For most of our recorded history, we humans have been concerned with the prospect of dying. Some of us have welcomed it, many of us have feared it, but all of us have recognized its inevitability.
Today, however, there are at least three schools of thought on the matter. The first, the majority, accepts that, not until they are called, will they go—no matter how long it takes, no matter how incapacitated they become. The second, a growing number, wants to determine their own manner of death, at a time and by a method of their own choosing.
A third group has emerged recently, devoted to living beyond the demise of their mortal bodies by digitizing their brains in the cloud—enabling them to live on forever, as it were, as a stream of conscious thoughts interacting with those still alive.
Preposterous? Maybe not.
The first notion of death is pretty much established. As of this writing, no one in all our history has failed to die.
The second, though, is becoming more prevalent. Called by a variety of names (including assisted death, assisted suicide, merciful release, quietus), the concept is that any person, at a time of her/his choosing, may be allowed to die, assisted if necessary by others.
Several countries around the world have enacted laws to enable this in one form or another. But almost without fail, the legislation requires informed consent from the person at the time (s)he decides to go, and only if (s)he is judged mentally competent in the moment to make such a decision. Further, the person must be facing a grievous and irremediable medical condition.
In Canada, where it is called Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), the procedure requires that the person:
- have a serious illness, disease or disability,
- be in an advanced state of decline that cannot be reversed,
- be experiencing unbearable physical or mental suffering from illness, disease, disability, or state of decline, none of which can be relieved under conditions considered acceptable, and
- be at a point where natural death has become reasonably foreseeable (but not requiring a specific prognosis as to how long there is left to live), and where all medical circumstances have been taken into account.
One does not need to have a fatal or terminal condition to be eligible for medical assistance in dying. However, one must be able to give informed consent both at the time of the initial request, and—most importantly—immediately before the medical assistance in dying is provided.
In that last condition lies the rub. Presumably, one might have put all the steps in place in advance; and then, on the very day when it is to take place, perhaps only moments before the actual act, one could lapse into unconsciousness and be unable to give that final consent.
In such a circumstance, and despite one’s own previously-granted, informed consent, one might linger for days or weeks, or even longer, unable to exert any control over the end of life.
I hope that condition will be changed.
The third concept, disrupting death, is only in its infancy. Artificial intelligence experts are increasingly working on brain-scanning techniques that will allow them to digitize the brain, and then upload it to the cloud. Already, specialists have developed digital replicas of brains, virtual avatars, that they hope will be able to communicate with those left behind after the death of their owners.
With software to mine the gigabytes of thoughts and emotions created every day by those brains, virtual models can be created in the ether. These will, the developers hope, be able to communicate with loved ones after their owners have passed away.
Just imagine being able to exchange ideas with the dearly-departed who, with the assistance of data inputted regularly into chatbots, will be able to stay abreast of current affairs and form opinions on events that happen after their death.
To be sure, there are many experts who scoff at the notion. Although it may well be possible to enable such robotic connections, they say, it will prove impossible to replicate human consciousness beyond death.
One such expert, Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese roboticist—who has built an android version of himself and programmed it with all manner of knowledge—says, “If we have an android, we can live forever in society. But personal immortality is impossible because consciousness is not continuous.”
I confess, I have no idea of the viability of any of this. My brain, even while still alive, has not the capacity to imagine it.
It probably won’t matter, though. At my age, I’m more interested in the notion of assisted dying than the possibility of life eternal. I’d much rather wander the star-filled vastness of the universe than plod endlessly through what is becoming an earthbound wasteland.
Still, I’m suggesting to those near and dear to me that once I am gone, should they happen to hear my voice whispering in their ears, pay it heed.
Stranger things have happened.