We Will Be the Lords of Creation

Envisioning Our Immortal Future with Science Fiction Writer Robert J. Sawyer

(Originally published in What Is Enlightenment?, Issue 30, Sept–Nov 2005)


“Of course, there are many advantages to artificial bodies, even at the current state of technology. Just like our artificial brains, they are virtually indestructible. The braincase, for instance, is titanium, reinforced with carbon-nanotube fibers. If you decide you want to go skydiving, and your parachute fails to open, your new brain still won’t get damaged on impact. If—God forbid!—someone shoots you with a gun, or stabs you with a knife—well, you’d almost certainly still be fine.”
Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer

Science fiction writers have always been one step ahead of the technological curve. Although none anticipated the proliferation of personal computers, countless other life-changing technologies first entered our collective consciousness in fictional form. Aldous Huxley, writing in 1932, imagined a world populated by genetically engineered humans twenty-one years before Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA; Arthur C. Clarke famously envisioned the communications satellite in 1945, twelve years before the launch of Sputnik I and nineteen years before the first geostationary satellite was placed in orbit; George Orwell foresaw closed-circuit surveillance technology decades before Big Brother peered at us through electronic eyes in the ceiling of every Wal-Mart store; and in 1984, William Gibson’s Neuromancer described a world dominated by a global computer network called “the matrix,” nearly a decade before the World Wide Web came online.

But today, as the rate of technological advancement increases exponentially every year, science fiction (“SF”) writers are facing stiff competition, from scientists themselves and also from that specialized breed of pseudo-psychics known as “futurists.” Yet good SF writers still possess something that most scientists and futurists sorely lack—namely, the capacity to translate a potential new technology into the foundation for a vividly imagined and emotionally engaging world. So last spring, when researching the numerous scientific and futurist claims regarding immortality for this issue of WIE, one question naturally emerged: Who can fully conceive of what will happen to the human race once we’re all finally liberated from the ever-looming blight of death?

Enter acclaimed Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer.

Sawyer has considered the human implications of various forms of immortality in seven of his seventeen novels, beginning ten years ago with The Terminal Experiment. Winning 1995’s Nebula Award—science fiction’s equivalent of the Oscar—for best novel, the story revolves around a medical equipment engineer who one day stumbles upon empirical proof of the undying human soul. Although the SF genre typically avoids dealing with such transcendental topics, Sawyer’s boldness propelled him to the forefront of his field, eventually winning him the Hugo Award (SF’s other top prize) for best novel in 2003.

With his latest book, Mindscan, Sawyer puts an intriguing spin on the living-forever theme. Its premise? That in the near future, human beings will be able to duplicate themselves while still alive by copying their consciousness into indestructible robotic bodies, thus ensuring their ability to live dramatically longer lives. But the question remains: Once there are two of you, which is the real you? Like most of Sawyer’s work, Mindscan ventures into subjects that few SF authors dare to take seriously—questions concerning the nature of consciousness, the soul, and God—and remains firmly grounded in scientific theory while excelling in the speculative fiction department as well.

Employing that skill to full effect when I spoke with him about this issue’s feature topic, Sawyer explained the scientific basis behind some claims of imminent immortality, but he extrapolated well beyond the science into a vision of the future that could stretch even the most avid SF reader’s already open mind.

I: Fear of Death, Frozen Heads, and Uploaded Souls

Tom Huston: A lot of people probably don’t realize that the subject of radical life extension—or even immortality itself—isn’t just the stuff of science fiction, but that a growing number of scientists from a variety of fields are taking the possibility very seriously. What do you suppose is motivating the current spate of research into this topic?

Robert J. Sawyer: There is no question that from the moment at which we first became conscious of our own mortality, we’ve lived in fear of death. A defining characteristic of human consciousness is the ability to think ahead, anticipate what’s going to happen in the future, and plan to avoid an unpleasant future or work out a good one. Cows, for example, never sit there asking, “How can I be the best of all possible cows tomorrow?” They’re just a cow, day after day.

We have that ability. And so we also foresee the end of our own existence, and dread it. Cows don’t fear that eventually they’re going to die. They’ll certainly be terrified if they see you coming at them with a battle axe, but they’re not terrified in a cosmic sense that some day it’s all going to come to an end. But we are, from the moment we become aware of our mortality. And so the drive to circumvent death and go to great lengths to avoid it has always been with us—the pyramids are a classic example, but there’s also the apocryphal story of Walt Disney having his head cut off and frozen in liquid nitrogen. Somehow the idea of death is so tremendously terrifying that we’ll do anything to avoid it.

