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Virtual Immortality: Problems in Bioastronautics

By Ethan Sample '24

Left: SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket Launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida (February 21, 2019). Right: Neuralink flexible electrode wafer, produced to aid in neurocomputational interfaces.

Digital Consciousness

Transhumanism

If human physiology is so unsuited for life amongst the stars, some impatient futurists ask, why go through the trouble of bioastronautics at all? With the arrival of the age of computation, some look to do away with messy biological substrates altogether. Dmitry Itskov, a Russian billionaire and internet media mogul, founded the 2045 Initiative in 2011. The nonprofit organization has the sole goal of achieving virtual immortality, with Itskov crediting his childhood dream “to be a cosmonaut, to fly into outer space” as a primary motivator. The source of this aspiration was unsurprisingly science fiction, one in which “the hero took some immortality pill and he ended up flying the orbit of Earth.” Uploading consciousness to automated machines in order to gain immortality and colonize the galaxy is a concept that has been deeply explored in science fiction for decades, a part of the broader philosophy of transhumanism. Transhumanism is the philosophy postulating that technological enhancements to the human body and mind are beneficial to the species. The science fiction novel series Giants by James P. Hogan exemplifies this application of transhumanism to space exploration, in which people upload their minds to an intergalactic network similar to The Matrix in order to pass the time during interstellar travel.

Science Fact

The ability to map human consciousness onto a computer may seem forever confined to the realm of science fiction to some, but recent neuroscientific advancements from a physicalist perspective suggest otherwise. Over the course of years, researchers at Google and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have made headway in mapping the entirety of the fruit fly connectome (a model of the brain that considers how each individual neuron connects to other neurons and interacts with them).

Drosophila melanogaster hemibrain connectome.

Completion is predicted for 2022; considering neuroscience work in the past has shown neurological phenomena are directly responsible for behavior, it can be elucidated that by comprehending the connectome one could simulate all aspects of action. Although this is far from proving the potential for computerized human consciousness, considering the rapidity of technological advancement, human connectome mapping and simulation may be on the horizon. Furthermore, the recent advent of research firms like Neuralink, cofounded by billionaire Elon Musk, illustrate how the feasibility of such technology is growing by the year. An obvious and enormous market for transhumanist technologies exists here on the ground, explaining the recent explosion in neurocomputational research. In contrast to the poorly funded and scientifically arduous aerospace medicine, consciousness through computation carries the weight of wealthy investors’ pockets and backing of neuroscientific theory. Achieving multiplanetary civilization through staunch transhumanism is a fate humanity will likely have to soon consider.

Existential Risk

Lesson from Philosophy

Philosophical implications of such a course are daunting. Many potential consequences of runaway transhumanism can be understood through the lens of existentialist thought, a school of philosophy wide in scope that has been written of extensively throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. One significant component of existentialism is the idea of human confrontation with the absurd; it refers to how individuals, when faced with an apparent lack of objective meaning to existence, construct it subjectively in order to cope and lead fulfilling lives. Through a combination of religion, pursuit of goals, creative outlets, and more, humans are able to transcend the angst brought about by mortality and the chaotic nature of the universe. Consequently, if everyone uploaded their consciousnesses to the cloud, a key component of the existentialist concept of meaning would be removed: mortality. Without death, by extension, there is no void in life to fill; there is no spiritual hunger to satiate. What little self actualization people are able to grasp at instantly evaporates. Without the urgency mortality provides, no paintings would be painted, no poems would be written, no science would be discovered, no video games would be programmed, and no one would fight and die for their dreams. Such a state would utterly destroy the human condition that begged exploration of the universe in the first place, a grand irony and a possible great filter.

Realistic Prediction

This is all purely speculation of course. Philosophical logic does not always apply to the real world. However, even if such a situation would not spell doom for Homo sapiens, it is not difficult to see what problems could arise in a post-scarcity virtual civilization. Escapism is already rampant in today’s society, despite the ubiquity of corporeal confinement and existence of ramifications for surrendering responsibilities in favor of leisure. One needs to work daily in order to survive and pay for Xbox Live, Netflix, or whatever less legal forms of release one prefers, lest they suffer eviction or other punishments. Rent would need not exist in a colony ship’s infinitely generated virtual habitat, nor would a monetary system or market. In moderation, many escapist activities offer catharsis and relaxation; with ramifications obliterated, there will likely be a significant decrease in human productivity.

A Road Less Traveled

Much of this argument has not addressed the ethical and social issues of transhumanist space colonization for the sake of brevity. To say the least, the moral message of noninterference with nature has been repeated in popular culture and certain philosophical literature ad nauseum. In addition, such a shift of the social paradigm is uncharted territory that may give rise to numerous problems, on both interpersonal and political scales. Even without this component of analysis it remains clear transhumanism is an existential threat; despite virtual immortality’s greater feasibility of success than other solutions like aerospace medicine, it carries the immense risk of annihilating human condition and motivation. It is evident that transhumanist and computational solutions to bioastronautics issues are facile. Perhaps it is better to take the more difficult path, the road less traveled. To sustain life not built for space, using ingenuity and engineering, would be the ultimate act of rebellion against the absurd. In the words of philosopher Albert Camus: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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