Today's UK papers are full of commentary on the law on assisted suicide, after a Swiss-enabled suicide was shown last night on Sky TV.
I used to be involved in fundraising for the Samaritans, a wonderful organisation that helps people who are in despair, some of whom may be thinking of ending it all. Apparently, the worst time of the year is Christmas, when people really feel the pinch of loneliness. With current economic problems, it is likely to be even worse than usual this year. But what of the future?
The very long term (2050 and beyond) will bring technology that allows people to link their brains to the machine world, perhaps using nanotech implants connected to each synapse to relay brain activity to a high speed neural replica hosted by a computer. When this technology has matured, it will allow people to do wonderful things such as using machine sensors as extensions to their own capabilities. They will be able to use android bodies to move around and experience distant places and activities as if they were there in person.
For people who feel compelled to end it all because of disability, pain or suffering, an alternative where they could effectively upload their mind into an android might be attractive. Their quality of life would improve dramatically at least in terms of capability. We might expect that pain and suffering could be dealt with much more effectively too if we have a direct link into the brain to control the way sensations are dealt with. So we might see a big drop in the number of people who want to die.
But the technology options doesn't stop there. If a person has a highly enhanced replica of their own brain/mind, in the machine world, people will begin to ask why they need the original. The machine world could give them greater sensory abaility, graeter physical ability, and greater mental ability. Smarter, with better memory, more and better senses, connected to all the world's knowledge via the net, able effectively to wander around the world at the speed of light, and being connected directly to other people's minds when you want, and doing so without fear of ageing, ill health of pain, this would seem a very attractive lifestyle. And it will become possible this century, at low enough cost for anyone to afford.
What of suicide then? It might not seem so important to keep the original body, especially if it is worn out or defective, so even without any pain and suffering, some people might decide to dispose of their body and carry on their lives without it. Partial suicide might become possible. Aside from any religious issues, this would be a hugely significant secular ethical issue. Updating the debate today, should people be permitted to opt out of physical existence, only keeping an electronic copy of their mind, timesharing android bodies when they need to enter the physical world? Should their families and friends be able to rebuild their loved ones electronically if they die accidentally? If so, should people be able to rebuild several versions, representing the deceased's different life stages, or just the final version, which might have been ill or in decline?
And then the ethical questions get even more tricky. If it is possible to replicate the brain's structure and so capture the mind, will people start to build 'restore points', where they make a permanent record of the state of their self at a given moment? If they get older and decide they could have run their lives better, they might be able to start again from any restore point. If the person exists in cyberspace and has disposed of their physical body, what about ownership of their estate? What about working and living in cyberspace? Will people get jobs? Will they live in virtual towns like the Sims? Indeed, in the same time frame, AI will have caught up and superceded humans in ability. Maybe Sims will get bored in their virtual worlds and want to end it all by migrating to the real world. Maybe they could swap bodies with someone coming the other way?
What will the State do when it is possible to reduce costs and environmental impact by migrating people into the virtual universe? Will it then become socially and politically acceptable, even compulsary when someone reaches a given age or costs too much for health care? People thinking aboiut changing the law now should keep the long thin wedge of social attitude change in mind. It can take as little as two decades to reach a full 180 degree reversal (e.g. attitudes to gays, abortion, genetic modification). The far end of the wedge might not look so appealing.
So perhaps suicide has an interesting future. It might eventually decline, then later increase again, but in many very different forms, becoming a whole range of partial suicide options. But the scariest possibility is that people may not be able to die completely. If their body is an irrelevance, and there are many restore points from whihc they can be recovered, friends, family, or even the state might keep them 'alive' as long as they are useful. And depending on the law, they might even become a form of slave labour, their minds used for information processing or creativity whether they wish it or not. It has often truly been noted that there are worse fates than death.
Labels: ethics, law, partial death, suicide