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On ‘Year Million,’ Death Is Optional

National Geographic's Year Million—premiering on Monday, May 15—is a six-part documentary-drama series that examines what the future holds for humanity

Topics include interplanetary travel, merging with machines, artificial intelligence (the scary sort), and the end of death. It paints a pretty bleak picture of our silicon cousins, but it's well-researched, vividly executed, and narrated by Laurence "Morpheus" Fishburne, so it's worth checking out.

As one might expect, the usual futurist pundits—including Ray "Singularity" Kurzweil and Peter "XPrize" Diamandis—make appearances, as does former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, presumably for pop culture relief.

But the most fascinating aspect of Year Million is the dramatization of what happens when a regular all-American family's daughter is killed accidently and then transmuted into an embodied AI android. It got us thinking about "life" after death; if humans aren't "archived" today, transhumanism won't work tomorrow. PCMag has touched on this in this past, but we called "pre-death" and palliative care expert Dr. Dawn Gross to talk about the themes of Year Million and what's happening in digital legacy technology today that might lead to such scenarios.

Year Million

Dr. Gross is on the advisory board at digital legacy startup Safe Beyond and the San Francisco Department of Aging & Adult Services Palliative Care Committee. But she's perhaps best known as the creator and host of call-in radio program Dying To Talk, which is broadcast on the oldest FM station west of the Mississippi, KALW 91.7 FM. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Without mincing words, how did you get into the death space?
(Laughs) Let's put it this way, if you fly on a plane with me, you will be talking about this subject by the end of the flight. My background is this: I have a combined MD and Phd from Tufts University School of Medicine and the Sackler School of Biomedical Sciences, so I'm both a physician and scientist. Before medical school, I started in psychology but, while taking a class in neuroscience, which blew me away, I shifted gears, eventually moving into neuroimmunology and ultimately studying autoimmune diseases for my PhD, then clinically specialized in hematology, with a focus on bone marrow transplants. This is when I started caring for people who were facing truly life-threatening diseases—while awaiting potentially life-threatening treatments.

And you started talking to them about potentially facing death?
Yes. My mission became to engage people in these conversations before offering chemotherapy or transplant. After my father died, I transitioned my focus of care to hospice and eventually to the new specialty of palliative medicine when I was invited to join the Palliative Care Service at UCSF. I've been working there since 2010.

How did you then start Dying To Talk?
I was having a conversation with someone about pre-death preparation within families. I had a light bulb moment when they suggested a radio show concept, and I immediately said, 'You mean like Dr. Ruth for Death?' Do you remember Dr. Ruth, who did that call-in radio show about sex? She normalized what was a very sensitive subject. Nothing fazed her. And I said 'Count me in!'

Dying To Talk with Dr. Drawn Gross, KALW 91.7 FM

On your show you bring in experts, examine digital sites, apps and tools, and—like Dr. Ruth on sex—have a very matter-of-fact, yet kind, approach to what is the last American taboo—death.
I sometimes think that death is seen as 'optional' in America. Which is partly why nobody wants to talk about the inevitable. We're trying to create a different conversation, permission to speak freely, on Dying To Talk.

Do you see your work having some impact on the future?
We already know, from epigenetics research, that DNA can switch on/off genes that may transmit trauma experienced in one generation to future descendants. With respect to shared memory from a neurobiological perspective, it has some implications in how we treat contemporary PTSD, for example. But, in terms of pre-death conversations, and digital mechanisms that are replacing what used to be called legacy letters—where family members record moments for posterity—for me, it's about how we keep a record of these unique and never-to-be-told-again lives.

Finally, your expertise is being used by startups in today's "legacy" or pre-death market. Can you talk about this?
I'm on the advisory board of an intriguing startup called Safe Beyond, who have a 'digital time capsule' service for families and loved ones to participate in storytelling and memory capture before someone dies. They also give advice on managing digital assets post-death, one's emotional legacy life insurance, in a way. Younger people are very comfortable with technology, which is a great tool for extracting, recording, and archiving memories, but older people might not be. So I lend the perspective of the end user in how to bring these generations together and start what is a challenging conversation before taking advantage of what technology can really offer.

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