Immortality Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

Article excerpt

The future ain't what it used to be. Those of a certain age will remember exciting predictions that by the year 2000, we would all be hurling round on monorails, dressed in tinfoil and popping pills for dinner. OK, so the tinfoil trousers never caught on, but in the age of the Docklands Light Railway and nutritional supplements, the crazy dreams of the last century seem endearingly modest. It is perhaps no accident that, as the global economy crashes and the ecological Doomsday scenario gathers momentum, futurists have upped their game. This week - a big week for breakthroughs - we heard the soothing news that immortality is finally within our grasp. If we can just hang on in for the next 20 years, we can live for ever. Possibly on the Moon.

The man promising eternal life is not your average wild-eyed cultist. He is Ray Kurzweil, the American inventor of the speech synthesiser and a prominent, though not unquestioned, figure in the field of artificial intelligence. According to Kurzweil, the advance of technology is not linear, but exponential. By analysing how far we have come, we can predict how far and how fast we will progress. "I believe, he says, "that in around 20 years we will have the means to reprogram our bodies' stone-age software so we can halt, then reverse ageing. Then nanotechnology will let us live for ever."

There is, of course, a considerable gulf between theoretical science and its universal application. God knows the non- theoretical stuff is problematic enough. Video recorders have been round for more than 20 years and not all of us know how to work them. But even if, for the sake of argument, immortality were technically possible, what would we do with it?

There are certain obvious implications. If age does not wither us, how will we fit the extra candles on our birthday cakes? How will we fit the extra people on the planet? (Indeed, if nobody ever dies, is it desirable - or even possible - for new people to be born?) There will be no clear way of knowing when female newsreaders on the BBC have passed their sell-by dates. And how hard will we kick ourselves if Margaret Thatcher makes a comeback, aged 103, and leads the Conservative Party to victory in all eternity? I'm not quite doomy enough to agree with Schopenhauer that "to desire immortality is to desire the perpetuation of a great mistake", but there are downsides.

Our fascination with the notion of eternal life is instinctive and atavistic. …