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Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

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Do androids walk among us today? Do we know? Do the androids know they are androids? If they look like us, live like us, and are made of flesh and bone just like humans, how can we tell them apart from us?

We’re all gonna die. That’s a fact. But some of us refuse to accept it. From Dr James Bedford, who became the first person to be cryogenically frozen in 1967, to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, who also want to be cryogenically frozen upon their passing through this world onto the next, there are many famous and non-famous people who simply refuse to accept that death is the end of their life.

For an increasing number of people, leaving a last will and testament, or a video, or a message stored with a company like Heavenote, is simply not enough. They don’t want to leave anything, least of all life itself. They want to cling on, no matter how tenuous their connection.

And who can blame them? Nobody wants to die. It’s this primaeval drive to avoid death that, arguably, gave rise to some of the world’s largest religions. Christianity and Islam both offer clearly articulated visions of life after death, although Judaism is less clear about what lies beyond this “mortal coil”, as William Shakespeare called it. 

Spears and Hilton are among the more famous people who are known to want to preserve their bodies. At a guess, there must be many others, but not many have admitted it. In the film Vanilla Sky, the main character, played by Tom Cruise, is cryogenically frozen. If you want to put money on which other famous people have opted for cryogenic freezing, Cruise would probably win you money. Walt Disney is widely reported to be cryogenically frozen, but those reports have been denied.

3D printed skull

And it would be people like Cruise, Spears and Hilton, who have high enough incomes to be able to afford “cryogenic preservation” services, as they are known. Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics company, charges at least $220,000 for “whole body cryopreservation”, and $100,000 for “neurocryopreservation”, which probably means only the brain. Another company, the Cryonics Institute, says it charges $28,000 as an initial fee.

There are other fees, including an ongoing charge for maintaining the bodies for as many years as it takes for the scientists to learn how to reanimate them. So it would be best to go beyond the prices mentioned here and visit those websites if you want a better idea of the overall cost.

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’Til death us do part, temporarily

The hope that people who choose cryogenic services have is, when scientists have figured out a way to keep humans alive even after their bodies die, they will be brought out of their cryogenically frozen state and given the chance to live again. Life support machines could be seen as one step, one gateway to understanding how it could be done, but it’s just a start.

The overwhelming majority of people choose “traditional” after-life journeys, such as burial or cremation, for their souls, if they believe in them. Even for non-believers, it’s just the way things are done. But there have always been those who would really rather not start the journey at all.

The pharaohs of Egypt had their bodies mummified and entombed inside pyramids with all their treasures supposedly in the hope that the gods will lift their souls to the stars, or something. In fact most religions have successfully sold the idea that there is something beyond death, that the end of life for our physical bodies is simply a transition from this world to another. But there’s a difference between religious beliefs, which generally cannot be proven, and scientific theories, which not only require experimental proof but also require the results of those experiments to be repeatable.

Those who are deciding on having their bodies cryogenically frozen are doing so in the clear-minded hope that scientists will give them some form of life at some point in the future, and want their body tissue to be intact to give themselves the best chance.

That people’s minds can be uploaded to the internet is tacitly accepted by most people now – if it hasn’t already happened, it’s only a matter of time. In terms of hardware, there is enough computing power in the world to generate virtual clones of humans, but the software probably still needs to be refined enough to emulate the subtleties of variation in human behaviour.

So, people already accept that their brains could be brought back to life, as long as it remains physically intact.

It’s just a matter of giving a jump start, using the appropriate type of jump leads and battery and engine. And the artificial intelligence engines are being prepared for that day when it becomes commonplace that people prefer being cryogenically frozen instead of burial or cremation. For one thing, it’s potentially a massive market. Morbid as it may be to discuss the whole subject.

Among the most advanced AI engines are said to be Google’s Deep Mind and IBM’s Watson. Both companies are strongly interested in the health sector. While neither has publicly expressed an interest in cloning people or in bringing them back to life after they are legally dead, they are directly involved in the business of prolonging life.

