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 It was 1985 and A Brief History of Time was a still-unpublished manuscript.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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Connected - to save time, money and lives

Businesses and the public sector in the UK are increasingly exploring new ways they can work with the help of connected technology – and the benefits this will bring.

We live in a world that’s increasingly connected. EE was born three years ago and has spent this time creating one of the fastest and most reliable 4G networks in any country. The effect of this growth means more for the British population as a whole, along with its critical infrastructure and emergency responders, than it does for individuals and consumers.

Why? Mobility, according to analysts CCS Insight, is “the fulcrum of digital transformation”. In the short time that mobile networks have existed – and the even shorter and more profound growth arc of 4G – mobility has moved from being about faster speeds and more services on our phones to a whole new world of possibilities for the way we live and work.

The latest mobile technologies can make small companies look big. And, the experts warn, they can make big companies look unintentionally small.

Over 500,000 businesses in the UK use our network and services to increase productivity and save money. Much of the public sector uses it to save money too – and save lives. We’d like to walk you through the stories emerging from this new world – sharing some examples of what happens when workers, customers and machines become truly connected.

Connected Vehicle

Businesses in the UK have long treated their cars, vans and other vehicles as their mobile offices, workshops or command centres, whether for field engineers, sales reps or dozens of other roles. But it’s not always been easy. 

That’s changing. Take utility Northumbrian Water. It is responsible for 55,000km of pipelines, many in rural parts of the UK. It has found a solution in the Connected Vehicle service from EE that is based on transportgrade equipment. External antennae on a van connect to a ruggedised router that deals with extreme temperatures and can handle vibrations from road surfaces. 4G becomes a shared WiFi connection for workers and devices out in the field, increasing their efficiency significantly as workers can stay connected on site, rather than having to travel back to the office.

And is it effective?

“The business case writes itself,” said Alan Sherwen, head of IS service and operations at Northumbrian Water, which is now looking at a wider rollout.

Beyond the private sector, the public sector is throwing off its image as a technology laggard. Blue-light fire, police and ambulance services are doing more than just seeing the potential.

East Midlands Ambulance Service’s head of IM&T, Steve Bowyer, describes his experience with 4G’s “reliable, consistently fast data connections” as “quite transformational”.

The ambulance service knows that every second counts, especially when accidents occur in remote locations.

Bowyer calls the use of 4G-connected vehicles “an extension of our control room” – for example, 4G-equipped ambulances allow paramedics to send vital information to hospitals ahead of arrival.

And it’s a similar story with the police. Officers collect and submit evidence from the scenes of crimes and accidents. Staffordshire Police has started to use connected vehicles and more broadly estimates its 4G devices provide the equivalent of 250,000 additional hours of policing time on the beat each year. That’s the equivalent of 100 extra officers.

Rapid Site

The technology we’re talking about – fast, robust, often rural connectivity – isn’t always about being on the move. Industries such as construction that occupy a location sometimes for a matter of months are also employing high-speed, managed services to serve those on site.

Jackson Civil Engineering used to have to wait three months to get a line installed. It was holding back the business.

“The challenges I face are making sure the guys on site get connectivity and transmit information from laptops, mobile phones and tablets,” said Justin Corneby, the company’s IT manager. “If there’s no connectivity for our guys on the ground it almost stops them working completely.” Now setup at a new location takes under three days, and speeds tend to be up to 60Mbps where, before, a fixed line gave the company 8Mbps.

Housing association Green Square faces a similar challenge in its efforts to supply about 400 homes every year in the west of England.

Mark Gingell, ICT service manager at Green Square, said: “[We have] some challenges about how do we get our staff access to the internet. What we want is a seamless process for them to be able to log on and have the information at hand. The ultimate goal is to make great places where people can live.”

Public WiFi – in a box

Other types of business are on this connected journey too. Richardson’s operates 310 holiday boats on the Norfolk Broads and 4G Public WiFi from EE means not only coverage and simplicity for customers wanting internet access but knowing that compliance and online safety for families, through web filtering, is taken care of. In fact a whole range of businesses are now possible, many employing mobile payments systems which through their security and 4G connections open up a world of pop-up possibilities to businesses big and small.

Connected Health 

And lastly, the NHS is showing us that innovation can be built on even relatively simple technology. ‘Did not attend’ – or DNAs – cost the health service around £900m every year. That breaks down as £137 for every missed hospital appointment, £45 for each at a GP’s surgery. 

Intelligent messaging from EE means patients get a text message and simply reply to cancel or confirm an appointment. DNAs have been reduced by 67 per cent in one case, freeing up slots for others. That means there is the potential to save the NHS over £500m annually, just by improving the booking and scheduling service for patients with intelligent messaging. Meanwhile healthcare professionals get to target groups by demographics – for example, elderly people when it’s flu jab season. In short, this approach saves time, saves money and even saves lives.

Now you can

When we were the first to launch 4G in the UK, we had a simple message: Now you can. Most people took that to mean simply that smartphones, tablets, laptops and upcoming smart devices could get a faster network connection. But it’s been about much more than that.

Today, being connected in this way is a vital component for business and Britain’s vital public services. Our recent research of 1,000 UK businesses shows that 50 per cent of customers say 4G is critical to their business success. They report a 10 per cent uptick in productivity when adopting 4G – and gains can be greater in the public sector.

And we’re nowhere near finished. Now any organisation in the private or public sector can share in this connected story, employing new technology and innovative approaches as a managed service or in any way that best works for them. We are just as excited about the next three years as the last three.