Immortality: Who wants to live forever

I wrote a rather lengthy post on this topic back in October. I don’t want to repeat myself too much but I think I have few things to add to this discussion. In case you don’t feel like back-tracking and reading my old post, here the gist of my point.

Would you like to live forever? I know I would. I have no problem admitting it. I dream of immortality, and I don’t think this is such an uncommon dream. But most people I talk to, do not agree with me. They get all indignant, and tell me how immortality would be a horrible thing for a number of reasons. I find that attitude incredibly silly. What is wrong with these people? Here I am, giving them an offer of potential immortality to consider, and they immediately reject it. They are not willing to even consider experiencing a fantasy of ever-lasting life. What is up with that? How does that happen? Its like their minds had their wings clipped before they learned how to coast on the updrafts of imagination. I think this attitude really holds us back.

The thing about immortality, is that it is technically within our grasp. When I talk about living forever I don’t talk about some silly Highlander fantasy. I talk about hard science. Our current medical knowledge has identified most if not all factors that contribute to senescence at a cellular level. We know approximately how our cells age – how they accumulate damage, and how that damage affects out long lived tissues. Aging is no longer a mystery to us. It is no longer a law of nature. It is a process we can understand, and figure out how to prevent. We can develop therapies that will allow us to repair some of the accumulated cellular damage, or slow it’s accumulation down extending peoples lives by decades. The technology to do this is mostly here already. We don’t actually need to wait till singularity – we can start on it right now. We are not going to crack this overnight of course. We need to start with baby steps, and then continuously refine the science and technology in small, incremental steps.

I want you guys to watch this TED talk by Aubrey de Grey. This is exactly what I’m talking about:

He is absolutely right. Isn’t our refusal to become immortals slightly immoral. You may not want to live forever, but there are millions of people out there who would not mind it at all. And yet, right now they are condemned to die. We as a society are in a position to fix it. We can banish old age, and potentially give eternal youth to everyone who would wish it. It is within our grasp, and doing nothing about it would be very foolish.

Think about your children. Wouldn’t you want them to have this option? Wouldn’t you want them to live forever, and never experience the loss and pain all the generations up until now had to learn to live with? Wouldn’t you want them to never have to witness a grandparent or a parent withering away, and succumbing to some age related disorder?

Of course some people may object to the very concept of immortality on religious grounds, and that’s their prerogative. No one is going to force them to use these age-defeating treatments just like no one is forcing the Amish people to use computers. Others may worry about overpopulation, but we can cross that bridge when we reach it. No point losing sleep about it now – lets worry about it after we actually figure out how to considerably extend human lifespan.

Immortality is a bit like flying. For centuries people believed that human flight was impossible. They thought it couldn’t be done. That it was dangerous and foolish. That people would just fly to high and fall into the sun or something. And yet, look at us now. We will be immortal one day – or close to it. It is just a matter of time.

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11 Responses to Immortality: Who wants to live forever

  1. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    I don’t know what should I comment on.
    I already saw this video and I agree with it and all you said in this post.
    I believe banning of any research is highly immoral, let alone research that could save everyone.
    And I’d definitely find what to do with my eternity. I’m currently reading House of Suns and I just love the idea of traveling around the galaxy just observing and ingesting new information.
    With infinity ahead of you, your plans and ambitions can also be infinite.

    About overpopulation. The guy in the video says – that it’s either high birth or high death rates. I’m perfectly fine with limiting birth rates, our first priority are those that are already alive, not the potential offspring who might or might not ever exist.

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  2. Hannes BELGIUM Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    Been a long-time reader, and I think you often post really interesting ideas. It’s the first time however that I want to interject something.

    I don’t believe the overpopulation thing can be put aside so easily. de Grey basically says that we have to choose between high birth rates and high death rates, and that it’s immoral to make the choice for people by not doing the research and not giving people the option. In itself there is nothing wrong with giving people an option to live forever; however, people will not give up having children to live forever themselves – they will want both once the technology exists, which will result in gigantic overpopulation problems. To solve this, you would have to make the choice between procreating or living as long as you want mandatory, which is problematic to say the least.

