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Brother Mark is a pseudonym of The Reverend Dr Robert Jaggs-Fowler, a clergyman, physician, writer and poet. His biography can be found at: www.robertjaggsfowler.com

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Fiction Today, Reality Tomorrow?

How many readers remember the television programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’? The presenters’ mantra on this forward looking weekly survey of the cutting edge of scientific development could almost have been ‘today’s science fiction is tomorrow’s reality’. In many cases that has indeed been the case, especially if you consider the modern technology behind mobile telephones, computers, satellite navigation, the ability to carry around hundreds of books on a Kindle, MP3 players that can store an entire music collection, cloning Dolly the sheep, the space shuttle, micro-surgery, and so.

Such thoughts recently took my mind back to a book I read when I was fifteen years old. It was called ‘Colossus’ by D.F. Jones. Published in 1966, the book was hailed as a ‘horrifying instalment of the man versus machine competition’ by the New York Times, and ‘hellishly plausible’ by the Sun. Colossus was about man creating the ultimate machine; a computer (as we would now call it) about the size of a large room, which took on its own personality and assumed responsibility for the defence of the free world. It was captivating stuff for a teenager in a pre-computer era; so much so that I still have the aged paperback in my library.

I was recently reminded about Colossus when two separate headlines caught my attention and connected my thoughts to a column I wrote last year, when I invited you all to my 120th birthday party in 2080 (Scunthorpe Telegraph, 20 Oct 10). The first headline was ‘Breakthrough brings human cloning a step closer’ (The Daily Telegraph, 6 Oct 11); the second was ‘by 2040 you will be able to upload your brain…’ (The Independent, 7 Oct 11). Ah! I can almost hear the penny dropping with your realisation as to where this preamble is taking us…

Suspend your disbelief (and possibly your cerebral discomfort) for a moment and consider this: scientists have developed a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, whereby they take the nucleus from a cell of a piece of human skin and transfer it to an egg cell. A wave of a magic pipette later and you have an embryo; and in theory, just like acorns and oak trees, from little embryos big people could grow. Now, needless to say, various international ethical committees are not about to allow some mad scientist to grow a real-life soft-tissue version of Frankenstein’s monster; nonetheless, the whiff of the possibility of replicating your own body is there on the borders between today’s scientific fiction and tomorrow’s reality.

However, what use is a personalised clone if it doesn’t really think like you? Well, a scientist called Ray Kurzwell may have the solution. He believes that by the end of the 1930s we will have the ability to upload the entire contents of the human brain to a computer; thereby salvaging, in Kurzwell’s words, ‘a person’s entire personality, memory, skills and history’. Kurzwell is internationally respected by senior scientific figures and his work is taken very seriously. Whether that uploaded personalised database is then installed into a mechanical android or a real-life soft-tissue clone, the fact is the end result is as near to immortality as our present mortal frames will ever get.

Now, returning to my stated intention of living to 120, I will be eighty in 2040; just about the right time to take on a youthful transformation for my second innings, therefore I shall be making contact with Kurzwell in the near future to book my place at the front of the queue. So, to all those of you who diligently saved my column from the Scunthorpe Telegraph of the 20 October 2010 as proof of your invitation to my 120th birthday party (and I know for a fact that some of you have done so), well done and I will see you in January 2080. As for the rest of you cynics, I am sure the editor may have a few back copies he will let you have…at a price, of course. Immortality doesn’t come cheaply.

(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 17th November 2011)

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