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A Digital Immortality

‘Eminent Scientist, Prof. John Edwards, died today, aged 77. Best known for his pioneering work in the field of wave mechanics, Prof. Edwards helped establish quantum theory as a cornerstone of modern physics. He leaves a wife and four children’.

Rami switches off the TV following the news announcement and sinks back into his chair.

“All that knowledge and intelligence accumulated over an entire lifetime just gone,” he remarks, “it all seems such a waste.”

The sense of justice Rami always so readily wears on his sleeve has often inspired eventful debates with Jed on the role of science in the humanities.

“We’ve all got to die some time,” insists his friend and flatmate. “Even you.”

“But imagine if it could be extracted from his brain and implanted into another human being,” muses Rami. “Man and science could continue to benefit from his achievements and maybe progress to even greater levels of knowledge and understanding.” He turns away and sighs with resignation. “I’d be happy with just 10 per cent of his intelligence.”

“Well, I guess 10 per cent of nothing is a start,” quips Jed.

Rami’s become accustomed to Jed’s caustic remarks wrapped in humour, but, for the uninitiated, the discovery of an inference of truth in his acerbic comments can prove quite unsettling.

“But think what could be achieved,” proclaims Rami, “the possibilities are endless.”

“Come on Einstein,” says Jed, clambering out of his armchair. “The University of Life is calling our name.”

“Your DNA’s becoming a permanent fixture in the NeuroZone bar, these days,” says Rami, light-heartedly. “I reckon you’ll be taking up residence, next.”

“The path to enlightenment is just a taxi ride away,” declares Jed, theatrically. “It’s amazing how much clearer things become after a few drinks.”

Rami declines his friend’s invitation, choosing to stay behind and ‘philosophise on the merits of recycling the human brain’ as Jed had mockingly put it.

“What about ethics?” poses Rami, enthusiastically.

“The NeuroZone bar’s not that bad,” smiles Jed with amusement at his own witty riposte.

“Would it be right to manipulate science for the benefit of mankind? I mean ... is that really progress?” reflects Rami, philosophically.

“The only progress I’m interested in right now is draining a glass of Malt Whiskey,” says Jed, slipping on his jacket.

He watches Rami switch on the TV and proceed to flick through numerous channels.

“If you get bored searching for your answers, you know where to find me,” remarks Jed, as he turns to leave.

“You can’t run away forever, you know,” mutters Rami.

Jed stops and turns around.

“What do you mean?” he replies, looking slightly perplexed.

“I’m not blind,” continues Rami. “Malt Whiskey won’t make the problem go away.”

“I really have no idea what you’re talking about,” says Jed.

“Then why did you turn around, when you could’ve just ignored me and left?”

Jed sighs and shakes his head.

“Look,” adds Rami, “I know something’s wrong.” He shrugs his shoulders. “Maybe I can help.”

Jed slowly removes his jacket and sits down.

He looks apprehensive and tense.

“It wasn’t part of the plan,” he suddenly declares, “they should’ve told me? It was their responsibility.”

“Are you in some kind of trouble?” interrupts Rami.

“They said it was safe, how could they let this happen?”

“Okay, let’s start from the beginning.”

“You’re wasting your time,” says Jed, dismissively, “there’s nothing you can do.”

“You mentioned a plan.”

“Did I?”

“Just now. You said something wasn’t part of the plan. What did you mean?” inquires Rami.

“I don’t remember. Why do you keep asking me so many questions?”

“Because there’s something you’re not telling me,” insists Rami.

Jed reflects on his friend’s remark.

“You’re right, just forget everything I said.”

“It’s a little late for that,” says Rami, growing frustrated by Jed’s vague posture.

“So tell me where you stand on the ethics of human genetic engineering?” exclaims Jed, irritated by his friend’s retort. “Which direction does your moral compass swing?”

Rami is vexed by Jed’s uncharacteristic outburst. Is this really the same person he’s known for six years?

“You see ... I have a theory,” continues Jed. “Opinions basically fall into two groups. Group A believes any manipulation of DNA is unethical and against the laws of nature. Whereas Group B favours anything that improves quality of life – miracle cures, prosthetic limbs, anti-aging technologies, that kind of thing.”