    It seems that many scientists (and I am speaking as a scientist who is working in plant biotechnology, so it’s definitely an issue that I’ve given some thought) feel that technology should be developed by scientists, and that ethical discussions should be left to others. However, I personally believe that scientists should be very much aware of the implications of their research, and not perform it if it will affect society in a negative way – which is of course very hard to assess. Science isn’t done in a vacuum, and is funded by society and should therefore serve it.

    Also, I can’t help but feeling that currently more people are dying from infection diseases that can be cured (such as the HIV epidemic) and from mal/undernourishment. I think it’s in a way immoral to put resources into curing death by ageing (which in a way is a relatively recent luxury), if we don’t prevent much more unnecessary deaths first. Although I am aware that if you follow that line of thought, it is immoral to spend money on virtually anything.

    I must admit that this is a much more tricky problem than I first imagined. Thank you for making me think about it ;)

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  3. nitro2k01 SWEDEN Mozilla Firefox Mac OS Terminalist says:

    First, let’s define our terms. It’s understandable that people, when asked, try to consider practical things like overpopulation, but the real question should be, what if you could live forever without repercussions or having to worry about the rest of the world. (Of course with the option to end one’s life at any point, if you would get tired of it all.) I have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to say no to the latter as a hypothetical prospect/thought experiment.

    But what you’re talking about here is actual medical breakthroughs to stop aging. But I don’t think it would work out. Even if you could theoretically do it, I think we’re our own worst enemy in making it happen. There are so many pitfalls in the form of bad habits and bad environments. I doubt you could live forever without leading a healthy life that doesn’t inflict self-harm. In the choice of living forever under a strict regimen of healthy food and daily exercise, and a time-limited life with a few treats along the way, I think most would choose the latter.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Liudvikas:

    Exactly. I think most people will be fine with low birth rates. We are already seeing this at a small scale – the most developed nations tend to have lower birth rates than the less developed ones. This phenomenon has a name: Demographic Economic Paradox. Countries where the life extension and rejuvenation are available will probably naturally slow down their birth rates.

    Here is the thing – today most people aim to have children at a relatively young age for two reasons:

    1. Menopause is the primary limiting factor. It only provides a small time window during which women are able to reproduce
    2. Old age related disorders make it more difficult to take care of children

    We will definitely be able to fix #2 and keep people in shape indefinitely. We will probably also fix #1 allowing women to remain fertile indefinitely.

    This will give a lot of couples and/or individuals an option to wait additional few decades or even centuries before starting a family.

    nitro2k01 wrote:

    I have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to say no to the latter as a hypothetical prospect/thought experiment.

    Same here, but people do. The most common argument is: “but, it would be boring”.

    nitro2k01 wrote:

    There are so many pitfalls in the form of bad habits and bad environments. I doubt you could live forever without leading a healthy life that doesn’t inflict self-harm.

    But those are two different things. We are talking about defeating aging and aging related disorders. These medical procedures will be focused on rejuvenating your cells so that your skin doesn’t get wrinkled, your bones don’t become brittle and your muscles don’t atrophy due to age related damage. That we will be able to defeat.

    But people will still be able to kill gradually kill themselves using conventional methods such as smoking carcinogenic substances, eating high cholesterol diet that clogs their arteries and etc… People will still die from heart attacks, strokes and infectious diseases – at least for a while. Remember, this will happen in baby steps. So people will simply have an option to live few decades longer, but this is not going to be a panacea that cures all diseases. People will still die in their 20’s and 30’s due to a wide range of different causes.

    The good news is that eventually (many, many gradual iterations from now) we will get so good at doing general maintenance on our bodies we will probably be able to keep things like cancer or clogging of the arteries firmly in check using stuff like intelligent nano-machine swarms and etc…

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  5. ths GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    probably medical capabilities will increase and the option of curing more or less every illness and disease is a goal worth achieving. but I’m afraid it will end up in a world nearly the same as today, where there are poor and rich nations and poor and rich people … and the best medicine will only be available to people who can afford it.
    with a long life in sight ahead of them rich people will become even more ruthless and be jealous not to share that gift.
    with a long life in sight ahead of them rich people will become even richer, and with great money comes great influence (not exactly a quote from Peter Parker ;) ).

