Among the many tech-focused booths at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) early this year, one stood out in particular: an exhibition of manufactured bodies, or “sleeves,” into which someone could theoretically download their consciousness. The exhibition was a promotion for the new Netflix series Altered Carbon, a science fiction saga set 300 years in the future where individuals can transfer their thoughts and memories from body to body, via an implanted data stack. While the booth was clearly an example of brand activation, it seemed an eerily prescient glimpse into a growing area of Silicon Valley-driven consciousness-preservation research.
While to many it may sound like pure science fiction, or even the height of hubris, “immortality” research populated science and technology headlines last month, starting with one startup’s headline-grabbing pitch to Y Combinator: that they have created a “mind uploading service that it 100 percent fatal.” Pitching a high-tech embalming process, the company, called Nectome, claims that it can “back up your mind,” preserving your brain so well—to a degree that every synapse can be seen with an electron microscope—that it can one day be “re-activated,” or scanned into a computer simulation. Essentially, they claim it is a modern version of cryogenics, a way of preserving the connectome (the web of synapses that connect neurons), until a method for re-activation is determined. However, neuroscientists have been deeply skeptical—at the beginning of April, MIT announced that it had severed its subcontract with the company. In response to criticism, Nectome has scaled back its language, particularly its claims that it will “back up” the minds of any human in the near future. Despite the uncertainty, 25 people have already paid a $10,000 deposit to have their brains preserved by Netcome—which raises a number of ethico-legal concerns as are individuals essentially paying to join a waitlist for physician-assisted suicide.
In the realm of end-of-life planning (which Nectome essentially is, until “re-activation” is solved), this month a funeral parlor in China released a virtual reality experience of death. Through an avatar self, visitors can go through “having a seizure at work, a failed paramedic rescue, your heart stopping, and a final farewell to relatives from the afterlife.” By taking a tour through the funeral home and witnessing what will happen to your body, the funeral parlor argues that experiencing death in VR will help both the individual and family members with planning for death. Influenced by specific cultural constructs surrounding mortality, it is fascinating to think about how virtual platforms attempt to essentialize experiences of death.
This month has also seen a continuation of the debate surrounding an Italian scientist’s claims that a head transplant from a living person to a donor cadaver is “imminent.” It was recently announced that the proposed surgery will be performed in China, since no American or European institute will permit the operation. Currently, there are strong biomedical concerns with such a procedure: in head transplant studies using mice, very few have survived longer than 36 hours. As one bioethicist argues, “Some say the odds of success are so low that an attempt at a head transplant would amount to murder. But even if it were feasible, even if we could put a head and a body together and have a living human being at the end, it is only the beginning of the ethical questions about the procedure and the hybrid life created.” Similar to the Nectome controversy, while head transplants may currently sound like pure futurism, it opens up fascinating and critical questions for how a society deals with death and dying if certain individuals have the ability to defer, transfer, or alter the phenomenon.
The tagline of Altered Carbon (the Netflix series mentioned above), is “No Body Lives Forever.” The stories presented this month bring up thought-provoking phenomenological questions of how an individual’s consciousness would be altered if it were transferred into a different physical body, or if consciousness could be experienced independent of a body at all. After all, how much of our experience is filtered through physical sensation; how do the circumstances and activities of our lives become embodied? Can memory ever be divorced from the physical body? How is our very notion of consciousness socially constructed?
Finally (since it is Earth Day!) there are the environmental questions and concerns that arise when contemplating extended (or infinite) lifespans, or large consciousness-storing databases. (After all, in order to prevent a Twilight Zone-esque tragi-comic plot twist, wherein an expensive, perfectly preserved, “immortal” brain is destroyed through careless storage, brain upkeep would likely be resource-intensive endeavor). One neuroscientist said quipped last month, “Burdening future generations with our brain banks is just comically arrogant. Aren’t we leaving them with enough problems?” As technology in this area continues to develop (and with backing from wealthy donors, it likely will), there will be plenty more questions for social scientists of all disciplines to explore. With anthropology’s emphasis on seeking to understand human experiences, we will be a much-needed voice in this conversation.
On Pi Day (March 14, 2017), Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76. Among his countless insights about the universe, this quip is my favorite: “It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.”