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Vinay Menon: New tech firm promises eternal life, but you have to die. And then there’s a catch

Imagine if your mind could be uploaded to a digital cloud and exist forever.

I know what you’re thinking: is this fool about to review an episode of Black Mirror, say, “White Christmas,” “San Junipero” or from the new season, “USS Callister”? Nope. This fool is merely reeling from how the Netflix sci-fi hit now feels like a telepathic documentary penned by time travellers from the future armed with evocative insights into how technology changed humanity in the 21st century.

The startup I’m writing about today, Nectome, is not a fictional concern. It is real. And this month it will pitch investors on a “mind uploading service.” The mission statement can be found on its website: “Committed to the goal of archiving your mind. We’re building the next generation of tools to preserve the connectome. Our ultimate ambition is to keep your memories intact for the future.”

Dear reader, I have neither the neuroscience expertise nor the precious space in the Star’s Entertainment pages to walk you through the technical bits. But as far as I can tell, the company has developed a state-of-the-art embalming technique that, when combined with advanced computer imaging, allows it to map your brain down to every cellular detail. Then in the future, when biotech is ready and able, this replicated model is transported to a new realm where consciousness is jump-started and you are free to resume thinking and recalling and existing as you once did.

Sounds awesome, right? Well, before you dash off to the bank to withdraw the fully refundable $ 10,000 to join the company’s waiting list, please be aware of a possible deal-breaking catch: this process is, in the words of the company, “100 per cent fatal.”

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The price of everlasting consciousness? It seems … THAT WOULD BE DEATH. Basically, Nectome can preserve and reconstitute your brain only by killing you. This isn’t an outpatient procedure — to get in, you never get out.

To exist in perpetuity, you must die in the here and now.

And, frankly, this is where the appeal gets sketchy.

In the old days, when mad scientists had fever dreams about the fountain of youth or immortality, the assumption was you could bring your body to the afterlife party. In a Descartes sense, you were whole. Maybe you’d remain 17 or 32 or 59, whatever your favourite age. But in the hypothetical, living forever did not mean giving up the living part. You were still free to bask in experiential pleasures. You could eat and drink and breathe and see and inhale and revel in every tactile and visceral joy this crazy planet has to offer. You were not sentenced to exist as a disembodied spirit in some kind of Apple remote storage system, with no footing in reality, forever beholden to the competence of data managers and goodwill of descendants presumably tasked with paying the monthly tab to keep you “alive.”

But what Nectome is audaciously pushing — assuming the science is even feasible given what we already know about the dynamic nature of the brain’s electrical and chemical activity — is pure Black Mirror.

You are code. You exist in the cloud. You are an algorithm.

And this raises a philosophical question, one I must pose inelegantly due to a looming deadline: Can you still be you if you are no longer you?

No offence to Nectome or transhuman dreamers, but why would I want to exist forever when I’m no longer me? What guarantee do I get that my loved ones will be uploaded to the same artificial ecosystem? If I don’t have my wife to boss me around for all eternity, what the hell am I doing in this cloud? It makes no sense.

I am nothing without her firm but loving guidance.

Then there are myriad potential snafus at a technical level. What happens if hackers infiltrate this godforsaken Matrix and force me to spend the next billion years in a state of servitude? What happens is a tech specialist mistakenly adds Justin Bieber to my home? What happens if it’s Take Your Kids To Work Day in 2134 at Nectome and a little hellion accidentally unplugs my server, casting me into eternal darkness? What happens if I get profoundly bored at the prospect of existing in the cloud and begin fantasizing about the sweet mercy of death that can never come?

And, ultimately, isn’t this a rather selfish endeavour? We have all kinds of problems to figure out and not bequeath to the next generation. But instead of solving those problems, we’re going to engage in extreme narcissism and attempt to build ghoulish brain factories where our mortal thoughts become immortal?

No thanks. Knowing the end is inevitable is a great social mechanism. It keeps us honest. It frames purpose. To be up against a clock is to live more fully.

Take that away and all you have is never-ending noise.