What ethical questions are we faced with if we can live forever?

Have you ever wished you could live forever?

And if you could live forever, would you choose to?

Unsure? What if your family and friends had already decided that they would? What if you didn’t have to be stuck in an ageing body, but instead you would be able to download your mind and place it into a new body?

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Earlier this year you might have watched Altered Carbon, a Netflix series based on the novel by Richard K. Morgan. It’s a blend of cyberpunk, film noir, Blade Runner, anime and Black Mirror.

A brief spoiler free synopsis: your mind is stored on a ‘stack’ in the back of your neck and your body is just a ‘sleeve’. When you die your stack can be ‘put on ice’ or be put into another sleeve. If you’re rich enough, you can continuously back-up the content of your stack and can even be put into a clone of yourself. It’s kinda the GDPR ‘right to data portability’ on steroids.

In this future if you commit a crime there’s no prison, but instead you are put on ice – and when your sentence is complete, your stack can be ‘spun up’ into the next available body. It might not be the one you originally started with. Takeshi Kovacs has been on ice for 250 years for acts of terrorism, until the very wealthy, 300-year old Laurens Bancroft promises Takeshi the chance of life and freedom if he can solve Bancroft’s murder. Cut to trailer.

Anticipating that a future where humans could ‘live’ forever might happen in my lifetime, I’ve been thinking about some of the ethical questions we should be asking. I’m particularly curious about exploring the impact of this on society, identity, inclusivity, archiving and knowledge sharing, public services, justice and fairness, regulation, transparency and accountability.

Are you curious about these questions? (Some are definitely tongue-in-cheek). I’d love to hear what others think, and I’ll be adding to this over time.

If you could easily move from one sleeve to another, how do we know that ‘you’ are really who you claim to be? Would we need an open register that provides transparency over whose mind goes into which body?

Furthermore, what would become your ‘personal identifiers’ in a world where you can escape your fingertips? Would date of birth still be fit for purpose, or would we attach a unique identifier number to a mind/soul?

What would changing bodies mean for fingerprints at crime scenes? What about traveling with ePassports?

If you can live forever, what archiving and knowledge management responsibilities do you have?

How would the demands on our healthcare services change? Would the demographic profile of users change so that there is only demand for services from the less wealthy? Would companies offer access to new bodies/body parts as part of standard healthcare insurance?

Should we provide publicly-funded robotic limbs for those who are in an accident that can’t afford a clone/new body? Would we cap the number of public-funded surgeries that an individual could have? Would we see desperate people creating campaigns on crowd-funding platforms for such needs?

Would individual views on racism, sexism, homophobia, and other discrimination change if people knew they could easily be put into a new body that would give you a different skin colour, gender, age, sexuality or disability?

Who would have access to stacks? The Government? Police? Doctors and nurses? Third sector organisations and charities? Which professions do we trust the most, right now, to be custodians of our stacks and bodies? Will that change in 10, 50, 100 years?

What would corrupt individuals do with access to (potentially) anyones body? What laws would we put in place to protect people?

What ethical guidelines would need to be followed by those putting a stack into a new body? Who would oversee and regulate this? Could you opt to have a trusted custodian of your stack that would over-see anyone who accesses it?

If taxes and death are the only two inevitable things in life, does immortality mean that inheritance tax would vanish? What impact would this have on the number of new houses and infrastructure that need to be built each year?

If you find yourself free from mortality, how could it impact on your morality?

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