Will Death Become Obsolete?


Can immortality be contagious? Time magazine's cover story on Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, and the prospects for abolishing death by 2045 is only the latest of a series of media features. The New York Times Magazine cover story by Rob Walker a few weeks ago featured the virtual immortality of Facebook and other social media pages. And Nicholas Jackson took up the theme on the site, with a book excerpt. A leading Evangelical Christian magazine, Christianity Today, in its January cover feature, showed how complex the issue can be theologically.

You can now create your own electronic immortality festival with videos from NOVA scienceNOW and the Swedish artists Bigert & Bergström. (More here.)

Lev Grossman's feature may be the most sympathetic mainstream media coverage of the Singularity movement yet. As he concludes:

[E]ven if they're dead wrong about the future, they're right about the present. They're taking the long view and looking at the big picture. You may reject every specific article of the Singularitarian charter, but you should admire Kurzweil for taking the future seriously. Singularitarianism is grounded in the idea that change is real and that humanity is in charge of its own fate and that history might not be as simple as one damn thing after another. Kurzweil likes to point out that your average cell phone is about a millionth the size of, a millionth the price of and a thousand times more powerful than the computer he had at MIT 40 years ago. Flip that forward 40 years and what does the world look like? If you really want to figure that out, you have to think very, very far outside the box. Or maybe you have to think further inside it than anyone ever has before.

That's an ingeniously noncommittal endorsement. But is immortality by 2045 really a serious possibility?  Major names in neuroscience, mathematics, and other disciplines have taken sides against the Singularity, as here in Wired. (In his recent book What Technology Wants, the magazine's co-founder, Kevin Kelly, considers it an inspiring myth, like Superman.)

Singularity fans might counter with one of the great science fiction writers and futurist Arthur C. Clarke's most famous laws:

When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.

But given popular responsiveness to features about immortality and the Singularity, we should also bear in mind the corollary of Isaac Asimov:

When, however, the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists and supports that idea with great fervor and emotion -- the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, probably right.
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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