This is an open letter in response to Computing Forever’s YouTube Video „Future Medicine & The Curse of Immortality“
Here’s the video I am responding to — it’s sweet and short, and well worth your time, so please watch it before continuing to read:
Dear Computing Forever,
I enjoy many of your videos. I especially liked this particular one about longevity; although I respectfully have to disagree on almost all of your points. I currently have no equipment to record a video response, but I’m a writer, so here is my point-by-point refutation of the arguments you brought forth in your video.
1. Becoming elderly wihout dying
You suggest that cures for aging-related diseases will be developed first, resulting in people still aging, but not dying. This is certainly true to some extent; but the main focus of many anti-aging startups is the actual rejuvenation of the body. The SENS maintenance approach for instance proposes to periodically remove the damage that is being accumlated in the body as a byproduct of metabolism. You’d still age, but your body will be reset to a youthful stage before you become frail. The SENS approach is not just a castle in the sky; it is an actionable plan, a scientific roadmap that is actively being worked on. Respected scientists, like e.g. Craig Venter, were asked to refute it on scientific grounds, but were unable to. Senescent cell clearance, for instance, is a first step down this road, and it’s a hot topic at the moment with good progress being made. The first therapies that will become available will in all probability rejuvenate people to some extent; and to a larger extent as more progress is being made.
CONCLUSION: Becoming elderly because of rejuvenation therapies is the exact opposite of that what will actually happen. It’s the stated goal of any and all longevity related projects to avoid becoming elderly for as long as scientifically possibly. But even if it were so, it would not be a reason to halt research, but rather to expedite it.
Yes, this is a valid concern. While apparently, the population growth seems to be slowing and will reverse by the turn of the century, we may still need to address the problem globally. We will need to take countermeasures regadless of longevity treatments; and it’s worthwile doing so, regardless of whether those treatments exist or not. Furthermore, we need to decide what’s more ethical: letting 100.000 people die every day from age-related diseaes when we could prevent their deaths, while not addressing overpopulation; or expand health- and lifespan as quickly as possible, and address the possible overpopulation issue at the same time.
CONCLUSION: Overpopulation needs to be addressed one way or the other; as well as the ethical dilemma of having the means to save millions of lives evey year, but deciding not to do so.
3. Stagnation of Evolution
It is questionable whether evolution has not already been disturbed by human civilisation in very large proportions. The environmental forces that selected the genes of our remote ancestors have changed completely. Natural selection is certainly still acting upon us, but it may select for traits that lead to the capability of becoming wealthy. Is this a good thing? Doubtful. Knowing this, it might be a good idea to take the doubt out of evolution and give it a direction that we see desirable. Engineered evolution can react much faster to new environmental challenges than evolution by natural selection can.
We cannot look to other species for advise either, since we’re the only species on Earth capable of taking genetic evolution in our own hands. In this sense, we’ve already reached the technological singularity; and not only in a purely metaphorical sense.
CONCLUSION: Your point may be correct, but it starts from the erroneous assumption that natural selection is the only way to adapt to environmental challenges. This is not necessarily the case for a highly technological civilisation.
4. How are we going to house and feed everyone?
The answer to this question is basically the same one as the anwer to question 2.
CONCLUSION: This problem needs to be addressed anyway, with or without longevity treatments, so let’s just talk about it and find a viable solution.
5. Only available for very wealthy people
Yes, it is very likely that those therapies will be available for the upper middleclass and beyond at first. This has been the case for every technology that required massive amounts of funding and research; automobile, TV, transatlantic flight, pacemaker, computer, internet, cellphone, you name it (also nuclear weapons with regard to wealthy or poor nations). Wealthy people will pay for the development with their money, and the price will go down. It will drop below a point where it’s more competitive for health insurance companies to sell longevity treatments to their customers, instead trying to cure their age-related diseases over a period of 10-30 years until death.
CONCLUSION: Correct, but only for a transitional peroid, until patents run out and generics can be mass produced, and procedures copied. That means, 20 years after Ray Kurzweil et al, everybody else can (just about) afford the treatments.
