(Dis)embodied futures?

Haven’t posted here for a while, but this is kind of futures related, so I’ll put it here.

Below is the text of a talk a gave in Birmingham as part of this interesting event in the terrific new Library of Birmingham.

It involved various cunning artistic responses and representations to famous dead thinkers – I was responding to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein. None of us quite knew how it was going to go, I think. But the whole set of talks ran twice, and having heard them all, at the second round I realised that the question I was trying to ask, or answer, had crystallised more clearly: how close can we get through representations, especially new digital representations, to an actual person who is no longer around? That seemed to be the main theme of the day. My subsidiary question, as it were, was how our view of the answer to the big question is affected by whether we think it is essential for persons that they are embodied, or that some kind of encoded form of a person can be substrate independent.

That said, this was my slightly rambling response, more or less as given – (there were some pics but I’ve left those out here because copyright)


I’m here to tell you about life after death. I’m going to look at some varieties of immortality, taking my cue from Mary Shelley and trying to think through what might have been added to the discussion of how we cheat death since her time.

There are a range of options for maintaining some sort of presence in the world after your normal lifespan – lets take the biblical standard of three score years and ten as a starting point – as in fact we’ve just seen.

If you are one of a select few, and Mary is, you might achieve literary immortality, fascinating us with the works you left behind. You might do so, as she did, by writing a story which is itself about immortality, of another kind, involving body parts reassembled and reanimated. Or, as when we heard from Mary just now, you might be recreated digitally, another way of speaking to people who never met you in the flesh.

Let’s start with the story she created, long before digital technology was thought of. Frankenstein has a number of overlapping themes. That’s one reason it has endured for so long, in so many re-tellings. An important one, for me, is our ambivalence about the effort to eliminate the imperfections of humanity. That seems, at first blush, a highly desirable thing to do. But there’s a catch. (There’s always a catch). The effort to make us more perfect can only be made by humans as they are now, imperfect as we know them to be.

The rather large imperfection of mortality is, as it were, the major sub theme here. And the Frankenstein plot revolves around the first ideas about how to overcome this which were drawn  from science, as opposed to involving supernatural power. Delving into the secrets of the body, and of electricity, Dr Frankenstein achieves – well, not immortality, but reanimation or resurrection. That is a step beyond exhumation, the option highlighted in our title today, but which – strictly – has the drawback that simply being exhumed doesn’t stop you being dead.

Is this immortality, though?  The creature is not a continuation of some former person – the other subplot of failed parenting requires him to be, in effect, a newborn in monstrously enlarged adult form.

His limbs and organs are alive again, but he has no memory or personality. Indeed, he is patched together, one gathers, somewhat randomly from gathered parts, so is a composite in any case. His mind, apparently new, is formed by, among other things, reading many of Mary Shelley’s favourite books. So the good old technology of print is already, as we might now think of it, functioning to externalise memory. It can be used to furnish a mind with ideas which are themselves reanimated when they are active in a new brain.

The modern version of a Frankensteinian revival is perhaps resurrection after cryogenic preservation. The idea is that your body or –  if you have less cash or are indifferent to what happens below the neck – just your head is placed in cryogenic suspension. You become a corpsicle. If you have arranged to keep up the payments on the freezer, you will stay there until future technologists are clever enough to repair whatever killed you, along with the incidental cell damage caused by the freezing, and you will live again. Since technologies that can do that (nanobots that get inside the cells to fix them are the current favourite speculation) will be effective at preventing normal wear and tear, So you’ll probably be immortal this time around. 

This scenario is speculative, but the freezing part, at least is non-fictional. The scheme was first proposed by Robert Ettinger in the 1960s. He founded the Cryonics Institute in Michigan in the 1970s, had his mother and two wives put in storage, and when he died himself in 2011, aged 92, he was frozen, too. So, one day, maybe, he’ll come back to say, “I told you so!”.

On the face of it, this version of immortality is firmly focussed on the body. But there is, I think, a strong strain in the advocacy of cryonics that the body has a basic design flaw – it runs down – which needs fixing. The revived body, I suppose, would operate pretty much like it did before (perhaps with invisibly resident nanobots).

That might not be good enough, of course. Ettinger was preserved at 92 A lot of people over 80 have dementia, so this route to new life raises serious questions about when to go into suspension, or whether externalised memories, perhaps preserved digitally, would need to be on hand to restore a sense of self to the revived brain/mind.

