Human culture has been fascinated with the idea of immortality for a long, long time. Our caveman ancestors certainly weren’t fixated on creating a sense of legacy and heritage for their short-lived progeny, but over time, we’ve developed a neurotic psychological and social premium on living long, living large, and most importantly, being remembered. And so it goes that Ray Kurzweil, everyone’s favourite love-to-hate theoretician, futurist, inventor, and now Google’s engineering director, has predicted that we’ll be functionally immortal by 2040. In the past, Kurzweil’s proposals haven’t always been accurate; critics have lambasted some of his less-than-watertight predictions and overly ambitious forecasts for life under the Singularity. But in the age of AI, functional immortality isn’t too hard to fathom, what with the growth of DIY neural interface tech.
Needless to say, rebranding death as “post-life” is possibly one of the more obnoxious products of the age, but ageism is a contentious problem in both science fiction and real-life mainstream tech communities. Nobody wants to die, and by god, some truly weird things are being born out of our inbuilt desire to live forever (see this forward-thinking biker who spent his final days constructing a bespoke glass display casket for himself and his Harley). Dazed dips a toe into the frenetic world of technological life extension, the role of sleep in sustaining our short-lived meatbag bodies, and other trends that might yield the greatest key to cheating a traditional death.
BIOELECTRICITY ANIMATES THE DEAD
Michael Levin is regenerating limbs and bringing dead things back to life via bioelectricity. While this doesn’t fall within a conventional definition of eternal life, the ability to regenerate biological tissue would offer us a fighting chance to soothe the slow burn of decrepitude. While his research isn’t quite at a stage where we can expect commercial services offering limb-regenerating tech for the masses (cue Doc Oc jokes from Spiderman), it’s a tremendous start. Limb regeneration has already made quite a splash in recent news (see these experiments with the planarium worm), but Levin’s research offers innovative approaches to the concept of “bioelectricity” and the preservation of memory.
LIVE ON, YOU CRAZY DIAMOND
Algordanza is a Swiss company that makes cremated people into diamonds. Given that a vast majority of our species loves shiny things, I don’t see an ethical problem with this. Most of the time, diamonds are considered eternally precious by those who covet them, and of course, those who have them. But there’s been recent debate over diamonds’ decline in value, and a growing social movement away from using diamonds as a traditional engagement rock. From a functional and even financial standpoint, at the end of the day, they’re not really a great investment. But from a sentimental viewpoint, they’re gold. Algordanza’s CEO, Rinaldo Willy, claims that the company converts between 800 to 900 people into unique diamonds every year, which feature a distinctive blue tint thanks to boron in the human body. One person’s ashes can create up to nine diamonds (i.e. a decent chunk of jewelry). Of course, if diamonds aren’t really your thing, there are other services to press ashes into other keepsakes, like playable vinyl records and live ammunition - because really, what screams “in memoriam” more than firing bullets into someone else’s useless body?
HARVESTING ENERGY WHILE YOU SLEEP
Without turning this into a full-fledged cryotech party, prolonged artificial sleep is probably the closest thing we’ve got to a sense of “living forever” at the moment. Walt Disney, for example, is famously rumored to still be “alive” in a preserved cryogenic sleep. We’ve previously mentioned the rise of self-powered biotech implants, which harness energy from organ movements (heartbeats, diaphragm movements, lung contractions/expansions, and so on), but combined with new nanomotor technology, the idea of using our bodies as power factories isn’t as ludicrous as it used to be. Studies show that the heart produces half a joule of energy per beat, which is a surprisingly powerful amount of juice for a seemingly miniscule activity. Combine this The Matrix is one cultural institution that spread this concept across mainstream consciousness, but using our own bodies as generators doesn’t necessarily have to fit into a dystopic nightmare.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF LUCID DREAMING
If artificially-induced sleep (or prolonged sleep a la every depicted form of fictional space travel) is our current petri dish/testing ground for functional immortality, lucid dreaming technology may offer crucial insight into the sovereign state of the human mind while our bodies are classified as “dead.” Lucid dreams may offer us the chance to “live forever” despite being trapped in a nonresponsive or nonfunctional meatsack body. For example, we have the Aurora, a recently-Kickstarted headband that promises a more intensive, controllable dreaming experience along the lines of what we all saw in Inception.
On a functional note, lucid dreaming has been directly connected to an improvement in waking life. In the creators’ own words: “The Aurora is a headband that plays special lights and sounds during REM to help you become aware that you are dreaming as you stay asleep - allowing you to take control of your dreams! The idea of lucid dreaming has been around for centuries. In this state, anything is possible: zoom through space, fight fire-breathing dragons or become president, all from the comfort and safety of your own bed!”
