Random AsidesScienceSkepticism

Thoughts On Transhumanism and Living Forever

Recently I posted an item here, containing a high-level analysis of the technological Singularity predicted by some futurists, and an examination of the likelihood that the event will actually occur.

To refresh your memory, the technological Singularity is basically the “event horizon” in technological development beyond which humans will cease to be driving technological progress. The technology itself will take over that task.

And as part of that predicted progress, some transhumanists think exaggerated advances in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, computer science, and neuroscience will initiate a radical transformation of human minds and bodies. Among the more ardent transhumanists, it’s not unusual to hear topics such as the advent of cyborgs, digitized psyches, the downloading of human consciousness onto machines, radically extended lifespans, and even immortality thrown about as though they are foregone conclusions.Artist unknown. 

Well, in the few weeks since the Singularity Summit , which I attended, I’ve been thinking more about the subject. Don’t worry. This will probably be my last post about transhumanism for a while. I’ve got some cool straight science stories to relate after this. But since the summit, it’s a subject that’s been on my mind; particularly the ideas regarding human improvement, the philosophical implications surrounding them, and what the world (and humankind) might be like if extremely long lives become the norm.

And where there are volumes to consider in this line of inquiry, perhaps it’s best to simplify and start with a basic question: Assuming the advances in technology are sufficient to achieve it at some point, do we really want extremely long lives? Do we want to live forever?

Now, at first glance, the question seems easy. Of course we want really long lives. No one wants to die. Dying marks the end of everything; at least as far as own awareness is concerned. The game clock flips to all zeros. The party is over. Death = Not fun.

Being alive, on the other hand, is oh so much sweeter. As intelligent creatures, we derive great pleasure from a whole host of amazing things in life. Not only that, but we transcend a meaningless existence by creating and sharing such things with others.

We have the capacity to experience a wonderful spectrum of emotions, both to our joy and our consternation. We can love. We can hate. We can laugh. We can cry. We can be moved by works of art, or by a scenic vista, or powerfully by the introduction of a new little one of us into the fold. We can be rendered sappy and weak in the knees simply by looking into the eyes of a woman we consider beautiful, and we can be made to feel demure and protected in the arms of a man we see as strong. We can do horrible things to each other as we try to deal with our inherent violent tendencies, but we can be caring and loving and kind with no less stunning regularity.

We are also possessed of a capacity for intellect. Our natural curiosity about the world around us drives us to great discovery, which further triggers our curiosity, inciting a grand dance that has put us at a place of understanding no creatures we currently know of have yet reached. We have overcome the elements that only a few generations ago found us trembling in the darkness with only a contrived set of myths to soothe our fears, and we can question whence those fears came, the processes at work behind them, and where we might be if we become a species without fear. We develop machines and gadgets that allow us to manipulate the material world to our benefit. We have a grasp of the natural forces that control the universe, and we are constantly uncovering the slots into which each of its cosmic puzzle pieces fit. And we can examine with humility what it means to be human, and with awe the things that influence the remarkable condition that defines our existence.

And being made of flesh that is highly vulnerable to physical trauma, microorganisms, and slow but sure deterioration, it seems obvious that if there was a way to eliminate the shortcomings of the human body, we would be foolish not to favor implementing it in order to be around to experience the beauty of living for as long as possible.

But . . .

You knew it wouldn’t be that easy, didn’t you?

Living forever is a very profound idea; one that presents a lot of possibilities and a lot of potential problems. So let’s look a little deeper into the question.

Suppose we do indeed find a way to avoid the big sleep. It’s clear that in our current cultural and societal state, long life or immortality is not the desire of the global collective. The religious man will tell you the great reward is waiting for him beyond death, and presumably his fervency for that belief is such that it would make living forever actually undesirable; something for which he should absolutely not strive. So it’s not difficult to imagine a rift forming between those favoring long life and those in societies and cultures who don’t place as much importance on what they might term the “mortal realm”.

