Welcome to Episode 220 of the Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host John Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
For our podcast topic this week, we’re going to chat about the advances in the Digital Life and in biological engineering that are entertaining the human search for immortality. We have a lovely audio from Aeon Magazine from an article, an essay there, entitled “What are the Ethical Consequences of Immortality Technology?” I think this is such a great way to cue up the discussion that I’m just going to start with this audio clip, so here it goes.
Immortality has gone secular. Unhooked from the realm of gods and angels, it’s now the subject of serious investment, both intellectual and financial, by philosophers, scientists, and the Silicon Valley set. Several hundred people have already chosen to be cryo-preserved in preference to simply dying as they wait for science to catch up and give them a second shot at life. But if we treat death as a problem, what are the ethical implications of the highly speculative solutions being mooted?
Of course, we don’t currently have the means of achieving human immortality, nor is it clear that we ever will. But two hypothetical options have so far attracted the most interest and attention–rejuvenation technology, and mind uploading.
All right, so there we have you know setting the stage for this discussion on either digital or biological immortality. I’d like to further sort of delve into the history of this problem set by referring to the sort of ever so famous Fountain of Youth which in the 16th Century was attached to the Spanish Conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon. Of course I’m fairly certain that that had little to do with the actual Conquistador, but none the less this is the search for the Fountain of Youth. You have the search for the Holy Grail which was meant to impart immortality upon its owner. This is a deeply rooted human desirement that pervades our mythologies and rightly so. I mean humans are defined in a lot of ways by our mortality.
We look at our technologies that we have for fighting off diseases for instance and every time we get good at fighting off one disease, we find that farther down the road there’s another more awful disease that’s coming to get us. A perfect example of that is we’re getting good at food production now, so we’re not dying of diseases related to starvation. Rather we’re running into the diseases of over abundance, right, of obesity, diabetes, etc. The minute that we solve some of the problems around aging, we realize that down the road cancer, our DNA breaks down and we have all sorts of problems with carcinogens and various cancers.
Then finally we’ve done really well with solving all sorts of transportation technologies and energy technologies and of course that’s causing climate change which then basically moves all these unique viruses up and down; up from the southern regions into northern regions. West Nile Virus for instance, they’re spraying for West Nile Virus in the metro west of the Boston area. That was never a factor even just a decade ago and now we have this somewhat exotic virus to worry about.
It seems to me like humans have always been trying to solve the problems of immortality whether that be through getting better health or you know we have all of these computing technologies as well, but the unforeseen consequences always push back on us like a sledgehammer. With that thought Dirk I’d be interested in how you see this problem and then we can dig into some of the digital and biological tech that’s making it perhaps more possible.
Yeah, I mean first I think it’s too early to have these conversations. I think it’s somewhat irresponsible of media outlets to be breathlessly touting this kind of a story because we are so far away from immortality whether it be physical or digital as to be ridiculous. I mean for over a decade now, probably longer than that, if you talk about like a Ray Kurzweil, but speaking strictly of advances in healthcare and discoveries in genomics, we’re not meaningfully increasing life expectancy today compared to a decade ago let alone immortality. We’re not even adding five years onto life expectancy and so now suddenly snap our fingers and it’s going to be forever? It’s just sort of nonsense.
On the digital side, I think we’re even farther away from the standpoint that we don’t know what makes us human so the whole conceit around the digital immortality is this notion that we can download our brain, somehow figure out what’s all the content there, download it somewhere and then it can exist in a downloaded space as us, as a person, as a being, and we don’t know what makes us a being. We certainly, there’s no proof or evidence that the quantifiable data in our brain and cells and system when transported into a different unit will have that unit being a being in the way that we know beings.
So before we should start talking about this digital immortality, we should have some freaking notion of what makes us human. What is it? We’re not there. We’re so far from there and the what makes us human is something we’ve been trying to solve for thousands of years, probably tens or hundreds of thousands of years going back to early humans and humanity. Yeah on the technical side you can say, “Well we’re kind of figuring out that cells can be replaced. Cells can be rejuvenated. Changes can be made at the genomic level.” Or we’re saying, “Yeah, we’re starting to understand how the brain works. We’re starting to see how and where things are stored and there may be a path to move that stuff around.”
All of that’s true, but the jump from that to a realized immortality either physical or digital is way freaking out there and we don’t know what the world is going to be like at that time. Trying to solve it from our contacts of today you know, philosophers are saying, “Oh my God. This is going to come so quickly and we need to be prepared.” I don’t know that we do because the framing of reality at the point that this becomes real is going to be vastly different than the framing of reality today.
The assumptions and the rules that we are setting and making in trying to project and prepare I don’t think are going to be relevant in ways large or small. So yeah, we do need to be prepared when the time comes, but I don’t think the time is now. I’m sort of super-skeptical of all of this stuff. I think it’s going get people a lot of attention. It’s going to get people work that they get paid for. It certainly is going to make people scared, or interested, or excited depending on your predisposition, but the reality is immortality is a ways down the road.
Yeah, I agree with all that from a sort of a framing from the technical and scientific side. What I do think these discussions open up in a positive way is immortality as sort of a proxy for whose ideas do we preserve over time and-
-whose bodies do we preserve?
Right, and that’s a roundabout way of me saying with my somewhat egalitarian viewpoint on things is that because we take technology for granted in a lot of ways today, I like the immortality discussion because it breaks us free of … It enables us to imagine and I think we need some imagination in our public discussions of things because there’s so much that we can do right now that I think even the most basic discussions around genomics or around the rule sets for cloning humans or whatever, all of these things they are possible today and so it doesn’t stretch the thinking of the public discussion to posit those things because those things are right around the corner.
Yeah, but framing them in immortality just is silliness.
Right, but what it does do I think is it says it’s a little bit shocking to think about like oh there’s going to be a class of people whose ideas and bodies are going to not only sort of exist past my own existence, but are going to around forever. So as a society what do we want-
Nothing is forever, but keep going.
I think I’m just trying make it an accessible argument that could be held in a more public way because if you take the natural, logical extensions of the technologies we’re talking about today like let’s say we never are immortal, but let’s say a very wealthy person can live for 200 years whereas the life expectancy of someone less wealthy is what it is today, 70 or 80.
What we’re really talking about at that point is I mean it’s not even just fundamental class difference. It’s almost like we’re separating out an entire portion of humanity to be preserved so what I like about the immortality argument is it says, “Who are we going to make the demigods of our society and are we okay with that?” We might be. We might be okay with a class of people who live for a long time and have their ideas dominate or we might not.
Yeah, but this is still the wrong moment to [solve 00:11:38] for that because I mean we’re still mired in capitalism and you can see capitalism fraying all over the place. Decades from now the slightly regulated capitalism that exists today will not be the dominant form of social organization. It will not so we’re solving from that position today and I don’t think that’s the position that will be in place when these things actually become an issue. As a thought experiment, as I mean as masturbation it’s interesting but I think it confuses reality.
It prevents people from really understanding what are the pieces on the board, how are they situated, which ones are important and how should we plan to move them around for a better future? I think it’s focusing on the wrong thing from my perspective.
Yeah, that’s certainly possible. I do like at its core the, as I said, sort of the imaginary, the fantastical aspects of it just as a wakeup call really, but I can see that we’re probably at slightly different positions on that and that is perfectly fine.
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You can follow me on Twitter at D Knemeyer. That’s @ D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R and thanks so much for listening.
So that’s it for Episode 220 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.