IEET > Fellows > David Brin > HealthLongevity
Do We Really Want Immortality?

Suppose you had a chance to question an ancient Greek or Roman—or any of our distant ancestors, for that matter. Let’s say you asked them to list the qualities of a deity.

It’s a pretty good bet that many of the “god-like” traits he or she described might seem trivial nowadays.

 

After all, we think little of flying through the air. We fill pitch-dark areas with sudden lavish light, by exerting a mere twitch of a finger. Average folks routinely send messages or observe events taking place far across the globe. Copious and detailed information about the universe is readily available through crystal tubes many of us keep on our desks and command like genies. Some modern citizens can even hurl lightning, if we choose to annoy our neighbors and the electric company.

Few of us deem these powers to be miraculous, because they’ve been acquired by nearly everyone in prosperous nations. After all, nobody respects a gift if everybody has it. And yet, these are some of the very traits that earlier generations associated with divine beings.

Even so, we remain mortal.

Our obsession with that fate is as intense as it was in the time of Gilgamesh. Perhaps more, since we overcame so many other obstacles that thwarted our ancestors.

Will our descendants conquer the last barriers standing between humanity and Olympian glory? Or may we encounter hurdles too daunting even for our brilliant, arrogant, ingenious and ever-persevering species?

              Human Lifespan

Here’s the safest prediction for the next 100 years—that mortality will be a major theme. Assuming we don’t blow up the world, or fall into some other catastrophic failure mode, human beings will inevitably focus on using advanced technology to cheat death.

Already the fruits of science and the Industrial Age give billions unprecedented hope of living out their full natural spans—one of the chief reasons that our planetary population has expanded so. While it’s true that these benefits still aren’t fairly or evenly distributed, an unprecedentedly large fraction of Earth’s inhabitants have grown up without any first-hand experience of plague or mass starvation. That rising percentage curve is more encouraging than the images you see on the 6 O’clock News, though it offers cold comfort to those still languishing in poverty.

Suppose, through a mix of compassion, creativity and good luck, we complete the difficult transition and manage to spread this happy situation to everyone across the globe, solving countless near-term crises along the way. Will future generations take a full life span as much for granted as modern Americans do?

Of course they will… and complain there’s nothing natural about an eighty- or ninety-year time limit on the adventure and enjoyment of life.

Many proposed methods of life-extension have come up for discussion:

Lifestyle adjustment
Intervention and Repair
Genetic Solutions
Waiting for better times
Transcendence

The first of these, lifestyle adjustment, would seem to offer surefire immediate rewards. After all, most of the increase in average lifespan we’ve seen in recent centuries came from nothing more complicated than proper diet and hygiene.

But that statistical boost is deceptive! It was achieved by increasing the fraction of babies who make it all the way to the borderlands of vigorous old age. This had little to do with pushing back the boundary itself; the realm that we call “elderly” still hovers somewhere near the biblical three score and ten.

Do all animal species have built-in expiration timers? Some fish and reptiles may not, but most creatures—and especially mammals—do seem to have an inner clock that triggers every individual’s decline to frailty after the middle years of fight-flight-and-reproduction run their course.

Mice and elephants lead very different lives—one slow and ponderous, the other manic and fleeting—yet rodents and pachyderms share the same pervasive pattern of aging. Individuals who survive the perils of daily life, from disease to predators, inevitably begin declining after they go through about half a billion heartbeats. (Elephants live much longer than mice, but their hearts also beat far slower, so the total allotment stays about the same.)

The same holds true across nearly all mammalian species. Few live to celebrate their billionth pulse. No one knows quite what this coincidence signifies. Moreover, the program isn’t quite rigid. In laboratories around the world, researchers have lately discovered exciting ways to slow the senescence timer—at least in mice and fruit flies—largely by keeping the test creatures hungry. By giving them nutritious but restricted diets, or by delaying sexual reproduction, researchers report in some cases doubling the usual lifespan.

As you might expect, quite a few human enthusiasts are now eagerly applying these lessons from the lab, limiting the calories they eat or forbearing sex, hoping to extend their own lifespans through judicious abstinence. Alas, the results achieved so far—such as a slight reduction in heart disease—have been disappointingly slim.

After a little reflection, this should come as no surprise. Across history, many civilizations have fostered ascetic movements, sometimes in large colonies where dedicated individuals lived spartan, abstemious lives. After four millennia of these experiments, wouldn’t we have noticed by now if swarms of spry, 200-year old monks were capering across the countryside?