“Why are you telling me this?” says Rami.

“How do you think the ideologies of Group B are achieved?”

“I’ve got a feeling you’re about to tell me,” asserts Rami.

“For miracle cures to be possible, sacrifices have to be made. But what happens when things go wrong? Who takes ultimate responsibility? Does anyone really care about the names crossed off the list – after all, they knew the risk.”

“What’s got into you?” says Rami. “One minute you’re in some dark place in the depths of despair and the next you’re lecturing me on human genetics. I never realised you had such strong views on the subject.”

Jed falls silent, as if trying to conceal a secret from someone entering the room.

“They’re waiting ... it’s too late,” he whispers.

“Who’s waiting?” says Rami, lowering his voice. “I don’t understand.”

“There’s no turning back now,” declares Jed. “I’ve got to tell them I’ve changed my mind.” He leans forward and grips Rami’s arm, tightly.

“Hey, you’re hurting me,” says Rami, raising his voice.

“Make them stop,” pleads Jed, anxiously. He winces in pain and releases Rami’s arm.

“You’re starting to seriously freak me out,” claims Rami.

Jed holds his chest.

“Are you okay?”

He falls unconscious.

“Jed?” cries Rami. “Jed, wake up.”

Rami watches the paramedics treat his friend as the ambulance speeds through the rush-hour traffic. Jed is swiftly removed on arrival at their destination by three men wearing white overcoats while Rami is taken by another to a small, dark and gloomy office with lowered blinds concealing two large internal windows.

His attempts to discover where Jed had been taken are interrupted by the appearance of a balding, rotund and bespectacled man wearing a white overcoat introducing himself as Dr Ingram. He switches on some lights and gestures for Rami’s escort to leave.

“Please, take a seat,” smiles Dr Ingram, indicating two empty chairs in front of a large desk.

a-digital-immortality

“What is this place?” asks Rami.

A colleague appears with a case file of paperwork for Dr Ingram then leaves and closes the door behind him.

“Your friend is in good hands,” replies Dr Ingram as he thumbs through some papers.

“Where are we?” adds Rami. “I want to see Jed.”

Dr Ingram closes the case file and removes his glasses.

“Have you noticed any unusual changes in your friend’s behaviour, recently? Confusion, aggressive mood swings, that sort of thing?”

“Are you some kind of psychiatrist?” inquires Rami.

“I’m a neuroscientist,” smiles Dr Ingram.

“Since when have hospitals employed neuroscientists?” exclaims Rami.

“It would be helpful if you could just answer the questions.”

“Will you tell me what’s going on here? I want to speak to a doctor.”

“I am a doctor,” confirms Dr Ingram.

“I mean a real doctor,” replies Rami, leaping up from his chair. “There’s got to be someone in this place who can help me.”

Dr Ingram looks on with alarm as Rami lunges for the door and disappears into a long, deserted corridor. He hears Dr Ingram calling after him and randomly opens the first door he sees.

“You can’t go in there,” shouts Dr Ingram, now in pursuit.

He arrives moments later to find Rami standing inside the doorway, staring horrified at something he sees in the room.

“What’s going on in here?” says Rami.

“This is a restricted area,” replies Dr Ingram, taking Rami by the arm. “You’re going to have to leave.”

“What have you done with Jed?” demands Rami, twisting free of Dr Ingram’s hold.

“Why don’t we go back to the office,” suggests Dr Ingram, “we can talk there.”

Rami observes the melancholic change in his countenance and agrees to return to the office on condition Dr Ingram reveals the whereabouts of Jed.

“Are you familiar with the term Cybernetic Immortality?” asks Dr Ingram.

“Not exactly,” declares Rami, “I may have once read an article about cryopreservation.”

“The human brain consists of an average 86 billion neurons that transmit information around the body,” begins Dr Ingram. “It’s suggested these neurons could be responsible for creating the state we understand as consciousness. If we can somehow find a way of extracting that biological consciousness and save it to a computer, then we believe it’s possible man could achieve immortality.”

“So what I saw in that room was some kind of experiment?” says Rami, “is that what you’re saying?”

