Are paper and flesh destined to become vestigial? Is our carbon-based biology to be transformed by the new alchemy to one based on silicon?
I am sensitive to the above questions because of my recent insertion into the issue of immortality. This whole thrust was initiated by an editor at Newsweek, who was challenged by reading the present Prudential Life Insurance billboards proclaiming that our kids will live to be 150 years old and beyond.
He dispatched a senior writer, Andy Romano, who set up an in-person debate between Aubrey de Grey and myself. I am a traditional type of guy about life and its inevitable end. DeGrey has other plans. He speculates that with the present doubling rate of knowledge, within a very few years we will know everything there is to know including how not to die.
The subsequent Newsweek article, July 27, featured good give and take from both of us. (Of course, I was right).
The second relevant event occurred as the Time magazine cover story Sept. 7 asked, in bold type, "Can Google Solve Death?"
Such provocation prompted an earlier blog by myself on this issue acknowledging the imminence of the ultimate app of "immortality." Click here, don't die.
The meteoric success of Google prompts the sense of infallibility. But maybe this time they are over-reaching.
My good friend Leonard Hayflick, who is one of the acknowledged global leaders in all things aging, considers aging to be a precise reflection of the commandments inherent in the Second Law of Thermodynamics, as do I. Therefore, our conclusion is that death is not accessible to intervention. Similarly, 2+2 equals 4. Time always moves uni-directionally regardless of other seeming technologic advances. Some basic truths resist updating, despite Google.
In our discussions about the Time article, Leonard referenced a book called the Book of Immortality by Adam Gollner (1). It is a tour de force for anyone interested in not dying, a must-read. It explores millennia worth of whimsical conjectures about what happens after life. This makes for sometimes bizarre conjectures.
But it is in his address of the recent venturers about potential immortality, like Aubrey, that the book fascinates. All of these newly-minted conjurers have an iota of science in their propositions, but no compelling evidence of reality. It is in Gollner's discussion of these that I found most interest.
Also one of the new recent commentators is Stephen Hawking, who suggests that immortality may indeed exist if you are willing to consider it as a computer chip that is embedded with all of the information contained in our individual brains. This then becomes a proxy of "not wearing out" since silicon will live far beyond carbon.
This suggests that transplants are the approach to immortality. I resist this suggestion based on the analogy of a pair of green socks that is repeatedly darned with red yarn and eventually becomes red socks. We lose individuality, just like cloning. You can't clone Michael Jordan, or anyone, and expect a replica.
I recall a column in the New York Times some years ago that presented the prospect of computer chips made to represent human experience such as Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D, or Liebestod, or a Grand Canyon sunset, or a Super Bowl touchdown, or an orgasm. These were all to be inserted in some key place in the brain and summoned merely on a click. Instant gratification on command. I much prefer the old fashioned way.
One of my most cherished patients was John McCarthy, the acknowledged father of artificial intelligence, AI. His brain bulged with intellect and memories of his activities that helped to birth the computer. John, in his early days, arranged for the famous chess match between Big Blue and Kasparov. I extracted as much of his wisdom as possible. I cried when he died. I made many house calls on him at his Stanford campus home during his last year, each replete with precious insights. He insisted that the human brain is much more than a computer made of meat, and therefore not susceptible to a metallic transplant.
Sadly, too many newspapers and books and even libraries are susceptible to this electronic evolutionary transformation. I savor the memory of libraries. Sitting now at Stanford Medical Library I find only electrical outlets instead of the stacks. I dedicated my earlier book,"Growing Older for Dummies," to books because of my affection for the marvelous intimacies that they have provided through my long searching life.
Therefore I resist the notion that words on paper are a threatened species. The prospect that our brains will be replaced by "diamondoid nanobots assembled from billions of precisely arranged structural atoms" (1) is terrifying. When computers pretend to update our Stone Age software by digitizing memory onto chips the Singularity will be upon us. Our disembodied brains will live forever in silicon.
I hope that I am not there when this happens.
Don't hold your breath.
Reference: (1) A. L. Gollner, The Book of Immortality, 2013, Scribner.