There may be a good reason why simple life-style changes work in animals, but not us.

Remember that billion heartbeat limit that seems to confine all mammals, from shrews to giraffes? It’s a pretty neat correlation, until you ponder the chief exception.

Us.

Most mammals our size and weight are already fading away by age twenty or so, when humans are just hitting their stride. By eighty, we’ve had about three billion heartbeats! That’s quite a bonus.

How did we get so lucky?

Biologists figure that our evolving ancestors needed drastically extended lifespans, because humans came to rely on learning rather than instinct to create sophisticated, tool-using societies. That meant children needed a long time to develop. A mere two decades weren’t long enough for a man or woman to amass the knowledge needed for complex culture, let alone pass that wisdom on to new generations. (In fact, chimps and other apes share some of this lifespan bonus, getting about half as many extra heartbeats.)

So evolution rewarded those who found ways to slow the aging process. Almost any trick would have been enlisted, including all the chemical effects that researchers have recently stimulated in mice, through caloric restriction. In other words, we’ve probably already incorporated all the easy stuff! We’re the mammalian Methuselahs and little more will be achieved by asceticism or other drastic life-style adjustments. Good diet and exercise will help you get your eighty years. But to gain a whole lot more lifespan, we’re going to have to get technical.

So what about intervention and repair?

Are your organs failing? Grow new ones, using a culture of your own cells!

Are your arteries clogged? Send tiny nano-robots coursing through your bloodstream, scouring away plaque! Use tuned masers to break the excess intercell linkages that make flesh less flexible over time.

Install little chemical factories to synthesize and secrete the chemicals that your own glands no longer adequately produce. Brace brittle bones with ceramic coatings, stronger than the real thing!

In fact, we are already doing many of these things, in early-primitive versions. So there is no argument over whether such techniques will appear in coming decades, only how far they will take us.

Might enough breakthroughs coalesce at the same time to let us routinely offer everybody triple-digit spans of vigorous health? Or will these complicated interventions only add more digits to the cost of medical care, while struggling vainly against the same age-barrier in a frustrating war of diminishing returns?

I’m sure it will seem that way for the first few decades of the next century… until, perhaps, everything comes together in a rush. If that happens—if we suddenly find ourselves able to fix old age—there will surely be countless unforeseen consequences… and one outcome that’s absolutely predictable.

We’ll start taking that miracle for granted, too.

On the other hand, it may not work as planned. Many scientists suggest that attempts at intervention and repair will ultimately prove futile, because senescence and death are integral parts of our genetic nature. After all, from a purely biological point of view, we individuals are merely the grist of evolution, here to strive, compete and reproduce, if we can.

If our australopithecine ancestors had been ageless immortals, wouldn’t that have bollixed the cruelly creative process of natural selection that produced us? Biologists who believe in the intrinsic genetic clock say we should be grateful for those three billion heartbeats. After that, the best service we can do for our grandchildren is to get out of their way.

Other experts disagree. They think the “clock” is a mere coincidence, having to do with steadily accumulating errors in our cells. In particular, they point to telomeres—little chemical caps protecting the ends of our chromosomes—which wear away with time until the sheltering layer vanishes and grave erosion starts affecting the vulnerable DNA strands, instead. This gradual chemical deterioration simulates a destiny clock, though some researchers hope it might be halted, if we learn the right medical and biochemical tricks.

Whichever side is right about the nature and evolutionary origins of the aging clock, there are no obvious reasons why human beings can’t or won’t meddle with its programming, once we fully grasp how cell and genome work. Even if such tools come too late for today’s generation, intervention may help our descendants to live longer, healthier lives.

Long life may be just one of the benefits to spill from our rising pot of knowledge. Suppose we learn to emulate achievements of other Earthly species… say, hibernation. Might that bring us closer to another age-old dream, travel to the stars?

Hibernation, or suspended life, would also be a great way to travel forward through time. To see the future. Which brings up yet another way that some people think they can cheat death: by setting off on a one-way journey from our primitive era, hoping to emerge when civilization has solved many of the problems discussed here.

So far, our sole hope for such a voyage to the far-off future—is cryonics, the practice of freezing a terminal patient’s body, after he or she has been declared legally dead. Some of those who sign up for this service take the cheap route of having only their heads prepared and stored in liquid nitrogen, under the assumption that folks in the Thirtieth Century will simply grow fresh bodies on demand. Their logic is expressed with chilling rationality. “The real essence of who I am is the software contained in my brain. My old body—the hardware—is just meat.”

