Friday, April 18, 2014

Some downsides of living forever

The Weekly Standard has a thoughtful piece by a writer named James C. Banks on James Barrat's Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. I generally agree with the review, and had some similar responses in my own review. Banks also makes some interesting points about Kurzweillian Singularity thinking here:
Nonetheless, if Barrat does not always make a convincing case, his predictions are preferable to those of some of the techno-utopians he interviews. If there is anything more disturbing than the prospect of being destroyed by a self-replicating computer that feeds itself by harvesting carbon, it is the visions of people like Ray Kurzweil, a man who “plans to fend off death” through dieting and exercise “until technology finds a cure he’s certain will come.” 
Immortality has long been a pursuit of the “transhumanist” movement, but there is nothing immortal about the sort of goal that Kurzweil is setting for humanity. It may be nonagenarian, and it may hold the promise of indefinite, if not eternal, life. But in the transhumanist world that Kurzweil and others dream of, we would still be fed with the same food, killed by the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, and warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer. 
In such a world—a world in which people may have the ability to live forever but are not guaranteed to do so—would anyone muster the courage to set foot outside his front door? Would people still desire to raise children if they had no intention of leaving any legacy to them? Or would we become a society of old minds trapped in young bodies with the desire to achieve no more wisdom than will preserve our bodies for another year? 
Me: Those seem like plausible enough worries, and surely there will be some kind of unpalatable consequences and tradeoffs if the Kurzweillian vision ever becomes realized. I wonder, though: If we're really taking the idea of people uploading their minds seriously, doesn't that suggest there'd be backup copies? Maybe the problem is not that long-lived people would be super-cautious but rather that they'd be wildly incautious, because if they get hit by a driverless truck or whatever, they could always just revert back to the version of themselves they saved a little earlier this morning.

Similarly, how much would they care about killing someone else? (Would it be OK if that person has backups? Would it be a greater crime to kill someone with a huge lifespan ahead of him/her/it than to kill an old-fashioned person who's only got a few decades more at best anyway?) In any case, the outlook of people who aren't expecting to die for a long, long time if ever, would be very different from that of people today, in ways that aren't necessarily conducive to better behavior while one is around.


Ray Haupt said...

Jonathan Swift had discussed this centuries ago when Gulliver, on his third voyage, encountered a race that had immortality. The idea may seem appealing but Gulliver very quickly observed that those with the gift of immortality lacked vigour and grew ever more decrepit.
Immense age without youth is a sad combination.

Kenneth Silber said...

Ray, I hope you have a chance to see Extraterreatrial, film I reviewed in other post. It has material PhACT members may find interesting.