Throughout human history, humans have tried to cheat death. And for most of that human history, the best we could do is find eternity through the fruits of our minds or of our genes: be it cave paintings, works of fiction, inventions, or the memories of ourselves we pass on to our children.
But through groundbreaking advances in science and technology, our collective belief in the inevitability of death will soon be shaken. Shortly thereafter, it will be broken entirely. By the end of this chapter, you'll come to understand how the future of death is the end of death as we know it.
The changing conversation around death
The death of loved ones has been a constant throughout human history, and each generation makes peace with this personal event in their own way. It won't be any different for the current millennial and centennial generations.
By the 2020s, the Civic generation (born between 1928 to 1945) will enter their 80s. Too late to make use of the life-extending therapies described in the previous chapter, these parents of the Boomers and grandparents of the Gen Xers and millennials will leave us largely by the early 2030s.
Likewise, by the 2030s, the Boomer generation (born between 1946 to 1964) will enter their 80s. Most will be too poor to afford the life-extending therapies released into the market by that time. These parents of Gen Xers and millennials and grandparents of Centennials will leave us largely by the early 2040s.
This loss will represent over a quarter of today’s (2016) population and will be born by the millennial and centennial generations in a way that’s unique to this century in human history.
For one, millennials and centennials are more connected than any previous generation. The waves of natural, generational deaths forecasted between 2030 to 2050 will produce a kind of communal mourning, as stories and tributes to passing loved ones will be shared over online social networks.
Given the increased frequency of these natural deaths, pollsters will begin documenting a noticeable bump in awareness of mortality and support for senior care. The concept of physical impermanence will feel foreign to generations currently growing up in an online world where nothing is forgotten and anything seems possible.
This line of thinking will only become magnified between 2025-2035, once drugs that truly reverse the effects of aging (safely) begin hitting the market. Through the massive media coverage these drugs and therapies will garner, our collective preconceptions and expectations around the limits of our human lifespan will begin shifting dramatically. Moreover, the belief in the inevitability of death will erode as the public becomes aware of what science can make possible.
This new awareness will cause voters in Western nations—i.e. the countries whose populations are shrinking the fastest—to pressure their governments to begin funneling serious money into life extension research. The goals of these grants will include improving the science behind life extension, creating safer, more effective life extension drugs and therapies, and significantly cutting the costs of life extension so that everyone in society can benefit from it.
By the late 2040s, societies the world over will begin to viewing death as a reality forced upon past generations, but one that need not dictate the fates of current and future generations. Until then, new ideas around caring for the dead will enter public discussion.
Cemeteries transform into necropolises
Most people are oblivious about how cemeteries work, so here’s a quick summary:
In most of the world, especially in Europe, families of the deceased buy the rights to use a grave for a set time period. Once that period expires, the deceased's bones are dug up and then placed into a communal ossuary. Though sensible and straightforward, this system will likely come as a surprise to our North American readers.
In the US and Canada, people expect (and is law in most states and provinces) the graves of their loved ones be permanent and cared for, for eternity. ‘How does this work practically?' you ask. Well, most cemeteries are required to save a portion of the revenue they generate from funeral services into a high-interest bearing fund. When the cemetery fills up, its maintenance is thereafter paid for by an interest-bearing fund (at least until it runs out of money).
However, neither system is fully prepared for the forecasted deaths of both the Civic and Boomer generations between 2030 to 2050. These two generations represent the largest generational cohort in human history to pass away within a two to three decade time span. There are few cemetery networks in the world that have the capacity to accommodate this influx of dearly departed permanent residents. And as cemeteries fill up at record rates and the cost of the last burial plots inflate beyond affordability, the public will demand government intervention.
To address this issue, governments throughout the world will begin passing new laws and grants that will see the private funeral industry begin constructing multi-story cemetery complexes. The size of these buildings, or series of buildings, will rival the Necropolises of ancient times and permanently redefine how the dead are treated, managed, and remembered.
Remembering the dead in the online age
With the world’s oldest population (2016), Japan is already facing a crunch in burial plot availability, not to mention the highest average funeral costs because of it. And with their population not getting any younger, the Japanese have forced itself to reimagine how they handle their deceased.
In the past, each Japanese enjoyed their own graves, then that custom was replaced by family grave houses, but with fewer children being born to maintain these family cemeteries, families and seniors have shifted their burial preferences once again. In place of graves, many Japanese are opting for cremation as the more cost effective burial practice for their families to bare. Their funeral urn is then stored in a locker space alongside hundreds of other urns in massive, multi-story, high-tech cemetery homes. Visitors can even swipe themselves into the building and be directed by a navigation light to their loved one's urn shelf (see the article image above for a scene from Japan's Ruriden cemetery).