    Imagine every long-lifer will put one cent on a bank account at a very small positive interest rate. which economy can afford to pay that?

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  6. Elysa UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS says:

    I recently had the opportunity to file an advance health-care directive (one of those life passages, I suppose), so the topics of life and death have been on my mind recently, and I find your post intriguing, even if I do not agree with your suppositions. Of course, I realize that I am extremely biased, and probably would not do your position justice, because I personally would like my life span to be appropriately punctuated. On a personal level, I believe that pass a certain point, a human ceases to “live” and simply “survives,” and it is more costly to maintain his survival than to allow his death. But I think that is a little too philosophical for what you’re trying to say in this post. Instead, I just want to propose three ideas:

    1. Just because something is scientifically possible does not mean it is strategic or beneficial. For example, a person with advanced stage cancer can be maintained for several years by artificial means, but that person’s quality of life is severely limited. Regardless of what you or I believe about prolonging life or allowing death, the fact remains that the person as an organism has ceased to function, and the person’s existence is enabled only because multiple machines are replacing the basic functions of his primary organs. Prolonging life is one thing, but freezing our cells in its developmental cycle, or repairing our cells constantly so that we intervene, at a cellular level, is complex and prone to errors. Human cells grow, age, and die. To stop them in this process would mean to interfere with what make us living organisms.

    2. While immortality might be beneficial for an individual, it has little evolutionary advantage on a macro level. From birth, all living organisms are programmed, at a cellular level, to multiply, reproduce, and die. In humans, by the time we learn to speak, we already lost many, many of our cells. Why? Because cell death is the process through which we selectively adapt to our environment. Aging cells, or cells that have already carried out their purposes, are simply redundant. Evolution is constantly in progress. To stunt cell growth (and by extension, cell death), is to stop evolution. Sure, we can continue to reproduce endlessly even if we ourselves remain frozen in our twenties or thirties, but after ten generations, would we still be biologically fit to survive our environment?

    3. I think we are very far from being able to achieve immortality. Let’s agree, for a moment, that immortality as a theoretical concept is possible. (And set aside any possible religious or moral objections.) How will we actually carry this out… and in multiple subjects? Jellyfish might theoretically live forever, but jellyfish do not have specialized digestive, nervous, circulatory, or respiratory system. They have very basic motor control, and instead of a brain, they have what we consider a loose network of nerves. For all intents and purposes, they are a bundle of nerves moving through water through a series of bodily contractions. Compare that with humans–our intricate organs and, yes, our big, big brains that we keep bragging about. We might be able to stop cell aging when we’re confined to an area the size of a petri dish, but we’re talking about a full grown 5’5” hunk of mass constantly moving through an uncontrolled environment and exposing himself to god-knows-what… eating, pooping, breathing. How do we stop our cells from responding to this uncontrolled environment?

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

    @ ths:

    Initially, yes. It will be costly. But the costs will eventually drop – just like with any drugs and treatments. The patents will expire, and then companies will be able to make generic versions for the mass market. The more advanced, cutting edge rejuvenation techniques will likely be reserved for the rich and famous, but middle class will probably be able to access the older, less effective techniques.

    It is a very popular view to think that an elite group will take possession of this gift and guard it jealously but that’s not how the real world works. We are talking about very incremental improvements – none of the procedures will impart permanent immortality. They will simply add few years to your potential life span, and prevent you from developing typical old-age disorders. It will allow people in say late 30’s and early 40’s to maintain their physical fitness and appearance into their late 60’s or early 70’s. By the time they get there, new treatments will give let them maintain the same level of fitness into their 80’s and so on.

    So it’s not going to be some fountain of youth – it will be mundane maintenance treatments. Something you will do like once or twice a year, probably at the same time you to your annual physical.

    Elysa wrote:

    Human cells grow, age, and die. To stop them in this process would mean to interfere with what make us living organisms.