Now, one might suggest that those who believe the reward awaits them beyond death can be shown the error of their ways. But after centuries of it happening throughout history, do we still not recognize the injustice of forcing a philosophy on a culture that does not seek it?

One might also suggest that once people are living for hundreds of years, the idea of long life will become attractive to everyone. And that may very well be the case, but suppose the desire for long life infiltrates the entire human race. How will the distribution of the processes to make us immortal work? Will the advances be available to everyone, no matter their station in life?

Again, history tells us that we generally don’t operate that way. Generally, the most attractive endeavors are initially the playground of the financial, cultural, and intellectual elite. And there is precedent that those living in privation of a thing can be highly mistreated at worst, and overlooked at best. Or they can become so desperate as to revolt.

What would a war between those who have become better than mortal through technology and those still at the mercy of nature be like? Well, what do our own experiences tell us about the outcome of a struggle between any strong force and a weak force? It’s not a stretch to imagine it would be horrible no matter how we look at it.Picture in Psychology Today. Artist unknown

Now, some say those types of extremes are far-fetched. And they very well may be. (Though on a personal note, it seems to me people have an impossible time recognizing arrogance. Just saying.) But suppose we never come close to any of those dystopian scenarios. Suppose instead that technological advancements are such that everyone can be made to live very long lives, and everyone gets along like the best of chums. If fewer and fewer people are dying, it doesn’t take a lot of difficult math to see that the world’s population would grow to a point to present another set of problems.

Right off the bat, the availability of resources becomes a huge concern. Do we outlaw all new births to combat the shortages? How can a planet the size of the Earth sustain 100 billion people? 500 billion people? A trillion people? Even if the advances in technology preclude the need for food as we currently know it; even if the need for agrarian land becomes obsolete, the amount of space for everyone is limited and becomes an issue.

Of course, if we speculate even deeper about the technological possibilities, and say that living human beings (consciousnesses) will simply be sets of digital information loaded onto a drive or other medium somewhere, we still have to contend with the problems of energy those technologies — the infrastructure — would need to maintain us; assuming such advanced technologies saw the need to maintain us at all, which raises a whole new set of questions and possibilities.

And so the cycle continues.

But what if we forgo all the speculation about how long life will be implemented and how it will affect us as a culture, and take a look at whether we should even really want to live forever. Given all the wonders that make life worth living that we mentioned before, is death nevertheless an essential part of a meaningful life?

If we examine life honestly, we see that yes, there is great beauty. And that beauty can sustain and drive us for a long time. But we also see that there is misery and there is suffering and there is sorrow. A wise person recognizes that antithetical players define the value of their opposites. Without pain, we do not know the value of  pleasure. Without boredom, we do not know the value of excitement. Without sadness, we do not know the value of happiness.Melancholy by Edvard Munch

If we slowly remove the fear of dying, the pang of regret, the melancholy of longing, the worry of imminent cessation of breath, and the grief of loss, what value will anything we can experience while living for hundreds of years have? Will it have any value?

Assuming he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, the rational man in his worldview may take the religious man’s view of a “great reward” and reverse it, to where he sees life itself as the great reward. And that is a perfectly sane way to look at it. But it’s daunting to think that we are, for all intents and purposes, dead for billions of years before we are granted an eye blink, a nanosecond of cosmic time as our reward, before we slip away never to know awareness again.

But doesn’t the brevity of the reward, the infinitesimally small amount of time we have to enjoy the gift, make its value immeasurable?

And if not, perhaps there’s a more profound question: What gifts do we receive that we don’t eventually tire of anyway?

We have all known, or at least heard of, an elderly person whose health has deteriorated — not through disease, but simply through living a conventionally long life — lying lucidly on his or her deathbed, waiting for his or her loved ones to gather so that he or she can say good-bye. And then once that final task is done, he or she slips away without fear, without regret, with nothing but an air of preparedness.