But by the 2030s, some future cemeteries will begin offering a range of new, interactive services for millennials and centennials to remember their loved ones in a more profound manner. Depending on the cultural preferences of where the cemetery is located and the individual preferences of the deceased's family members, tomorrow's cemeteries could begin offering:
- Interactive tombstones and urns that share information, photos, videos, and messages from the deceased to the visitor's phone.
- Carefully curated video montages and photo collages that pull together the full wealth of photo and video material millennials and centennials will have taken of their loved ones (likely pulled from their future social networks and cloud storage drives). This content could then be presented within a cemetery theater for family members and loved ones to watch during their visits.
- Wealthier, cutting edge cemeteries could use their in-house supercomputers to then take all this video and photo material, combined with the deceased emails and journals, to reanimate the deceased as a life-sized hologram that family members can engage with verbally. The hologram would only be accessible in a designated room outfitted with holographic projectors, potentially supervised by a bereavement counselor.
But as interesting as these new funeral services are, by the late 2040s to mid-2050s, a uniquely profound option will arise that will allow humans to cheat death … at least depending on how people define death by that time.
The mind in the machine: Brain-Computer Interface
Explored deeper in our Future of Human Evolution series, by the mid-2040s, a revolutionary technology will slowly enter the mainstream: Brain-Computer Interface (BCI).
(If you’re wondering what this has to do with the future of death, please be patient.)
BCI involves using an implant or a brain-scanning device that monitors your brainwaves and associates them with language/commands to control anything that's run on a computer. That's right; BCI will let you control machines and computers simply through your thoughts.
In fact, you might not have realized it, but the beginnings of BCI have already begun. Amputees are now testing robotic limbs controlled directly by the mind, instead of through sensors attached to the wearer’s stump. Likewise, people with severe disabilities (such as quadriplegics) are now using BCI to steer their motorized wheelchairs and manipulate robotic arms. But helping amputees and persons with disabilities lead more independent lives isn’t the extent of what BCI will be capable of.
Experiments into BCI reveal applications relating to controlling physical things, controlling and communicating with animals, writing and sending a text using thoughts, sharing your thoughts with another person (i.e. electronic telepathy), and even the recording of dreams and memories. Overall, BCI researchers are working to translate thought into data, so as to make human thoughts and data interchangeable.
Why BCI is important in the context of death is because it wouldn’t take much to go from reading minds to making a full digital backup of your brain (also known as Whole Brain Emulation, WBE). A reliable version of this technology will become available by the mid-2050s.
Creating a digital afterlife
Sampling from our Future of the Internet series, the following bullet list will overview how BCI and other technologies will merge to form a new environment that could redefine ‘life after death.’
- At first, when BCI headsets enter the market around the late 2050s, they will only be affordable to the few—a novelty of the rich and well-connected who will actively promote it on their social media, acting as early adopters and influencers spreading its value to the masses.
- In time, BCI headsets become affordable to the general public, likely becoming a holiday season must-buy gadget.
- The BCI headset will feel very much like the virtual reality (VR) headset everyone (by then) will have grown accustomed to. Early models will allow BCI wearers to communicate with other BCI wearers telepathically, to connect with each other in a deeper way, regardless of language barriers. These early models will also record thoughts, memories, dreams, and eventually even complex emotions.
- Web traffic will explode as people begin sharing their thoughts, memories, dreams, and emotions between family, friends, and lovers.
- Over time, BCI becomes a new communication medium that in some ways improves upon or replaces traditional speech (similar to the rise of emoticons today). Avid BCI users (likely the youngest generation of the time) will begin replacing traditional speech by sharing memories, emotion-laden images, and thought constructed images and metaphors. (Basically, imagine instead of saying the words "I love you," you can deliver that message by sharing your emotion, mixed with images that represent your love.) This represents a deeper, potentially more accurate, and far more authentic form of communication when compared to the speech and words we've depended upon for millennia.
- Obviously, the entrepreneurs of the day will capitalize on this communication revolution.
- The software entrepreneurs will produce new social media and blogging platforms that specialize in sharing thoughts, memories, dreams, and emotions to an endless variety of niches.
- Meanwhile, the hardware entrepreneurs will produce BCI enabled products and living spaces so that the physical world follows a BCI user’s commands.
- Bringing these two groups together will be the entrepreneurs who specialize in VR. By merging BCI with VR, BCI users will be able to construct their own virtual worlds at will. The experience will be similar to the movie Inception, where the characters wake up in their dreams and find that they can bend reality and do whatever they wanted. Combining BCI and VR will allow people to gain greater ownership over the virtual experiences they inhabit by creating realistic worlds generated from a combination of their memories, thoughts, and imagination.
- As more and more people begin using BCI and VR to communicate more deeply and create ever more elaborate virtual worlds, it won’t be long before new Internet protocols arise to merge the Internet with VR.
- Not long after, massive VR worlds will be designed to accommodate the virtual lives of millions, and eventually billions, online. For our purposes, we'll call this new reality, the Metaverse. (If you prefer to call these worlds the Matrix, that’s perfectly fine as well.)
