Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

You will die. Get used to it.

Technology gatherings seem to have a disproportional number of people that are true believers when it comes to anti-aging and ‘uploading’ your brain to a computer. One of these is to cheat death by increments, the other the technological equivalent of an afterlife. The first through direct intervention, reversing the normal process of aging, the second by decoupling the mind from the body and letting it continue to function in some kind of substitute substrate, usually presented as a computer.

Sorry folks, but I think it isn’t going to happen, I’ll try to explain why.

Let’s deal with anti-aging first. Modern people live considerably longer than those from times gone by. Almost everybody that is past the age of 50 has had one or more life-extending operations and the illusion that our bodies can be ‘fixed’ to keep going for ever is definitely easy to acquire. But bodies, like all machines, really do wear, and eventually they wear out.

‘Reversing’ the wear goes a lot further than replacing worn out tissue with new and depleted minerals with new stock. You’d have to tackle some of these issues at the cellular level, others at the molecular level. And most of that is easier said than done.

It seems that our bodies have a natural upper-limit life span of roughly 130 years, with the occasional outlier that manages to get that far in the present time, unassisted.

So, let’s say we do what we can and manage to slow down the wear on the most critical parts of our bodies (organs, bones, heart, lungs) so that we can all live to be healthy 500 year olds.

This would take major progress in lots of fields, and would probably center on getting the cells to divide for more than their normal limit of cycles without going cancerous, or by catching them when they do (see http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100321/full/news.2010.138.html)..)

Normally speaking cells are limited in the number of divisions they can make as a failsafe mechanism. The only cells that we know of today that are immortal are cancer cells, they survive until the organism dies (or they are forcibly removed). And that’s just one of the hurdles we’d have to take, distinguishing what’s broken in a cell is easier said than done. The number of possible ‘states’ of all the molecules in a cell is an absolutely enormous number, and to be able to fix things at a molecular level we’d have to compare that current state with some ideal model and then to compare the results afterwards. Computationally a very hard problem, and we have a lot of cells!

But, let’s assume that somehow - unlikely, but maybe it’s possible - we manage to tweak these mechanism enough that we manage to survive and keep our bodies in the state of say a healthy 30 year old, forever.

What are you going to do ?

Sit indoors all day long ? You’d almost have to. What you stand to lose is your immortal self, and any risk you take is surely too large. Because multiplied over an infinite span of time one day something is going to get you. And then, bad luck, the building collapses on top of you one day. No such thing as a life without risk, and even the smallest risk eventually comes true.

And then you die, for real, even in ‘Highlander’ there can only be one, the others meet with ‘unfortunate accidents’.

Another route is cloning, spare parts will be ‘vat grown’ for you, from cells harvested from your ‘young’ body, and the clone will be used to supply you with bits and pieces that you need to keep your original body functioning. But this is fraught with trouble.

In order to harvest a heart that clone would have to die (so someone dies! even if it isn’t ‘you’ per se, so we have a few ethical issues here). And one day you’ll run out of clones, which all will have to be maintained somehow.

Infinity is a very large number, so, one day, sooner or later, you die. And since your ‘clones’ do not have your memories there is still the possibility that you walk under a bus or sneeze while you are washing the windows, and then there will be all those ‘spares’ that need to be killed as well, effectively multiplying the number of deaths.

So, eventually, you will die. Anti-aging alone isn’t going to cut it, even if it should work, which currently it doesn’t.

The biggest factor in our increased life span is modern medicine as applied to relatively simple things, and getting rid of the plague, penicillin, general hygiene, dental care, condoms, minor surgery, improvements in midwifery and other relatively simple ‘hacks’ to fix things that used to be fatal.

Together, these items have given us roughly double the life expectancy of what we’d have (on average) if we had to do without them.

High-tech medicine, while impressive in and of itself, has added maybe another 10 to 20 years on top of that, but most of that time you will spend in some old folks home looking out the window at people that still have a life. Unless you like playing cards and singing songs.

For a human to live to 80 years old is no longer anything really special, in fact in some countries there is now a discussion about raising the age at which you can get your pension because of these improvements in our life expectancy.

But 100 years is still pretty rare, and 120 is almost unheard of. So, if the above roadblocks are overcome and you really do get a chance to live to become 500, and you manage to avoid all chances of getting in to an accident, what other pitfalls await you?

I think this is where it gets interesting.

The human brain has limited storage capacity, and even though we’re fairly sure that we do not use all of it we also can’t fill it up forever. It seems that our maximum ‘clear’ memory span is something on the order of 40 to 50 years. Beyond that it gets hazy, and for plenty of people it gets hazy considerably sooner than that.

They’ll remember some bits from their childhood, but not all of it. They’ll remember last weeks meal, but not who they had it with. And so on.

