Who Wants to Live Forever?

My coworkers found some online test that asks you bunch of questions about you health, lifestyle and habits and then tells you how long are you going to live. Everyone was taking it, and then bragging and/or bickering about how much longer they are going to be around than everyone else. So you had people walking around the office and asking:

“So, how log are you going to live?”

I told them that my plan is to live forever. Well, not forever. I mean, you can’t live forever, because entropy is a bitch who ruins everything, and whenever we try to figure out how to reverse it there is insufficient data for a meaningful answer. So we probably won’t crack that one, but if I’m lucking I want to be around when humanity huddles around the last dying star, sharing stories of how awesome this universe used to be back in the day. Or at least, that’s what I would like. Chances are that we will probably not discover a fix to the aging problem while I’m alive but one could always hope, no?

“But you can’t live forever. Nothing lives forever.”

Bullshit, Turritopsis Nutricula jellyfish lives forever. And if one species can do it, there probably isn’t a biological reason why a similar mechanism could not be applied to another. The way I see it (biologists, feel free to yell at me for oversimplifying things or being flat out wrong) but aging is sort of an evolutionary “advantage” that was selected for very early in the history of life on Earth. Cells have a hard coded division limit which prevent them from multiplying indefinitely. This is a fail-safe mechanism that prevents cells with broken or malformed DNA from running amok and ruining the whole neighborhood. When something goes wrong with that fail-safe, you get what we call a tumor. So in the most overly simplistic terms, cancer is basically bunch of rogue cells saying “fuck your laws and regulations, I’m going to be fruitful, multiply and live forever!”.

So, technically aging can be stopped in reversed. It is just a matter of figuring out how to apply whatever mechanism the damn jellyfish are using, to more complex animals. I’m sure it won’t be easy, but I have faith in science. In fact I think the only thing holding us back at this point are the anti-intellectual assholes who claim that science somehow does not agree with their culture, ethnicity or religion and thus they choose to ignore and/or boycott it. Well, that and folks like me who are just to lazy to meaningfully contribute. Yes, I’m part of the problem. I should be getting my PHD, and doing AI research, but instead I sit here playing video games and reading SF books about singularity rather than making it happen in real life.

So after I give people a crash course on singularity, they think for a second and go on with question among the lines of:

“But how would that work? Wouldn’t you get overpopulation?”

Well, not necessarily. You have to keep in mind that we have such a thing as demographic-economic paradox according to which birth rates are inversely proportional to given regions overall welfare and economic wealth. Rich, educated and well off countries tend to end up with aging populations. If and when we figure out this whole immortality thing, it will probably be introduced in those countries first and they probably won’t just drop everything and start making babies. After all, most people are done with the whole parenting business after one or two kids. And if it becomes possible to rewind your biological clock, people will become much more choosier about who they reproduce with. So likely there would be no population explosion – rather a slow population creep. Which is still undesirable, but we can fix that too. Since we are disabling aging, we probably be able to disable fertility as well. I mean, most people will probably realize that you can’t have a cake and eat it too – if you want to live forever, you have to stop churning out babies every 9 months. Those who do not comprehend it will have to be somehow coerced into getting their proverbial shit together – likely with fees, sanctions or even mandatory sterilization for habitual offenders. Anyways, handling this mess will be a problem for lawyers, lawmakers and sociologists. There is no point in denying ourselves something as awesome as immortality just because some folks might refuse to stop all the baby making. Lets first invent an aging cure and worry about overpopulation later.

“But who would want to live forever?”

Who wouldn’t? I mean are you seriously going to sit here and tell me you would get bored of living? Sure, if you talk to elderly people they will usually tell you they have lived a full life, and that they have come to terms with death. But I’m willing to bet that most if not all of them would instantly jump at a chance to live another 20 or 30 years in good health. Yes, you can probably get bored of here and now – but there is no reason to stay in one place doing one thing for a whole eternity. We already have a very mobile workforce in most developed countries. Immortals would probably move around every few decades to shake things up. Move to a new place, pick up a new profession, go back to school and learn something new, etc..

I really think that the people who think they would get tired of living, are the same folks who are terrified of having free time. I guess their minds are just not wired to comprehend stuff like, you know – fun and being a master of your own destiny. But even if you are one of those sad cases, and a concept of living for an eternity fills you with unspeakable dread, I don’t see why would you want to deny everyone else that option. I mean, I doubt anyone would force you to stop aging. I’m sure people would respect your wish to wither away and die.