In Google’s case, it has invested in Calico Labs, which says it’s tackling ageing, and describes itself as “a research and development company whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan”.

Calico is not a cryonics company as such, and probably employs conventional healthcare methods and techniques, much the same way that IBM does with Watson and all the work it does in the healthcare sector. But there are biotech companies out there that are engaged in what is known as tissue engineering, which essentially means creating human flesh, bone and organs from scratch.

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A tissue of lives

The phrase tissue engineering may be relatively new, but as a field of study it can be traced back to mid-1600s, to British scientist Robert Hooke, who first coined the term “cell” after dissecting and observing insects through a microscope. Some 200 years later, Carl Thiersh, a German scientist, attempted to grow skin cells to heal wounds.

But while Thiersh sought to grow cells on the body of the patient, another German scientist, Leo Loeb suggested the idea of growing cells outside the human body. That was around 1900. And from that point on, a vast amount of research has been undertaken to grow human cells, as well as tissue and organs, outside the human body, or in vitro.

A number of milestones have been achieved since the days of Thiersh and Loeb, but perhaps the most significant are the developments that have occurred in the past 30 years.

A report in the Annual Review of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ARCBE) says: “The past three decades have seen the emergence of an endeavor called tissue engineering and regenerative medicine in which scientists, engineers, and physicians apply tools from a variety of fields to construct biological substitutes that can mimic tissues for diagnostic and research purposes and can replace (or help regenerate) diseased and injured tissues.”

The ARCBE report goes on to talk about “new, exciting technologies – for example, microfabrication, and 3D printing – that may enable future breakthroughs”.

To that end, 3D printing technology has already been used to fabricate organs such as the heart, which is said to be one of the easiest organs to replicate.

The ostensible and stated purpose of all this tissue engineering is to help people who have faulty or damaged organs, such as a heart or kidney, by replacing them with lab- manufactured organs, for example.

A large number of biotech companies are currently engaged in developing techniques for creating human tissue. Examples include LifeLike, LifeCell, and Cytograft, which says it uses “cells harvested from the patient or another human donor to repair diseased cardiovascular tissues and organs”, which is about the same as what the others say they do.

But what if tissue engineering is used for more sinister purposes, such as building a fully functioning human body that has senses, that can see, touch, hear, smell and taste? What if this lab-created human is built complete with a fully functioning brain that can think like natural humans can?

For all intents and purposes, if it’s well built and not like the images of the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it would be impossible to tell it apart from “real” humans.

Shelley wrote her novel in 1818, a staggering intellectual achievement for its time, and she is celebrated for it. But what if in the intervening 200 years scientists have actually created human-like creatures that walk among us today, doing jobs much like we do, living lives much as we do, and perhaps holding high political or military offices much like most of us do not? Would we be eulogising the scientists who have done this if it was openly acknowledged?

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Where’s the evidence?

Isaac Asimov wrote the seminal short story I, Robot in 1950. It’s the story from which the “Three Laws of Robotics” are quoted often. So often in fact that it would be easy to make the mistake of thinking that they have actually been incorporated into present-day societal laws, which they have not.

But even if those robotics laws and others were to be brought in to differentiate humans from human-like machines, how would they be applied to “living creatures” – if that is the right term – that are identical to humans in every physical and mental way, except that their creation story is different, in that they were born of labs and science, as opposed to wombs and nature?

Another of Asimov’s stories, Evidence, is perhaps more relevant here, though not necessarily as an anecdote that offers any answers. Evidence is set in a world where humans and robots live among each other. It’s difficult, though not impossible, to tell them apart. The only way is an X-ray scan.

The story’s main character is successful in his career and decides to run for elected office. But many people suspect he is a robot, and the fictional world’s laws prohibit robots from holding political office. They ask him to undergo an X-ray test. He refuses.

