The Technology of Immortality

Sunday, September 27, 2015

What is it

Some futurists believe we are not far from a time when technology and medicine will be so advanced that humans need no longer die of old age or other natural causes. Eventually, not only will we be able to replace our natural body parts, but we might even be able to “download” our selves into a new cybernetic body. But is this a realistic possibility or just a confused fantasy? Is the self the kind of thing that can be downloaded and persist through radical changes in its “hardware”? And if it were possible for people to indefinitely extend their biological lives, what would the moral implications be for social inequality and distribution of the planet’s finite resources? John and Ken look beyond the mortal coil with Kevin O'Neill from the University of Redlands, author of Internet Afterlife: Virtual Salvation in the Twenty-First Century (forthcoming).

Part of our series Visions of Immortality.

Listening Notes

John begins the conversation with a more traditional conception of immortality—ascending to heaven. Ken quickly corrects him, citing biological and technological advances as means to immortality here on earth. John isn’t too fond of the idea of trapping his consciousness in some metal box. When Ken tempts John with the possibility of his own immortality, John remains unconvinced, arguing that a futuristic technological John living millions of years from now wouldn’t be John at all. Ken accuses John of being a ‘luddite,’ and John doesn’t seem to mind.

After a brief interlude, Professor Kevin O’Neill joins John and Ken on the show. He briefly explains how he became fascinated by death at an early age. Citing efforts by Peter Thiel and Ray Kurzweil, they discuss the prospect of ‘trans-humanism,’ transcending the built-in limits of the human body. John and Ken transition to a more social question of what the world would look like if it were populated by such trans-human persons. Are the entrepreneurs championing this movement even concerned with preserving personal identity or anything recognizably human? John is skeptical. Ken—following his jab at the movement as perhaps adolescent—works to defend the movement as at least solving many problems.

A listener Arianna calls in to criticize the capitalist underpinnings of trying to buy life itself. O’Neill mentions that the impulse for immortality has recurred throughout history. They then discuss how technological immortality fits into a less narcissistic, more Eastern approach to the self. Several callers question the possibility of reproducing minds electronically and actually living forever. O’Neill then addresses an email from Patricia on how diversity, gender, and race would survive after this technological revolution. Continuing this thought, they reflect on the desirability of immortality and the huge costs of developing the technologies. Perhaps such immortality threatens our humanity, but is this such a bad thing? But then again, what’s wrong with death’s place in humanity?

John and Ken press O’Neill on what he ultimately thinks. O’Neill presents a fair but skeptical response. John and Ken too offer their takeaways, both frankly admitting they’ve become more luddite.

Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:22): Shuka Kalantari reports on billionaire Dmitry Itskov’s ambitious plans to produce artificial human bodies. His 2045 Initiative is a pioneer in ‘cybernetic immortality,’ in which human consciousness could be uploaded onto these artificial bodies.

60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:21): Ian Shoales comments sharply on the psychology and motivations behind the pursuit of immortality.




Kevin O'Neill, Professor of Philosophy, University of Redlands


Research By

Mohit Mookim

Upcoming Shows

27 January 2019

Envy: Vice or Virtue?

Bertrand Russell said that envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness, and it's well known as one of the seven deadly sins. But is envy...

03 February 2019

What Do We Owe Future Generations?

We talk about owing future generations a better world. We might also think that we should do things for future generations even if our actions might...

10 February 2019

Altered States

Aldous Huxley explains his conception of the brain as a "reducing valve" of consciousness in his provocative book, The Doors of Perception. His...