Can we say with any measure of confidence that without physical trauma, without disease, without anything that cuts the cycle short, we all wouldn’t reach the point where we value highly the beauty of the life we’ve lived, but where we are ready to be done with it nonetheless?

Now, I suppose I should apologize for asking so many open-ended questions in this post, but I think with this subject, open-ended questions are the best we’re going to get right now. Part of the problem with some things that are yet to come is that we have no reason to expect either the worst or the best, because we just don’t know for sure how the pendulum will swing. But I do think keeping our eyes open and speculating about the future, the tendencies of the human animal, and analyzing all the possibilities is a good idea. We may still be quite a stupid intelligent species at this point in our evolution, but complacency will never serve to remedy that. We should always wonder!

In the meantime, I’ll tell you that where I don’t know if I personally would want to live forever, I do check every couple of months to see if they are able to grow new knees and shoulders and elbows and other bones that they can put into my body to replace the ones I’ve worn out with all my physical activities over the years.

And maybe that’s the key. Maybe we just want to live as long as our quality of life remains at our own desired levels. And maybe when it’s not at that desired level, and becomes apparent it never will be, is when we get ourselves ready to check out.

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

Sure would be nice to squat down without hearing all the crunching and popping though.


*This is a late addition to the post, but I remembered after the fact this vlog of Dr. Neil deGrass Tyson ruminating on the subject of longevity.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. My husband and I go ’round and round on this one. He’s of the “I want to see what happens next!” camp; I’m more pragmatic: if we all lived forever, where would we live – the misery on the planet because of overpopulation would be terrible. (But I think his stance is more of the fantastical-eternal-elf sort of immortality, not the use-whatever-technological-means necessary sort.)

    I’ve given a lot of thought to that, especially in regards to class and whatnot. As if there weren’t enough of a divide between rich and poor now, imagine the divide between those who can afford the things necessary to live forever, and those who can’t. *shudder* Pretty scary stuff, from a sociological standpoint.

    But I hear you on the crunching and popping.

  2. I think most people assume that after an event such as a Singularity, the economic rules might drastically change – such as one of the most important resources being information, and information being distributed via a distributed network, which is inherently not separated on basis of wealth. I certainly do not fear immortality (it’s not like suicide after 900 years wouldn’t be an option) – and people don’t seem to be rioting now, despite the disparity in our qualities of life…

    (Also, gender binary much? “We can be rendered sappy and weak in the knees simply by looking into the eyes of a woman we consider beautiful, and we can be made to feel demure and protected in the arms of a man we see as strong.”)

  3. With all the subjects you’ve touched on here, there’s one important one I also need to raise. (It was initially brought to my attention by another blogger, though I can’t recall who right now.) The problem is that most massive social change comes about not because people change their minds, but because the older people who hold more outdated ideas die off. Imagine if we granted everyone alive right now immortality and banned all births. We’d be locked into a society that still isn’t willing to give gays full equal protection under the law, where although atheists have equal protection by law, they’re seen as one of the biggest threats to civilized society, where the vast majority of the population still believes in some mixture of psychics, ghosts, alt med, religion, conspiracy theories, etc. Most of these battles can only be realistically won by slowly making each generation more tolerant and skeptical than the last, but immortality would deny us that possibility.

    1. What good is a battle won if you are not there to enjoy it? I’m selfish like that, what is humanity to me after I’m dead, what good is equality to a women after she died? If longevity was possible wouldn’t want to deny this chance to me, just because such a large portion of humanity still hasn’t adopted the scientific method into their lifes and we require generational change, to change minds instead of new evidence.

      I think it would be immoral to require people to die so that we make place for new people. I too see the problem of outdated modes of thinking that require those that have those ideas to die off, because they are unable to change, i just don’t accept this as my death penalty, should we have this technology.