It’s a thought-provoking story, but one which has, in some ways, been superseded by events in the real world. Now, with the amazing advances made in tissue engineering, robotics, and artificially intelligent computing systems, a combination of technologies theoretically enables the creation of living, or at least animated, creatures that are totally indistinguishable from their human counterparts. And maybe they can only be considered counterparts because of their provenance, not their presentable form.

Android is the word used to describe human-like robots. But nowhere does it say that androids must have a mechanical element, and must not be built using human tissue. And even if there were clear laws against such developments, some scientists and unscrupulous corporations would inevitably find a way to circumvent them.

On the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website, there used to be a standard registry of biological parts. Now, that registry is available at iGem.org. The iGem Foundation says it is dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology, and its directory currently has more than 20,000 biological parts.

If an artificial heart can be created in a 3D printer, it’s likely that all those 20,000 parts can be created in any lab anywhere.

None of these ideas is new – certainly not to fans of science fiction. Frankenstein, as noted, was written almost 200 hundred years ago. Another book, The Island of Doctor Moreau, written in 1896 by HG Wells, also deserves a mention. In that story, the Moreau character creates a human-like race from spliced animals.

The entire human genome was reported to have been mapped in the 1990s, and gene splicing has been much discussed in the media, both in the news and factual media as well as popular culture, through works of fiction.

The TV series Star Trek featured the android Data. Films such as Alien feature human-like androids, and Neo was “born” apparently hybridised in The Matrix. But one thing that might be worth noting is that most if not all of the fictional films and TV shows allocate some mechanical element to the android, which is not necessarily what a real-life Doctor Moreau would do.

Frankenstein's monster

Send in the clones

At the beginning of the millennium, the United Nations established a committee to consider “the elaboration of an international convention against the reproductive cloning of human beings”. And there is an internationally agreed ban on human cloning.

But many nations allow the cloning of human tissue, as evidenced by the many biotech companies that offer lab- manufactured human body parts. And there are very few if any laws dealing with the computerisation of those body parts.

The brain is of most interest to corporations such as IBM, which recently announced a “brain-inspired” processor, TrueNorth, which is claimed to be capable of 46 billion synaptic operations per second. The company says it is continuing its research into the brain chip and will soon unveil a chip that has 10 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses.

Such awesome processing power will be needed if computers are to emulate the human brain, because simulating just one second of human brain activity is said to require more than 80,000 conventional processors, according to research jointly carried out by the Okinawa Institute of Technology Graduate University in Japan, and Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany.

The researchers outline their findings in a press release, in which they add that the total memory required for that one-second test was 1 petabyte, or about the same memory capacity as 250,000 PCs.

What they don’t say is whether they conducted other tests which lasted longer than a second, perhaps a whole lifetime, or several.

In separate research at other places around the world, it has been found that cells, or human tissue, can be programmed using similar principles to computer programming. It’s a relatively new development, but already simpler organs than the brain have been shown placed on chips and the research is promising.

Biological computers are being discussed and developed, as well as brain-to-brain interfaces.

How the complete mapping of the human genetic code and nanotechnology can be applied to all this is open to question and research, but put all of the ingredients mentioned so far into Doctor Moreau’s method, and you have a recipe for making creatures that cannot be differentiated from humans in any obvious way.

Even procreation, of sorts, was cracked by mechanical robots several years ago. What’s to say that androids which are totally non-mechanical, entirely tissue-engineered haven’t been replicating, or procreating, for generations already? How do we know? Do even the androids know?

I think we should be told. But we probably won’t be. Not until it’s too late and they’ve already taken over the world. But what does it matter? We’re all gonna die anyway.

Maybe we will only find out when the androids start looking for their makers, like they are shown to do in films such as Blade Runner, where the android Roy Batty goes on a psycho- rampage in search of his “father”. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what happens next.

And if the Blade Runner scenario plays out in real life, we’re all doomed. Doomed I tell ya! Doomed!

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