Why you don’t want to be (digitally) immortal

Philip J. Fry looking at the heads of former presidents in the head museum. Photograph: Futurama Fandom.

Famous sci-fi sitcom Futurama started with the cryogenic defrosting of Philip J. Fry. He awakens in the year 3000 in a city called “New New York” and is assigned the permanent job of delivery boy. He wants to escape from his fate and during his flee ends up in the “Head Museum”, a place where the heads of (former) celebrities and historical figures are being preserved. The (former) celebrities and historical figures have been made immortal by preserving their heads in a jar with special liquid (H2OGfat). From the jar an inhabitant is able to control robotic limbs and bodies in order to move around. In real life it still seems a long way off before we achieve any kind of immortality, let alone the one shown in Futurama. However, there have been signs that digital immortality may be achieved in the future, but what is digital immortality actually? 

Wikipedia defines digital immortality as “the hypothetical concept of storing (or transferring) a person’s personality in a digital substrate, i.e., a computer, robot or cyberspace”. We think that this definition doesn’t fully reflect the concept of digital immortality because it also counts the simulation of a brain as digital immortality. The definition should have a closer resemblance to the notion of “mind uploading”, which is the transfer of the contents of a (human) brain to a silicon-based platform that allows the conservation of consciousness. Mind uploading emphasizes the conservation of consciousness and therefore immortality, while the definition of digital immortality from Wikipedia leaves room for the loss of consciousness. Therefore, in this article, the definition of mind uploading will be used when talking about digital immortality.

Advancements in digital immortality mostly get cheered, because who doesn’t want to live forever? Next to that, you won’t have to worry about dying, losing your loved ones, and getting sick. These benefits of digital immortality seem great, right? However, we should look with suspicion to the advancements which are made to achieve digital immortality. For example, digital immortality could lead to overpopulation, greater inequality, mental problems, privacy violations, the control of the mind by others, and many other negative consequences. Therefore, we should treat digital immortality with caution and even discourage it. 

It is getting too crowded on earth!

Firstly, one of the most prominent drawbacks of digital immortality is overpopulation. At the moment earth is inhabited by 7.7 billion humans who are ever-hungry for luxuries such as flatscreens, smartphones, and SUV’s. The Kent State University reported that this never-ending hunger has led to massive deforestation, air pollution, and global warming. This is also confirmed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) which has reported that each year up to 2000 species become extinct as a consequence of human activity. Next to that, humanity consumed 73 percent more resources in 2017 than the earth’s ecosystems can renew in one year. What would happen if the human population on earth would double, or even triple? Humanity is already depleting the earth’s resources and the implications of further population growth are incalculable. This can also be interpreted from a statement of famous biologist Sir David Attenborough:

We are a plague on the Earth. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us.

Sir David Attenborough

However, some argue that digital immortality won’t lead to overpopulation. There may be tremendous breakthroughs in renewable energy, food fabrication, battery design, and water supply which will reduce the effects of overpopulation. In addition to that, your brain could be uploaded to a virtual reality environment (VRE) where you can exist as an avatar that could do anything you want. For example, you may be able to fly or dive without the need to come up for air. Another proposed solution for overpopulation is the colonization of other planets in the universe. You are then able to explore the different planets in the universe and live on the one you prefer. 

A possible virtual reality world. Photograph: Cutewallpaper.

Nevertheless, all these solutions will not solve overpopulation. The breakthroughs in renewable energy and food fabrication may not arrive or will not be sufficient to provide enough resources for everyone. Furthermore, It could also be the case that not all people want to live in a VRE world, and as a consequence earth will still be overcrowded. In addition to that, keeping the VRE running will also cost resources. Training a neural network – a computing system based on the biological neural network of brains – currently leads to an emission of 284 tonnes of carbon dioxide, this equals five times the lifetime emissions of a car! Next to that, space colonization will probably also not be an option. It is the question of whether there are sufficient habitable planets and if enough people want to move from earth. Thus, overpopulation will be a detrimental effect of digital immortality. 

Do you have any purpose when being immortal?

Secondly, a drawback of digital immortality, and living in a VRE world, is having no purpose in life anymore. When you are able to do anything you want whenever you want, without any consequences, life will become meaningless. Even though some people state that they might not find this a problem, researchers reported that having a life purpose predicts psychological and physical well-being. Dr. Buben – Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Leiden University – argues that immortality is not as bad as people think it is and claims that mortal life has a remarkable lightness to it given the fact that nothing we do really matters in the long run. Among other things, mortality means that no matter how poor a person’s decisions have been, he or she will not have to live with their actions forever (and neither will anyone else). But maybe the fact that we don’t have to live forever with the things we’ve done, makes life much more enjoyable. Imagine doing something wrong and having to live with that knowledge forever. 

Meaning in life also has many other positive effects. For example, people with a purpose in life are better able to cope with major life challenges, physically and mentally. It gives the inner strength to deal with challenges and to move forward in life. Additionally, research has also shown that people with meaning in life suffer from fewer psychological illnesses such as PTSD and depression, and are less likely to become addicted. And when they suffer from a mental disease, the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions is higher. Finally, a purpose in life also has advantageous effects on successful aging, it leads to a lower chance of becoming mentally ill and contracting problematic behavior such as alcohol abuse. 

However, some argue that the world would still keep on changing and that therefore immortality isn’t such a bad thing. New things are bound to happen and there will always be new things to do, leading to a constantly changing purpose in life. But when you have no perspective of when your work is done, is living your life still so much fun? Furthermore, when you have done everything that you can possibly do, wouldn’t you wish to end it all? Additionally, the need to do anything would disappear, because it just doesn’t matter anymore. Like stated in the New York Times:

We would have no need for progress or art, faith or fame. Suddenly, we would have nothing to do, yet in the greatest of ironies, we would have endless eons in which to do it. Action would lose its purpose and time its value. This is the true awfulness of immortality.