So, assuming that in order to life forever you’d want to carry with you the identity that you had when you were young you’d have to find a way to extend the storage capacity of the brain and / or the fidelity with which it remembers things. “Garbage Collection”, is the term computer scientists use for permanently forgetting things, usually because they are no longer needed. But if you are the sum of your memories, and if you forget more and more of your past then at what point can you still be considered to be the same person?

This is already a problem with people today, dementia and other outwardly visible symptoms of deterioration of the mental faculties are usually more visible the older a person gets. And hardly any person older than 70 is really as sharp as they used to be when they were 30. Not that they would see the difference, but that’s besides the point.

Garbage Collection would need to be perfect in order to not toss out the occasional important bit of information. So somehow we’d have to proof the structure of our brains against accidental data loss, but that puts the storage limit back on the front burner, you can’t have it both ways.

The structure of the brain is a lot more complex than the most complicated objects made by man, and to ‘repair’ the brain you’d have to figure out what is broken first. I think that some brain degradation may be slowed down by making categorical fixes (increase the levels of certain chemicals, reduce others, maybe even replace some by more durable structures that function the same way) but I doubt that you could make it work in a way that you would be recognizably ‘you’ in the longer term, say a thousand years (yes, that’s long but it definitely isn’t immortal, so you die!). There will be a slow degradation of brain function to the point where you will either be insane or you will technically no longer be ‘you’, just the last x years from your memories. But ‘infinite’ memory capacity to keep with you all your dear experiences and to be able to recognize your potentially unlimited offspring is probably not in the cards.

Of course all this side-steps other reasons why people with an infinite life span are less than desirable, I’ll just list a few:

  • if you live forever, why would you do something today, after all, you have an infinite amount of time to get the job done

  • living forever means working forever, otherwise you will starve and then you won’t live forever. No pension plans for immortals

  • living forever means resource consumption forever, theoretically every human being would consume resources forever, a persons consumption would be unbound. Clearly this would not work, we’d need to find a lot more living room soon. Even with people dying on average every 80 years it will get pretty crowded at some point, without that safety valve we could have some serious trouble.

  • living forever means that given a democratic system of governance that typically your average voter will be 5000 years old, and ‘young’ entrants will be in a severe minority. Guess who will be the exploited in that society.

  • living forever will possibly be hoarded by the super wealthy, giving them a tremendous edge over the rest of us, who will not be able to afford this. The super wealthy are not usually the people that you want to hang around for ever. Death is currently the only bound on their power.

So, this is where the real techies play their trump card. Hah! They exclaim, but there is a solution for all that. I’ll read out the state of my mind and upload it into a computer. That way I get to cheat death forever, because:

  • I can make backup copies of myself

  • I can ‘fork’ my conscious self, and possibly even merge them at a later date

  • I can expand my memory forever

  • silicon doesn’t age

  • I won’t consume any resources other than a bit of power

Someone jokingly called this the ‘rapture of the nerds’ (as an analogue to the religious ‘rapture’).

Let me try to explain why I think this is an illusion.

It all started with science fiction, definitely not limited to (and it wasn’t the first) the lawn mower man, star trek (data) and more recently, Accelerando (which really is a great book and is available for free here: http://manybooks.net/titles/strosscother05accelerando-txt.html, if you haven’t read it I’d really like to recommend it).

It makes great science fiction, but in practice it is a little bit more complicated than in theory. That seems to be the problem with most of these far fetched ideas. ‘Uploading’ your mind, means measuring in great detail the state of your mind. And we do not even know what ‘mind’ is. Yet. We may one day, but currently our understanding of ‘mind’ is extremely limited. We can cut open the brain of a corpse, and we will not find anything that we can label ‘mind’. Mind emerges, it is not a physical entity that you can simply simulate. And even if you could record the state of your mind, would it be you ? Or would it simply be a snapshot ? And would it be sane ? (there is some interesting work being done in this field, and even though the results are ‘promising’ there is too little high level knowledge yet to know whether or not we’re simulating the mechanics of a brain or whether we really are simulating a brain, for much interesting reading see here: http://bluebrain.epfl.ch/ , an attempt at a molecular simulation of the brain and the writings of Roger Penrose about why such simulation might not be enough to get to AI, let alone to accurate reproduction of a given intelligence).

And if it would be you, how long would it be you, without a body to experience all the sensations with that keep you in touch with the world around you. Would it be enough to replace those hundreds of millions of neurons that power your senses with digital equivalents. Will the caress of a lover on your digital skin mean anything to you ? Will you experience emotion ? Or will you be batshit insane and asking for someone to please pull the plug before the day is out, because after all, we’re talking about ‘life imprisonment’ here, in a cell that is smaller than any on death row without even the ability to bang your head against the wall, because there are no walls.

Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.

So, in short, you are going to die. But don’t worry too much about it, enjoy your life, the one that you have today. Make sure that you don’t waste your time on earth, chances are that no matter what great stuff science comes up with, that this life is all you’ve got.

And if I’m wrong, well, then the true believers in anti-aging and uploading get to laugh at me for eternity.

Carpe Diem.