Polls show that a majority of citizens today perceive cryonics enthusiasts as kooky, perhaps even a bit grotesque with their Frankensteinian interest in dead bodies. In fact, I share some of this skepticism, though perhaps for different reasons.

Suppose future generations can grow new bodies on demand, and are able to transfer something like your original consciousness out of a frozen, damaged brain. It remains to be seen why they would want to.

Anyway, today’s cryo-storage process is messy, complex, legally shaky, and expensive. Wouldn’t any reasonable person—one worthy of revival—dedicate a lifetime’s accumulated resources to helping their children and posterity, instead of splurging it all on a chancy, self-important gamble for personal immortality?

And yet, cryonics devotees keep plugging away at their dream, refining their techniques, finding new ways to store brains with less damage and at lower cost—in much the same way that past generations of putterers strove to develop machines that could fly. The funny thing is that we may never know when they cross a threshold and finally do manage to freeze somebody well enough to be revived at a future time. All that’s certain is that the techno-zealots will go on trying. They see Death as a palpable enemy that can ultimately be defeated, like so many others we’ve overcome during our long ascent.

Is there some point at which cryonic storage would become so simple—so convenient and cheap—that you would shrug and say “sign me up”? Suppose it took a thousand-dollar annex to your insurance policy? A hundred dollars? Five bucks?

What would you do differently then, in your daily life, to help ensure that future generations will feel kindly toward you? Perhaps even kindly enough to want your primitive company. Would you additionally sponsor cryo-storage for half a dozen poor people? Or donate part of your fortune to endeavors that help make a better, richer (and therefore more generous) future world? Would you work hard to raise descendants worth bragging about? Or were you already planning to do most of those things, anyway?

Some people who sign up for storage believe their bank accounts alone—set up to earn dividends until some future era—will suffice to make them worthy of being thawed, repaired, and given full corporeal citizenship in a coming age of wonders.

Somehow, I wouldn’t give that bet anything like sure odds, no matter how many technological barriers future people overcome.

There is a final category of ways that people think they can cheat death. It falls under a single word—transcendence.

Throughout history, countless philosophers and devout believers have yearned to rise above the whole megillah of normal human existence—all the hungers, pangs, neuroses, fears, and limitations of brain and body—by transporting some internal essence—consciousness or the soul—to a plane of existence far greater and nobler than we perceive as mere ignorant Homo sapiens. This ever-present drive propelled a wide range of contradictory dogmas and creeds on all continents. But even amid such diversity there were certain common themes. All those hopes, yearnings and strivings focused on the spiritual—the notion that humans may achieve a higher state through prayer, moral behavior, or mental discipline.

In the last couple of centuries, however, a fourth track to the next plane has gained supporters—‘techno-transcendentalism.’ Under this variation, disciples hope to achieve an agreeable new level of existence by means of knowledge and skill. They feel we can transform human beings—and human nature—through the tools of technology and science.

Whether this attitude represents the worst sort of irreligious hubris, or should be viewed as a natural stage in our adolescent development, is ripe for extensive and wide-ranging discussion… at another time perhaps. For now though, let’s focus only on how it applies to human lifespan.

According to some techno-transcendentalists, “growing new bodies” will seem like child’s play in the future. Many of them eagerly predict a time, sooner than you think, when we’ll all plug into computer-mediated artificial worlds where the old animal-limitations will simply vanish. By “downloading” ourselves into vast simulated realms, we may become effectively immortal, breaking the tyrannical hold of mere fleshy cells and evolutionary “clocks.” In this way, deathlessness of the spirit might be achieved by technologically savvy, rather than moral merit.

If the boosters of this kind of transcendence are right, every other kind of “immortality” will prove obsolete. In fact, nearly all of our modern concerns will seem about as relevant as a Neolithic hunter roaming downtown Manhattan, worrying about finding enough flint nodules to chip into spear points.

              Wise Enough to be Immortal?

All right, what if one of them finally works? All too often, we find that solving one problem only leads to others, sometimes even more vexing.