Huston: Given that in four billion years of biological evolution, nature has never produced a complex life-form capable of living forever, do you think there’s a degree of human arrogance involved in such pursuits as cryogenics, in which one chooses to have one’s body preserved on ice with hopes of eventually being thawed out?

Sawyer: There is humongous hubris here. The TV series Futurama had great fun with this—all these twentieth-century frozen heads on display in the future. We think somehow that the future would benefit from having the intellect of you or me around five hundred or five thousand years from now. But in fact, with very few exceptions, if you were to go back five hundred or five thousand years and pluck Joe Blow from that era and bring him to the present, there’s no contribution of any particular weight that he could make to our culture. Of course, if you could somehow magically revive Isaac Newton or William Shakespeare, there might be some value in that. But it is enormously hubristic and egotistical to think that what the future really needs is Rob Sawyer or Tom Huston. It doesn’t. What the future really needs is the people in the future.

Huston: Do you believe that soon we will have technologies available to us that will prevent us from dying in the first place, making us truly immortal?

Sawyer: Well, first, we should define our terms. When we talk about immortality, if we mean actually living forever—i.e., you will survive as long as the universe survives—I don’t think any of the technologies on the horizon are going to do that for us. In terms of substantially prolonging the human life span, I do think that biotechnology will make that possible. The fact that the human body decays after a handful of decades is an unfortunate fact of nature, but it’s hardly an immutable law of the universe that bodies have to rapidly wear out and die. I don’t know that it will happen in my lifetime, but I recently told my best friend, who just had a baby boy, “You and I are probably not going to live to see the twenty-second century, but there’s no question that your son Sebastian is. In fact, I’m willing to bet that Sebastian is going to live to see the twenty-third century.” In other words, that he’s going to live to be a couple of centuries old.

Huston: You’ve written in your novels about a number of different methods for prolonging life, including genetic engineering and nanotechnology—the idea that we can build molecule-sized robots to live inside our bodies and continuously repair any routine wear and tear. Are there any other technologies that you see emerging as serious contenders for our ticket to immortality?

Sawyer: Here we come to a fork in the road, because there are two ways you can look at profound extension of human life. One is to try and make this flesh and blood container last as long as possible. And I think I recently read a statistic that there are now over a thousand people on the planet earth who have documented proof that they’re over 110 years old. Well, about 110 years—maybe 120, if we’re really lucky—seems to be the maximum that our human bodies can survive without wearing out. Biotechnology and nanotechnology might give us 50–100, maybe even 150 years of additional life. But still, we are talking about something that’s made of fundamentally fragile material. There’s a reason that if you fall out of a forty-story office building, you go splat.

So the other possibility is to say, “No, the substrate, the flesh and bone infrastructure on which our consciousness rests, is inherently not durable over long time scales—century, millennia, epoch time scales. It is not good enough for that.” And then you get into the really radical notions of life prolongation, which involve the wholesale, total replacement of the body with something that’s robotic, something that’s mechanical, something that’s durable and is designed to last on mind-bogglingly long time scales.

Huston: You’re referring to the popular concept of “uploading consciousness,” which your new novel Mindscan explores. Can you say a bit more about the possibility that somehow, we’ll soon be able to copy our carbon-based minds into silicon machines?

Sawyer: Yes. Mindscan takes as its starting point something that Ray Kurzweil said in his book The Age of Spiritual Machines: that by the year 2019, we will have sufficient technology to scan with absolute fidelity everything that physically constitutes the human brain. That is, we will be able to map all of the interconnections, all of the synapses, and all of the neurotransmitter levels that are instantiated in each of those synapses. These days, everybody knows that you can digitize any kind of information to any degree of resolution you want. You can have a crappy MP3 recording of a song, or you can have a really full-bodied CD-quality recording. So the idea is that if you could make a high-resolution map of the brain, you could digitize it, and if you could digitize it, you could copy it somewhere else. And if you can put it somewhere else, you can put it inside a robotic body with cameras for eyes to look out on the world.

Huston: I suppose that might be better than biological immortality, at least in terms of physical durability. It certainly worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. But what do you think of its scientific plausibility?

Sawyer: It will absolutely be possible to scan a human brain and reinstantiate that brain inside a computer within the next twenty years. I don’t think anyone seriously disputes that. Even today, with our MRIs and our CAT scanners, we’re getting very good at being able to map how the brain stores some codes of information. The question is whether there’s something beyond just Newtonian mechanics, and/or beyond just neural nets, that makes up consciousness. Is what we see when we look at networks of synapses the actual consciousness, or, to use Roger Penrose’s phrase, is it just a “shadow” of the real consciousness, which we haven’t yet located? A shadow can be a good imitation of a substance, precisely mimicking its movements, but it isn’t the same thing. So even though we might indeed scan the neural nets and neurotransmitter levels perfectly, we might not be copying everything—some ineffable part of what we are might still be lost.

