Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The immortality factor

with 4 comments

If you’ve done any reading over the last few years about the transhumanist movement, you’re probably aware that there are people among us who are pretty sure that they aren’t going to die. This expectation might seem ludicrously farfetched, but to hear some of them talk, immortality is mostly a matter of good timing. Here’s how one writer explains the underlying logic:

At some point in the history of the world and the history of medical science, a point will be reached such that a child born at that time can, if he chooses—and has reasonable luck so far as mechanical damage goes—live practically forever. This point in time will be some forty or more years before the perfection of the full requirements for continuous life—and this point may already have passed without our knowing it…The first advance of thirty years [of lifespan] would be no “eternal youth” treatment. But—science tends to advance exponentially. That thirty-year reprieve might give just the time needed for research to extend your life another forty years. And that forty years might—

The author continues: “Somewhere in history there must come a point such that a child born then will be just passing maturity when the life-extension techniques will reach the necessary point. They will grant him a series of little extensions—each just sufficient to reach the next—until the final result is achieved.” And he closes on an optimistic note: “I wonder if that point has been passed? And my own guess is—it has.”

The logic here isn’t inherently unreasonable, and it gains much of its power from one particular point—the allegedly “exponential” growth of science and technology, which implies that if we manage to hang on for long enough, we have a shot at reaching the breakthrough that leads to unlimited life extension. Another highly intelligent proponent of transhumanism begins by repeating the argument made above:

For every ten or twenty scientists who will admit they believe in possible longevity, there is only one who will go so far as to speak of physical immortality. Nonetheless, every breakthrough in life extension means that some of us will live long enough to be around for the next breakthrough, and the next, until immortality is actually achieved…I am…confident that something will come of this kind of research “in fifteen years maximum.”

In support of this viewpoint, he cites “the acceleration of scientific breakthroughs,” adding later: “Many things in technology are advancing exponentially, and the one general tendency is clearly that there will be more basic breakthroughs (both in scientific theory and in technological applications) in each generation than in any previous generation.” And he concludes with a familiar statement to the reader: “Some of the readers of this book—the more determined ones—may never die at all.”

More recently, the conversation about technological acceleration has come to focus on the concept of the singularity—the moment at which artificial intelligence advances to the point where it becomes capable of building on itself, leading to the standard exponential curve. It isn’t hard to think of plenty of unpleasant scenarios that might follow this development, but for your average transhumanist, it only provides another path forward. Another prominent advocate has consistently argued for years that we’re on the verge of three major revolutions—in genetics, technology, and robotics—that will culminate in the singularity, which he expects to live long enough to see. As he puts it: “How long does a house last? The answer obviously depends on how well you take care of it…If you proactively take care of the structure, repair all damage, confront all dangers, and rebuild or renovate parts from time to time using new materials and technologies, the life of the house can essentially be extended without limit.” He continues in a reassuring vein: “The same holds true for our bodies and brains. The only difference is that, while we fully understand the methods underlying the maintenance of a house, we do not yet fully understand all of the biological principles of life. But with our rapidly increasing comprehension of the biochemical processes and pathways of biology, we are quickly gaining that knowledge.” And his conclusion should ring a bell: “Sufficient information already exists today to slow down disease and aging processes to the point that baby boomers like myself can remain in good health until the full blossoming of the biotechnology revolution, which will itself be a bridge to the nanotechnology revolution.”

By now, you’ve probably figured out the punchline. The first writer whom I quote above is John W. Campbell, writing in an editorial in Astounding Science Fiction in 1949. Campbell died in 1971. The second source is Robert Anton Wilson, who added elsewhere in Cosmic Trigger, which was written in 1977: “Since DNA was discovered in 1944, the biological revolution (including longevity, and possibly immortality) should be peaking in 2004.” Wilson died in 2007. The third quote is from Ray Kurzweil, who published The Singularity is Near twelve years ago. Kurzweil is still around, and as a senior director of engineering at Google, he’s certainly in a better position than his predecessors to devote actual resources to the promised revolution in longevity. And while it may well happen in my lifetime, as the earlier examples indicate, it’s far from certain. A child born when Campbell wrote his editorial would be nearly seventy now, which reminds us that we’ve been hearing these promises for a long time—and it hints at an important distinction between the actual argument and its rhetorical presentation. The assertion that technology advances at an exponential rate is convincing enough, and so is the idea that we’ll eventually reach a point when death can be indefinitely postponed, although your mileage on the latter notion may vary. But the statement that the generation in which the author is writing is the one that will witness this breakthrough is purely a rhetorical device, with nothing in particular to back it up. (On some level, it’s as old as as the Gospel of Matthew: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”) There may come a time when we’ll be able to live for as long as we like. But it will take more than wishful thinking to get there.

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2018 at 9:41 am

4 Responses

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  1. I don’t want to be able to live forever, why live forever?


    July 23, 2018 at 11:20 am

  2. @riantasingh9: Frankly, it seems a lot less appealing these days.


    July 23, 2018 at 11:31 am

  3. I commend to your attention a book written by someone who has in a very real, if limited, way lived this dream of continuing biomedical advance conferring continuing extension of their individual lifespan.

    It’s —
    Heart: An American Medical Odyssey
    by Dick Cheney & Jonathan Reiner


    It honestly is an interesting book, incidentally. Reiner has been Cheney’s cardiac specialist for the last thirty-five years and it basically discusses what’s become possible over the last four decades in the field. Essentially, with each new cardiac crisis Cheney faces, a novel technique or technology emerges to rescue him from death.

    Mark Pontin

    July 24, 2018 at 7:33 am

  4. My Dad used to say he had an axe that was more than a hundred years old… the handle had been replaced three times, and the head had been replaced twice. That begs the question: At what point do “we” become not ourselves, but something else entirely? BTW, my Dad is now 88 and has fairly advanced dementia.

    Andrea Kenner

    July 25, 2018 at 10:07 pm

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