Moving America Forward

Welcome to Life After Death

February 23, 2018
Welcome to Life After Death
“Even if the dead can’t interact with us anymore, we can still interact with a simulation of them,” says data scientist Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad. Photo by Victor Tongdee/Getty Images
Afraid of dying? If you stick around long enough, you just might not have to.

If you had the chance to not just see your loved ones after they die, but interact with them, would you?

The question for many researchers and neuroscientists working in the aptly coined death-tech field is not one of will we, but rather on what platform.

“Death is often viewed as the great leveller that marks the cessation of experience. But perhaps this needn’t be the case,” writes Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, a data scientist who studies machine learning and artificial intelligence. “Even if the dead can’t interact with us anymore, we can still interact with a simulation of them.”

Not terribly long ago, the concept of bringing people back — or, rather, bringing back their consciousnesses — seemed so far out of reach that it was the subject of an early episode of the futuristic sci-fi series “Black Mirror.” Fast-forward a couple of years to today, and you can find many scientists and philosophers contemplating the ethical implications of re-creating deceased humans, and what that might mean for how we grieve.

Dmitri Itzkov is a Russian multimillionaire who told the BBC in 2016 that he left the business world to “devote himself to something more useful to humanity.” His vision: A world where science has decoded the mysteries of the human mind, which then can be uploaded to a computer and transferred into a robotic avatar.

The thirtysomething Itzkov, who founded the 2045 Initiative to pursue his goal of “cybernetic immortality,” already knows how he will spend his immortal life. “For the next few centuries I envision having multiple bodies, one somewhere in space, another hologram-like, my consciousness just moving from one to another.”

It sounds outlandish, like something out of a low-budget sci-fi movie from the ’80s. But not everyone in the death-tech field is planning an endless existence involving mind-uploading and lifelike robots.

The Philadelphia-based biotech company BioQuark is currently studying how to reanimate the brains of people on life support who have been declared brain-dead. (Once the brain stem stops functioning, a person is considered to be legally deceased.) The plan is to inject stem cells and amino acids into patients’ spinal cords and brain stems, alongside other therapies, and grow neurons in the brain that will connect to each other and thus, regenerate the brain.

“This represents the first trial of its kind and another step towards the eventual reversal of death in our lifetime,” said BioQuark CEO Ira Pastor at the study’s outset.

Scientists are aiming to “reverse death” through the use of stem cells.Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty Images

There are other technologies cropping up that don’t bring back the dead, per se, but do allow mourners to keep their memories of loved ones alive for eternity.

A few years back city officials in Anchorage, Alaska, for example, began allowing people to stick QR codes on the city’s columbarium wall, which holds 9,000 urns. When scanned by visitors, the QR codes pull up an online memorial, photos and videos posted by the family.

“If we give people the opportunity to memorialize in a way that they’re comfortable with, then they’ll be down the road to healthy grieving, and that’s the whole point,” said Rob Jones, director of Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that robotics and the rapid evolution of technology may one day revolutionize the way humans die — or don’t die.

Until that time comes, however, the rest of us will have to make peace with our own mortality and continue honoring our dead the analog way: by keeping their memories alive inside our brains, and our hearts.