Staying with bodies for now, the next set of routes to immortality are simpler, in one way – they involve not dying. There are people now who  believe this is a realistic scientific and technological prospect, not merely a perennial wish. The most often heard from is Aubrey de Grey, proponent of SENS (strategies for engineered negligible senescence). As this suggests, it would prevent ageing, so not guarantee immortality – violent deaths would still happen. But others would simply go on living as long as they wanted. An important aspect of this is that they would not, as many stories of longevity suggest, have to endure extended decrepitude. Rather, they would have an indefinitely prolonged middle age.

De Grey’s programme is basically to accelerate a bunch of lines of biological research which would allow us to prevent various kinds of cell damage and cell death. It is not that far from conventional medical research on diseases of the elderly. Western medicine, essentially, is oriented to preventing death.  a clear descendant of the Frankensteinian project.

Alternatively, and here we move closer to the digital world, there is another set of routes to prolonging life through technology. They share an attitude to the body apparent in the advocates of biological life extension – that it is a flawed piece of engineering, a collection of evolutionary kludges, splendid in its way and on its day, but in need of fixing for the long term.

The engineer’s approach here is to go down the road of prostheses and implants toward a full-blown cyborg. If missing or malfunctioning body parts can be replaced with non-biological components, perhaps in the end we merge completely with our technology. There are a range of endpoints here, depending on whether the brain ends up maintained in an artificial body, or is itself replaced by some kind of electronic substitute.

If you could do that, then you would have yet a further range of options, digitally speaking. That electronic substitute would have to be programmed, and furnished with memories. If these are somehow obtained from a living brain, and encoded in digital form for transfer to the new medium, then we’ve achieved a real version of the Cartesian separation of mind and brain. And mind, perhaps, can be given independence – analogous to software – from the hardware (presently wetware) in which it is operating.

Is this taking the computer metaphor for the brain too far? Time will tell. But there are those who believe in immortality achieved by a kind of resurrection through digitisation.

The best known is Ray Kurzweil, who argues it will be possible to record the contents of a brain, and then “upload” the mind it supports into a computer. This would be immortality sans body (though presumably simulating all the experiences which go with having one, if desired). Consciousness reborn in this form might go on for ever, or at least until the cosmos runs down which is quite a long time.

Kurzweil wants this, not for future beneficiaries, but for himself. Meantime, he is also at work building an avatar of his late (40 years dead) father, now using a pre-digital archive. He is compiling all the letters, documents and pictures he can, to use in programming a computer which will think and talk like his dad.

With much more extensive digital recording, it seems, once we have mind uploading technology, perhaps we can can also construct a simulacrum of a former mind, using whatever information we can gather about the contents of that mind.

And if the actual mind hasn’t been dissected and digitised, there might be enough on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest and Instagram to generate, well, something.

A provocative example: a robot made a few years ago which looked and spoke like the science fiction Author Philip K Dick. Dick left millions of words of text, which were uploaded into intelligent software and used to generate new conversations with people who spoke to his new avatar. Sometimes they made excellent sense, sometimes not – quite like the man himself.

The whole project is documented in David Dufty’s splendid book Losing the Head of Philip K Dick. That story ends when the head is indeed lost, in an airport. However, the creator has since made another, better version – so the digital resurrection of Dick has itself been resurrected!

That result: now you see him, now you don’t, here he is again – reminds one of a lot of science fiction where the mind uploading trope is now taken for granted. There are a host of stories where people routinely make backup copies of themselves, and hardly anyone ever dies – they are just rebooted. It is contemporary science fiction’s advance on cloning, which is a way of replacing yourself but of course requires all the Frankensteinian chores of education and training to furnish the clone’s mind with the same experiences as the original “authentic” person.

SF loves to play around with such notions – once the idea is articulated, then never mind the technical obstacles. Lets just leap forward to a world where it has been perfected and see what plots it helps create.

From our present day perspective, though, it is clear there will be many, many steps on the road to this kind of digital revival. So let me finish be mentioning one very interesting recent fiction which works with a partial, and seriously malfunctioning, version of digital re-creation.

 The young British novelist James Smythe’s The Machine features a traumatised war veteran who has his worst memories erased by the eponymous machine, and the gaps replaced with a narrative he ought to find it easier to live with.

Unfortunately, the machine erases his mind entirely, and the novel relates the efforts of his wife to rebuild it, with the aid of an illicitly acquired machine of her own. It is a pretty compelling story, as what she creates seems to take on a life of its own, and has some excellent twists I won’t spoil. The blurb describes it as “A Frankenstein tale for the 21st Century”. So it is. I think Mary Shelley would have loved it.

Thank you.

The whole day was immense fun and I enjoyed being able to revisit some ideas from a book on the Frankenstein myth I did in 1998 – it seems a long while ago now – with references to a novel that appeared in 2013. Thanks to Jason and Samara for having me.












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