Prospectus for Immortality

(c) Copyright 1998 by

William Sims Bainbridge

Man doth not yield himself to the angels,
nor unto death utterly,
save only through the weakness of his feeble will.

Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe quoting Joseph Glanvill[1]

The following is a draft of the first chapter of a forthcoming book. The remaining chapters explain how immortality can be achieved, report progress toward immortality, and state what must be done.

Actual everlasting life will be possible in the near future, using a combination of advanced technologies that have been developed for other purposes. The process will be complex, but in outline form it consists of four stages. First, you will be recorded: all your memories, personality, skills, physical characteristics and genetic inheritance. Second, this information will be entered into a vast computerized data base, so that future generations can draw upon your experiences and you can continue to be part of this world after your death. Third, your data will be transported by robot spacecraft to the solar system of a distant star, where a new colony is to be established. Fourth, you will be reconstituted from the recording and begin a new life in a fresh, young body as a colonist of the new world.

Each of these four stages has extremely valuable secondary benefits. The process of recording a human being increases that person's self-knowledge and self-mastery, permitting more effective and joyous experience of the current life. The data base enriches culture and preserves the wisdom of previous generations. Individual immortality provides the motive that will energize exploration and settlement of the cosmos, thus raising all humanity to a higher level of material and spiritual existence. In a diversity of new environments individuals and societies will change, providing scope for both personal and species evolution.

Clearly, present technology cannot accomplish these tasks, but our knowledge and technical capability have advanced to the point where we can imagine what techniques could be used for most steps. Importantly, we already possess most of the tools required for the first stage, and we could achieve great advances in this if we explicitly devoted resources to developing means for recording human beings. At present, we can make acceptable low-fidelity recordings. Readily foreseeable progress will achieve high fidelity. It would be impossible to record information about every single atom in a person's body, but this is unnecessary.[2] From day to day, the physical details of a person's body change, yet individual identity persists. A person is a dynamic pattern of relationships and forces that can be charted with sufficient detail through a system far simpler than the atomic structure of the human body.

A sample of the person's DNA is an important component of a recording. As demonstrated in the Human Genome project of the National Institutes of Health, and in the research connected to the Human Genome Diversity Initiative of the National Science Foundation, it is already simple and inexpensive to preserve DNA samples. Some parts of the cloning process have been worked out, and the others can be visualized. At great expense, it is possible to determine the genetic code of an individual, and the resultant sequence of three billion base pairs can be stored on a conventional computer disk at current data densities. When a spacecraft is used to deliver the information to its destination, it would probably be most efficient to use physical samples of frozen DNA to be cloned at the new colony. However, after exploratory probes have reached very great interstellar distances, perhaps in a series of colonizations, then it might be more efficient to transmit the information via radio, and current technology is capable of sending such messages at the speed of light across much of the galaxy.

Because an adult's body is partly the result of nutrition, medical history, accidents, and other non-genetic factors, it will also be important to measure the person, not merely in physical dimensions but also in terms of immunological and other chemical features of the biological system.

Existing personality tests will be of value, but they were not created for the task, and thus a number of new questionnaire-like tests must be developed. Such instruments can readily be computerized with present technology, as can many tests of skill, projective personality tests, memory tests, and reaction measurements. Because an important aspect of a person's nature is his or her set of relations with other people, sociometric measurements will also be essential. To measure emotions and the person's capacities to act in various real-life situations, the person will experience a number of carefully-designed intense challenges, while his or her responses are monitored.

Each person will produce an autobiography, with the assistance of trained professional interviewers, documenting not only the facts of the person's life but also their meaning, uncovered through some form of depth-psychology. In addition, a record of the person's hopes for the future would be needed, perhaps written in the form of a novel describing a life the person could imagine living on the new world.

When the recording is made, the person will also state ways he or she would like to improve, because it will be possible to reconstitute the person without some of his or her flaws, and with new capabilities. Of course, if the editing is too drastic, it will no longer be the same person. Some changes may also be required to adapt the person to the new environment. For example, many planets will not have the identical atmosphere as the earth, yet still be capable of harboring life. Occasionally, individuals may be able to experience existence as something very different from a human being, for example life as a sea creature or a spaceship.

As described to this point, the system will give people a second life, but that merely doubles their lifetimes, and we are seeking true immortality. While living a life on the new planet, the person can undergo recording again, adding all the developments that occurred in the second life, and then sending on this expanded personality to live a third time on a third world. This process can be continued indefinitely, with progressive slight improvement of the individual until a godlike state will be achieved, millions of years in the future.

Thus, immortality will have perfection as its by-product. Indeed, the process of recording will have several benefits for the person, including those claimed by psychoanalysis, which is only a primitive shadow of the self-improvement methods we can develop incidentally to our achievement of immortality. Life should not merely be lived indefinitely; it should be lived well. To achieve that, we must become better people, and the combination of transcendent goals and well-designed techniques can help us become more than we currently are.