A number of eminent writers like Robert Heinlein, Greg Bear, Kim Stanley Robinson and Gregory Benford have speculated on possible consequences, should Mister G. Reaper ever be forced to hang up his scythe and seek other employment. For example, if the Death Barrier comes crashing down, will we be able to keep shoehorning new humans into a world already crowded with earlier generations? Or else, as envisioned by author John Varley, might such a breakthrough demand draconian population-control measures, limiting each person to one direct heir per lifespan?

What if overcoming death proves expensive? Shall we return to the ancient belief, common in some cultures, that immortality is reserved for the rich and mighty? Nancy Kress has written books that vividly foresee a time when the teeming poor resent rich immortals. In contrast, author Joe Haldeman suggested simple rules of social engineering that may help keep such a prize within reach by all.

More people could wind up dying by violence and accidents than old age. Might we then start to hunker down in our homes, preserving our long-but-frail lives by avoiding all risk? Or would ennui drive the long-lived to seek new thrills, like extreme sports, bringing death back out of retirement in order to add spice to an otherwise-dull eternity?

Such changes may already be underway as we enter an era some call the “Empire of the Old.” Each year, retirement hobbies drive ever-larger portions of the economy, foretelling vigor by an active elderly population—a wholesome trend portrayed in Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire and my own The Transparent Society. On the down side, the power of older voters can terrorize politicians and warp allocation of resources. Sensible proposals to raise the retirement age by some fraction of the lifespan increase, are quashed by waves of irate and uncompromising self-interest. It’s a worrisome trend for any society to rank generous retirement supplements higher than good schools for its young. No such civilization can long endure.

What will happen when the elderly outnumber all others? This may soon appear less than far-fetched in countries like Japan, where restrictive immigration policies help ensure and accelerate the aging trend.

Even problems that seem far-off and speculative today may become critical when people live beyond a twelfth decade. For example, is there a limit to the number of memories that a human brain can store?

On a more fundamental level, are we about to insist, once again, that contemporary humanity is wise enough to overrule all of Nature’s checks and balances?

(The answer to that one is simple… of course we’ll insist! We always do.)

These are among the serious questions and quandaries we may face, perhaps sooner than you think. That is, I hope we face them, for they are the sort of predicaments generated by success.

But then, that’s how it always has been. If we leave our descendants a better world, they will take the good parts for granted and fume over consequences we never foresaw.

It is a pattern typical of adolescence, and one more clue that our adventure has barely begun.

[originally appeared in AOL’s Online Magazine iPlanet as part three of a series commissioned specifically to discuss the new Millennium.]

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."



COMMENTS

“Let me be honest with you, my friends, I am against death. My opinion on this subject is not complicated, I think it is bad. Sometimes life doesn’t have to be complicated. What does two plus two equal? Four. What does two plus two really, ultimately, truly equal? Four. It’s still four even if you speak the question in a deep pretentious tone of voice. There’s this tendency to think that if you speak a question in a sufficiently pretentious tone of voice that it requires this clever counter-intuitive answer, which a lot of things don’t…

So…Life is good, death is bad, health is good, sickness is bad, if you can live to 70 years, living to 80 years is better, living to 500 years is even better, living to 1 million years is even better than that, and when people ask me “but would you want to live forever” I say “Well I don’t really know, forever’s a long time” “Pick any finite number you like, forever is longer than that” I don’t know if it’s physically possible, the current laws of physics say no. We may not know the laws of physics but have no particular reason to believe that the unknown variables will work in our favor rather than against us. But nonetheless you know if I could live forever I would. I want to live one more day, tomorrow I will still want to live one more day, therefore I want to live forever proof by induction on the positive integers”

-Eliezer Yudkowsky

Cryonics won’t work because even in a frozen body, electrons are quantum tunneling. When your body is functional, molecules are used, transformed, recycled and dumped so the effects of tunneling are largely under control. In a frozen body, there is no biological counter-measure so molecules are breaking down and this is especially true in small, fragile structures such as axons and synapses. After a few years, the frozen brain becomes a mess that’s behond any hope of repairing.

The only possible “solution” would be to use the frozen brain as a physical 3D “snapshot”, scan it with a very, very high-resolution MRI (that we haven’t invented yet), down to the width of a single synapse, and then use the huge amount of information gathered to either “3D-bioprint” a repaired model of this biological brain, or extract the neural map (which should reduce the volume of information by a factor of at least a one-to-a-billion) for archiving or simulation, or convert the brain map to another substrate (eg if we have bio-silicon circuits or other non-meat substrates to run neuronal circuitry without emulation).

