What makes us alive? Moreover, what makes us dead?

When it comes to death, science is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Deepening our understanding of the body’s processes and learning how to keep them going longer has complicated and obfuscated the end of life.

There’s a claustrophobic moment in the new film of Stephen Hawking’s life when he describes his wife being given the option to let him die. It was 1985 and A Brief History of Time was a still-unpublished manuscript. Hawking had been hospitalised with pneumonia. He was placed on a life-support machine and put into a drug-induced coma. The doctors asked Jane Hawking if she wanted them to turn off the machine.
 
We can all be glad she said no, otherwise the planet would have been much the poorer for the past 28 years. Nonetheless, the shadow of death hangs over the whole film. One day – and it may not be many years away – Hawking will be no more. His declaration in September that assisted suicide should be possible without fear of prosecution suggests he might be squaring up to the idea.
 
Death seems to be the one thing that sets human beings apart: we are aware, unlike most (if not all) other animals, of our impending demise. Worse – as Jane Hawking knows too well – in this technological age, we have to make fine decisions about death. And here the advance of science seems to offer more hindrance than help.
 
Death is not what it was. Until half a century ago if you couldn’t breathe, you would soon be officially dead. Then someone invented the ventilator. Is a body that needs a machine to operate its lungs still alive? For sure, we now say.
 
It’s no longer the case that the heart has any jurisdiction over whether you’re dead. Remember the Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba? His heart stopped for 78 minutes but then defibrillation got it started again. It’s a testimony to our scientific resourcefulness that we have learned how to choreograph the pulses of electrical current that will kick-start a long-immobile heart. Nonetheless, this, too, has complicated the notion of being “alive”.
 
Even what has been termed “brain death” is not enough. A lack of electrical activity inside your skull is not a sign that your brain cells are all dead. It takes up to eight hours to start dying and you can lose a lot of them before significant damage ensues. What’s more, damage to some cells makes permanent loss of consciousness inevitable. But damage to some others isn’t much of a problem.
 
Perhaps the most extreme technological management of death is among those who have paid to have their bodies frozen. Their hope is that future technologies will be able to defrost them and repair the damage that freezing cells full of water inevitably causes. This is not the last refuge of the frightened fool: plenty of our finest minds, including the MIT professor of artificial intelligence Marvin Minsky, have signed up to be cryo-preserved.
 
So, when it comes to death, science is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Deepening our understanding of the body’s processes and learning how to keep them going longer has complicated and obfuscated the end of life. That’s why a few researchers have suggested that doctors are no longer qualified to make life-and-death decisions. Robert Veatch, a medical ethicist at Georgetown University, goes further: he thinks you should be allowed to come up with your own definition of death and inscribe it in a living will for others to respect.
 
It would certainly be nice to have a say – especially when you can see it coming. Long live Stephen Hawking. As long as he wants, that is.
Science has complicated death. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Which companies are making driverless cars, and what are their competing visions for the future?

An increasing number of tech giants are populating the driverless car market. Where do each of them stand on ambition, innovation, and safety?

The driverless car has metamorphosed from a superfluous autonomous machine to the vehicle of choice for tech giants hoping to boast their technical prowess and visionary thinking.

The name of the Silicon Valley game has always been innovation, and the chance to merge quadruped hardware with self-regulating software has offered companies a new way to reinvent themselves and their visions. A new means by which to edge each other out in a race to the top of a Fritz Lang-style global metropolis, whose technocratic ruler would be the company capable of aligning their driverless transportation dreams with those of the public.

Racing quite literally out of the blocks in this race to showcase its driverless vehicles has been Uber. Having already expanded its operations as a taxi service from the streets of San Francisco to more than 300 countries worldwide, Uber went and pushed out its sample line of driverless cars in Pittsburgh last week.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has previously stated that the need for the company to delve into driverless cars is “basically existential”, which explains why Uber seems to be so keen to come out with a working model first. It’s a vision that seeks to cut the cost of ride-hailing by slashing the cost of human drivers, and hopes to offer a safer alternative for passengers who must place an unwarranted trust in a driver they’ve never met to shuttle them safely to their destinations.

