THE DEATH OF DEATH
Ralph Merkle, 53, expects to awaken just in time for Lizzie's centennial
2105 Chapter Ten, age hundred
THREE SCENARIOS for the future final chapter of a human life. One is techno-fantasy, one is a leap of trust, and the third, if true—if provable—will shame all other science, opening the pathway to a miracle too beautiful and wondrous to be dreamed.
In that order, then, three visions of how my precious Lizzie’s life may end... or never end.
José Cordeiro is a Venezuelan oil-patch professional who grew up as a Roman Catholic. “In Latin America,” he says, “even the cats and dogs are Catholic.” But Señor Cordeiro now subscribes to a doctrine known as Transhumanism, which, he explains, promises nothing short of the death of death.
Preoccupations of food, money, pain, etc. are of the body and are gone. Music, the arts, intellectual and spiritual knowledge and progress have increased. The people are clothed, as one would expect.... People live in communities, as one would expect if like attracts like, and the male spirit still finds his true mate.
These, roughly speaking, are the lines of the life beyond.
-SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, MACLEAN’S, FEBRUARY 1918
“People who are born today will not die,” he declares with unruffled certitude at the annual convention of the World Future Society in Chicago. (He is a member of the society’s board of directors.) “Of course, a piano could fall on her head, but basically, your daughter can live forever—unless she gets bored.”
I cannot imagine my baby girl—or anyone else—becoming bored with the 21st century, not with the Singularity Machine and Reception Robot and thermo-chromatic skin crystals that warn her a week in advance of an oncoming zit. So it is cheering news when Cordeiro announces: “For anybody who is under 20 today, death will be optional.”
“What about people over 20?” I ask. (Sr. Cordeiro is 43. I’m 55.)
“For people who are over 20,” he replies, “we have to hope for the best. And we have cryonics! Even though we have not yet recovered any human beings—and no dog has survived [who has been] frozen for more than two hours—we know that it works.” “And we have Jesus,” I remind him, but this sails right over his head.
While they wait for further experiments in the refrigeration and revival of small mammals, frogs and Ted Williams, the Transhumanists have set their compasses on a digital detour to a perpetual tomorrow: the transfer of a person’s entire brain state and memories onto a deathless hard drive. “We are carbon-based,” Cordeiro notes. “Maybe silicon-based would be a better medium. We could upload our brains onto a better substrate. Why not give Stephen Hawking a better body and transplant his brain onto a computer?
“You can clone your physical body—this is just a matter of time—but if you do not have your brain, you’re not you.”
“So will you live forever as a laptop with memories and feelings?” I ask.
“Maybe I would like to try that for 100 years,” says Cordeiro. “Maybe for 200 years after that, I would like to be a cyborg with another body, and then for the next millennium I would go to the Andromeda Galaxy.” The fact that, as Henry Markram of the Blue Gene project points out, it would take a billion billion racks of processors to replicate all the molecular connections in a human brain does not dampen the spirits of the flag-bearers of electro-immortality. “I think life is so beautiful,” Cordeiro says softly. “I don’t want it to end.”
Like Kevin Warwick the British cyborg, Cordeiro expects that, pretty soon, nearly everybody will choose to climb aboard the cybernetic beer wagon and get loaded. “Maybe there will be some ‘naturals’ who say, T want to be natural,’ ” Cordeiro allows. “But we all wear clothing, that is the^rsi technology. So no one lives without technology completely.”
Even if the technique were developed and my brain could be stored on silicon, I’d be worried that the keypuncher would hit delete instead of copy. And eternity lasts a long time, even if you are not the type who gets easily bored.
“Assuming my daughter does live past one or two hundred,” I wonder, “what will she do?”
“She will listen to Mozart with one ear, Beethoven with her second ear, and Martian music with her third ear,” says Cordeiro. “She will see the sun set from some other solar system—after 100 years, she will be tired of just one sun.
“Did you know that I am listed in Who’s Who in the World?” asks Cordeiro.
“I hope you never are listed in Who WAS Who,” I reply.
1. At Arizona’s Alcor Life Extension Foundation, they believe doctors today just have the wrong definition of death. The world’s largest cryopreservation agency says the body can be brought back to life if it has stopped working-what actually kills us is when our chemistry becomes so disorganized that functions can’t be restored. A century ago, if someone’s heart stopped beating it was considered irreversible “disorganization,” but medicine advanced. Cryogenics is counting on nanotechnology to improve to the point where individual molecules in each cell can be fixed and clients can be brought back to their previous organized selves.
2. After famed baseball slugger Ted Williams died on July 5,2002, his son, John Henry, had his father’s torso and severed head cyrogenically frozen at Alcor, precipitating a bitter fight with other family members. It wasn’t the end of the controversy sur-
rounding the dead superstar. In September, Connecticut sculptor Daniel Edwards exhibited what he called the “death mask” of Williams’s severed head at First Street Gallery in New York City. Although Alcor says the artist never had access to its facility, Edwards explained that “the death mask is just putting a physical image to the story everyone is familiar with.”