  4. Rather than live forever, I want an RPG_style reincarnation. At the end of your run instead of permanent death (i.e. the current ‘hardcore’ mode) you start over at level 1, but keep the skills and loot you earned. You can’t access the loot right away (not until you gain a certain number of levels by earning experience points), but your skills are ready to use.

    And I want an epic mount on the next go-round.

  5. The thing is that “forever” isn’t on the cards anyway, unless we manage to find a loophole in the laws of thermodynamics (in which case the resource question will be moot). What will most likely happen is that the ageing process will be stalled in increments.

    Right now most non-smokers in Western countries make it to 80 (unless they die in an accident or homicide), and the first 60-70 years of that is pretty healthy. Now that’s already a better deal than you get from nature, so does the status quo raise philosophical questions?

    If indeed life is extended in increments, then where do you draw the line? How many years do humans deserve to live? 100?, 200?, 500?, 1000?

    Many people oppose life extension for all the reasons you stated, but most of those reasons could be used to argue for shortening human life (think how much more intense our lives would be if we only lived 50 years!). However,just about no one actually uses those arguments that way, only to support the status quo. While it’s not definitive evidence, this type of asymmetry is highly suggestive of status quo bias.

    Culture is more adaptive than most people give it credit for, and given fertility falls as income rises, I don’t think overpopulation is going to be an issue. I think humanity will adapt just fine to longer life spans. And if life becomes a chore, there’s always suicide. Dead people lack the same options.

  6. If we get to the point of digitizing brains, then I think that I’ll just abandon the whole physical body concept. And possibly most simulation of 3D real world, simulated in the digital world. Sure, there will be competition for resources in the all-digital world. And the competition will probably be fierce. But I’ll try to make a go of it, and see how long I can finance my existence before I get archived for possible future use — a fate that will probably be a lot like death. ;->

  7. I would like to live “forever”, at least I do now. But “I” am a product of an organic brain that isn’t designed for infinite life, and I don’t think it can be modified or copied in a way that allows “me” to continue to exist, while not changing me in unpredictable and possibly undesirable ways.

    I seem to remember some of the main characters in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy running into the limits of the brain due to extended lifespans. And I don’t want that.

    I also doubt the human beast is adaptable enough to get a decent culture in a world without death.

    No, give me a long healthy life with a steep but painless decline at the end and reduce the risks of dying or being crippled along the way, and I’ll be happy. I think.

  8. I wonder if our view of the desirability of eternal* (or extremely long) lifespans changes as we age?

    There was a time where I would have been in the “Hell, yes” group. Now, I’m not so sure. I’ve read Heinlein’s work about “Methuselahs” aka Lazarus Long & co., but I’m no longer as convinced as I was that living thousands of years is a good idea. Perhaps it would be best for our society that there only be few descrete long-lived people. I can see the jealous trying to kill long-lived people just as Heinlein foresaw, hence Lazarus using makeup to age himself and eventually “dying” to start a new life elsewhere under a new identiy.

    Perhaps a condition of life extension should be a long-term exile in space as explorers, with a proviso for occasional visits. Those that choose to explore at extreme distances would self-exile via Relativity due to time dilation – unless by some fluke we do discover Star Trek’s warp drive. For someone with a lifespan of hundreds of years, travel at near relativistic speeds to some of the nearest stars becomes possible.

    My main issue (I’ll be 53 in a few weeks) is the health problems mentioned above: arthritis pain, general wear and tear pain, organ failure. Chronic pain is a big a problem for me. I expect to stay fairly lucid as I age, as there is no history of Alzheimer’s or dementia in my family. Bjornar may have a good solution, at least for now.

    I have noticed a tendency in myself to become less optimistic and more cynical about the world and people as I age – not that I wasn’t from an early age anyway. It became obvious to me that most people learn nothing from history. Perhaps that is something that some people “accrete” with age, a function of personality? Something else?

    Samantha makes a really good point about widening the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” on Earth. Look at what the wealth disparity on Earth does now – and imagine it ramped up to include long/eternal life for the rich. “Disasterous” may be the nicest thing we can say about the possible consequences.