So to resume the solutions:
- scan, correct and re-create the biological brain
- scan, correct, create the neuronal map, and emulate the brain in a server
- scan, correct, convert and run the brain on a different substrate

And since our personality, mental process and emotions also depend on the subtle interactions between our brain and our hormons, organs and body in general, we souldn’t under-estimate the amount of “our-self” we might lose in such a process.

In any case, the sci-fi meme of the “unfrozen guy who discovers the far future” is highly doubtful.

- Hugo Dufort

Alan E. Nourse wrote a series of short stories that culminated with humanity rejecting immortality as the final test to join the Galactic Alliance. The premise was that immortals would lose motivation and never achieve anything because they would have the time to make sure everything was perfect.

I think this is a bit simplistic, but there is something to the argument that death is one motivator for us to go out and do stuff. If we were immortal we would have to take a hard look at what gives us the impetus to try new things. Boredom is a poor motivator since it leads to lethargy or extreme risk taking.

“Suppose future generations can grow new bodies on demand, and are able to transfer something like your original consciousness out of a frozen, damaged brain. It remains to be seen why they would want to.”

They’ll want to for all the same reasons genealogy is so popular already.

“In the last couple of centuries, however, a fourth track to the next plane has gained supporters—‘techno-transcendentalism.’ Under this variation, disciples hope to achieve an agreeable new level of existence by means of knowledge and skill. They feel we can transform human beings—and human nature—through the tools of technology and science.”

This is a couple centuries old only if defined narrowly. Defined more broadly, this is as ancient as ritual.

immortality = Clarence Thomas a Supreme Court justice for the rest of eternity.

 

 

Not if an immortal moves off the Earth: no Clarence Thomases on Mars; perhaps a Charlie Sheen or two, but no Clarence Thomas.

I like this article.  I think you bring up some good points about cryonics, and life extension in general.

While I have not signed up for cryonics, I consider myself an enthusiast and I may consider signing up for the process at some point.  While I am optimistic, I am not unrealistic about the hopes of cryonics.

Any person having their remains frozen, at this point in time, has extremely poor chances of ever being revitalized.  The technology may take too long to perfect.  Your remains may be destroyed through some bizarre turn of events or prolonged exposure to cold.  The human race may destroy itself or become enslaved by “Our Robot Overlords.”

But, I think that a more important consideration is, “Why?”  Why would future civilizations be interested in reviving us?  Do we think that, assuming the future will be filled with enlightened intellectuals, anyone will be interested in reviving long dead humans; with our bitterness and neurotic quirks (such as a desire for immortality).  I strive to be optimistic but, I realize that my political leanings and my penchant for Cajun Rice & Beans may not fit in well with the landscape.

Will scientists in the future rather work with a blank slate when creating life?  Would scientists of today want to revive a frozen Neanderthal to have someone to party with (see Encino Man)?

We do not have any clue as to what future generations will want.  And, if there are some of us who are “re-awakened”, there is no way of knowing what the future will be like.  Will human psychology, for better or worse, remain the same over time?  Post-gender societies, brain implants, heads permanently kept alive in jars (a la Futurama).  There is the possibility of waking up in a world that we just do not fit into.

Cryonics is a big wager on “Maybe.”  If the Singularity is the Rapture of the Nerds, then Cryonics is the “Pascal’s Wager of the Nerds.”  Wagering on the possibility of seeing the future.  After all, if your head is frozen and you never come back, what have you lost (aside from money)?

While there may be possibilities for radical life extension, I do not think that individuals will “Live Forever.”  If you find yourself awakened in the future by some altruistic or fool-hearty scientist you may have to become something else in order to survive.  The original “You” may not go on.  Perhaps some other version of “You” will go on.

Is a brain upload really you?  Is a reconstructed brain really you?  Are the written works of Poe really Poe?  Making the copy better does not imply continuity of individuality.  But it gives an individual a better shot of participating in the future.

If we’re lucky, we will be able to pass on something to the future.  We have our genes and our memes.  Right now, all we have is today.  But here’s to “Maybe.”

The thing that bothers me about the immortality that most people here talk about is that if any immortal gets tired of life they only way they can achieve death is via suicide, assisted or otherwise (unless their robotic bodies are hit with an emp or their tech starts eroding or overheating due to poor maintenance).  Concerning Cryonics, I’ve always though that is was a form of induced hibernation.  Guess it more complicated than that (like everything in reality is).  BTW, I doubt their will be many future generations if immortality is achieved by people of this or the next generation.

