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Life Extension and Risk Aversion

A major benefit of longer lifespans is the cultivation of a wide array of virtues. Prudence and forethought are among the salutary attributes that the lengthening of human life expectancies – hopefully to the point of eliminating any fixed upper bound – would bring about. Living longer renders people more hesitant to risk their lives, for the simple reason that they have many more years to lose than their less technologically endowed ancestors.

​This is not science fiction or mere speculation; we see it already. In the Western world, average life expectancies increased from the twenties and thirties in the Middle Ages to the early thirties circa 1800 to the late forties circa 1900 to the late seventies and early eighties in our time. As Steven Pinker writes in his magnum opus, The Better Angels of Our Nature, the overall trend in the Western world (in spite of temporary spikes of conflict, such as the World Wars) has been toward greater peace and increased reluctance of individuals to throw their lives away in armed struggles for geopolitical gain. Long-term declines in crime rates, automobile fatalities, and even smoking have accompanied (and contributed to) rises in life expectancy. Economic growth and improvements in the technologies of production help as well. If a person has not only life but material comfort to lose, this amplifies the reluctance to undertake physical risks even further.

Yet, with today’s finite lifespans, most individuals still find a non-negligible degree of life-threatening risk in their day-to-day endeavors to be an unavoidable necessity. Most people in the United States need to drive automobiles to get to work – in spite of the risk of sharing the road with incompetent, intoxicated, or intimidating other drivers. Over 30,000 people perish every year in the United States alone as a result of that decision. While the probability for any given individual of dying in an automobile accident is around 11 in 100,000 (0.011%) per year, this is still unacceptably high.

How would a person with several centuries, several millennia, or all time ahead of him feel about this probability? Over a very long time, the probability of not encountering such a relatively rare event asymptotically approaches zero. For instance, at today’s rate of US automobile fatalities, a person living 10000 years would have a probability of (1 – 0.00011)^10000 = 0.3329 – a mere 33.29% likelihood – of not dying in an automobile accident! If you knew that a problem in this world had a two-thirds probability of killing you eventually, would you not want to do something about it?

Of course, the probabilities of tragic events are not fixed or immutable. They can be greatly affected by individual choices – our first line of defense against life-threatening risks. Well-known risk-management strategies for reducing the likelihood of any damaging event include (1) avoidance (not pursuing the activity that could cause the loss – e.g., not driving on a rugged mountain road – but this is not an option in many cases), (2) loss prevention (undertaking measures, such as driving defensively, that allow one to engage in the activity while lowering the likelihood of catastrophic failure), and (3) loss reduction (undertaking measures, such as wearing seat belts or driving in safer vehicles, that would lower the amount of harm in the event of a damaging incident). Individual choices, of course, cannot prevent all harms. The more fundamental defense against life-threatening accidents is technology. Driving itself could be made safer by replacing human operators, whose poor decisions cause over 90% of all accidents, with autonomous vehicles – early versions of which are currently being tested by multiple companies worldwide and have not caused a single accident to date when not manually driven.

Google Car on Day Off in Hadleigh, Suffolk - Image by Keith Evans

Today, forward-thinking technology companies such as Google are driving the autonomous-vehicle revolution ahead. There is, unfortunately, no large clamor by the public for these life-saving cars yet. However, as life expectancies lengthen, that clamor will surely be heard. When we live for centuries and then for millennia, we will view as barbarous the age when people were expected to take frightening risks with their irreplaceable existences, just to make it to the office every morning. We will see the attempt to manually operate a vehicle as a foolish and reckless gamble with one’s life – unless one is a professional stunt driver who would earn millions in whatever future currency will then exist.

But living longer will accomplish more than just a changed perspective toward the risks presently within our awareness. Because of our expanded scope of personal interest, we will begin to be increasingly aware of catastrophes that occur at much longer intervals than human lifespans have occupied to date. The impacts of major earthquakes and volcano eruptions, recurring ice ages, meteor strikes, and continental drift will begin to become everyday concerns, with far more individuals devoting their time, money, and attention to developing technological solutions to these hitherto larger-than-human-scale catastrophes.

