I’M SITTING on a plane, flying to France for a couple of days. Nothing flash, just an economy seat by the window, and looking out I can see the wing. I’m not a nervous flyer, but I find myself absentmindedly searching for cracks or any other damage, and wondering how we’d do if just a bit of that wing came off. Not well, presumably. I know the chances of dying in a plane crash are miniscule compared to, say, in a car crash. But hey, it’s not just whether you die, it’s how you die that matters. Plane death would involve long minutes of being tossed around upside down, with screaming passengers trying to scribble out goodbye notes. My mind moves on, but my thoughts are still pondering death.
Well, death can’t be avoided, can it? Or can it? Surely with the advances in medicine, genomics and computing power, scientists will eventually discover the reason for ageing and be able to prevent it. One academic told me that the answer could well be found in cancer cells – why these bad cells don’t die could well be the same question as why good cells do. But for you and me, the issue is not how they discover immortality; it is how long they take to do it. Maybe it will be in 50 years, so we need to stick around! Being immortal while feeble and old may not be so great, but if we can then hang around for another 50 years or so until they figure out how to reverse ageing, we could then go back to being a 25 or 30 year old.
“Not good,” I hear you say. “There are too many people on this planet already! We can’t allow immortality. We’ve already depleted the oceans, damaged the ozone layer and burnt down the forests.”
Perhaps the solution will be in what I call “Farleigh’s Choice”. I’ve always found it interesting that we all have such a fragile connection to reality. Everything each of us knows about anything has come to our brains from just one of five senses: our sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. These could be so easy to manipulate – imagine a computer wired to your brain feeding it “false” information; you could believe you are flying, or underwater, or in space. You could be led to believe you are the President of the United States, or a fantastic athlete, or even a giant. Now before you cry foul and say “that was the Matrix movie!”, I envisaged this well before the film came out, and with some crucial differences. In my world, people will be happy – probably happier than in reality, because only good things will happen to them. They also don’t need to interact or compete: everyone can be President. So the hypothetical choice I offer is this: would you swap real life for the virtual paradise of my artificial world? When I’ve asked, most people say no, and they’re almost repulsed, especially if they’re religious. After all, it would be a false existence, no matter how wonderful.
But then I add more. Another feature of my world is that no one needs a body. There is no need for one, only for a brain, which can easily be fed nutrients and oxygen. There is no need for movement; all of those sensations have been taken over by the computers. You will just be a brain in a box. And if none of the other vital organs are there to fail, your brain can live a very long time. Being a brain inside a happy box is better than dying in the real world. So when I ask people if they would choose the box to escape terminal cancer or a heart condition, I’ve found most people would indeed prefer just to be a brain. Would you?
Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.