Premature Considerations of Immortality

For whatever reason, a number of public voices seem to be talking about immortality all of a sudden, largely meaning physical immortality in the sense of immunity to aging but vulnerability to fatal accidents. Topics ebb and flow like tides, I suppose, the signs of many hidden connections that underlie our culture - that grand conversation of innumerable threads held in the myriad communication channels available to us.

It's a big project so it's hard to summarize to its core being but I'd say we're investigating two different kinds of immortality. One would be the possibility of living forever without ever dying. The main questions there are whether it's technologically plausible or feasible for us, either by biological enhancement such as those described by Ray Kurzweil, or by some combination of biological enhancement and uploading our minds onto computers in the future. I think another more interesting and important question is would we choose to be immortal in that sense, or does death and finitude give life meaning?

And so forth, repeated in the echo chamber. Immortality can be a useful term - such as on the occasions on which you want to plant a flag a long way out in the discussion and make waves. It is, I think, becoming less useful with time, however. So many people use it without meaning or with so many varied and half-thought meanings that it is, like "anti-aging", becoming more harmful than helpful. Too much baggage, too many charlatans of various types hitching their carts to the bandwagon.

Putting in serious time and thought on physical immortality - $5 million here and $5 million there adds up pretty quickly - seems to me to be premature. There is a great deal of work that lies between here and first generation rejuvenation biotechnology, something that will allow us to live additional decades in good health, never mind what comes after that. The rise and rapid obsolescence of many massive industries in medicine will happen over the next fifty years in order to extend the outer limits of human health and life span far beyond the present century-and-a-bit. Each of those churning engines of progress will see millions of individuals working in hundreds of competing companies, a world of intricate detail.

The result of all of that? Possibly humans that can live for two centuries or more before hitting as-yet unknown limits to presently envisaged biological repair technologies. This is a drop in the ocean of time. But that will give a hundred years of grace in which to work feverishly on the next generations of technology: replacements for biological systems, improving on the ways to repair and rebuild our cells, merging with our machines as those machines become ever smaller and more capable. The world of a century and a half from now will be as distant and strange and capable to us as our tools and society would seem to a 18th century peasant.

My point is that many transformative, world-sweeping changes brought by advancing technology will occur in the decades between now and even a mere hard-fought doubling of the human life span. We'll be starting in earnest to settle the Moon and Mars by then. Our machines will be able to think for themselves. Desktop and motile nanofactories will be capable of fabricating everything from houses to gene therapies from raw materials. A sea of historical and cultural manuscripts will be written on those changes, and still fail to easily capture the scope of the way in which the world changes.

And then it starts over again, ever building new and greater edifices as we push on to overcome the next set of limits to the human condition. All of this grand and complex near future of increasing longevity and massive change seems far more worthy of thought than immortality, given the length of the road between here and there, and how much has to be done to even start talking seriously about lives of tens of thousands of years.


It is very right.for me The first target to reach is to extend the human life in good health, to cure the diseases, to rejuvenate a human being.

Posted by: Gianluigi D'Amico at August 3rd, 2012 10:46 PM

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