Will people opt for this technology? Absolutely. Will many people be happy with the results? Most transhumanists, who are reductionists to the core, will be. Will something nonetheless be lost in the copying? I suspect so. Still, a copy that is 99.9999 percent you is way, way more you than any child you might ever have, who, at best, is just fifty percent you. And parents talk about their children as being their immortality.

Huston: Okay, but even if we did have the ability to copy our minds into machines, what would happen to our souls?

Sawyer: Well, I hopefully demolished that problem in Mindscan. Though I personally do not believe in souls, I do believe that the logic of how we define souls does not preclude their transportation to somewhere else—whether it’s the Hindu version of the soul that says it can be reincarnated in another body, the Christian version of the soul that says it can go to heaven or hell after death, or the more generically spiritual version of the soul that says it can leave this plane of existence and move to another.

Here’s the argument: The soul clearly can exist separate from the body; we know that if we believe that the soul goes somewhere after death. We know that the soul has volition; God does not judge physical bodies. He doesn’t say, “Bad hand, bad hand that hit that person.” It was the bad soul that motivated you to hit that person. So we judge the soul on the basis of the fact that it can make choices. If you accept those two premises—that a soul can do what it chooses to do and that the soul can leave the body and go somewhere else—then when you transfer your consciousness into the android body, if it was your soul’s wish to do this, your soul can just as easily move over and take up residence in the android body. There’s no theological barrier to the soul following the digitally copied version of your mind to wherever that mind goes.

II: Ethics, Boredom, and Mastering Time and Space

Huston: Let’s suppose that some of this really does happen, and human beings suddenly find themselves endowed with immortality. Can you imagine what the social, ethical, or spiritual implications would be?

Sawyer: At least in the short term, immortality will create the ultimate gap between the haves and have-nots. There will be a lot of resentment toward the guy who basically can buy everlasting life. But two things will temper that. One is that eventually, immortality technology, like all technologies, will become cheap and widely available. And two is that in the meantime, although the elite might be able to make their biological bodies last virtually forever, the last thing you’d want is for some poor guy to decide he’s so resentful that he puts a bullet in your head, exceeding what the nanotechnology can repair. So as an immortal, it would be in your own self-interest to tackle social justice issues, to make sure that everybody else is happy and content and that there are no ghettos or political hot spots left on the planet where warring factions are going at each other.

But there would be an even bigger motivator than that for positive social change. The huge reality of our short lives, from most religious points of view, is that this is a prologue to the real life that is going to follow. That what you do here, and how you comport yourself in this life, sets the stage for what your existence is going to be in the life that is to come. You know, we use the word “immortality” without really thinking of its ramifications. Immortality does not mean living for several centuries, or until you get bored. Immortality means living forever. It means ceasing to have that dichotomy between this life and some life yet to come. Your present life becomes the only existence that your consciousness will ever, ever know. And that hugely changes the underpinning of most religious arguments for moral behavior. There is no undefined reward yet to come; there is no judgment by a God. There are simply human beings comporting themselves in a way that, hopefully, is beneficial to other human beings. And that makes for an enormous shift in what morality is all about.

Morality, then, is no longer self-serving—trying to get a good report card when you’re called up for accounts when you’re dead. Morality is making of this world the best possible existence, because it’s going to be the only possible existence. You’re not telling yourself, “Yeah, I did a little bit of good here, I helped an old lady across the street there. And, you know, I didn’t kick the dog when I could have. And therefore I will be rewarded with some paradise-like existence in some other realm that I can’t see right now.” Your only route to paradise, if you’re immortal, is to make this existence into an Eden, to make our world the best possible place it can be. It moves all of the desire to do good away from the selfish and personal—the sense that “I’m going to be rewarded personally for that”—and into the broadly societal. We all benefit if the world is a wonderful place.

Huston: One criticism that I’ve often heard being leveled against the idea of immortality is that if no one ever dies, the earth is going to become overpopulated, the resources are going to run dry, and we’re going to need to stop having children. Do you think that’s a valid concern?

Sawyer: It’s a semi-valid concern; it depends first on how we choose to have immortality. If we have biological immortality, as opposed to robotic immortality, then the resource issue is a big question. But one solution is to revitalize the manned space program—and ironically, I don’t think that’s what George Bush had in mind when he recently decided to do just that. The universe is almost infinite in extent. There are resources to be claimed in profusion outside our planet. You cannot have a combination of immortality, continued unchecked breeding, and no space program. It is literally true that what killed the dinosaurs was their lack of a space program—they couldn’t go anywhere else. And it’s going to be true of us. The manned space program goes hand in hand with the desire to live forever.

