Friday, April 9, 2010


For age is opportunity no less
Than youth itself, though in another dress,
And as the evening twilight fades away
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.

-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Some people want to achieve immortality through their work or their descendants. I would prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.
- Woody Allen

There is only one compelling reason to want immortality – it is because you are enjoying life. Our knee-jerk reactions against immortality are because life gets miserable once disease, depression, disability and decrepitude arrive. It can also be seen that death brings relief from boredom, sadness, drudgery and despair. One can argue that since sleep is great, death must be heaven.

There are also abstract reasons for and against immortality. Its been argued that people will treat the world more kindly if they know they must live with it forever. Or it can be argued that civilization will advance more assuredly if there would be more of a hands-on transferring of experience. On the other hand, it can be argued that there will be less room for new talent to shine if the old guard never leaves the stage. Or that society will change too slowly if a gerontocracy holds onto power. I don’t consider any of these abstract reasons particularly compelling. They all have such a “maybe so, maybe not” character. What is unambiguous, though, is that if you love being alive, you’ll want to continue being alive. If you don’t, you won’t mind a peaceful death.

Mindclones shouldn’t feel their bodies falling apart because (a) they won’t have a real body, and (b) painful sensations from virtual bodies should be more easily remediable than flesh maladies. Thus, welcoming death to avoid the fragility of old age seems inapplicable to our cyberconscious selves. But since it is our minds, not our bodies, that feel depression, boredom, sadness and drudgery, those reasons will continue to pull us, even as mindclones, into the sweet embrace of everlasting sleep.

Some people enjoy their lives until the very end. Many of those will be the kind of people who quest for the immortality of the mindclone. Other people are dissatisfied with their life, and are thus much less likely to activate their mindfile with mindware to create an immortal mindclone. But there are also many exceptions in both categories. One of my favorite people, Thomas Starzl, MD, is now in his eighties and lives the exciting life of a celebrated organ transplant pioneer. He travels the world to receive awards and recognition, and he receives countless letters of gratitude from the thousands of people who are still alive due to his medical breakthroughs with liver and kidney transplantation. Immortality category? No. Tom tells me that he would not want to take the risk that an immortalized version of him turned out to be insane. Another friend of mine has suffered just about every bad economic and emotional break the world has to offer. Despite her sufferings, she is a kindly soul and looks forward to creating an immortal mindclone. Like the Hindi believers in reincarnation, her view is that the next life has got to be better than this one. She wants to grab a good place in the queue.

Mindclone creators will surely want a “kill-switch” so that the gravely unhappy mindclone can end it all with the cybernetic equivalent of hemlock, wrist-slashing, overdosing, hanging or a bullet. No doubt some mindclones will kill themselves out of some kind of depression. Mindclone suicide may well be as large a problem as its flesh-based cousin. On the other hand, anti-suicide legislation may also criminalize assisting the suicide of a mindclone.

There are two reasons the number of self-terminated mindclone lives is likely to be small. First, it takes an inordinate amount of motivation to kill oneself. While it is terrible that one million people do take their lives annually, the one million people who die naturally every week swamp that toll. Second, not one of the million people who kill themselves each year ever asked to be born. By contrast, every mindclone brought into existence asked to do so. They might not have known what they were getting into, and they might regret it so much they kill themselves, but at least they started their life with an intention to continue living.

Among the things mindclones will do that will keep them wanting to live are: reading books (“so many books, so little time…”), watching movies, writing poetry, creating art, chatting with friends, making virtual (but still orgasmic, via digital haptics) love, playing sports and games, learning new things, going to virtual parties, working in real companies to make money, starting non-profit organizations, star-gazing, parenting younger mindclones, and mentoring flesh people. Mindclones will pine for healthy bodies, and thankfully miss diseased ones. In general, there will be as much to live for as a mindclone as there was as a person. So, if the original person would have wanted to keep on living, it is likely that the mindclone, who is the same personality and consciousness as the original person, would also want to keep on living.