Stephen Cave, NYT

Rights for digital beings

Another issue that is applicable to digital immortality is the notion of rights. Here we have to ask ourselves which rights a digital being should have and how we can ensure that these rights won’t get violated. First of all, an important right for digital beings is the right to die. Philosopher Benatar also underlines the importance of this right. He states that suicide or euthanasia should be available “for those whose lives have become a burden for themselves”. It seems like this would be straightforward to implement for digital beings, we can just delete the persons’ files, right? However, the notion of death is more complicated for digital beings than for humans. A human with a physical body can commit suicide, but to let a digital being pass away all the files which are related to the consciousness of the digital being have to be deleted. These files can be duplicated and therefore we can’t ensure that the files – and the consciousness of the digital being – won’t get rebooted in the future. A digital being will be dependent on an administrator. Mary Mannes – a famous American author – also emphasized why the right to die is important:

The right to choose death when life no longer holds meaning is not only the next liberation but the last human right.

Mary Mannes

Another important right is the right of being free of torture. An administrator could force digital beings to perform certain tasks while they aren’t able to refuse the execution of those tasks. Of course, regulations could be made, but who can enforce them? For certain, digital beings won’t be able to do that. Next to that, a survey carried out among British residents showed that 98% of them have broken a law! Of course not all offenses were serious, but it shows that people are willing to disobey regulations if it benefits them. Flores – researcher at the faculty of medicine of Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Peru – also acknowledges the dilemma regarding the rights of digital beings. According to him, digital immortality can only lead to a situation where the poor will be abused as digital slaves of oligarchs.

Last but not least is the notion of privacy. An administrator could look at the thoughts and memories of a digital being without any permission. Of course, regulations could be made, but again who will enforce those regulations? Furthermore, privacy could be violated whilst the digital being is not aware. Researcher Flores also acknowledges this issue. He states that digital beings can be constantly spied on. Next to that, their memory could be deleted which leads to a loss of identity. To conclude, digital beings should have rights awarded and those rights should at least be equal to those of humans. Nevertheless, it will be very hard – maybe even impossible – to retain those rights and to prevent violation of them. 

Violation of the privacy of rights – illustration. Photograph: Pxhere.

Time flies

Something which not many people realize is the relative time reduction we all experience while aging. Relative time reduction is the phenomenon that the older you get, the smaller proportion of your life a period of time is perceived to be. For example, at the age of 5, a year is one-fifth of your life, while at the age of 100, a year is one-hundredth of your life. Therefore, the fifth year of your life is perceived as longer lasting than your one-hundredth year. Many psychologists and philosophers are still debating whether there is a limit to this phenomenon or whether we will progressively perceive days shorter and shorter into infinity. This would mean that memories will eventually fade into one convoluted mess, and as a consequence you won’t be able to distinguish the time between memories, meaning that a memory from 9.000 years ago will be perceived to have happened at the same time as a memory from 10.000 years ago. Although not all experts agree on the possible occurrence of this matter, it is still definitely something to keep in mind when considering (digital) immortality. 

Inequality

Fifthly, inequality will play a role in digital immortality. We don’t have to tell you that the rich have a better life than the poor. They have better access to health care, water, food, and education. Next to that, the rich also report a higher well-being. The (economic) gap between the rich and poor will also play a key role in the availability of digital immortality. Several well-known transhumanists – people who believe that humans can evolve beyond our current physical and mental restrictions – have stated that digital immortality will probably only be available for the rich. Of course, the costs needed to facilitate digital immortality might decrease over time. However, researchers have shown that technology often increases economic inequality. Next to that, the gap between the rich and poor has only been growing over the past years and there have been no signs that this gap will be resolved or even diminished. Therefore, digital immortality will only be available for the rich, as most of the technological advances.

Mortality is the building block of progression

Finally, when a population is (digitally) immortal it won’t progress anymore. Imagine if all people from the eighteenth century would still live. We would still be segregating races and practicing misogyny. Because of death, societies can get rid of the tyranny of their elders and progress ethically. If we were to be immortal this wouldn’t be possible and views held by those within the society would be held for the rest of eternity.

Death could still occur when society is digitally immortal, for example, by cutting off the person’s energy supply or deleting all the files of their consciousness, but this would occur far too slowly, limiting social progression. The only solution to let society progress would be mass psychological conditioning and reprogramming, but then another problem occurs: who would decide once and for all what is just?

Also the ironic thing is, our society thrives because of our goal to live longer and become immortal. Cities wouldn’t have been built, medicines wouldn’t have been discovered and society wouldn’t have progressed as a whole, was it not for our goal to become immortal. But if we would all be immortal the motor of civilization would stop. 

Conclusion

As can be seen from the arguments above, digital immortality is not something we should strive for. It would only bring problems and unhappiness to humankind. Overpopulation, a purposeless life, perception of time, privacy, and so on are only a few of the problems we would face, as things we probably couldn’t imagine right now are bound to happen. Of course, some argue that digital immortality will not cause any problems, however, this is contradicted by many researchers and authors. Therefore, governments should prohibit any advancements in digital immortality. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) could play a key role in achieving this. This organization has members from several countries and it provides a platform that can be used to compare and coordinate policies. Not all countries (e.g. China) are members of the OECD. For that reason, the OECD should discuss the issue with non-member countries and should pressure them into banning advancements in digital immortality. 

To conclude, advancements in digital immortality should be discouraged and even prohibited. But of course, it could always be used for entertainment purposes in sci-fi shows such as Futurama. Therefore, the question Queen posed in 1986: “Who wants to live forever?” has been answered – if it were up to us, no one.

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