The quote/headline: Could you live forever? Humans will achieve IMMORTALITY using AI and genetic engineering by 2050, expert claims.
Apart from the fact it was from the Daily Mail, a tabloid famous for sensationalising averagely (at best), written stories with questionable sources, and the source is [apparently], if not a typo, a single source (who is making predictions about more than thirty years from now (the number of variables between that point and this is unimaginable), which does make one wonder as to the accuracy of his predictions... but I'm not here to speculate on how a paper plays upon the existential terrors of mortality in a period when we have more free time to contemplate the existential terrors of mortality, to make its money, but to consider the necessary psychological factors in place to desire immortality in the first place and the ramifications of immortality; what would it mean in which particular state (for we are offered two very different forms of immortality in the quote above).
Who wants to live forever?
Immortality, the core of so many myths, legends, stories, assessments and even religions. For so very long, perhaps since the first glimmerings of mortality crossed the first sentient mind, this word has, with waxing and waning potency, obsessed the human race, and must closely accompany the essential fact of the human state: death. Before we can assess the desire for immortality we must first have some sort of understanding of its reason for being, and for that we must have some clear view of death. What is death at its most basic? We are not assessing death if you believe in heaven, reincarnation, or some other form of afterworld or post-death extension, for if you truly believe in such a concept/concepts, then death would not hold any particularly strong power over you. We need to look at death for what it is at its most terrifying: the end of consciousness. We can look at suicide, and heroic sacrifice; suicide as belief of an end of consciousness being more desirable than its continuation, and heroic sacrifice as some form of love or ultimate utilitarianism. The first is escalating, the second diminishing... is horror, angst, and fear so much more accessible today, is altruism so sadly disabused as to no longer manage to hold sway in the face of global (Western world?) narcissism (this from a huge fan of Twain...)? So to return: death as the end of consciousness (here we see the founding optimism of the race – that we should see consciousness as something to be generally desired, rather than spurned), the end of seeing beautiful sights, tasting tasty and delicious foodstuffs, hearing delightful sounds, feeling wondrous objects, smelling delicate and tantalising aromas, and most of all (for me at least), the contemplation of said sensations (if sensations they are – see the epistemological problem).
Aside: The Church had the right idea; making the afterlife so tempting in the light of people's horrendous existence to attract their attention, but making suicide a mortal sin to prevent people taking the quick route to paradise...
So, there is only one thing we can guarantee (at the moment, and in consideration of the human condition) in this life... that it will end. What does that fact do to the basic foundation of human thinking, and the human unconscious? First, time must be something of importance – we have so many idioms and cliches for time... particularly relevant during this period of the world 'time is money' (although perhaps 'money is time', might be more appropriate). Through the capitalisation of our resources we can make more effective use of your time. However, how do we spend the extra free time we are allotted by our excess of capital? We desperately try to fill the time with distractions so we are not forced to think about out miniature measure of time, or how we do not make the most effective and productive, perhaps 'meaningful' use of that time – a snake eating its own tail in truth... Next, our need to immortalise ourselves through works and prodigy. While, in my experience, I have come to refute the belief the only reason for children is a vain attempt at immortality (the premise is so far from possible even the unconscious would seem to struggle in the delusion), I do believe that for some people leaving children behind is leaving a little imprint of yourself to posterity. However, seeing how, throughout this world, so many people have children for the wrong reasons (I class reasons such as parental, social, or cultural pressure, a calculation as to selfish advantages – benefits, company, a retirement fund, of sorts, and many more, as the wrong reasons), it seems difficult to understand how the driving force behind procreation is either/both biological and/or existential. More interesting, and significantly more difficult than random acts of coitus, is leaving something notably enduring to posterity. Some act or series of acts, some piece or collection of artwork, some inspirational work of literature, speech or example, a breakthrough in the sciences, etc... not necessarily by the highly trained and motivationally dedicated, but with epistemology being so compartmentalised today in all likelihood the protagonist would have trained and studied, worked and experienced for some protracted period of time (an elitist view I find difficult to dissuade myself from). Again, I make no simple claims to the drive behind such creations, rather, I believe there are many drives inspiring, coercing, manipulating, tempting, etc... souls to create wondrous things (amorally speaking). To return to the original topic: If we have established this terror of the end of consciousness is [possibly] the foundation and driving force behind our actions then we are being offered what appears a lifeline (excuse the very literal pun), a branch thrown to the man desperately flailing as he sinks into unremitting quicksand, but are these [very different] offers all that they appear at first glance.
1. AI: The Ghost in the Machine (while this is not what the term usually refers to I think for my purposes it works very well). Many and widespread are the fears stemming from the possibility of AI, and to be honest they are not without foundation. A sentient being with an almost infinite capacity for learning, the ability to make calculations at almost unfathomable speeds and resources only limited by access (intelligence does not suggest personality – if one does come with the other, and the machine is not (if left without conditioned programming), operating on a purely logical level – then I suggest it would be much like the rest of us: a creature of mixed and confused morals... unfortunately one with vastly more potential)... However, returning to the topic: AI, if not the harbinger of doom, might be able to make interesting and useful contributions to other methods for extending our lifespans (or possibly doing away with death, at least through ageing diseases, altogether). It seems unhelpful to suggest AI, in itself, will save us from our own mortality, especially if we think it will, in some way, move over and let us take the reigns of its own vehicle. 2. Related to this idea – living in the machine; in some way we upload our conscious into a mainframe and adventure for eternity throughout the endless vaults of our imagination (studies have been made of this idea for a long time with suggestions made that we are already ghosts in this machine – the chance that this is the first time these scenarios have been run by our future selves are so low the odds of us being anything other than programs in the machine were once suggested at 300,000:1). 3. Extending life through bacteria: Rapamycin, a bacteria originally discovered on Easter Island is being used in several drugs and has been found to extend the lives of lab animals (mice live up to 25% longer and tests on dogs are now underway). 4. Stanford has been enjoying vampiric studies on babies blood – the blood taken from babies' umbilical cords was shown to have both anti-ageing and memory enhancing abilities. 5. More studies have been conducted into LLCs (late life cyclers), a group of about twenty five genes activated during times of stress and later in life to combat ageing effects due to disruptions of our circadian cycle. 6. While possibly the most promising research, pioneered by the University of New South Wales, is work investigating the relationship between ageing and stem cells, and using the regenerative example of the salamander in attempting to find ways to 'regenerate any human tissue damaged by injury, disease or ageing'.
That's all well and good – for the prospect of death is as terrifying to me as the next healthy, life loving idiot, but let's not get ahead of ourselves for first we have to perfect any treatment that at this point may or may not work, and then we have to make it affordable (pretty standard to make it only available to the insanely rich for a while), and then we are going to have to think about some of the repercussions... so, while I don't normally state: to be continued... in this case we shall do a part two, an assessment of two different thought experiments: a) what would an afterlife consist of, and b) how would extended lives affect society and individual life...