New lives must be lived on new worlds.[3] Overpopulation would soon fill any one planet, and humanity would lose its finest treasure if there were no more children. Calculation of the geometric realities facing colonization of the universe suggests that there might not be enough room for endless copies of absolutely everybody. The population of an expanding sphere of inhabited planets increases according to the cube of its radius, while the surface area from which colonization ships can directly reach new planets increases only as the square of the radius.[4] To some extent this problem can be dealt with by gradually increasing the time between lives. But unless a means of instantaneous travel is devised, the expansion of the human population is limited.[5]

The answer is a simple one. A person must earn a new life by contributing in some way, direct or indirect, to the development and maintenance of the entire system that explores and colonizes space. Thus, each generation has a moral compact with the ones that follow. Every person who contributes to human development has a right to expect at least one more life. Future generations must honor that debt, if they are to have any hope that the generations after them will grant them a second life as well.

Today, many human populations are failing to reproduce even at the replacement level and are destined to vanish gradually from the earth through an insidious form of genetic suicide.[6] In particular, highly educated nations and groups whose religion or philosophy does not encourage childbirth are failing, whereas uneducated and fundamentalist groups are growing. Well educated people can ensure the demographic growth of their population through interstellar immortality. By "arrival of the fittest," those with the most advanced minds and cultures will spread across the galaxy.[7] Even a very low birthrate per lifetime can cause population growth when an individual has many lifetimes in which to reproduce. Additionally, some individuals who make extraordinary contributions to human progress may thereby earn the right to live out several lives simultaneously in different solar systems, reproducing themselves as well as giving birth to children who are distinct personalities.

Today, you can earn immortality. First of all, you must record yourself. This will require some effort taking tests, writing an autobiography, and placing your physical and mental self on permanent record. But this effort will be repaid in this life, because you will learn to know yourself better, because you will express yourself more fully to the people you love, and because the self knowledge and social bonds you gain will allow you to live a happier and more effective life.

Second, you must contribute in some way to building an interstellar civilization. Working in astronautics and promoting the space program are obvious ways to do this, but there are others equally important. To support space colonization, our old Earth must be a healthy, prosperous society, at peace with itself yet throbbing with the social energy to leap outward into the galaxy. Your own imagination must suggest ways you can contribute.

Third, you should join in the creation of a social movement with the explicit purpose of realizing these plans. In the short term, this means development of a system for recording and preserving humans. In the longer term, it will mean the organization of a massive program to colonize the solar system as the springboard for interstellar travel. Then, when there are worlds to house the immortals, it will be time to complete the technology to resurrect them. Surely the pioneers of this movement will be assured that they will live again and again, ever better and ever brighter.

There will be danger along your course to eternity, and only by joining a transcendental social movement will you be strong enough to survive the evil your enemies will seek to do. Already, governments are banning research on human cloning, and in future centuries mobs of outraged opponents will seek to destroy the archives that contain your soul's data. Perhaps civilization will descend into another Dark Age, before we can voyage together to the stars.

The night is falling, and we do not have much time. We are all dying, and the cancer patient who has been told he has six months to live may be run over by a truck tomorrow. We give birth astride a grave, and a person's whole life is only a brief fall from nonexistence into oblivion.

As the philosopher Nietzsche noted, we are balanced precariously on a tightrope across an abyss. We cannot go back, into the numbing faith of ancient superstitions, for science has destroyed the world in which they were plausible. We cannot stand here, because the winds of change are blowing and the resonating tightrope will sling our civilization into the chasm if it does not advance. So we must press forward, knowing that every perilous step might be our last.

But look! I see an eternal land beyond the far rim, where love thrives and death's sorrow never touches. Let us go there, you and I!


1. Edgar Allan Poe, "Ligeia" in Poetry and Tales. (New York: Library of America, 1984), pp. 262-277.

2. Lawrence M. Krauss, "Atoms or Bits?" in The Physics of Star Trek (New York: Basic Books, 1995), pp. 65-83.

3. William Sims Bainbridge, Goals in Space (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1991).

4. William Sims Bainbridge, "Computer Simulation of Cultural Drift: Limitations on Interstellar Colonization." Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (1984) 37:420-429.

5. Sebastian von Hoerner, "Population Explosion and Interstellar Expansion." Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (1975) 28:691-712.

6. Nathan Keyfitz, "The Family that Does not Reproduce Itself." In Below Replacement Fertility in Industrial Societies, edited by Kingsley Davis, Mikhail Bernstam and Rita Ricardo-Campbell. (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

7. Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (Tiger, Tiger!). Galaxy 12 (October 1956):8-58;Galaxy 13 (November 1956):88-143; (December 1956):88-142; (January 1957):98-142.