3. Ideally, Alcor gets clients on the operating table at the moment of cardiac arrest. While artificially pumping the lungs and heart, doctors replace the water in cells with chemicals (ice causes tissue damage) before lowering body temperature to -196°C. Then it’s off to a vacuum-insulated container of liquid nitrogen until the great-great-grandkids come to the rescue.
4. Groovy, baby-in 1967, to escape superagent Austin Powers, arch-nemesis Dr. Evil has himself frozen. Powers then does the same, to be revived if Dr. Evil ever returns. The result: three movies that grossed a total of $790 million.
SOMEONE ALREADY has chiselled in stone a tablet of commandments for the time when analogs of Cordeiro & Co. are confined for all eternity.
Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University— and a co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association—calls these “Ethical Principles in the Creation of Artificial Minds.”
Principle 1: Non-discrimination with regard to substrate.
Substrate is morally irrelevant. Whether somebody is implemented on silicon or biological tissue, if it does not affect functionality or consciousness, is of no moral significance. Carbon-chauvinism is objectionable on the same grounds as racism...
Principle 1: Responsibility for progeny’s actions.
To the extent that procreators have control over what sort of being they create, they are responsible for that being’s actions.
“This is not utopia,” says Cordeiro. “It is going to happen!”
ON SEPT. 23, 1908, a New York Giants rookie named Fred Merkle neglected to step on second base in the ninth inning of a pivotal game against the Chicago Cubs. The Merkle Boner, as it has been known for 97 years, wound up costing the Giants the Na-
tional League pennant. Ever since then, the Merkle family has been trying to find a better way to achieve immortality.
In 2005, Ralph C. Merkle of Georgia Tech is certain that he has it. Merkle is Fred’s great-grandnephew and a director of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the cryonics concern. At age 53, he and his wife, Carol Shaw, 49, already have committed themselves to the deep-freeze when their “first life cycles” draw down.
For just US$140,0001 could sign Lizzie up, too. But by 2023, I’ll need that much money for her first half-semester at Stanford.
At Alcor’s bunker in Scottsdale, Ariz., first base is immersion of the body (or just your severed head—that’s $60,000 cheaper) in liquid nitrogen, and home plate is thawing, resurrection and healing whatever killed you, some sunny sometime in the future. By then, you hope and assume, there will be A Cure For Everything.“! have the faith of the physicist,” Merkle tells me. He is one of the world’s leading experts in codes and ciphers, the recipient of numerous academic awards and honours, no bonehead, and absolutely convinced he has nothing to lose but his life insurance policy by refusing to be declared legally dead when he dies.
“Why do you yearn so deeply for this?” I ask him.
“It is not a question of deep yearning,” he says. “It is a question of, ‘Gee, I’m alive and healthy. Would I like this to continue?’ ” This is not a new idea in Ralph Merkle’s carbon-based brain. “I had completed my Ph.D. and got married and had a nice job in Silicon Valley,” he recalls of his enlightenment. “I thought, ‘What happens next?’ I would live my life and then I would die. That didn’t sound like a very good ending.”
So he pledged his soul to the tanks at Alcor, where a corpse is a “resident” and the morgue is a “patient-care bay.”
“One of the core questions is how good is future medical technology going to be, and what kind of damage can it be expected to reverse?” Merkle says. “With molecular nanotechnology, we will have the ability to input, examine, arrange and rearrange any structure that we recognize. So bringing us back will not be problem.”
He expects that he and Carol will awaken just in time for Lizzie’s centennial. It should be a heck of a party. José Cordeiro will bring the wine.
“The expectation is that medical technology 100 years from now will have a very different definition of‘what is dead?’ ” Merkle reasons. “If the physical structure of your brain, your synapses, are maintained, you are not dead. And if you are not dead, then you are still alive.” “Don’t you fear being like Rip Van Winkle,” I wonder, “and waking up a century from now, lost and confused and lonely?”
“It is not a question of casting ourselves into the future and waking up alone,” Merkle affirms. “Alcor is a community of people. Some people, like me, are alive and healthy; some people are in a suspended state. When we awaken, we will find our extended family is there, either our younger relations who have been born since we were suspended, or friends who went into cryonic suspension with us. We will all wake up together.” “That sounds like a pretty good description of the Christian heaven,” I venture.
But Ralph C. Merkle just chuckles.
The first question his friends ask is ‘Will this work?’ The second is, ‘Can I take my money with me?’
“Imagine if we could bring a Roman soldier back to life today,” he says. “We would tell him that he will live 80 years instead of 20. That he could climb into a metal tube with wings on it and fly to another country. That if his heart wears out, he can get a new one with a transplant. Don’t you think he would be happy to come here and try it?