If sleep is the next step to living forever, you can bet we’re going to see a ton of marketing ploys to invade our unconscious/subconscious when we’re not awake. Taking it one step further, Italian neuroscientists recently created a “telepathic advertising agency” whose “services” actually aren’t too far off from a speculative fiction story.
Telepathy Advertising appears to offer a neuromarketing strategy based on “extrasensorial message(s) transmission” performed by five telepaths, each of which specialize in certain areas (fasion, geolocalization, food, and so on). We’re not sure whether this is a functional, successful business – the “Clients” page features a grid of blurred-out corporate icons – but even as an art project, it’s clear that the agency has a keen grasp of the future of marketing.
POST-AFTERLIFE AS THE NEW DEATH
Okay, so, extended sleep didn’t work, and you’re dead (or about to be dead). Religious beliefs aside, some part of you want to have the best damn afterlife there is. Ancient Egyptians did it best, but thanks to the feckless indulgence of the “let’s do this because we can, not because we should” approach to life, today we’re poised to do it better. Exhibit A: the Catacombo Sound System, a 4G-rigged Swedish coffin that plays an eternal soundtrack (of your choice) while you rest in peace. It’ll cost about $30,000 for the three-part casket and system, works something like this: “Firstly, users create an account through the online CataPlay platform, which connects to Spotify and enables customers to curate a playlist for their own coffin or get friends and family to choose the tracks when they’re gone.
The CataTomb is a 4G-enabled gravestone that receives the music from CataPlay and display the current track — along with details and tributes to the deceased — through a seven-inch LCD Display. Finally, the CataCoffin is where the parted will themselves enjoy two-way front speakers, four-inch midbass drivers and an eight-inch sub-bass element that deliver dimensional high-fidelity audio tailored to the acoustics of the casket.” Far more interesting, perhaps, is the sentiment behind the technology – that the deceased deserve to retain an ongoing place in their loved ones’ lives via technology. Such vast potential lies in a theoretical underground network of “living bodies” being coddled by post-death technology, surrounded by materialistic objects associated with their previous living, breathing states, but only time will tell how this macabre trend develops.
If you’re not quite ready to die, not keen on being a human popsicle, and have enough money to throw around, perhaps technology’s quest for eternal life is as simple as moving into space (low orbit, of course). Prolonging human life may be as basic as tweaking our cells in a low-gravity environment, as experimental biologists have discovered that low-G can successfully slow the spread of cancer cells, eresulting in a far less aggressive breed of disease. If we can develop a commercial service to apply this technology to a wider range metastasizing ailments, perhaps we’ll end up laying the foundation for the healthcare scenario in Elysium (wait, wasn’t that film an allegory for modern healthcare systems anyway?).
CALICO AND THE END OF AGING
Calico, Google’s newest moonshot project, doesn’t have a website or much of a web presence, but it’s poised to become one of Google’s most controversial, most promising endeavors. In a nutshell, Calico is an anti-aging startup interested in extending our measly human lives. Not only has Google managed to bring several pioneering geneticists and biotech experts out of retirement (or poach them from other jobs) just to join the Calico initiative, but it has triggered a robust response from those in the tech community who are beginning to feel the sweet embrace of old age. Calico hasn’t released any information on exactly what kind of methods it will use to prolong lives, possibly because of the previous failures of similar anti-aging companies, possibly because of the countless hacks and non-credible quacks in the immortality business. What we can expect are experimental, out-of-the-box approaches to extending the senior portion of the human life, a big push for tissue regeneration tech, and integrated projects with Google’s Deepmind division.
Facebook is a curious area of study for people interested in how online presences outlive their owners. It’s hard to write objectively about post-mortem Facebook profiles without sounding like a complete dirtbag devoid of compassion, but they present a deceptively simple way of keeping someone alive via a social media “placeholder” of sorts. Facebook is probably the most well-known social media platform to deal with grieving family members (and not always well), but as meta-data continues to take over our lives, perhaps it’s time for a more nuanced method of tackling the digital detritus left behind in the wake of a death.
Art lives forever. We won’t. Even if we don’t see groundbreaking progress in the whole eternal life business in this lifetime, thanks to vast technological improvements in information archiving and information architecture, future generations will be able to see how desperately rabid we were to defy nature, and boy, won’t that make for a good Tumblr…
Follow Alexis Ong on Twitter here @steppinlazer