Admit it: almost all of us would want to be immortal if we could. But part of the experience of being human is the fact that we’re mortal, that knowledge that we only have a finite amount of time to do things before we leave this plane of existence for whatever comes next.
Immortality fascinates us. Literature, art, TV, films, video games – the idea of not dying has been one that’s been irresistible since… well, since the first human died. We want it because we can’t have it. We want it because it’s the ultimate of existence, to still be around 2.37 gazillion years from now – and many gazillions times that. We want it because the fear of death – the unknown – is the ultimate fear. No one wants to die.
But living forever is not without risk. According to Greek legend, the Titaness Eos asked Zeus to make her lover Tithonus immortal. But she forgot to also ask for eternal youth, and as Tithonus became older, his aging body became shriveled as he also lost his mind. He eventually turned into a grasshopper.
But eternal youth also has its problems. Read any literature featuring vampires (yes, even Twilight), and you’ll quickly notice that about 99.99 percent of the bloodsuckers loathe their existence. Being a vampire just sucks, OK?
In Christian mythology, asking to live forever usually doesn’t end too well either, since it typically involves making a deal with the literal devil. Lucifer may grant you to unending life, but you’ll also spend eternity locked away in prison, in a coma, or experience some other fate worse than death.
But for those of us that do want to continue living (even if it’s just to see motor vehicles in the future), here are some ways to do it. Consider it the ultimate public service.
Covered extensively in worldwide media, cryonics involves the low-temperature preservation (usually at minus-196 degrees Celsius) of a body in liquid nitrogen after a person has legally died, with the hope that they could potentially one day be “thawed” and brought back to life. Only four facilities for storing cryonically preserved bodies offer the procedure (and sometimes just someone’s head, as not everyone opts for full-body preservation), and it isn’t cheap: it can cost upwards of US$200,000 just for the initial procedure, with ongoing storage costs also costing thousands of dollars per year. A theme in sci-fi shows like Futurama and Nip/Tuck, only a few hundred people have actually undergone the procedure, including American baseball legend Ted Williams and futurist FM-2030. Contrary to urban legend, Walt Disney was not cryogenically frozen (he was cremated and his ashes were buried in Los Angeles).
A somewhat similar procedure is chemical brain preservation, which is the proposed process of using aldehyde fixation for long-term storage of a brain. The idea is that the brain could be later revived and placed in a new body.
While the science for preserving a body of course already exists, we still have no idea how to thaw someone out and for them to be able to walk, talk, eat, sleep, and – well – just be alive. Who knows how long that scientific breakthrough will take. But as Ted Williams said, maybe it’s better to go fishing with even a minuscule chance of catching something than not going fishing at all. Still, who wants to be stuck with their head in a jar?
The idea of uploading your consciousness into a computer is a theme that’s been explored a fair bit in sci-fi, whether it’s Isaac Asimov’s short story The Last Question, Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, films like Tron or Captain America: The Winter Soldier, or television programmes like Star Trek: The Next Generation or the episode “San Junipero” on Black Mirror. Essentially, it involves a person “downloading” the contents of their brain – typically by being connected to electrodes – and “uploading” that data to a supercomputer. As the theory goes, you would still technically be “aware” you’re inside a computer, and thus “alive.”
The reality, of course, is that this technology – which remains highly theoretical – hasn’t actually been tested yet. But given the quantum leaps we’ve made in computing – and the quantum leaps we continue to make – it may be humanity’s best shot at immortality.
This one may or may not be a thing soon-ish. Controversial neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero has been claiming he’ll be attempting the procedure on a Russian man named Valery Spiridonov towards the end of this year at Harbin Medical University in China. The procedure is expected to take days, involve more than 100 surgeons, doctors, nurses and technicians, and cost more than US$10 million. Ethical concerns aside, Canavero has been incredibly vague as to how the procedure will work, claiming that Spiridonov’s head will be attached to a donor body’s spinal cord using a “special” polyethylene glue. It’s divided the medical community, with some experts calling the procedure “monstrous,” “worse than Dr. Frankenstein,” and subjecting Spiridonov to something that could be “far worse than death.”
Head transplants have been conducted on animals, including dogs, monkeys and rats. They’ve never really worked.
Injecting yourself with the blood of the young
Doesn’t this sound a bit like something Dracula would do? Sure – but it’s also something billionaire investor (and New Zealand citizen) Peter Thiel has an active interest in. Known as parabiosis, the practice involves receiving transfusions of blood from a younger person, as a means of improving health and potentially reversing ageing. Unfortunately, it remains unknown what benefits, if any, such a procedure has.
Bonus: Thiel is also apparently keenly interested in other ways of extending one’s life. According to a 2014 interview with Bloomberg TV, he regularly takes human growth hormone pills as a way to counter muscle mass loss – all as part of an apparent plan to live for at least 120 years.
Transferring your consciousness into a new body
Somewhat similar to mind uploading, this involves good-old-fashioned flesh and blood instead of a bunch of circuitry and wires. A central theme of the great James Cameron film Avatar and the terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi flick The 6th Day (sorry but not sorry – it truly is awful), there’s actually a company kind of working on this already. Humai CEO Josh Bocanegra says it could be possible in about 30 years. But considering Bocanegra’s last start-up was a bizarre Airbnb and OK Cupid hybrid called LoveRoom (the idea was for attractive people to share rooms together, apparently), there’s good reason to be a bit skeptical. Then there are the ethical concerns: if we can have our consciousness transferred into any body we wish, wouldn’t everyone want to be Heidi Klum or Michael Jordan?
Become an avatar
Sound weird? An app that lets people speak to avatars of dead relatives – and even take selfies with them – is being developed in South Korea. All that’s needed is a 3D scan of a person's smartphone and an internet connection.
Get stuck in Groundhog Day
Theoretically, it may be possible to get stuck in a “time loop” and repeat the same day over and over again. But who’d want to do that if they were trapped in Auckland traffic forever?
Find the Holy Grail
Indiana Jones found it. But then he lost it again.
Break out of the simulation
Lots of smart folks think we may be living in a huge computer simulation. We just need to find a way to break out of it.