“We’ve been conducting numerous tests on human brains donated by deceased individuals in the course of our research,” replies Dr Ingram. “You have to understand, this could change everything. Pain, disease, even death could be a thing of the past. Think of it as a new beginning, the dawn of a new kind of civilization – a digital immortality.”

Rami considers Dr Ingram’s fervent narrative.

“Have you read Jung’s concept of synchronicity?”

“Of course,” declares Dr Ingram. “He’s a man whose work I greatly admire. Indeed, his studies on archetypes have been most helpful to us.”

“Well, I was speaking to Jed only today about the possibility of extracting knowledge from a human brain,” he reveals.

“Then you’ll appreciate what we’re trying to achieve here,” smiles Dr Ingram. “Significant progress has already been made in artificial neural networks that mimic their biological counterparts, microchips modelled on the human brain and computers that emulate its functionality. I can see a time when man and machine become one, creating a super-intelligence.”

“So we’d be living in some kind of virtual world?” says Rami.

“Effectively, yes,” acknowledges Dr Ingram.

“Devoid of human emotion, thought or experience,” adds Rami.

“It’s not inconceivable that a more advanced artificial intelligence might one day write its own scripts. We already have the ability to copy how neurons in the brain adapt to new information ... or neuroplasticity as we prefer to call it.”

“So where does Jed fit into all of this?” inquires Rami. “You still haven’t told me where he is.”

Dr Ingram hesitates.

“What you saw in the other room ... it’s only one part of the experiment,” states Dr Ingram.

“What do you mean?” says Rami, with suspicion.

“To help us gain a true understanding of the ramifications of our work on a living human brain, we considered it necessary to use live volunteers.”

Rami sighs.

“Now it’s all starting to make sense.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t follow,” replies Dr Ingram.

“ ‘I’ve changed my mind’, ‘make them stop’, that’s what Jed said to me before losing consciousness. Do they sound like the words of a volunteer to you?” growls Rami, raising his voice in anger.

“I can assure you nobody was forced into doing anything against their will.”

“What the hell did you do to him?” yells Rami getting up from his chair.

“I’m afraid that’s classified information.”

“Well it certainly explains why you wanted to bring him here ... he’s a human being, not some laboratory experiment,” declares Rami, prowling menacingly around Dr Ingram.

“It wasn’t like that.”

Rami leans over Dr Ingram, close enough for him to feel Rami’s breath on his face. Beads of sweat glisten on Dr Ingram’s balding forehead under the glare from the overhead lights.

“I think you owe me an explanation,” says Rami, calmly, “don’t you?”

He slowly steps back, maintaining eye contact with Dr Ingram as he returns to his chair. Rami watches him take a deep breath then remove a handkerchief from his pocket and dab his forehead. He appears uneasy and preoccupied with something he knows is far bigger than his own human existence.

“Cybernetic Immortality, or Mind Uploading, involves slowly copying each neuron from the brain to a non-biological substrate such as a computer or robot,” declares Dr Ingram. “Because of their biological nature, brain cells die and rot away if they come into contact with anything non-organic. In the majority of cases the cells would grow back. Unfortunately, tests have shown Jed’s brain cells have not replaced themselves.”

Rami sighs and shakes his head.

“Let me get this straight. You hooked Jed up to some computer in the name of scientific research, fully aware of the potential damage it could do to his brain.”

“Every participant was well aware of the potential dangers,” interrupts Dr Ingram, “we never hid that fact.”

“So what’s your prognosis, doctor? What can Jed look forward to for the rest of his life?”

“Based on our tests, it appears a deterioration in the function of the brain has already begun,” he replies.

“Can you be more specific?” says Rami.

“Mood swings, hallucinations, paranoia and confusion, possible cognitive and behavioural difficulties,” says Dr Ingram. “But I have to stress, this is new territory. We don’t know the full implications. There’s still every possibility Jed could make a complete recovery.

“Do you really believe that’s going to happen?” says Rami.

“From what we’ve learnt so far, I would say it’s unlikely.”

“Well, I guess that proves science doesn’t yet have all the answers,” declares Rami.

© 2020 James Pitter

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