Engineering Immortality: Projections on the Future of Bionics


At some point or another we’ve all asked ourselves the question: if you could have one superpower, which one would it be? Personally, I was always a fan of teleportation. I loved the idea of leaving a friend’s house at 2am, and teleporting right to my bed, rather than having to wait half-an-hour for the Queen streetcar, and then trudge 20 minutes through the snow just to make it to my apartment. Physicists and science fiction writers have long conjectured ways that humans could potentially achieve this coveted superpower using things like wormholes or quantum teleportation, although these approaches are likely to remain in the realm of fantasy. But there is one solution that seems much more plausible than all the rest.

Consider this… Suppose that one day in the future we were able to upload all the data stored in our brains onto external computing devices. If this were the case, then we would be able to transmit our cognitive selves around the globe at the speed of light. Of course, we wouldn’t be able to take our bodies along, but once the data reaches its destination, we could connect to robotic substitute bodies complete with eyes, ears, and hands so that we can interact with and manipulate the local environment.

In addition to teleportation, this technology would confer a whole host of other perks. For those who feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, you could duplicate yourself and double the amount of time you have to complete your daily tasks. Making digital copies of our brains could also lead to a form of immortality. After someone’s natural body dies, his or her brain (or at least its contents) could live on indefinitely in various storage devices.
This raises some obvious philosophical questions. For example: to what extent can our cognitive selves be captured by the data amassed through the sum of our experiences? Perhaps even more fundamentally, can we duplicate the mind simply by copying the informational content of the brain? Is there a non-digital — or perhaps even non-physical — ingredient (a secret sauce, if you will) required to achieve consciousness, or self-awareness? Or can these qualities be simulated computationally with the right software?

Even if the answers to all these questions suggest that this exercise is theoretically possible, there is still the question of implementation. Advances in biomedical science and engineering have already endowed us with the ability to do some amazing things. We’ve created highly effective bionic arms and hands, and even entire exoskeletons for people who’ve lost the ability to walk on their own. We’ve even created artificial eyes and ears, all of which can be attached to a computer chip, which is implanted in the brain so that the users receive and process the input. So creating substitute robotic bodies would certainly be plausible. The real heavy lifting would fall on the neuroscientists and computer hardware specialists. How would we access and capture the data in our brains, and convert it to a format that would be readable to our computing devices? Also, how would we copy (i.e. read and write) all that data in a reasonable time frame. It is estimated that the human brain can store up to 1 million gigabytes of data. This task is essentially the equivalent of transferring three million hours’ (or 300 years’) worth of high-resolution video onto your flash drive.

And even if we managed to find feasible solutions to all the engineering problems, we would then be forced to deal with the societal and psychological fallout. There would be major issues surrounding privacy and security. If someone managed to hack into your brain, they would have access to all your knowledge and experiences, and perhaps even your thoughts. A number of people would probably also go crazy due to the inevitable loss of identity and sense of self that would come from disembodiment and repeated replication of the individual.

Like most technologies, this could end up being a double-edged sword. And it almost certainly won’t happen in our lifetime. Whether or not that’s a good thing, remains to be seen.