    I think Kurzweil has jumped the gun on this, if it happens at all. As we all know, futurists are notable for how few predictions they get right. Humans and technology take odd twists and turns.

    *I use the word “eternal” to mean ultra long lifespans on the order of hundreds of thousands of years.

  9. @Infophile: I’ve thought about this a lot as kind of a fun “what if” game but I hadn’t considered that viewpoint. Thanks for the insight.

    ASSUMING its medically possible to live a healthy and active life for a long time or ever – there will still be death. The statistical odds of accidents will kill just about everyone eventually. With greater population density the odds will increase. I read somewhere on the web and I cannot find it, that life expectancy would merely change to 300/400 years – and that assuming that most accidents could be mended. Instant unretrievable death was the criteria I am fairly sure. (I wish I could find that damn article)

    But even then – I think the human psyche would go insane. Think of all the emotional garbage you collect in a lifetime. Think of all the people you know who never adequately process and manage their emotional damage and start adding that up…

    The longer you live the more emotionally unstable you will become. I think we will find that the people who live the longest will become also quite “eccentric” and could easily turn into lunatics.

    Yes…its the cynical skeptic to bring sunshine to optimistic Utopian ideas of the future.

    That said, I’m definitely buying in when and if its available.

  10. A few points:

    James K is spot on about the heat death of the universe. Absent a fundamental loophole in the laws of physics, even “immortality” isn’t eternal.

    As Aubrey de Grey pointed out at Dragon*Con last weekend, the cost (in medical care, housing, and lost productivity) associated with aging is simply staggering, even in countries which do a poor job of caring for their elderly. It simply makes no economic sense for radical health extension technologies to be restricted to the wealthy, as it would be cheaper to provide it to everyone for free than to continue to suffer the cost and lost productivity of aging, to say nothing of the human suffering involved.

    Unfortunately I don’t recall where, but I’ve read that the tendency of older people to become more ossified and resistant to change has a biochemical basis. If this is indeed the case then the “old people must die so that society can change” trope can be treated with medical intervention, which is a prospect I find far preferable to “treating it” with a body count. This is particularly true when you note that not all elderly people lose the ability to adapt and grow. Why should those who retain their mental agility in advanced age die simply because some of their cohorts are overly invested in the status quo?

    There’s more I could say on this subject, but the additional points I’d like to make have already been stated far more eloquently than I could. This is well worth a read:

  11. @non_believer: I wonder about that. Many people simply lose many memories over time, almost like the brain picks and chooses what to “overwrite,” so to speak. Perhaps that’s a sanity-defense mechanism?

    I see your point about accident rates. If we assume that humans will be able to “back up” ourselves in safe storage in case of accident*, then what? Is that old, stored copy still “you?” If the “current you” dies, will your copy house the consciousness that was “you” previously? Or are they two different consciousnesses, so “you” do in fact die, but also live on seperately?

    I’m getting a headache…

    *Been dealt with in several SF novels

  12. @QuestionAuthority:

    I see your point about accident rates. If we assume that humans will be able to “back up” ourselves in safe storage in case of accident*, then what? Is that old, stored copy still “you?” If the “current you” dies, will your copy house the consciousness that was “you” previously? Or are they two different consciousnesses, so “you” do in fact die, but also live on seperately?

    Assuming a back up consciousness could be stored, you can imagine the technology evolving to where your “file” would be updated in real-time, and some sort of failsafe alarm installed that would trigger the loading of the new file automatically and instantaneously, so that upon a “fatal” accident, the reloaded consciousness would be as close to being you as possible.

    See, if we take that first leap, the possibilities become limitless.

