Why the dream of life extension is really a nightmare
According to boosters like Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Gray, David Sinclair, Ben Bova, and a great many others who’ve spotted a lucrative niche to exploit, we’re on the verge of being able to live forever.
Sometimes this vision is presented as a function of manipulating biology; sometimes it’s presented as an inevitable outcome of the computer age. Occasionally these two visions are merged, so that we proceed for the first part of our lives replacing parts that wear out (this is the human-as-automobile idea) and then when the right moment arrives we just upload our consciousness (which is never actually defined) into a computer program and voila: we become immortal.
We can think of this idea as “stuffing granny into your smartphone.”
In reality, biology isn’t so easily manipulated. We may get to the point where we can grow organs and other tissues, but we’re precisely nowhere in terms of making progress towards any ability to maintain the human brain. So even the best-case “replace stuff when it’s worn out” dream simply brings Swift’s Struldbruggs closer to reality: a world in which no one dies, but everyone’s brain has turned to mush.
As a great many people don’t seem to have much in the way of brain function to begin with, the deterioration of already-modest cognitive ability over additional decades is a pretty terrifying notion. If you think the infantile creature Trump is a mindless lump of orange puss today, just imagine what a 200-year-old Trump would be like.
The poor lifestyle choices made by 85% of people in the USA shorten lifespan and dramatically shorten healthspan. Medical costs have gone through the roof as a result of obesity, smoking, and excessive consumption of alcohol. The drugs used to treat the problems caused by poor lifestyle choices in turn create additional problems that (yes, you guessed it) are treated with yet more drugs.
Now imagine increasing current healthcare spending by a couple of orders of magnitude. Basically we’d be spending every dollar generated merely to attempt to cover our health care costs.
So the idea of making it possible for people to live longer, but not healthier, is frankly a more than just a little bit mad. Not surprisingly, few life-extension boosters bother to mention this minor issue of national bankruptcy. Nor does anyone wax lyrical about centuries spent in an E-Z-Boy loafer gawping open-mouthed at endless trash TV shows. Yet this would be how most people would spend those vaunted extra years.
Then, as an alternative to a life spent in an E-Z-Boy, there’s the vision of uploading ourselves into a nice comfy computer program.
As we know almost nothing about how our brains create the illusion of partial consciousness (and partial is all we have, despite our self-deception to the contrary) and as we’re still in the very early stages of understanding even the basics about how memories are created and stored, and as we know only a little about the various cognitive functions such as image processing, speech processing, etc., and as there’s no actual concordance between a computer program and the way the brain functions, it’s evident that the upload-yourself vision is pure Keystone Kops meets Star Trek.
The fact is, we can’t even properly define what we mean by the word consciousness, never mind plan ways to upload it anywhere.
Put simply, the human brain is nothing like a computer. We may as well fantasize about uploading ourselves into a brass Babbage mechanical difference engine or into a steam engine. Or into a tea-cosy.
The one important thing we do know, however, is that when the human brain is deprived of sensory input, it doesn’t react well. People can find it lovely to be in a sensory deprivation tank for 20 minutes but after 20 hours the hallucinations are terrible and 20 days of total sensory deprivation would lead to irreversible insanity.
So even if by pure magic it was one day possible to upload some sort of human consciousness into a computer, do we really want to have endless racks of boxes filled with screams?
The problem with most life extension fantasies is that they’re like space exploration fantasies: they ignore or simply wish away the endless practical problems and fixate instead on a cartoon-style fantasy.
Yet when we pause a moment to think about being able to live for hundreds of years, even if we were able to be rather less unhealthy and slightly less addicted to mindless distractions, it’s profoundly unclear why the fantasy of endless life should be appealing.
The merest glance at any history book shows us clearly that as a species we’re not very intelligent and we learn practically nothing whatsoever from experience. We keep making the same basic blunders over and over and over again. There is zero reason to believe that simply living longer would make us any less dim-witted. We’re at a point in history now where the average human lives far longer than the average human lifespan of our entire evolutionary history. Yet we’ve voted for Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi, Erdogan, Babis, Orban, AfD, PiS, Duterte, and too many other blustering morons to count on the fingers of many hands.
We have billions of people who fervently believe in invisible magical creatures and souls and afterlives. We have a superfluity of people who tell anyone who’ll listen that the Earth is flat and we’re all being controlled by lizard creatures. Living longer demonstrably fails to make us less foolish.
We are an intellectually indolent species.
Despite the wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, the average person knows more about their favorite TV show than about anything they interact with during their daily lives. The average person knows essentially nothing about the wider world: other countries and cultures are to all intents and purposes unopened books. Most people have little or no grasp of evolution, cosmology, or even basic physics. Nor does the average person know anything much about history, aside from some cartoon version of their own nation’s highly self-aggrandizing myths.
The near-total ignorance of the average person is stunning, yet almost everyone has plenty of time in which they could acquire adequate knowledge, were they motivated to do so. Instead, nearly everyone spends their time consuming empty trivia.
Thus a longer life would simply enable the vast majority of people to stare at mindless entertainments for many more years.
That doesn’t sound like a very inspiring goal.
And what about those few people who do seek to understand? Those who observe, study, learn, absorb, and think deeply about matters of importance?
Imagine watching the same stupidities over and over and over again, knowing that no one will ever learn anything from their experiences and will simply do it all again quite soon.
It would be enough to make a thoughtful person commit suicide simply in order to avoid being inescapably depressed.
It is fortunate, therefore, that despite all the boosterism, human life extension will remain impractical for as far into the future as we can see. And if it ever does one day become possible even to a very limited extent (let’s say adding a century to our lifespans) the results will be predictably catastrophic.
I’m very glad I won’t live long enough to see such a eventuality.