Sunday, October 3, 2010

Live Forever and Die Young

Life predates death, but just barely. At some point in the dim past, in a small pond or in the depth of the ocean, a twiggy bit of proto-RNA, or a fat globule stuffed with hydrocarbons, appeared. It was random chance, an unusual reaction, but with that life had begun. And like all familiar forms of life, this ancestor set off to make a copy of itself.

It succeeded. It may have succeeded a few times, starting a small extended family with total ignorance about death. Mostly, they lacked any organelles remotely capable of conceptualizing anything, especially abstract concepts like death. But there was also a lack of practical experience at play.

Then, death swirled his metaphorical bony finger in that pond, announcing his arrival. Perhaps torsion in the water ripped a creature in two. Perhaps the reproductive act failed, leaving two molecules trapped in a deathly embrace. But just moments after life, death was here.

Odds are pretty good that life and death will depart together, the last creature exiting, hand in hand, with the last death. Entropy isn't the swiftest foe, but its a dedicated one. Still, the rules of death are amenable to change. As long as a star is fusing elements together, there's energy a life can use to extends its existence.

The younger among us may live to see the day when medical technology possesses power to banish non-accidental death. Futurist Ray Kurzweil believes even the middle aged will make it to that victory. Even if it comes centuries from now, some civilization is going to have to face the social repercussions of practical immortality. Our body does an impressive job keeping itself repaired, a little help from nanotechnology and the genetic engineering away of certain 'kill switches' in our genes, could push our maximum age back arbitrarily far.

The "replacement rate" for humans is currently somewhere around 2.3 children per woman. If every woman had 2.3 children, our population would remain constant. As we prevent childhood deaths and infertility, the number approaches 2. When we have more children than this, our population grows, and on a finite world we will eventually reach some maximum capacity for supporting life.

But the replacement rate assumes a constant rate of death as well. If nobody dies, there's no-one to replace, so the replacement rate falls to 0. Adding in voluntary death and accidents, a few babies become necessary, but a very small amount compared to our biological drive to reproduce. An immortal civilization will face very hard choices about how to handle birth and death, putting a choice once dictated by fate into human hands.

The most pleasant solution is pushing off the population cap. Immortality supplanted with the colonization of space could see each generation being sent to new, untapped worlds. Kurzweil predicts that the ability to upload the mind into a simulated Eden will avoid overpopulation issues. If the mind is just a physical pattern, and that pattern can be reproduced in bits, computers could provide a massive location for storing generations past, a location where the living could interact freely with the 'dead', removing the sense of loss from bodily expiration.

But its not clear that either of those solutions will come to pass, or provide a long term solution to geometric population growth. Absent new worlds, real or simulated, to keep our forefathers population balance will need to be provided by society. The fairest solution may be abstention: the technology to stop death exists, but isn't used. Or if the allure of an extra century or three of life is too great, life extension could be provided up until a point. At some predefined age, death is mandated.

Practically, the solution seems fair. Overpopulation is averted, and while the government will eventually have you killed, you'd have achieved a longer than natural life. Still, mandated death dates have a chilly, distopian feel to them. I suspect not everyone will go gently into that good night. And in a way its just another form of abstention, possessing life giving technology but refusing to hand it out.

What if we wanted to allow immortality, perhaps for the few? It'd be an interesting experiment at any rate: what would a youthful body 800 years old think of? Would they be like a species above us, masters of endless knowledge and skills? Or would their brain fill up, and their abilities fail to exceed our own? Would they become trusted advisers, fonts of first hand knowledge from centuries of civilization, or just a burden and source of jealousy for the rest?

Will we turn to the free market for a solution? Auctioning off slots to the next century? A free-market proponent could argue that wealth corresponds with an individuals contribution to society, and that the most contributing deserve more time on Earth, but the solution strikes me as too distasteful for adoption. While we already portion off life saving technology by wealth, I'm inclined to believe this discrepancy has a limit, and that the populace won't accept an immortal ruling class lightly.

There's one solution that frightens me most, because it feels so fair on the face of it. Immortal despots, death panels and brains encoded into 1's and 0's are very science fiction. They don't strike me as the sorts of solutions people would actually choose. But what if the 'replacement rate' was made more concrete? What if immortality is granted as long as you have no children? With the birth of a first child, some clock could be set, perhaps just the removal of age-defying treatments. The parent could live a traditional full life: 60 years, perhaps, to see the children grow up and make their own lives, before they need to pass on. Then death becomes a choice, a trade off for a deep biological need, and a morale obligation to give other lives a chance at realization.

Sounds fair doesn't it, or at least as fair as is likely when immortality is real? But what sort of world would this create? I suspect lots of people wouldn't wait much longer than they do now. Some would experience life for centuries, or longer, only passing on when they'd experienced all they wanted to experience in this life. But then there's the edge of the bell curve...

A few people would chose not to have children ever, preferring self preservation to reproduction. Perhaps sociopaths, having no concern for others, would see no need to create new life. The intensely narcissistic, the ego-maniacal, the greedy, seeing at no point in time an advantage in giving up their self-important life, would pass generation to generation. The well adjusted will accept death, sooner or later, as an integral part of being. Even if those self absorbed make up a minuscule fraction of the population, each generation would add a few more to their numbers. The good die, the bad live on. The good die, the bad live on. Then one day birth is all but gone, as only the self obsessed are left. Such a good meaning solution. Such a dreary end.

There's a theory that the reason we can't find signs of alien life is a tendency for civilizations to self destruct at some point in their evolution. This idea seems less popular now, being much more visceral during the threats of the cold war. I'd always dismissed it somewhat out of hand, as more a projection of fears than a reasonable theory. But on thinking about life extension, I can start to see the sort of seed that would rip societies apart. What if the technology was ubiquitous and strict rules could not be placed on the use? What if the solutions all require despotic control, the sort antithetical to a civilization's advancement? Will we adjust to the siren song of immorality? Do any species?

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