  13. I studied Data Structures back in the summer of ’02, I think, if I remember right. The professor was a post-graduate student, probably working on his masters, and towards the end of the term, he was talking about the coloration between the human brain and computers. The way he put it was like this:

    Write down every word you know. You can’t do it, can you? You can recall most words you need, but you can’t just print out your entire vocabulary at will the way a data structure can output its entire contents. We’ve developed countless data structure algorithms, but we haven’t come close to replicating the data structures in the human brain.

    His field of study was AI, and he went on to say that within 10 years he figured we would have it; that we could replicate the data structures of the human brain. Not for the purposes of transferring our consciousness to a computer, of course, but for other practical applications.

    Well, he was wrong. I thought he was stretching it a little back then, and 8 years on, I don’t think we’re much closer to making his 10 year prediction. Admittedly, it’s not my specialization, and I haven’t been paying that much attention, but if we are any closer than we were 8 years ago, it’s in some pretty high-end research that I’m not aware of.

    And that’s just one tiny prerequisite before we can even begin seriously considering anything Kurzweil is talking about. What time frame did he offer? 10-20 years from now? He’s dreaming.

    I don’t think it’s possible with the Von Neumann architecture that we’re currently working with. I don’t think that the human brain is a typical Von Neumann machine as we understand it. It’s analogous to a Von Neumann machine, absolutely. We might be able to use contemporary and future technology to model the human brain for other applications, like medicine, and neuroscience.

    But to replicate all the functions of the brain with that level of precision… I don’t think it’s possible with a Von Neumann architecture, and if it is, the current state of the technology is nowhere near efficient enough to even entertain the notion. I think we’re going to have to develop a whole new architecture; A whole new type of system. And frankly, the Von Neumann architecture has been too fruitful over the past few decades to even begin considering needing anything else, outside of theoretical applications.

    Instead, what we’ve been putting the bulk of our effort towards things with more commercial applications. Communication, commerce, networking, telephony, speech recognition. It’s kept me employed for the last year or so, but the technology has improved in the direction of speed; bandwidth and capacity, rather than capability. We’re quickly approaching the limits of the current technology. Rather than expanding our boundaries, we’re pushing the current technology beyond its design capacity, and approaching stagnation.

    Now, having said that, even if it’s not possible, I think that the potential benefits from spin-off technologies are too rich to ignore. Not to mention speculative fiction.

  14. @Peregrine:

    Yeah, I think that’s pretty much the concensus of the readers here (though I may be taking some liberties by saying that). I was actually hoping to address the philosophical questions in this post, but I suppose in this case, we can’t separate the philosophical from the science.

  15. On the idea of living forever… have you ever read Richard K Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies)? They’re transhumanist/cyberpunk novels, and one of the key pieces of technology is the “cortical stack”… a thing about the size of a cigarette butt that contains an entire person. You can pop the data from a cortical stack to one body or another; shoot someone in the face 97 times and you’re guilty of “organic damage”. Shoot them once in the cortical stack and you’re guilty of murder. If you’re rich enough, you can keep yourself alive for centuries by simply switching into a new body. Even if you aren’t, you can go into virtual for a while until you make enough money to afford a body (if you ever want one).

    However, as you said, it’s not that simple. A number of religious groups won’t allow their members to be placed in different bodies. Killing them is “safe”, because while you caused organic damage, the person isn’t coming back.

    They’re good reads. HPL has them.

  16. I think there a few people who would enjoy living a greatly expanded lifespan. I don’t think I’m one of them. I’m already getting a sense of boredom and frustration with life that I suspect will only intensify with age. And if you look around most people get to a certain point in life where they are just using up time. I’m sure they would claim to not want to die, but the way they live is barely distinguishable from death.

    There are exceptions, of course, which I mentioned at the top. To these people that remain vital and creative I wish them as much life as they can stand.

  17. @Mark_Hall: I’m a Takeshi Kovacs addict. Those were some of the novels I was thinking of. I believe Peter F. Hamilton and David Brin have touched on this.