@Alex The sense of urgency created by the prospect of death can also be counterproductive. It keeps us all trapped in an adrenalin-charged emergency mode, which inhibits creative, wonder and exploration. Children don’t need fear of death to want to go out and do stuff.

I think Christian’s critique about suicide being the only way to escape is more relevant. Not that I am against assisted suicide, but it’s difficult decision to make. There are workarounds, however.

In a way, what both of you seem to be saying is that there’s a risk that we could become like the immortals in time. We don’t need to become like the immortals in In Time. I agree it’s possible, but again, there are workarounds.

Then again, why *should* we want to be immortal?  Why should we identify with our future selves at all?

Saw this comic and thought of this discussion.

http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/cryogenics.png

@ Peter Wicks

Can you explain what those “workarounds” are?

@Christian Yes, “workarounds” was a bit glib! What I basically meant was that there must be better ways to prevent or deal with people, being “tired of life” than accepting the “inevitability” of mortality. From genetic engineering through pharmaceuticals, better entertainment, mindfulness, even religion! The thing is to understand *why* people are tired of life. If you’re in good health, are blessed with a genetic predisposition to be happy, have good relationships, interesting projects and so on, then why should you be bored?

Put it another way: if you come across a 20-year old who is “tired of life” (there are plenty of them after all, it’s called depression), do you advise them to kill themselves? So why should we be opposed to immortality in general on this basis? If we can figure out how to reverse the ageing process, we should be able to figure out how to cure depression, right?

By the way, the obvious answer my own question “Why should we identify with our future selves?” is “because it’s what we naturally do”. But things get blurred when one is considering the far future, where we might be making uploaded copies of ourselves or building such direct connections between our different brains (and other computers) that are whoe sense of identity is drastically modified. And then there is of course that counterweight to our self-preservation instinct, the wish to merge, to transcend, to surrender…perhaps even to die.

Oh, and another workaround is to make it easier for people to choose their own death. That’s going to be possible in various ways: if you can convince people to become suicide bombers, then you can help people who are tired of life to draw the obvious operational conclusion. The question is not so much whether it’s feasible as whether it’s desirable. (as Jung says to Otto Gross in A Dangerous Method: “surely that’s not what we want for our patients”.

I think my own position on this is as follows. I’m not sure how hard we should be trying to pursue immortality. At this stage doing so looks a bit too much like an unhealthy clinging to life. At this stage, I think we need to accept our mortality. But to oppose immortality *in principle* is, in my view, a form of suicide. We like to take comfort in what is “natural” (so we accept “dying of natural causes”, but we don’t accept voluntarily killing ourselves), but in the end there is nothing natural about refusing technology that could prevent us from dying, or from ageing. On the contrary, it seems deeply perverse.

If we are going to talk about immortality, then we need to talk about new ways to define the meaning and purpose of life. It really needs to be about more than just not dying. The gods that David talks about got into trouble because they were BORED. Sitting around in paradise will only get you so far before existential ennui sets in and one starts looking for someone to play with. That’s when you start playing games with golden apples or bulls or what have you.

Morality and ethics will shift as well. Ending a life that would have ended anyways is far different from ending a life that is “eternal”.  Relational interaction will change as well since it would be unreasonable to expect relationships of any sort to last forever. (another theme of the early mythologies). Possession of objects and ideas would also be affected as one moves from one relationship to another. The idea of vocation would be very important to consider. How are you going to pay for immortality? The idea of retirement comes from the reality of death. Culturally we have decided that old people should enjoy a few years between work and death. If we don’t die, there is no reason to stop working, especially since retirement plans and pensions are based on time limited pay outs. Do you really want to spend all of eternity working for a living? This would exacerbate the divide between rich and poor.

The question of immortality is not just one of extension or not dying, but existentially what would life mean without death to define its end. (End being used here both in the physical sense of life stopping, but in the ontological sense of the meaning of life.)

I don’t think people who benefit from extreme life extension or immortality won’t necessarily be immortals. We can envision an extended human existence in many different ways. Let’s see:

- “Immortality in a can”: A copy of your intellect and consciousness has been copied into a software routine or emulation substrate. Unfortunately, you are not free to “run” and even when your grandchildren pay for your hosting and you get a few hours of CPU cycles, whatever you are allowed to do is strictly filtered and limited.

