Monday, 14 March 2016

Immortal by Not Dying

The quote in the title is from a song by evangelical satirist (or satirical evangelical) Steve Taylor:

"Immortality's what I'm buying
But I'd rather be immortal by not dying."

A quote brought to my mind by the news that za man plans to gain 'immortality' by having his brain uploaded to a computer.

Well, where to start? Where do I always start? 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This is not immortality. Because one day there will be no energy left to power this virtual brain. Or, in all probability, all power sources will get smashed up in riots / wars / meteor storms long before your digital remains were uploaded to another planet.

In principle, however, if it were possible to upload your brain to gain immortality why wouldn't you? Sure it's not immortality. But it's longer than your three score and ten (four score if you have the strength).

If you knew that it were you. Because if you uploaded your still-living brain - which "you" would be you? The organic you, just after the upload, would realise that it still wasn't "immortal" even if the digital you were. So the organic you would want to do another upload. And another. And another. Each time erasing your screaming digital self. And eventually you'd realise that what you really needed was a hot standby.

But at what point would you take the transfer to the hot standby? If your brain were being replicated real time to the Cloud (Celestibole or otherwise) and you died instantly in a car crash, you'd want the standby to be working right up to the moment of impact to ensure "you" were immortal.

But what about if you were suffering from  a degenerative brain condition? My Gran, of blessed memory, spent her last three years convinced she was living in 1930s Holloway. The thought of spending all eternity going "maybe that nice Mr Chamberlain will sort out the Czech problem - knees up, Muvver Brarn" - that's not appealing. But the thought of identifying the precise moment in a slow, long, tragic process that is the right moment to make the jump to cyberspace - preserving the true you - is meaningless. Those who know people with advanced senility are aware that, even amid a lot of drivel and confusion, every now and then a piece of music, a prayer, a keyword can bring the real person back.

No. To ensure digital immortality it would be necessary to copy a living brain across, and then immediately extinguish the brain that was copied. God help you if it then turned out the backup was corrupt.

So now you are a digital, immortal brain. What next? Obviously it would be nice to get some extra processor chip and memory - at least you could while away eternity being better at "Pointless" than when you were organic. But there's serious downsides.

What about viruses? It only takes the person running your data centre to click on a dodgy link and next thing you know there's Taiwanese Cheese Erotica being broadcast from your brain as part of a botnet of disembodied brains.

Then there is the backup strategy. Every time they test the disaster recovery process there will be two of you. And now which one is immortal? When they scratch the DR disks to reinstall Little Jimmy Krankie, your second ego will discover that in cyber space, noone can hear you scream.

But the worst of it? Who will be in charge of your immortal remains, at least as long as this civilisation lasts? Geeks, that's who. People for whom the IT Crowd isn't a sitcom - it's a slice-of-live documentary. You will be slowed down when they decide to install "Call of Duty" on the servers. You will be switched off, then back on again, when they don't know how to stop you looping. They will download you to Android devices. They will cock up your upgrades, leaving you with inoperable personality features. You will wake up in the morning able to appear only Finnish, after they cock up your language pack.

Good luck, cyber-eternity-boy. You're gonna need it.


  1. What if we're immortal anyway? Can the new 'you' be hyper-immortal? Or does trying to cheat preclude you from immortality?

  2. This possibility was all anticipated back in the 1940s (I think) in a very good scifi novella, No Woman Born by C L Moore.
    A woman gets terribly burned by accident, so badly that the doctors can't save her, but one scientist reckons that if they can keep her brain alive he can construct an artificial body. Which he successfully does.
    And of course her friends are all so sorry for her trapped in this metal shell, so vulnerable to hatred and prejudice. Until they realize....
    But you have to read the whole thing to understand the dénouement. It must be in the public domain by now.

    Or even earlier than that, the Struldbrugs. It gives a little frisson to discover that Swift, before he wrote that, had had to watch his patron, quite possibly his natural father, descend into early-onset Alzheimer's.

  3. Thanlky-ho for scribblit beautymost linkage "Celestibole". Deep, deep joy.

  4. An interesting exploration of some of this in the Long Earth series by Pratchett and Baxter.


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