    @Sam_Ogden: I was basing my thoughts on the above novels, where the ‘stacks’ are held under tight security, including no outside contact because of deadly malware that can “erase” your stack, causing a “true death,” Vs. a “body death.” It takes force on the order of a battalion of Marines to physically “get at” the stacks in those books.

    @dave-w: I wonder how much of that boredom and frustration in the elderly is related to their physical condition? If I were 90 in a 25 year old body, my mind might change accordingly. I honestly don’t know.

    One reason I suggested that “Methuselahs” go off planet for extended periods (sort of like the various “ship minds” in SF ) is that it solves the problems to society of ‘having them around’ and helps prevent stagnation. (Or stay under deep cover, like Heinlein’s Lazarus Long.)

    @Peregrine: I’m only a layman in terms of computer science (i.e. I can use Windows without destroying vast tracts of the landscape or cybersphere), but I’ve come to think that there is something more subtle at work thtn mere complexity in the creation of a mind. Quantum effects? Something undiscovered? Your guess is as good as mine here.

    Some of this has been much on my mind for the last few years, as I’m getting to the age where my mortality is being underlined for me in red ink.

  18. @QuestionAuthority: I wonder how much of that boredom and frustration in the elderly is related to their physical condition? If I were 90 in a 25 year old body, my mind might change accordingly. I honestly don’t know.

    I don’t know either. I’m sure physical condition can affect mental outlook and this can certainly tie into. My guess, however, is this is not the larger part of it. What do people live for? Kids and grandkids? They grow up and don’t need us any more. Job? I don’t know many people who want to work indefinitely. Sex? Okay there goes 30 minutes a day (and I think this is generous in most cases.) A spouse? I don’t think so. Sooner or later one of you is going to quit or screw it up especially if you both remain youthful. Can you imagine what a commitment “til death us do part” would be if you take death out of the equation?

    The way I think about this question is if you were given the opportunity to live a very long time, what would you live for? I have no good answer for this.

  19. @davew: Damned if I know. :-) I’m already doubting that I’d want life extension. Some might want it to continue their art, such as musicians, painters, etc. Politial or social causes? Science? It might work out for a lucky few, but for the majority?

    I’ve already been wondering about marriage, as the human lifespan has doubled in recent decades. Was marriage really meant to last 50, 60, 70 or more years? I don’t know. marriage for a virtual eternity? That’s really unknown territory.

    There are lots of social effects that life extension would have, some of which I don’t think we’ve foreseen.

  20. I could write pages about every paragraph, but just one… “But it’s daunting to think that we are, for all intents and purposes, dead for billions of years before we are granted an eye blink, a nanosecond of cosmic time as our reward, before we slip away never to know awareness again.”

    This is the problem with the current system, which people will of course attempt to overcome, and justice requires this be done fairly.

    “Such a long, long to be gone, and a short time to be there” – R. Hunter.

  21. @QuestionAuthority:

    I was basing my thoughts on the above novels, where the ‘stacks’ are held under tight security, including no outside contact because of deadly malware that can “erase” your stack, causing a “true death,” Vs. a “body death.” It takes force on the order of a battalion of Marines to physically “get at” the stacks in those books.

    I wonder just how many sci-fi books there are dealing with this subject. Certainly no shortage.

    But in my response to you, I was just pointing out a concept I’ve come to call “The Convenience of Infinite Amelioration”. And I couldn’t find mention of that exact phrase anywhere, so if it catches on, you guys remember to give me props for coining it.

    But the Convenience of Infinite Amelioration is sort of the conceptual opposit of the Problem of Infinite Regression. All of us have pointed out the problem of infinite regression to theists who believe their deity is responsible for all of creation. The question is always, “Well if everything was created, who or what created god? And who or what created that thing that created god? . . .” and on and on, ad infinitum.

    Infinite amelioration — at least as it relates to transhumanism and the Singulatarians — is the concept whereby improvements are always made (in technology in this case) that can overcome any obstacles.