- “Fragile immortality”: You are immortal because we can fix your body in all ways possible, but unfortunately we haven’t found a way to copy your brain, backup it or upload it to a computer. Which means you can still die alone and rot, or get “erased” by a laser weapon.

- “Substratequake-prone heaven”: Everybody has been uploaded to a computronium-ish superstructure, but alas, it gets hit by random events. Even though we have redundency, backup areas and recovery protocols, entire cybernations can still get erased in a millisecond when simultaneous catastrophic evens occur. Then, you know, we’ve got a few petabytes of dead URLs to repair and headaches due to reference materials containing dynamic linking to historial stuff that has vanished.

- “Borectomy”: When you are terminally bored, you can get a new name and ID, and all the memories that you cherish the most are deleted. That way, you can re-discover, re-live, re-watch the things that were pleasuring when they were new (and you were “fresh”). Bored couples mutually erase their life together and see if they will fall in love again. Sometimes there are bets.

- “Socially-acceptable SelfDatacide”: Irreversibly erasing data is considered a crime against humanity. You can only kill yourself by donating your consciousness loop and parameters as a generic imprint (for reuse in a “new individual” or for repairing a damaged mind), and having the rest of your mind/brain run as a zombified NPC WalkingArchive.

- “Boredom Treatment”: Boredom is diagnosed as either (1) mental imbalance or dissonance, (2) lack of new interesting goals, (3) clash with social constraints. After assessment by adaptative brainmap heuristics your are either, with your own consent, (1) recalibrated either physically or mentally, (2) given a set of customized goals and the means to attempt to reach them with personal and shared benefits, or (3) transferred to a social area where social rules are different and match your profile. Then it gets interesting.

We can imagine lots of very distinct scenarios!

ps: As you increase the “life expectation in good health” (eg people don’t live the last 30 years of their life going down the slope of disability, dementia, cancer, social isolation, declining capabilities and chronic disease). Just imagine a society where 95% of people live 95% of their whole life in perfect health. The amount of money and resources you free in the medical system. The productivity. The familial benefits (chronic disease, cancer, dementia, aging, etc, are a terrible burden to families). The personal benefits and extended human experience (if you want to learn architecture at 55 years old, you will perhaps make a 30-years long career as an architect). The extra amount of wisdom, knowledge, creativity and innovation that we’ll get. Etc. In a way, a healthy society with healthy individuals is the ultimate social and technological accelerator.

I think this idea that we would be bored if we were immortal says more about our (guilt-driven?) discomfort at the idea than with what would actually happen. I don’t really find that boredom is well correlated with time or familiarity. There are people who have never moved out of their village, and seem quite content, and other people who appear to have had dynamic and varied lives but who have that restlessness and sense of emptiness that we call “boredom”.

hdufort’s scenarios are great, and much more positive and interesting than all the preaching about how we need new ways to define the meaning and purpose of life. We probably need the latter anyway, but not (I would suggest) specifically because of the (sadly remote at this stage, in any case, and notwithstanding the length and unruliness of Aubrey de Grey’s beard) prospect of immortality.

Along the same lines, @Alex why should a relationship not last forever? If we can keep them going for a lifetime (as some of us manage), why not forever?

Peter, I find hdufort scenarios interesting. Three of them are about how we could still “die” even as immortal through misadventure or just wearing out.  The three suggestions about boredom all involve “dying” in some form by giving up some or all consciousness and becoming less than we were, or being “reprogrammed” in some way to not feel bored.

I am certain we will find a way to create meaning in a longer life, but I am also certain that the concept of meaning and purpose will need to look different. That isn’t preaching, that is a statement of opinion.

With the relationship, the challenge would be similar to just living with ourselves forever. In my present mode of consciousness I can’t imagine wanting to. There would be just too much sameness. That doesn’t mean that relationships aren’t possible for the really long term, but that the concept of relationship will be different.

Alex, it’s the assumption that “there would be just too much sameness” that I think is prevalent but possibly flawed. I was thinking about the “borectomy” idea but indeed that seems too much like death. As for relationships, a (gay) friend asked me and another married man a few months ago how we managed to live with one “significant other” for so many years. I told him it’s a question of reinventing our relationship from time to time.

In other words: I think we can arrive at a good compromise between “too much sameness” and deleting all the memories that you cherish. And if it can work over the course of a lifetime, then why not forever (or at least for many times the current human lifespan)?

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