With even more radically lengthened lifespans, humans will be motivated to direct their efforts, including the full thrust of scientific research, toward overcoming the demise of entire solar systems. In the meantime, there would be less tolerance for any pollution that could undermine life expectancies or the long-term sustainability of a technological infrastructure (which, of course, would be necessary for life-extension treatments to continue keeping senescence at bay). Thus, a society of radical life extension will embrace market-generated environmentally friendly technologies, including cleaner energy sources, reuse of raw materials (for instance, as base matter for 3D printing and nanoscale fabrication), and efficient targeting of resources toward their intended purposes (e.g., avoidance of wasted water in sprinkler systems or wasted paper in the office).

When life is long and good, humans move up on the hierarchy of needs. Not starving today ceases to be a worry, as does not getting murdered tomorrow. The true creativity of human faculties can then be directed toward addressing the grand, far more interesting and technologically demanding, challenges of our existence on this Earth.

Some might worry that increased aversion to physical risk would dampen human creativity and discourage people from undertaking the kinds of ambitious and audacious projects that are needed for technological breakthroughs to emerge and spread. However, aversion to physical risk does not entail aversion to other kinds of risk – social, economic, or political. Indeed, social rejection or financial ruin are not nearly as damaging to a person with millennia ahead of him as they are to a person with just a few decades of life left. A person who tries to run an innovative business and fails can spend a few decades earning back the capital needed to start again.

Today, few entrepreneurs have that second chance. Most do not even have a first chance, as the initial capital needed for a groundbreaking enterprise is often colossal. Promising ideas and a meritorious character do not guarantee one a wealthy birth, and thus even the best innovators must often start with borrowed funds – a situation that gives them little room to explore the possibilities and amplifies their ruin if they fail.  The long-lived entrepreneurs in a world of indefinite life extension would tend to earn their own money upfront and gradually go into business for themselves as they obtain the personal resources to do so. This kind of steady, sustainable entry into a line of work allows for a multitude of iterations and experiments that maximize the probability of a breakthrough.

Alongside the direct benefits of living longer and the indirect benefits of the virtues cultivated thereby, indefinite life extension will also produce less stressful lives for most. The less probability there is of dying or becoming seriously injured or ill, the easier one can breathe as one pursues day-to-day endeavors of self-improvement, enjoyment, and productive work.

The less likely a failure is to rob one of opportunities forever, the more likely humans will be to pursue the method of iterative learning and to discover new insights and improved techniques through a beneficent trial-and-error process, whose worst downsides will have been curtailed through technology and ethics. Life extension will lead us to avoid and eliminate the risks that should not exist, while enabling us to safely pursue the risks that could benefit us if approached properly.

Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II) is an actuary, science-fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov regularly produces YouTube Videos discussing life extension, libertarianism, and related subjects.



COMMENTS

I’ve always wondered if a high technology society would utilize virtual reality more to alleviate risks.  It is a well known paradigm that we are in more danger in our home from domestic violence than we are outside of it from other causes.  Furthermore, we are in more danger from our neighbors than from strangers.

Since, in a high technology society, the individual gains the ability to destroy the group, the only long term strategy appears to be to vet each individual who has autonomy, and to grant autonomy only to the most trusted individuals, while the rest are either carefully monitored, or perhaps housed in a cocoon of virtual reality.  Act virtuously in virtual reality (when unaware that it isn’t “real”), then you gain a measure of autonomy in the “real” world.

BTW, I believe a good number of my fellow citizens have a very poor grasp of risk.  What they fear isn’t bore out by the statistics as that dangerous, while what they accept without question are grave existential risks.  Perhaps they will grow up, or perhaps there is no hope for them and they will be dragged kicking and screaming to a safer world, like a child by his parent.

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