    As a transhumanist I have no problem with this. This is sort of out of scope for this article, but I think that the biological bodies are quite limited and we will eventually outgrow them. Our destiny as a species is to transcend the human condition and become something more. We will build our own future, and re-image ourselves to fit into new environments. We will grow, expand in power and intellect and we will require new bodies, with more computing power to accommodate that. We will disassemble entire solar systems and convert them into computronium, and continue growing. To do anything less would be foolish. We would then be just a evolutionary dead end. A backward species of hairless apes that never went anywhere.

    Elysa wrote:

    To stunt cell growth (and by extension, cell death), is to stop evolution. Sure, we can continue to reproduce endlessly even if we ourselves remain frozen in our twenties or thirties, but after ten generations, would we still be biologically fit to survive our environment?

    Well, we no longer really have natural selection. We do not allow diseases and environmental disaster to thin our numbers – we fix that with medicine and technology. So I would argue that adaptive evolution stopped for us long, long time ago. I really see no problem continuing this trend on a larger scale.

    Elysa wrote:

    How will we actually carry this out… and in multiple subjects?

    Initially, we can use stem cells to replace our long lived tissues that get damaged. It works, it has been proven. We just need to jump some legal hurdles and moral objections. But I think this is just a matter of time and education. We will get there. But yes, this is something we can do right now.

    But that’s just one of the possible techniques. People are actually working on these things right now. We are at a good starting point here. We know most of the causes of cellular damage caused by aging. We know how to repair some of it, and prevent some of it. It’s just a matter of extensive testing and research at this point. The medical breakthroughs will come eventually. We just need more people working on it in a serious way.

    Later on, we will probably use nano-machine therapies. Have little robots enter your bloodstream and repair damage on a cellular level.

    Beyond that, who knows….

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  8. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Luke Maciak:
    Well incremental life span improvements are more likely. But its fun scenario to imagine how someone would justify immortality treatment only available to the rich. I know for sure that if someone said that I must die, while they live forever, I would do all that is possible to make sure they meet their maker. Even that would be pointless, as no one would be able to withhold such treatments, cheap knock offs of the drug would be produced everywhere.
    Not to mention that unless the procedure would cost vast resources (which is very unlikely) there would be no reason to keep the drugs from general public. It would probably cost less resources to maintain stable immortal population, than to let all those mortal poor schmucks breed endlessly.
    Even if there’s no immediate immortality, expanding working age of someone would probably be easier than training new employee.

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  9. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’m sure you have very good reasons to want immortality, and if you don’t mind : I’d like to hear them.

    Do you want to experience all things imaginable ? If so, you’ll probably want to spend a good chunk of your life on parenthood, which will be either severely restricted or outright disallowed in an immortal society. Even so, you’ll miss out on the teachings and wisdoms that come with aging. Having to live with limited abilities lets one appreciate the working ones better, and extend them beyond limits others thought impossible.

    Are you afraid of aging ? Do you want to stay young forever, as if it was somehow the ideal of the human condition ? Youth isn’t just related to body condition, it’s also a state of mind. A mentality that allows bold moves, ambitious ideas and foolish plans to come to fruition and sometimes benefit the whole. Adults and elders have their own roles in society, and I am unsure an immortal being can fit all three at the same time.

    Are you scared of being forgotten ? Of having your name lost among a thousand others in some old cemetery ? Becoming an immortal among others would be just the same. Once science has defined what a perfect human is, you would be another perfect human among other perfect humans. You would live on to carry your name, but it wouldn’t mean anything anymore.

    Or do you just desire it because it is perhaps possible, because it might exist and you don’t have it yet, for no particular reason ?

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  10. Liudvikas LITHUANIA Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Zel:
    1. Parenthood is overrated. Even if it’s the greatest thing ever, there’s whole infinite universe outside, I can’t experience it, unless I have eternity for it.
    2. Ideal of human condition is whatever you choose for yourself.
    3. Mentality would change with centuries of living. It has nothing to do with whether I have arthritis.
    4. I’m not scared of being forgotten. The whole idea of immortalizing yourself with your works, comes from cruel fact that we must die. But what if we couldn’t die, then we’d have eternity to cease opportunities, eternity to learn, eternity to explore. In that case you could do everything for only reason that matters, because you are curious.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    Liudvikas wrote:

    Even if there’s no immediate immortality, expanding working age of someone would probably be easier than training new employee.

