When You Die, Where Should We Upload Your Brain?

A Form From the Future about tomorrow’s death-related paperwork.

Brain floating on a glitching terminal window.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Orla/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This article is part of Forms From the Future, a series in which Rose Eveleth imagines the bureaucratic paperwork of tomorrow and what it says about our impending realities. Read more here.

Though the future often feels unknowable, there’s at least one certainty that awaits us: death. But while death is inevitable (despite what hawkish hypercapitalists like Dave Asprey claim as they try to sell you things), that doesn’t mean the gory details won’t change in the future.

Today, there are a few ways you can officially state how you want to be treated in an emergency medical situation or if you die. Advance directives offer a more general picture of your end-of-life wishes. A physician order for life-sustaining treatment form is a bit more specific and more common among people with terminal illnesses. These forms vary by state, but they all generally circle around the same questions: What kind of medical care do you want in an emergency situation? Do you want a feeding tube? Are you OK with intubation, cardioversion, antibiotics, IV fluids, and CPR? Or do you simply want something to relieve suffering? In the future, these forms will probably get even more detailed and complicated, as new forms of medicine arise.

Already, doctors are using algorithms to guide their medical decision-making. In the future, experts predict, artificial intelligence could do everything from spot cancer to determine exactly when you’ll die. Right now, robots are mostly confined to the operating room, where they are still driven by human doctors doing delicate operations like laparoscopic surgeries. But some think that they’ll make their way into examination rooms and even help doctors triage people as they come in. Nurse robots that assist in the care of the elderly, deliver medication, or show a human doctor on a screen are already in hospitals in both Japan and the United States.

Not everyone welcomes these kinds of algorithmic interventions, though. When robotic surgery entered hospitals in the United States 20 years ago, doctors and ethicists spilled a lot of ink pondering what informed consent really meant when it came to being sliced open by a robot. Patients have the option to decline robotic surgery, and it is reasonable to assume that in the future they’ll be able to reject other treatments administered or assisted by robots. (It’s less clear whether such consent will extend to the algorithms doctors use to make decisions like whether to operate. Today that’s not something people have to agree to, but it’s possible that could change with a well-timed lawsuit.) The family of a man in San Francisco was not happy that it was a robotic aid (projecting a human doctor on a screen) that told Ernest Quintana he was going to die. “If you’re coming to tell us normal news, that’s fine,” his daughter Catherine told Sky News. “But if you’re coming to tell us there’s no lung left and we want to put you on a morphine drip until you die, it should be done by a human being and not a machine.” Maybe you’ll be able to opt out of remote communication by a doctor in the future.

The digital conditions of our deaths might change, too. If you believe one set of technological prognosticators, we’ll all eventually walk around livestreaming our whole lives. Some people already do. But do you want the details of your death streamed as well—all the way down to the poor EMT giving CPR trying to save you?

And then there’s the further-off prediction of mind copying—the idea that one day you might actually be able to upload your brain to a server and live forever in digital form. Should that ever be the case (and experts think it’s unlikely, but that won’t stop someone from trying to sell people on everything from cryonics to fresh brain–uploading startups), your server information will be critical to those around you when you die.

Our future death-related forms will likely reflect these complications. Are you OK with being treated by a robotic EMT? Can we use 3D-printed organs to replace ones you might have damaged? Should we turn off your livestreaming app while you’re being treated? If you’re going to die, do you want a human to deliver that news? Or is a robot just fine? Where should doctors upload your brain if they’re unable to save you, and what’s the password to access that storage system? The form below imagines what this bureaucratic process might look like.

Futuristic medical intake form.
Rose Eveleth

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Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.