I usually tell people to read Down and Out in Magic Kingdom and Turncat to see how a theoretical society of immortals could work. If nothing, then just to glimpse Cory Doctorows unique insight onto this problem: people who do not want to live forever will eventually die out and become extinct. It’s true – think about it.

Let’s say some demographics will refuse anti-aging treatments on religious or cultural grounds. What will happen to them? They will get old and die, while you and your friends continue enjoying your apparent-20-something looks. Their children will grow up in a world in which aging is something you choose to do, rather than a force of nature. Perhaps they will continue respect the values of their parents and choose to die young, but at least some will probably break away and pick immortality instead. No matter how strong their religious or moral convictions, their numbers will likely continue decreasing with each generation. Eventually you will end up with tiny packets of these people – maybe small towns, or neighborhoods which will end up being tourist attractions. People will actually go there to “politely” gawk at the elderly, because they won’t be able to see them anywhere else.

But of course this is just a tip of the iceberg. You have to realize that eventually we might figure out a way to digitize human consciousness which will likely remove the sticky problems of breeding, overpopulation, resources and even life-weariness. Eventually people might actually be able to migrate from the physical world into some virtual environment, offering them existence that lies beyond our wildest imagination. Imagine worlds that defy laws of physics, imagine being able to share information faster and more efficiently than before, imagine being able to meld minds with your loved ones, and share bond that is deeper and more intimate than anything than we can imagine right now. Right now, ancient wisdom tells us that every man is an island. That every man dies alone in the end. But we can fix that. Both the dying part and the alone part.

Do you ever get into these sorts of conversations?

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13 Responses to Who Wants to Live Forever?

  1. Rob UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    Sign me up. I don’t want to die!

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  2. Zeke Innovia UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows says:

    The aspect of immortality. i can say that once they come up with that, you have to realize, that the method of becoming immortal for the jellyfish, is the equivilant of becoming a fetus again. it would work for plants, but i can say, its basically reincarnation. you wouldn’t keep you rmemories and skills, and would be a whole new person each time around, just look the same. give me some input on this

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Zeke Innovia:

    I guess we would reverse engineer the procedure, figure out what it does to a cell, then apply it locally without full reversal or damaging existing cell interactions. I’m guessing the jellyfish does this to properly “reboot” all the cells and make sure it is not accumulating transcription errors, and etc. The actual rejuvenation though – that’s likely a matter of flipping some biological switches, replacing certain substances, and tweaking cell chemistry.

    Now that I think about it, accumulated DNA transcription errors would be a problem – but we can worry about that later. Once we will have rejuvenation technology in place, it ought to be relatively simple to devise some error checking procedure.

    That said, this would actually be a great idea for a story or a movie: a whole society of Benjamin Buttons. People age to a certain point, then reverse age and so on. They could potentially use digital backups to store their memories and personalities and then flash-bake them on their next iteration once they reach a certain age.

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  4. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I’m fairly certain that immortality is achievable. Though religious fundamentalists scare me, who knows what will happen if a cure for death was presented. They might go batshit crazy, even crazier than they already are, and wage a war against immortals. Not to mention that being idiot is good for political career, so we might see laws against such research.

    P.S. One problem I have with immortality is that if it was still possible to die from accident or murder. Then all the immortals would become a bunch of pussies, because they would have much more to lose.

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  5. Tino UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    I’ll present ‘Quantum Suicide and Immortality’ for your consideration. In short, if the many worlds theory is correct, all events split the world into multiple copies. “You” are just one of the copies of you in one of those branches. However, you cannot find yourself in branches where your consciousness is eradicated. Hence, for you, there will be no event that leads to your death.

    And that is how I plan to survive.

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  6. /me sees a “down and out in the magic kingdom” book review coming. ;)

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  7. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’m also convinced a cure for mortality will be found at some point, but I don’t share your altruistic views of humanity. After becoming immortal, your life span is limited by the point at which the universe dies out, at maximum entropy. As a whole, (immortal) humanity’s primary concern would be to make that point as far into the future as possible.

