After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988. He found it, in fact, on the ocean floor. The discovery was made unwittingly by Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student in his early 20s. He was spending the summer in Rapallo, a small city on the Italian Riviera, where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again… .”
Sommer was conducting research on hydrozoans, small invertebrates that, depending on their stage in the life cycle, resemble either a jellyfish or a soft coral. Every morning, Sommer went snorkeling in the turquoise water off the cliffs of Portofino. He scanned the ocean floor for hydrozoans, gathering them with plankton nets. Among the hundreds of organisms he collected was a tiny, relatively obscure species known to biologists as Turritopsis dohrnii. Today it is more commonly known as the immortal jellyfish.
In his best-selling book “Physics of the Future,” American professor Michio Kaku lays out his vision for the world in 2100. Kaku, the son of Japanese immigrants, spoke to SPIEGEL about a future in which toilets will have health monitoring sensors and contact lenses will be connected to the Internet.
SPIEGEL: Professor Kaku, in your book you write about how we will be like gods in the future. Are you saying that our grandchildren will be gods? Isn’t that a bit immodest?
Kaku: Just think for a moment about our forefathers in the year 1900. They lived to be 49 years old on average and traveled with horse-drawn wagons. Long distance communication was yelling out the window. If these people could see us today with mobile phones at our ears, Facebook on our screens and traveling with planes they would consider us wizards.
SPIEGEL: It’s still a big step to go from wizards to gods.
Kaku: So what do gods do? Apollo has unlimited power from the sun, Zeus can turn himself into a swan or anything else and Venus has a perfect body. Gods can move objects with their mind, rearrange things, and have perfect bodies. Our grandchildren will be able to do just that.
SPIEGEL: Let’s do a little time traveling. Close your eyes and imagine waking up on a September morning in the year 2112. What do you see?
Kaku: More important than what I see, is what will be omnipresent. Intelligence will be everywhere in the future, just like electricity is everywhere today. We now just assume that there’s electricity in the walls, the floor, the ceiling. In the future we will assume that everything is intelligent, so intelligence will be everywhere and nowhere. As children, we will be taught how to manipulate things around us just by talking to them and thinking. Children will believe that everything is alive.
SPIEGEL: We’ll ask the question in a different way. What will we experience on this morning in 2112?
Kaku: When we wake up, the first thing we want to know is what’s going on in the world. So we put in our intelligent contact lenses and with a blink we are online. If you want information, movies, virtual reality, it is all in your contact lenses. Then we’ll drive to work.
SPIEGEL: Driving? How boring!
Kaku: Aw, you want to fly? Cars may even fly, but we will also be able to manipulate our cars just by thinking. So, if you want to get into your car, you simply think, and you call your car. The car drives itself, and boom, there you are.
Imagine you are offered a trustworthy opportunity for immortality in which your mind (perhaps also your body) will persist eternally. Let’s further stipulate that the offer includes perpetual youthful health and the ability to upgrade to any cognitive and physical technologies that become available in the future. There is one more stipulation: You could never decide later to die. Would you take it? Metaphysician and former British diplomat Stephen Cave thinks accepting such an offer would be a bad idea.
Cave’s fascinating new book, Immortality, posits that civilization is a major side effect of humanity’s attempts to live forever. He argues that our sophisticated minds inexorably recognize that, like all other living things, we will one day die. Simultaneously, Cave asserts, “The one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible. This is what I will call the Mortality Paradox, and its resolution is what gives shape to the immortality narratives, and therefore to civilization.”
Cave identifies four immortality narratives that drive civilizations over time which he calls; (1) Staying Alive, (2) Resurrection, (3) Soul, and (4) Legacy. Cave gracefully marches through his four immortality narratives citing examples from history, psychology, and religion up to the modern day. “At its core, a civilization is a collection of life extension technologies: agriculture to ensure food in steady supply, clothing to stave off cold, architecture to provide shelter and safety, better weapons for hunting and defense, and medicine to combat injury and disease,” he writes.