Uber’s driverless cars are designed with Volvo, and currently require technicians at hand for potential intervention, but aims to phase these out. It has had the distinct advantage of analysing data from all the road miles made by Uber drivers so far. If Uber has its way, car ownership could be a thing of the past. Speaking to Reuters, an Uber spokesperson confirmed this, saying: “Our goal is to replace private car ownership.”

There are a number of issues at hand with Uber’s approach. The fleet of cars displayed in Pittsburgh was in fact not a fleet – there was a grand total of four for viewing, making it impossible to visualise how a fully-fledged system would work.

A more pressing issue is Uber’s timeframe: in comparison to other companies in the market, Uber is aiming for mass-market spread within a few years – far too soon according to experts who think that safety measures will be compromised, and adherence to future regulations avoided, as a result. Uber currently lacks an ethics committee, creating a grey area in determining what happens if one of these cars is involved in an accident.

Perhaps demonstrating even greater ambition, given its sheer dominance over the market, is Google. Taking on the challenge of autonomy and safety on busy city streets, Google seems to be well-equipped given its unrivalled mapping data.

First revealed in 2010, Google’s self-driving car project is expected to come into service sometime in the 2020s. Accidents and traffic could be a thing of the past, they say. Chris Urmson, who headed the project until recently, believes that these cars will work based on a positive feedback system, one which allows them to improve the more they are put into practice. As one car learns, every car will learn. Shared data means the rate of improvement for Google’s driverless cars will be exponential.

Showing no sign of a slow-up in its ambitions, Apple, a company which has found a way into the psyche of its acolytes, is thought to be getting involved in the cars of the future too. Links have been made between Apple and McLaren, with a £1.2bn acquisition rumoured. It would come as no surprise if Apple did this; its greatest successes came in convincing consumers that they needed their products, and a possible iCar could do the same.

A tamer approach to driverless cars is coming from the companies who identify themselves as automotive ones as opposed to tech ones. Tesla has led the pack with its driver-assist technology. Its Model S is “designed to get better over time”, using a “unique combination of cameras, radar, ultrasonic sensors and data to automatically steer down the highway, change lanes, and adjust speed in response to traffic”.

Following the first death of a person in an autopilot mode Tesla Model S car in May this year, the media and consumers were quick to issue warnings over the safety of the Tesla autopilot mode. Though Tesla CEO Elon Musk was quick to offer his condolences to the family of Joshua Brown, the driver who crashed in the vehicle in Florida, he was firm in his insistence that Tesla was not to blame. Musk explained that this was the first documented death of a person in a Tesla on autopilot mode after an accumulative total of 130 million miles driven by its customers, whereas “among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles”.

When put into perspective, it’s clear to see how a paranoid hysteria surrounds the rolling out of driverless vehicles. Safety has always been one of the key proponents for their use; by removing the risk of human error, we are able to create a safer road environment, as highlighted by Musk.

Earlier this year, Ford launched Ford Smart Mobility – its start-up-styled initiative designed to encourage ride sharing. By creating a small subset team to work on the technology, Ford is safeguarding itself from unforeseeable failures with driverless cars by maintaining its production of normal ones. Its cars have had elements of automation introduced incrementally, such as implanted sensors that enable these cars to park themselves. Ford hopes to have some sort of ride-sharing service in action by 2021.

BMW, Volvo and Audi are taking the cautious road too. BMW is making use of GPS to chart safe routes for its cars. In comparison to Google’s mapping, BMW’s system seems much more primitive, suggesting that the pace of development is dictated by accessibility to technology beyond vehicles. Volvo focuses on safety too and hopes that Volvo cars will be involved in no accidents by 2020 due to automation.

As we enter a market in which the top tech companies will be meeting at crossroads in their driverless cars, competing visions and levels of ambition will create a new relationship of trust between consumers and driverless car producers. There is no doubt that driverless cars will be here to stay, our roads one day teeming with passengers who get to relax on the roads. Taking your hands off the wheel will eventually become the norm, but don’t expect to be free-wheeling worldwide for a while yet.