Recently I gave a speech at University of London and I was amazed by the quality discussion we had afterwards and a great interest in the topic.
I decided to put together the points in a written form for whoever wants to think about the possible implications of immortality or considerable life extension when science advances to this level.
The reason why it is important to start thinking about this way before the real solution arrives is twofold:
- We want to be in the category of people who are prepared for drastic changes when those come
- We want to be able to influence and have a say in the developments of Ethics of Life and Transhumanist advancements, just like many are working over the Ethics of AI questions
Battling Diseases is great. Living healthy and long life is good.
But what is the ultimate goal of all this health improvements?
Would you live in your youthful body without any major defects or suffering until you are a 100 and then say: “Thanks I have had enough. Switch me off”?
Truth is, – achieving youth is just a means to an end goal of achieving immortality, – in whichever from it is desired for an individual
Few weeks back I had Facebook reminding me of a passage I wrote 4 years ago:
Nothing changed. I still want to live much longer and be able to experience all the things this or other Planets have to offer.
Once we are able to live as much as we want we will have enough time to visit all places we want to visit, try any possible hobbies we can think of, read all the books we want to read, start all the possible companies we want and meet millions of people from all around the world.
We will become Gods, not limited by physics, time or suffering.
If you see Death as an undesirable problem it is worth looking into a root cause of the problem first.
Why Do We Die?
Problem with human body just as any biological form is the malfunction of cell replicating mechanisms with age. this wearing down accumulates faster than we are able to repair this. Improvements in the so-called “repair” mechanisms
Aging is characterized by a gradual functional decline. The DNA in each cell gets frayed. The cell walls get weak and begin to collapse. All our cells were once stem cells and are supposed to have settled down into one form — a heart cell, a skin cell, a brain cell. As we age, some start to climb back up the hill towards being a stem cell again, but they can’t get all the way there and simply jump the groove into being another kind of cell, like a needle skipping on a record player.
One of the insults causing senescence is damage of the telomeres, highly repetitive DNA structures located at the end of chromosomes.
Thus, both ageing and death is embedded in our DNA.
Good, we figured out that. Worth looking t how ageing is programmed in various representatives of animal kingdom and what can we learn from it.
We can look at 2 types of geese – domestic goose and Canada goose – one lives for up to 8 years, another to 23? Why such a difference? This is the instruction in their genetic code.
I guess you all have heard of Greenland shark which was found recently and is estimated to have reached 500 or 700 years. Quite a hallmark!
To date, there’s only one species that has been called ‘biologically immortal’: the jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii. These small, transparent animals hang out in oceans around the world and can turn back time by reverting to an earlier stage of their life cycle. If there is an environmental stress they can go back to the initiation seed stage and wait for good conditions to grow again.
Hydra – instead of gradually deteriorating over time, a Hydra’s stem cells have the capacity for infinite self-renewal. This seems to be thanks to a particular set of genes called FoxO genes.
Lobsters don’t have this problem thanks to a never-ending supply of an enzyme called telomerase, which works to keep regenerating telomeres. They produce lots of this enzyme in all of their cells throughout their adult lives, allowing them to maintain youthful DNA indefinitely. The only reason we do not see 200 or 300 years old lobsters is mainly due to over fishing.
Hacking Our DNA
If the death is embedded in our source code, as soon as we get an access to hack the code, why would you not do so?
In 2018 Chinese scholar He Jiankui edited 2 embryos and apart from sparing them from HIV apparently he also inadvertently increased their brain potential.
Cycle of birth and death has been the constant, the guarantee that the nature can maintain the balance – for any other types of checks and balances were not in place.
It might be the case that Time has come for Human race to decide their own cycle and have a say over the constant of time
So taken we crack the gene code, immortality will become a matter of time.
What Will Happen Once We Crack the Code?
There will be some major societal, political and environmental consequences.
Having lived for up to 30 years for the most part of human history only recently we managed to get to average life span of 80-90 years.
How will our reality look like if we live for eons?
What Price Will We have to pay for our newly acquired immortality?
Here you will see the discussion around biological immortality and not digital escapism as the consequences and realities are very different.
Who Gets the Elixir?
There are almost 8 billion people alive today, – we are still in the starting phases of gene editing research – and currently have only first practical cases – started from IVF to CRISPR today.
We can choose between multiple embryos based on apparent health situation and lack or presence of unwanted mutations. No one, however, ever attempted to modify genes of an existing person.
Once it becomes possible, however, how do we choose who obtains this option and who does not?
One option to distribute an available longevity solution is to get it auctioned – thus sold to those willing to pay highest price, further exacerbating an already peak inequality.
Despite an apparent common sense of the auctioning solution, it must be said that deciding to price immortality is very different from pricing plastic surgery – it is literally a way to have an individual stay alive indefinitely!
Should this decision come down to such an easily quantifiable factor as cash?
Is it a decision to be taken by markets?
This is a decision on nature, survival and long-term societal implication, – in fact eternal implications.
Thus I would argue it should not be taken according to the market.
Choice should be based on a carefully evaluated and approved criteria created by newly established Immortality Ethics Committees, – things that could be taken into account are person’s IQ, EQ, adaptability, compassion and environmental consciousness as well as other factors important at the time when Immortality option enters the world.
There is a possibility of a clause which would make people give up on having offsprings, as in a Brazilian TV series 3 %.