There are also several special situations where mindclones seem to have uniquely compelling justifications. For example, many jobs entail risking one’s life for the benefit of society. These professions include police, firemen and soldiers. It seems reasonable to permit these brave souls to have a mindclone backup so that all is not necessarily lost if they have to lose their life to save the lives of others. A similar special case involves astronauts on long duration, and necessarily hazardous, space missions.

In summary, we and our mindclones will want to keep on living if we are the kind of people that wish for more life, and are willing to accept its cybernetic equivalent while hoping for a future download into a cellular regenerated fresh body. Many if not most of us are not those people. To this large cohort, life is something to be enjoyed or endured as best as possible, but to ultimately surrender in exchange for a blissful eternity of dreamless sleep. Clearly, this is not a cohort that will sign up for mindclones.

Creating a mindclone is much more momentous than having a child or getting married. Those responsibilities have limited or limitable durations. When you create a mindclone, you are eliminating the possibility of a natural, or accidental, or unexpected death. That’s a big thing to give away. But you are gaining a shot at an eternity of living life to its fullest, and you still have the escape of death, albeit now only through the emotionally arduous route of cyber-suicide.

How many people will grab the mindclone brass ring? We know that as death approaches, and if the alternative is not pain and suffering, then most people do whatever is in their power to avoid death. Not only do most people not commit suicide (in part due to its illegality), they will spend their last dollar and put up with many medical interventions to stay alive. This is a reason to believe that once people become comfortable, through familiarity, with cyberconscious life, that a majority of people will choose to activate a mindclone.

Creating a mindclone will likely become thought of as a form of organ transplantation. The organ being transplanted is the brain, although it is the brain’s mind rather than the brain’s flesh that is being moved, and it is being moved from a diseased body rather than into one. Nevertheless, from the patient’s perspective, whether they consent to a mindclone-based “brain transplant” or to a conventional heart, lung, liver or kidney transplant, they are just trying to keep on living, not to be “immortal.”

A mindclone-based “brain transplant,” for example, could give doctors an opportunity to completely rebuild a badly diseased body. Or even more fantastically, if a diseased body were a total loss, a new body could be grown from stem cells in an artificial womb. This process is called ectogenesis and is the subject of significant scientific progress. If a stem cell continued to divide and grow at the rate of a natural human fetus during its first six months, by the 20th month it would reach adult size. A mindclone-based “brain transplant” team would then endeavor to write back onto the new brain’s neurons, or mechanically (via an implanted microcomputer) interface to them, the information patterns contained within the mindclone.

Once the mindclone was replicated back in the newly grown flesh body, ey (‘ey’ is pronounced ‘ee’ as in ‘tree’ and means he or she) would continue to live as a dual-substrate person – one legal identity, but two instantiations, one in the new flesh brain and one in mindclone. This decision to be a dual substrate identity would have been taken when the mindclone was first created. It is a momentous decision, but so is deciding to accept a heart transplant knowing that due to organ shortages someone else will therefore die for lack of that heart.

The unprecedented opportunities brought to us by advanced medical technology have unconventional legal and ethical sequelae. Be it frozen embryos, surrogate mothers, kidney donations or computerized prosthetics, we have been able to get comfortable with the moral consequences. We have repeatedly shown ourselves to both be able to create life-affirming possibilities that have never before existed, and to then accommodate such creations to our ancient life-respecting values.

Ultimately mindclone activation may be a generational sort of thing. Mindclones will be largely eschewed by older generations that grew up with death as a natural end to life. But mindclones will be welcomed by younger generations – digital natives -- that grew up knowing mindclones. The bottom line is that there can be a compelling reason to keep on living after bodily death, and most people want to keep on living. Hence, as the public becomes comfortable with mindclones as a form of life, the immortality aspect of mindclones will be much more of a drawing card than a turn-off.