    Now, it’s fairly obvious that human activity is generating entropy (by using natural resources and such). Human-related entropy creation is small compared to the rest of the universe (stars…), but it’s still creating some. Take an immortal human. He will create entropy for the rest of his life, which is the universe’s life, all of which could have been avoided or delayed. Therefore, the more immortal humans there are, the faster entropy is being created. You could say that each new immortal being robs all of the others of some of their life span.

    What would be the natural instinct of the first immortal beings ? Prevent others from becoming immortal, or enforce a very strict selective pattern so that only “worthy” individuals, people who would actually do AI research instead of playing video games, are allowed to live forever and contribute. You’d better start working on that PHD ;).

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  8. copperfish Opera Linux Terminalist says:

    I’m with Zel on this one. Immortality is possible but not necessarily desirable. I envision a stagnation of “immortal” society and with that the loss of innovation and ideas. Not a good thing. Of course, given the chance I’d give it a go. If it doesn’t work out I could always commit suicide.

    Then again, if we are talking “singularity” and “post-human” my viewpoint is probably irrelevant to judging human behaviour.

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    Yes, but as I’d mentioned, religious fundamentalism would likely dwindle in numbers and be rendered benign within a few generations. The alternative would just be too tempting. I mean, the choice will really boil down to this: do you want to watch your body and mind slowly fall apart, and then die or do you want to live forever like everyone else.

    Unless of course they manage to pass some laws that will forever ban such research. Still, someone will likely develop this technology and the rich and famous folks will just fly out to get their “procedures” done elsewhere – or maybe even move there.

    I think it would be easy to fight this in courts though. I mean, how do you argue against procedure that can “extend human life” or “save lives” without framing it in religious terms? I mean, indefinitely extending human life is perfectly ok if you use secular ethic and morality. I think the separation of church and state may help here – at least in US.

    Besides, most US fundamentalists already believe that they will be whisked to heaven like tomorrow in the event called “the rapture”. So they will be like sitting in traffic, or taking a dump and *boom* instant heaven. And it is always supposed to happen like next Wednesday, or maybe 3 months from now. So since they are getting raptured into heaven anyway maybe they won’t mind extending their life a bit.

    As for the pussification: this is not necessarily true. I mean, I doubt it would really change how people behave. I mean, we live much longer than our ancestors did thanks to all the advances in the medical field, but are we bigger pussies than them?

    @ Tino:

    Actually, I like the Anathem interpretation: you are all of these copies at the same time. :)

    @ Travis McCrea:

    I actually read it back in 2005, but never wrote a review. I did review Someone Comes to Tow, Someone Leaves Town though.

    @ Zel:

    Good point, though I bet that the barrier to entry will be wealth rather than merit. I think immortality will be initially reserved for the rich and famous, then maybe for the top scientific minds. And not because of some concern about entropy but likely because of profits and power.

    I mean it will be like the spice. If you control the technology, you can control the people that rely on it – which will be big movers and shakers of this world.

    @ copperfish:

    Stagnation is a very good point. We would stop evolving as a species and our genome would pretty much become frozen in the current form forever. We would probably have to tweak it manually every few centuries to adjust to changing conditions.

    I’m not sure about mental stagnation though. I imagine people would sort of re-invent themselves every once in a whole. Move, change profession, adopt a new lifestyle. Some people would get tired of life and decide to die. Others would have and raise children who could add new ideas to the pool.

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  10. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Pussification is true. Comparing extending lifetime by several decades and forever is stupid. If I could live forever I would run the hell out at the slightest danger. I hope immortality comes with cyborg body included. :)

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  11. Luke, whats funny — I actually didn’t see you mention Down and Out the first time I read this entry, I was just thinking of the book (secretly, I think you added that part in after I commented, because I think I would have noticed ;) ).

    Anyway, I wasn’t a big fan, I only like his later novels.

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  12. Andrew Zimmerman UNITED STATES Google Chrome Windows Terminalist says:

    or even mandatory sterilization for habitual offenders

    Lols. Nazi killin time. /me grabs guns.

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  13. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Andrew Zimmerman:

    What… I don’t even… Foot in mouth.

    Anyways, now that everyone thinks I’m a horrible person I’d like to clarify that I was not trying to advocate forcible sterilizations. I think I (stupidly) mentioned it as one of the options lawmakers of the future may potentially to consider (and hopefully reject), but it came out wrong. Sigh…

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