How Do We Feed Everybody?
Let’s suppose everyone gets the “Immortality Pill” and decides to take it. How can the Planet feed billions of people who never die? It can hardly provide for existing 8 billion and most resources in use today are non-renewable.
Well, this argument holds true if we account for the same levels of population growth as we’ve seen in XXth and XXIst centuries. However, the research shows that the levels of child births negatively correlate with the improvements in economic development, education among women and increasing urbanization.
Thus, some authors have even argued that taken same level of progress as today at some point the Planet might run out of people.
Moreover, when we quote doom and gloom scenarios of overpopulation and resources scarcity we account for business as usual energy usage, – which largely is non-renewable, polluting and negative.
In a single hour, the amount of power from the sun that strikes the Earth is more than the entire world consumes in a year.
Thus, once we solve battery and energy capture issue we should be able to supply billions of people with unlimited and clean solar energy, not talking about wind, water, and more and more ecologically sustainable ways of food production.
Moreover, it is very likely that people will procreate less if they themselves live longer – already now educated and developed societies have way fewer children as they do not need them as a social welfare safety net – or for workforce. With the increased automation the need for manual labor and children as safety nets will be completely eliminated.
Main argument on which I base my interpretation and support for the whole Immortality Movement is the statement that if we live forever we would care much more about the actions we do in regards to the Planet. This research has been published in Springer Nature Transhumanist Handbook.
Co-Existence of Mods and Non-Mods
Appearance of immortality solution does not mean all people would choose to take it. This will create a major division between Transhumanists and Traditionalists, who choose to continue the old way – for religious or any other philosophic reasons.
Mortals will be the Amishes of the future and immortals will be the Gods of the Future.
Problem which will arise here is that in case we use biotechnology for humanity augmentation people who do not make these changes might end up instantly killed by evolving viruses.
Thus, we will have to ensure complete separation of both species – mods and non-mods.
The question that will arise – if mortals have children how can we ensure they can make a conscious decision and are given a choice they deserve?
They might pass all the required preconditions for immortality (if there is any test) but still end up being locked in birth-death cycle only because they have to be separated since birth.
Family Values and Gender Roles
All human existence was marked by the need to procreate – both death and the desire to have children are biologically programmed.
All our culture, ambition and striving are in one way or another arise in regards to procreation and the desire to attract an opposite sex.
Already today traditional family roles are being mixed up. How will this look if woman does not have a child bearing responsibility? Might it strip us of our sexual identity?
Is it something we want and need?
Our personality is being formed in early childhood, as numerous studies suggest. Further – our preferences, character, tastes are all being formed during first quarter of our life, – critically short period of time if we are talking in humanity history perspective.
This personality formed over several decades holds true for the whole life span of an individual.
If we live for thousands of years, how relevant the personality of someone born in early XXI century would it be?
Many people say that we would become so smart and wise that any conflict or misunderstanding would be avoided in its entirety – but is wisdom what we are looking for? What an outdated person that would be having a thousand or 2 thousand years’ personality!!!
Very counter intuitively, the facilitation of Immortality might in fact produce a complete stall of human civilization.
A person considered worldly today will look like Middle Ages witch hunter in few hundred years time – he might be smart and adaptable but since he lived throughout half a century there would be little guarantee they would prefer solar to coal and not decide to burn ginger haired girls once in a while.
This is probably the least explored and the most pertinent problem Transhumanists will have to face to justify their ideology!
It is crazy to suggest people will stop having the main source of joy and meaning in their life. But we could never know this until we actually end up with millions of immortal humans.
We want to have children to leave a trace, to have a small and better version of oneself.
Will we still need a better version if our current one is perfect, forever young and beautiful?
If Immortals stop having children but still have the million-years old urge to parent this will create a huge tension between mods and non-mods and Immortal people would strive to get hold of children from another camp. This could lead to total chaos and even inter-species war.
Quality of Life
No one said you will live forever if you are immortal – you can still die by a brick that fell on your head.
We tend to measure life value taking our own lifespan as a benchmark. Why do you feel ok killing a mosquito? At least I do. Part of the answer is a huge difference in the life span between yourself and a mosquito.
How can we measure a life value of someone who is virtually immortal? How will people measure their life?
How frustrating will it be to die of car accident when you could avoid all diseases that could have killed you down the road and missed out on thousands years of life?
Will life become extremely boring as a result? – Definitely it will.
The only way to avoid this is to follow Altered Carbon scenario of periodically recording one’s personality in the digital form.
That will require immense processing and storing facilities barring the argument of feasibility altogether.
Equally what will it take to ensure a quality of life that will justify immortality and in fact make it desirable to humanity?
Potential solutions that could help providing Immortality to humanity would be the discovery of time travel and colonization of other Planets, both of which could ensure we do not overpopulate Earth at any given point of time.
Art and Culture
Most of art is said to be borne out of despair, struggle and suffering.
The beauty of life and the beauty of art is due to the fact that our time in this life is limited. Whole philosophy movements and religions are created around this assumption. Paul Gauguin’s picture Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is a fascinating portrayal of the ephemeral quality of passing life, beauty and youth.
It does not have to be this way, however. Taken that we do not have to maintain Capitalistic system and work to ensure our existence we will have infinite time to explore art and self-expression.
Imagine what Da Vinci or Einstein could have come up with if they were still alive today!