- Over time, advances in BCI and VR will be able to mimic and replace your natural senses, making Metaverse users unable to differentiate their online world from the real world (assuming they decide to inhabit a VR world that perfectly simulates the real world, e.g. handy for those who can't afford to travel to the real Paris, or prefer to visit the Paris of the 1960s.) Overall, this level of realism will only add to the Metaverse's future addictive nature.
- People will begin spending as much time in the Metaverse, as they do sleeping. And why wouldn't they? This virtual realm will be where you access most of your entertainment and interact with your friends and family, especially those who live far from you. If you work or go to school remotely, your time in the Metaverse to could grow to at least 10-12 hours a day.
I want to emphasize that last point because that will be the tipping point to all of this.
Legal recognition of life online
Given the inordinate amount of time a large percentage of the public will spend inside this Metaverse, governments will be pushed to recognize and (to an extent) regulate people's lives inside the Metaverse. All the legal rights and protections, and some of the restrictions, people expect in the real world will become reflected and enforced inside the Metaverse.
For example, bringing WBE back into the discussion, say you're 64, and your insurance company covers you to get a brain-backup. Then when you're 65, you get into an accident that causes brain damage and severe memory loss. Future medical innovations may be able to heal your brain, but they won't recover your memories. That's when doctors access your brain-backup to load your brain with your missing long-term memories. This backup would not only be your property, but also a legal version of yourself, with all the same rights and protections, in the event of an accident.
Likewise, say you're a victim of an accident that this time puts you into a coma or vegetative state. Luckily, you backed up your mind before the accident. While your body recovers, your mind can still engage with your family and even work remotely from within the Metaverse. When the body recovers and the doctors are ready to wake you from your coma, the mind-backup can transfer the new memories it created into your newly healed body. And here too, your active consciousness, as it exists in the Metaverse, will become the legal version of yourself, with all the same rights and protections, in the event of an accident.
There are a host of other mind-twisting legal and ethical considerations when it comes to uploading your mind online, considerations that we’ll cover in our upcoming Future in the Metaverse series. However, for the purpose of this chapter, this train of thought should lead us to ask: What would happen to this accident victim if his or her body never recovers? What if the body dies while the mind is very much active and interacting with the world through the Metaverse?
Mass migration into the online ether
By 2090 to 2110, the first generation to enjoy the benefits of life extension therapy will begin to feel the inevitability of their biological fate; in practicality, tomorrow's life extension therapies will only be able to extend life so far. Realizing this reality, this generation will begin trumpeting a global and heated debate about whether people should continue living after their bodies die.
In the past, such a debate would never be entertained. Death has been a natural part of the human life cycle since the dawn of history. But in this future, once the Metaverse becomes a normal and central part of everyone’s lives, a viable option to continue living becomes possible.
The argument goes: If a person's body dies of old age while their mind remains perfectly active and engaged within the Metaverse community, should their consciousness be erased? If a person decides to remain in the Metaverse for the rest of their life, is there a reason to continue to spending societal resources maintaining their organic body in the physical world?
The answer to both these questions will be: no.
There will be a large portion of the human population that will refuse to buy into this digital afterlife, in particular, the conservative, religious types who feel the Metaverse as an affront to their belief in the biblical afterlife. Meanwhile, for the liberal and open minded half of humanity, they will begin to view the Metaverse not only as an online world to engage with in life but also as a permanent home when their bodies die.
As a growing percentage of humanity begin uploading their minds to the Metaverse after death, a gradual chain of events will unfold:
- The living will wish to remain in contact with those physically deceased persons whom they cared about by using the Metaverse.
- This continued interaction with the physically deceased will lead to a general comfort with the concept of a digital life after a physical death.
- This digital afterlife will then become normalized, leading to a gradual increase in the permanent, Metaverse human population.
- Inversely, the human body gradually becomes devalued, as the definition of life will shift to emphasize consciousness over the basic functioning of an organic body.
- Due to this redefinition, and especially for those who lost loved ones early, some people will be motivated—and will eventually have the legal right—to terminate their organic bodies at any time to permanently join the Metaverse. This right to end one's physical life will likely be restricted until after a person reaches a predefined age of physical maturity. Many will likely ritualize this process by a ceremony governed by a future techno-religion.
- Future governments will support this mass migration into the Metaverse for a number of reasons. First, this migration is a non-coercive means of population control. Future politicians will also be avid Metaverse users. And real world funding and maintenance of the International Metaverse Network will be protected by a permanently growing Metaverse electorate whose voting rights will remain protected even after their physical death.
By the mid-2100s, the Metaverse will completely redefine our notions around death. The belief in an afterlife will be replaced by knowledge of a digital afterlife. And through this innovation, the death of the physical body will become yet another stage of a person’s life, instead of its permanent end.