6. Does the human brain have the capacity to store several lifetimes worth of memories?
Very unklikely. You will forget most of your distant past, and will continuously live in a „fog of war“ that lets you see maybe 50 years back, and no further, maybe save for certain pivotal moments in your life. Technology already assists in remembering events; I have 8mm footage of myself at age 4, and of my first day at school. I have no conscious recollection of these days whatsoever, but here they are on ancient 8mm film. In a few years, I will not remember having written this very essay, but I may still be able to read it, and marvel at the person that was me who wrote it a long time ago.
CONCLUSION: Correct, if we disregard the probability of memory-enhancing technologies. But with or without such technologies, the argument is irrelevant, since we can hardly remember our own past already now, and what we do seem to remember is largely confabulated anyway.
7. Boredom after having seen and done everything.
There’s more to see and do than a single person can do in a hundred or a thousand lifetimes. Let me quote Douglas Adams for reference: „Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.“ — The same is true for the space of possibilities.
CONCLUSION: Unlikely, and irrelevant. The possiblities are endless and only limited by your imagination. They will expand even further, since technological and logistical limitations will retreat over time. However, if you’re still bored, you can always chose to not take your next treatment and live out the rest of your life normally and die of old age.
8. The notion to outlive everyone you care about has got to be the worst part of all of this.
Why would this be the case? If you can take the treatments, it is very likely that most of those you care for, your peers, can, too. Those who chose not to take the treatments have excercised their free will, and there’s no reason for you to mourn them.
I personally mourn the deaths of my mother, my father, all but one aunt and uncle, all of my grandparents, and even already a few friends. I’m only 50, but death has been a part of my life for a long time. I mourn the deceased who suffered for years before their final demise, and who had not the slightest chance to avoid suffering and their final gruesome deaths.
CONCLUSION: Mourn those who have no say in their demise; pity those who chose to die; cherish those who chose life over death.
9. Nature didn’t just envision us receiving a lifespan boost in this way.
Nature does not envision anything at all; it is not an entity with any kind of forsesight, plan or vision. Nature is a process that reacts in hindsight only.
CONCLUSION: This statement is nonsensical.
10. Quality rather than quanitity
I agree, an indefinite, but forever empty and meaningless lifespan would be much worse than 80 years full of meaning and quality time. However, the problem with that statement is that an indefinite lifespan has the potential to increase quality even further, while death doesn’t have that potential at all. I am very slow at the things I’m doing; but give me another hundred youthful years, and I still may become the next Einstein, Armstrong (Neil or Louis, take your pick) or just another ordinary father of two living in Elon City, Valles Marineris, on Mars.
CONCLUSION: Quality+Quantity > Quality > Quantity.
And finally, dear Computing Forever, I’d like to ask you this — As you recently learned, dying is an unpleasant and dirty business. Often times, people wither away over decades, their bodies and minds losing capabilties ever so slowly, until something like cancer or Alzheimer’s eats them alive from the inside. Today, this is still the fate of everyone of us. Of the 150.000 people that die every single day, around 100.000 die from age-related complications, and most of them do not simply fall asleep peacefully.
I personally think that is a humanitarian catastrophe of a magnitude comparable to WW1, the 1918 flu pandemic and WW2 all rolled into one. The amount of suffering and death is unimaginable and beyond human comprehension.
Can we ethically chose not to stop this catastrophe if we have the means to? Even if it meant we’d have to adjust our way of living globally? Are those arguments that you brought forward, even if they were absolutely valid (and I think I demonstrated they are not) — are those arguments strong enough to let the daily avalanche of suffering and death continue until the end of time? Would this be ethical?
I think not.
P.S.: To make my own position on death and dying clear — I’m not terribly afraid of dying, as long as it comes without lots of anguish and suffering. But I’m not terribly fond of it either. I’d rather see the future unfold for much longer because man, this universe we live in is too damn wondrous to be dead for the rest of eternity!