Four Arguments Against Immortality

Science fiction is full of stories where our heroes live forever. And some current biological research is aimed at making our lives last centuries. So what's the downside of lasting forever? Here are four reasons to be a mortalist.

Four Arguments Against Immortality

1. We will no longer be human.

Developments in genomics and biotech have given us everything from light-activated, highly-targeted medicines to prosthetic implants that can turn thoughts into words. When tech like this matures, our lives will be much longer. But is that always a good thing? What if all those implants and genome hacks transform us into Locutus of Borg or the Daleks? What good is living forever if you are just a shell of your former self? If you have lost your individuality and become a killing machine?

Four Arguments Against Immortality

2. Whatever body you're in, there you are.

So you've ported your consciousness into a cyberheaven, or a giant blue alien with sexytime hair, or a deadly robot who wears a plunger on his head. The thing is, you still have the same problems. You're still messed up over your last divorce. You're still having to fight the evil corporation that wants to destroy the beautiful Moon where your new body feels most at home. Or you've suddenly lost your free will because your brain is running Dalek firmware. While transforming your body will certainly change your perceptions, it won't solve your problems.

Four Arguments Against Immortality

3. Our augmented bodies and minds will be hackable.

As computer security nerds already know, every new release means a new vulnerability. Your awesome brain-computer interface may give you unlimited memory but it also means that an evil hacker can take over your consciousness by exploiting a buffer overflow in your brain. Your bionic arm is awesome, but only if you are able to get updates for it from a trusted source. And your cool new exoskeleton? Let's just hope somebody patched that problem that lets kids in Russia take it over remotely and make you hump trucks forever. Or how about a Dollhouse scenario, where everybody in the world gets a phone call that reformats their brains and turns them into supersoldiers bent on destroying each other. Augmentation creates its own kinds of disabilities.

Four Arguments Against Immortality

4. We'll have to deal with the immortality divide.

Daybreakers was a pretty uneven movie, but it got one thing right, and that was its interesting interpretation of the old story of the haves vs. have-nots. When the whole world goes vampire, humans have perfect health and can live forever. The problem is that not everybody can afford the blood required to maintain their newly-augmented bodies. So wealthy humans have super-strength, while the blood-starved poor turn into mindless, ravening animals who have to be killed. Immortality technologies will exacerbate the already-growing divide between rich and poor. In a future where people have access to live-extending biotech, wealth could mean living for centuries, growing more powerful. People born into poverty will have even fewer chances to compete against the rich, and the free market could stagnate. Democratic human societies might ossify into rigid, caste-based feudalism once again.

Four Arguments Against Immortality

Social immortality vs. personal immortality

Sure, you're saying, there's a downside. But does that mean we shouldn't invest in new medicines and technologies that will extend our lives today? Or make our lives more comfortable? No, that's not what it means. We should absolutely keep working to make medicine as advanced as possible, and to make our lives as healthy and long as possible. But not to the point of impoverishing other areas of life.

What a lot of these stories share in common is a sense that immortality becomes a problem when social health is sacrificed to benefit greedy elites. So, for example, the bad guys in Daybreakers are the people who run the biggest blood processing corporation. And Dollhouse's Big Bad is the eponymous Dollhouse - where brainwiped people are rented out by the hour. Here we see augmented, enhanced, virtually immortal people who only get to be that way by depriving others.

These stories call attention to the difference between innovations that lead to personal immortality, and those that lead to social immortality. The latter is the immortality of our species, its ability to continue hopefully millions of years into the future. But this can only be accomplished if people today are willing to pursue forms of science that aren't just aimed at augmenting the mega-elites, but will also lead to species longevity. I'm talking about science like large-scale systems biology, the study of longterm environments and ecosystems. Space exploration, so that one day we can live offworld. And sustainable urban development so that we can continue living on this planet for another 150 thousand years, when today's humans will be the Homo erectus of some future version of ourselves.

This a version of a presentation I gave at Dorkbot in San Francisco last night. Thanks to all who came!