens have frequently shown themselves liable to do? Will there be a Morpheus to show us the way out? Haha, unlikely!

And exactly what is the point of existence without an unfettered will? What dangers might come of entrusting your consciousness to some Silicon Valley triumphalist third party, with no way of backing out? Surely our condition is precarious enough as it is?

Furthermore, the history of schemes like Kurzweil's has been anything but encouraging so far. Take cryonics, for example—the freezing of bodies in hopes of later thawing and reanimation. This American Life once told the tale of the earliest cryonics companies, which were run by hopeful enthusiasts with no scientific backgrounds, and not the foggiest practical clue as to how to proceed. Nor was there a sufficient budget with which to keep their frozen membership from thawing until the glorious days of resuscitation should arrive, which turned out to be quite a difficult, complicated and expensive undertaking. The TAL transcript makes for sad reading.

Her name was Marie Sweet. And among the things she left when she died, there was a photograph someone had taken of her 27 years earlier, along with a handwritten message. It said, "This is as I wish to be restored."

According to the webs​ite of Alcor, a Scottsdale company which currently maintains 134 human popsicles in the deep freeze for ​eventual resuscitation, all but one of the corpses frozen before 1974 by pioneering cryonics firms have already ​been thawed through a variety of misadventures and buried (or cremated)—nine of them thawing and putrefying all at once in what is known in cryonics circles as "The Chatsworth Disaster." (And note well that we are nowhere near curing malaria, let alone reanimating the dead.) The sole "survivor" of early cryopreservation is one James Bedford, frozen in 1967, whose cells are probably not in the greatest shape owing to imperfect perfusion and storage snafus.

Alcor's most recent arrival is Matheryn Naovaratpong, Alcor member A-2789, who died of brain cancer this January in Bangkok. Though she never made​ it to her third birthday, this little one endured a whole lot of medical interventions, ​to no avail

Matheryn's family, extending well beyond her mother and father, were supportive and have said they plan to also make cryopreservation arrangements with Alcor. No doubt being surrounded by familiar faces of loving relatives will make the resumption of her life—as we hope and expect to be happen [sic]—easier and more joyful. 

A toddler who died after a dozen neurosurgeries, plus "aggressive chemotherapy [and] high dose radiation therapy." You can imagine the parents' hope that the child can be brought back in a world where medicine can give her a real chance to experience life. But there's a terrible irony in considering the hope once offered, too, by the earlier scientific promises those parents were made, procedure after procedure, waiting room after waiting room, surgery after surgery, throughout their daughter's short and painful life.

Alcor "resident" Number 128 is Hal Finney, a famous cryptographer and Bitcoin pioneer who died of ALS in Scottsdale last year. His wife, Fran, has also made arrangements for her own cryopreservation. Alcor's website says that Fran "is glad to have a chance to see him again sometime in the future when they may return in restored and rejuvenated bodies." Finney was a scientist, but this is language familiar to anyone who has ever been to a Christian church on Sunday. Full-body preservation at Alcor starts at $200,000, but you can also do just your brain, if you want to go Futurama-style, for quite a bit less.

Don't get me wrong, I am in no hurry to die, but all these hypermodern visions of "immortality" fill me with real horror, plus an Elizabethan or maybe 19th-century desire for death in the form of a blissful oblivion, or as Heaven, or sleep, or just nothingness—anything, anything but paying two hundred grand to die and be pumped full of antifreeze and popsicleized, only to be pathetically thawed out a little while later, probably in some accident or episode of neglect, and leak antifreeze all over and probably provoke general mortification, disgust and lawsuits. If there's anyone even left around to sue, or be sued.

Let's face it: human beings are impermanent and fallible. Those are our trademark things!—impermanence and fallibility. The far likelier fate of Singularitarians like Thiel and Kurzweil was brought most admirably to the screen in this fictionalized beta test from 1986 (the relevant clip starts around 3:17):

In the trail​er for The Fly there is quite a telling line: "There is a limit even to the imagination, where our greatest creations meet our deepest fears... you are about to go beyond that limit." (Something went wrong, Seth! When you went through... something went wrong!)

Roman Ormandy, a Czech émigré and computer scientist whose English is not very polished, but whose reasoning is eminently so, wrote recently on this subject on the Wi​red community blogs (sic throughout):

[F]rom Ray Kurzweill and Peter Thiel on, many silicon valley prodigies are obsesses with the idea of becoming immortal via mind upload into silicon. Threat of death is a powerful emotion indeed, but it belongs in realm of religious thinking rather than "dispassionate and objective science" they profess to advocate.

Technology can help us confront any number of real problems, but we have to understand the nature of their reality first, and face it clearly. Any rationalist worthy of the name will infinitely prefer the position of Atul Gawande to that of Ray Kurzweil on questions of death and technology. Gawande's book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End is as useful, practical and realistic as Kurzweil's is destructive, solipsistic and delusional.

In Being Mortal, Gawande explores a lot of great ideas about how to make death more endurable, easier, even in large degree painless, many of which have to do with understanding the things that make life significant and meaningful. For example, learning to see one's own existence as a smaller part of a greater, more valuable whole.

The individualist puts self-interest first, seeing his own pain, pleasure, and existence as his greatest concern... Nothing could matter more than self-interest, and because when you die you are gone, self-sacrifice makes no sense...

The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don't, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not.

Gawande is sensibly opposed to the blind prolongation of an ever-emptier, more meaningless life through ever more painful medical interventions. There is much that the wise application of technology can do to help us ease off this mortal coil, instead of tormenting ourselves at the natural end of life in a futile, undignified and excruciating attempt to keep it somehow duct-taped on. Train more people in geriatrics, for example. Learn new ways to make life safe, healthy, fun and interesting for the old. Think like a community, a brotherhood, not like atomized competing individuals a few of whom can somehow "beat the system" of the universe. Maybe it is better to examine clearly what we are with a view to understanding and acceptance than it is to try to escape what perhaps should be our inevitable ending.

Because maybe the real blue pill is being sold the red one.

Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.