Thursday, July 18, 2024

It’s Time We Had A Serious Conversation About Tech-Enabled Immortality.

June 27, 2019 by  
Filed under Opinion, Tech/Internet, Weekly Columns

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( If you could go back to the nineteenth century and spend time in intellectual circles, there’s a good chance that you would have gotten into discussions about the prospect of manned flight. The vast majority of intellectuals at the time accepted that obvious truth that humans would never fly, and that is was a physical impossibility. There was just no way to create enough motive power to elevate a man into the sky. 

But what was so interesting about these predictions is that they didn’t emerge in the distant medieval past when people lived in ignorance and poverty, but just a few years before the Wright brothers demonstrated that flight was indeed possible. Flight was impossible until it happened. One hundred years later, you can hop on a plane and travel anywhere you like.

The idea that we could live forever goes against everything we know about life. Everyone who has ever lived has died. Death is the one certainty in our world – more so even than taxes. And it’s something that psychologically mature adults just accept as being the inevitable conclusion to our brief experience of the universe. To say that acceptance of death is embedded in our culture would be an understatement. People who suggest that death can be overcome are naive, idiotic, or deranged in some way. But there’s a case to be made that with continued advancements in biology that death will become the new flight. It’s impossible to mainstream cultural and scientific thinking right now, but it could happen, given what we now know. 

Wait, What Do You Mean Tech Can End Death? 

We’re not arguing here that death will be overcome in the next decade or so. Nor are we making any argument that overcoming death is a good or bad thing – that’s a different conversation. All we’re saying is that there is now a tech-enabled argument to be made that death can be overcome. 

From a physics perspective, there’s no reason why people can’t live forever. Yes, humans are subject to entropy, and entropy leads to great disorganization in biological systems. But the physics notion that entropy must always increase is in a closed system, like the universe as a whole. Human bodies are open systems. We can derive energy from outside our bodies to correct the disorder going on within. When you think about it, all of life is a fight against entropy. Order from chaos is probably the defining characteristic of what it means to be alive. 

There’s also no biological reason why humans couldn’t live longer. Regular sharks have a lifespan of around twenty-five years. Not bad, but nothing to write home about. The Greenland shark, however, is estimated to have a lifespan in the region of 400 years, despite being a closely related to sharks the world over in practically every other respect. That’s the equivalent to having one human species which lives 80 years and another that lives 1,280. 

What does this tell us about life? It says that it’s possible to have a huge variation in lifespan in otherwise similar biological organisms. If you branch out a little to other living things, you find certain trees that can live for thousands of years and other animals which don’t appear to age at all, like lobsters and hydra. Neither biology nor physics appears to prevent indefinite lifespans, both in theory and practice. 

How Tech Might Make Biological Life Extension A Reality

As humanity delves into the source code of life – the genetic information that makes us who we are – we’re learning how to manipulate it in profound ways using assay plates, test tubes, and computers. It’s almost like we’ve found writing on an ancient tablet and can suddenly read part of the text, change a letter here and then, and write our own tablet in the same language. It means eventually that we are highly likely to get interventions that improve our DNA and make it so that we’re more like Greenland sharks, and less like regular ones. 

When that technology ultimately arrives is anyone’s guess. But there’s no doubt that it’s coming at some point, possibly within a decade, and almost certainly within a hundred years. We worry about lots of things that will have their impact in the distant future (such as climate change in the late 21st century), and artificial intelligence, but we don’t currently have a well-defined conversation about how radical life extension affect our lives. 

For centuries, the mark of a psychologically mature person was somebody who accepts death and then goes out and lives their life to the full, knowing that their life is finite. The task is to use the time that you have to greatest effect and get the most possible out of life. We live in a culture that teaches this attitude as the ideal, and rightly so. Until now, there was no prospect of evading death. The only psychologically healthy approach is to deal with the reality and move on. 

But that’s arguably no longer a certainty, and it seems silly to keep living the old-fashioned way. A desire for longer lives will inevitably push humanity in the direction of extending life to the point where you could have a seventy-year-old who looks and acts like somebody in their thirties. Hard to imagine but biologically plausible. 

In this article, we’ve not talked about the societal ramifications of people living for a long time. Economically, there are likely going to be advantages. All the training and investment that goes into people when they’re young will have a longer payoff during careers that could last seventy, eighty or one hundred years. But there may be problems too. If people stop dying, then environmentalists will fear overpopulation and further degradation of the natural world. 

There are new psychological problems which could emerge too. Without death, will people still be motivated to work hard and achieve their life goals before it’s too late? It’s hard to know what new problems it could create, which is why we need to open a conversation about it now. 

Staff Writer; Paula Wall

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