‘In the current era of a lifespan of three score and 10, things start declining and it is hard to extend it beyond 100 or 110. But in the future that simply won’t occur.” Merkle says that the first question his friends ask him is, “Will this work?” The second is “Can I take my money with me?” ;‘We are working on that,” the believer says. And he lays out a simple matrix of possibilities: “Either it works or it doesn’t; either you sign up or you don’t.”
“If you are so certain of a perfect life in a future that never ends,” I ask, “why don’t you and Carol do what you have to do to get started on the journey right now?”
“Do you mean recreational cryonics?” gasps Merkle. “Oh, no no no. You don’t want to be autopsied.”
‘Do you mean recreational cryonics? Oh, no no no. You don’t want to be autopsied.’
-RALPH C. MERKLE, a director of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation
“SAM TAYLOR is a boy from Vermont who was born a year and a half after his paternal grandfather died,” writes Dr. Jim Tucker of the University of Virginia. “When Sam was IV2 years old, his father was changing his diaper one day when Sam told him, ‘When I was your age, I used to change your diapers.’ Following that incident, Sam gradually began saying that he had been his grandfather. He also said, T used to be big, and now I’m small.’
“His mother gave Sam a class picture from when his grandfather was in grammar school. The picture showed 27 chldren, 16 of them boys. Sam ran his finger over the faces, stopped it on his grandfather’s face and said, ‘That’s me.’ ”
Tucker’s book is called Life Before Life— A Scientific Investigation of Children’s Memories of Previous Lives.
So we come to the end of Lizzie’s Century— and Lizzie’s life—with the haunting possibility that she, or some essence of her, has lived before, and may live again.
Many children—perhaps yours—say that they have. There is a boy named William in New York City who was born five years after his mother’s father, a retired police officer trying to stop a robbery, was shot in the pulmonary artery and killed. William was born with a serious defect of the pulmonary artery.
When he was three years old, he misbehaved and his mother threatened a spanking. William told her, “Mom, when you were a little girl, and I was your daddy, you were bad a lot of times, and I never hit you.”
William said: “I died Thursday at night and was born Tuesday in the morning. I told God I was ready to come back and I got born on Tuesday.” And of course he was right, even though, at three, he did not know his days and weeks.
There have been many, many other cases. This is what the children say:
“You are not my parents—my parents live somewhere else.”
“Mom, people in the other world don’t get sick.”
“What if it is true?” I ask Jim Tucker.
“Then there is going to have to be a new scientific view of the world that incorporates consciousness,” he replies.
The researchers who work with Tucker at Virginia’s division of personality studies have been immersed in these magic mysteries for more than 40 years. The faculty’s patriarch, Dr. Ian Stevenson, recorded thousands of uncanny cases of children around the world who summoned precise, unique, verifiable details of the adult lives of strangers they and their families had never met or heard of. Many remembered that they had suffered sudden and violent deaths. Some children even bore birthmarks that matched the fatal wounds.
In Stevenson’s wake, Jim Tucker has heard the stories, too. And he has come to believe-or at least not to discount-what they might mean to science, and to society.
“The majority of physicists would say my theory is absurd,” he admits. “But some physicists are open to some very wild things. If this work ever finds acceptance, even in my own mind, then consciousness will have to be seen as a specific entity, and not just as a by-product of our evolving brain.” Tucker grew up as a Southern Baptist in North Carolina. He has three grown stepchildren and a 16-year-old daughter. “I would certainly welcome the prospect of spending another lifetime with the people I love.” The passion is pure science, a science that awaits its Newton. “I got an email this week,” Tucker, a child psychiatrist by training, tells me. “A 2V2-year-old girl said she was killed in a car accident on the way to the store to buy makeup.”
“What do you want us to ask Lizzie when she is able to talk?”
“You can try, ‘Where were you before you were in Mommy’s tummy?’ ”
But there is no reason to think that she would remember, or, if she did, that she would tell us. Past-life memories are rare and fade quickly, the residue, Tucker hypothesizes, of some unfinished business from the last time around. “If this sort of thing becomes accepted,” Tucker says, “I hope that society will become more spiritual, more devout, not about religion, but about our place in the universe. Then we might be less materialistic and treat people more decently.”
A century’s hope, resting on a spirit’s wing.
“We might like to think that the love and positive emotions we give to others can last more than one lifetime,” Tucker writes, “and the cases give us hope that they may. Not only do birthmarks and phobias occur in these cases, but the children also continue to express love for the previous family. Love endures.”
We are almost to the end of the journey now. Reading this, I envision my daughter’s soul, floating, searching, finding this perfect new body, and I remember Catherine Potvin’s words: “How can you have children and be a pessimist?”
And I am lost in dreams of eternal renewal, swept up in the cycle of parent and child, father and daughter, Lizzie and me. ii1!