    Hmmm… This might get dicey though. I can see stuff like this popping up on job requirements soon:

    Entry Level Position: at least 60 years experience with Java required.

    @ Zel:

    Interesting question.

    Here is the thing – I just don’t see any reason why I should have to die. Or anyone for that matter. It seems wasteful.

    It’s like this – I wake up every morning, and I am generally pleased to be alive. Sure, my life may not be as awesome as I might want it to be but I enjoy the little things in life. And I don’t really see that changing. I can’t really imagine reaching a point where I would go “ok, that’s it – I had enough of this world, time to movie on”. There is always going to be something to do, some new ideas to ponder, new things to discover. There is always some new knowledge out there. I’m curious…. I have thirst for knowledge. I just don’t see that changing any time soon. Not in the next 20-30 years at least.

    I want to see where we go as a civilization. I’m constantly in awe of what we have accomplished with our technology and I always look five steps into the future. I want to see the next big thing. I want to be there when we revolutionize everything yet again. I want to live through singularity. I want to witness the birth of thinking machines.

    Hell, I want to visit the moon and walk on Mars. But that is not going to happen unless I live long enough. Because I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to afford to to go there unless you can buy like economy class tickets for a round trip. :P

    I want to read the next great novel, see the new great band, read about the new scientific breakthrough. I want to stand in awe of minds so expansive I can never even hope to understand them, and know that they are our creation.

    I want to see humanity changing, expanding, adjusting to the technology. I want to see us transform out solar system into our own playground. I want to see us reach the stars and make them cogs in our machines. This universe is ours for the taking.

    I do want to experience parenthood – and I guess wanting to live forever is part of that. I’m going to be 30 in a few days, and I have no clue where all that time went. It seems as if it was only yesterday I was like 13 years old, then I blinked and and almost two decades flew by in mere seconds. And I still don’t know what exactly do I want to do with my life. I am still no more ready to be a parent than when I was 18.

    When I was younger I thought that 30 years was an eternity. Now, I come to a shocking realization that it is a brief instant. And there is so preciously little you can accomplish in a year… I have two weeks of vacation, and a few holidays and weekends. The rest of your life is being spent at the work place. And unless your work is your entire life – an all consuming passion, and unless you are working with your closest friends and family then the chances are you are not living to the fullest. You are not spending most of your waking time with the ones you care about the most. And you are probably not having as much fun as you could. So you only get a fraction out of every year for yourself.

    Human life is so fucking shockingly brief that it is almost unfair. I just got my masters degree few years ago and I still feel like I don’t know anything. I feel like I should go back, get a PHD and maybe then I will be ready for real life. But I doubt it. I don’t think I will ever be ready. I don’t think I will ever be don learning. And yet, a lot of the people I went to school with are now starting getting married, starting families or raising children. They are all in a frienzied hurry because their biological clocks are ticking, and they have to get their child raising done before their reproductive window expires. It’s crazy. We are all barely out of school.

    And it’s not even that I’m worried about getting old physically. Loss of physical fitness is something I can deal with. Losing my mind though… Having it slowly fall apart, becoming slower, duller and less aware…. That frightens me more than anything else.

    So that’s my reason. I’m going to be 30 in a few days. If medicine does not move forward, and we don’t develop life extending techniques I only have few more brief decades to go. And if my past experiences are anything to go by, they are going to whip by fast enough to give me a whiplash. It’s like I’m on a speeding train heading towards a brick wall called death. And I’m not very keen on getting there. I’m enjoying the ride so far, and I see that we are going to be stopping soon but I don’t want to. I want to keep riding this train till I get bored, or till I find a good place to stop. Or just keep riding it forever if that strikes my fancy. Why can’t I do that?

    Why do I need to cut my fun short, just because my biological shell is flawed, and wears out? I am a human, the smartest damn animal on the planet! I have science! There is just no reason for me to live shorter than some species of turtles or a sharks.

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