    So for example, you said:

    I see your point about accident rates. If we assume that humans will be able to “back up” ourselves in safe storage in case of accident*, then what? Is that old, stored copy still “you?” If the “current you” dies, will your copy house the consciousness that was “you” previously? Or are they two different consciousnesses, so “you” do in fact die, but also live on seperately?

    Which presented an obstacle. “Will the consciousness be me?”

    But with infinite amelioration, the obstacle is overcome with speculative but ongoing improvements to technology. No matter the problem, the advances will be sufficient to deal with it. So:

    Assuming a back up consciousness could be stored, you can imagine the technology evolving to where your “file” would be updated in real-time, and some sort of failsafe alarm installed that would trigger the loading of the new file automatically and instantaneously, so that upon a “fatal” accident, the reloaded consciousness would be as close to being you as possible.

    Also, someone pointed out that “eternal life” is technically not possible, because the sun, stars, and in fact the entire universe will eventually end. But deploying infinite amelioration, we can counter by saying:

    Our technology will be sufficient to counter a dying universe.

    To which the reply would be something along the lines of:

    Well, no. Once the universe dies, everything dies.

    To which the convenient counter reply would be:

    If the universe we know is just one of many that exists amid the bulk (a highly speculative but actual idea among some theoretical physicists), our technology will be sufficient to locate another, younger universe, and allow us to move there, and continue living.

    And you can see that the solutions can go on and on.

    Now, I’m not saying I believe any of the examples I gave here. I’m just trying to illustrate the concept of the Convenience of Infinite Amelioration.

    And it’s only a “convenience” of infinite amelioration and not a problem, as in the case of the “problem” of infinite regression, because theists are making a claim about the way things are. Transhumanists and Singulatarians are speculating about the way things will be. And they are conveniently able to overcome any obstacles thrown in their path with infinite amelioration.

    But I think the concept is something we have to keep in mind when speculating about and discussing things like this.

    Or maybe I just took a blow to the head I don’t remember . . . which would actually explain why I’m wearing my underwear on the outside of my pants today.

  22. Sam, this is a great item and a great thread, which tackles some of the biggest questions of all.

    As I approach retirement I weary of seing everything I have worked for all my life being turned on its head and rendered futile by a mass of rather pointless bureaucratic regulation.

    Forgive me for being a cynic, but with infinite time to work with I think the bureaucrats will take over the entire known universe and bring it to a stop.

    The other thing that causes me despair is the lack of an acceptable economic model based on anything other than population growth without limits.

    As far as I can see, unless we come up with an alternative, our short term economic gain will result ultimately in war, famine, disease and a desecrated planet.

    A gloomy view I know, and I can only hope that you younger ones will indeed come up with a better model than we have now.

    Fix those two items and then maybe we can contemplate an extended lifespan for humanity.

  23. Another Singularity Institute attendee described his experience in his blog post titled


    It is a most entertaining and thought-provoking post!

  24. Jack99:

    The other thing that causes me despair is the lack of an acceptable economic model based on anything other than population growth without limits.

    As far as I can see, unless we come up with an alternative, our short term economic gain will result ultimately in war, famine, disease and a desecrated planet.

    While it’s true that more people tends to help economic growth over all (more people means more innovations and more trade opportunities), limitless population growth is not necessary to sustain our economic model. Which is just as well, since the way we’re going earth population will probably stabilise some time this century.

    There is a strong negative association between income and fertility, and it seems to be causative. As people and countries get richer they have fewer children. The West is already demographically stable (net population growth is coming from immigration), and very poor countries are stuck in the Malthusian Trap and can’t grow their population because they don’t have enough food. Only the countries in the middle (like India and China) are actually growing, but they’ll either get richer and stop having kids, or they’ll bump into resource constraints which will stop them growing.

    Either way, I don’t see a scenario where overpopulation is a concern barring a massive negative productivity shock and that would require something like a war or meteorite strike.

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