Now, you can extrapolate that at some point, gazillions of years in the future, we might in fact have colonized every habitable world in the universe. And at that point, fortunately, physics tells us that there are other universes, that we live in a multiverse. So I suspect that we will never, ever run out of places to expand to. And in the past, certain population pressures were the reason behind the development of a new world. People from the Old World thought that there were more resources, better economic opportunities, and infinite land to spread out to and develop in the New World. That hasn’t changed—there are new worlds aplenty.

Huston: Your novel Starplex featured a ten-billion-year-old immortal human being. Do you suppose that true immortality may eventually lead to eons of boredom?

Sawyer: When I was twenty-five years old, I was doing some work for the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and I had the opportunity to interview a famous science fiction editor named Judith Merril. I asked her what was probably an impertinent question, because she was in her sixties and I was in my twenties, but I said, “One of the things science fiction talks about is immortality. But of course, living forever would be boring.” And she looked at me as somebody who knew she was getting near the end of her life—she is now deceased—and said, “Only somebody who was young would ever say that. When you get near the end of your life, as I am now, you’ll realize that for all the accomplishments you’ve had, no matter how rich and full your life has been, there is an infinite number of things that you wanted to get around to that you just aren’t going to be allowed the time to do. The idea that immortality is boring, that you’re going to run out of things to do in this universe of possibilities, is a conceit of the young. No matter whether you have a hundred years or ten billion years, there are still going to be things you want to do, people you want to interact with, relationships you want to have, books that you’ve always wanted to read. No matter how much time you’re given, I think you’re always going to want more.”

Huston: If you were to look one thousand years into the future, what kind of civilization and technologies do you see us being capable of creating if we do become immortal, versus if we just continue with our brief mortal life spans?

Sawyer: If we’re immortal, we will have the ability to tackle the biggest questions of existence and accumulate all the wisdom there is. Gone will be the idea that anybody has to be a specialist in any one thing—for instance, that your specialty might be South American butterflies, and that’s all you know about. I mean, you get so incredibly specialized today because in short life spans, you can only learn one very narrow field really well. The great beauty of having unlimited life is that everybody becomes a generalist, and as we have always seen in the past, it’s the serendipitous juxtaposition of disparate areas that leads to big ideas. Chaos theory is a beautiful example—you know, the little butterfly wing beating here affects the weather patterns in China. But you have to know about butterflies, and you have to know about meteorology, and you have to know about China before you can come up with chaos theory. Chaos theory didn’t exist at all as an idea a hundred years ago. Imagine how big and complex, how new and startling our thoughts are going to be when each of us knows everything that the human race has learned to date.

As we prolong our lives and start having centuries and millennia of time in which to undertake our worldly pursuits, the scale on which we will think thoughts, create works of art, and have discourse on complex sociological issues will allow us, I think, to finally get somewhere. Every politics or philosophy course you take today starts off by discussing the Pre-Socratics, because in the thousands of years since the Pre-Socratics, we haven’t really gone very far on these issues. And the reason we haven’t is that we’re all constrained. Whether it was Plato or Socrates who would live for a handful of decades, or our best thinkers today, we don’t have enough time as individuals to achieve any real progress. I mean, Ken Wilber has done enormous, enormous thinking and good work in a constrained human lifetime. Imagine how far he could go, or Albert Einstein could have gone, with a thousand years to beat up on these problems instead of a hundred years.

And so fundamentally, we will be able to have and create any technology that is physically possible in our universe. There are some who think that, for instance, traveling faster than the speed of light will never be possible. If it is, we will have it. We will be able to figure it out if we have a thousand years to approach the problem. If the other technology that even more people think is totally impossible—time travel—actually is possible, we will have it. We will certainly have infinite clean renewable energy; the complete elimination of disease, poverty, material want, and suffering; and the colonization of this galaxy, if not other galaxies as well. All of those things are mere engineering. We already know the steps that have to be taken; we just don’t yet have the technology to realize those steps. We’ll have them with life spans of a thousand years, for sure. None of these problems are inherently insolvable. And the few that might be inherently insolvable—time travel, traveling faster than the speed of light—will be the only ones that will elude our grasp.

But if there are any loopholes or ways around those problems, we’ll come up with those too. We will be the masters of time and space. We will be the lords of creation. Everything will be within our grasp.

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