This article is the third in a series about using technology to overcome the most primal challenges to humanity: disease, aging, and death. In Part 1, we looked at the Avatar Project and the people who are actively trying to promote indefinite life extension. In Part 2, we looked at the history of the idea that “the mind is a machine.” In this conclusion we examine some of the social consequences of a society where our robot bodies put us beyond disease and aging.
Humanity’s history is a story of self-creation: the harnessing of technology not simply to control our environment, but to re-imagine what it means to be human. Chilean evolutionary biologist Humberto Maturana coined the term autopoiesis--literally “self-creation”--to describe the fundamental property of what it means to be alive. In his 1996 book Social Systems, systems theorist Niklas Luhmann talked about the social and cultural process of second-order autopoiesis: when life looks at itself, and deliberately reimagines its own being.
We changed what it means to be human when we started to use tools and control fire. We changed it again when we began to use written symbols to store human knowledge outside our biological brains, on the artificial substrate of stone tablets and sheets of papyrus. We have augmented our our sight with eyeglasses, telescopes and microscopes. We have been using technology to reimagine what it means to be human for tens of thousands of years.
That process continues today. So far, this series has talked about some of the newest technologies and the history behind the science that will lead us to take the next great step in our own directed evolution: re-creating our human selves in completely artificial bodies.
That step is troubling for some. Many debate the ethics, philosophy and morality of uploading our minds to machines or living in mechanical bodies. But so long as there are human beings who are curious enough to push the boundaries of what it means to be human, technology will continue to advance. As Jeff Goldblum’s character said in Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”
Via Flickr user David Catchpole
But that doesn’t mean that it should advance blindly. What would be the implications of shedding our biological casings for technologically-based consciousness? Are there precautions we need to take, to ensure that we don’t endanger ourselves or the planet?
To get a better idea of how experts view this issue, I chose four critical questions about the possible consequences of artificial life extension--questions based on the most common issues and fears that have appeared in the media over the last several years--and put them to three outspoken and prominent futurists.
- Jeffrey Joslin, the owner and curator of the website Me, Myself and Robot, and frequent contributor to Tech Gen Mag;
- B.J. Murphy, a writer for the nonprofit think-tank Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, the Editor/Social Media Manager for SeriousWonder.com, and a Futurist Advisor for the nonprofit NGO Lifeboat Foundation; and
- Zoltan Istvan, author of online columns The Transhumanist Philosopher for Psychology Today and Transhumanist Future for Vice, and 2016 United States Presidential candidate under the newly formed Transhumanist Party.
Although their perspectives vary, all three were extremely optimistic about the future and our ability, as a species, to handle the coming technological revolution. Their explanations may not convince you--they didn’t always convince me--but they are a window into the minds of the bright and forward-looking people who eagerly anticipate the day that humans ultimately trade biology for technology.
[Author’s Note: These interviews were conducted separately, and I have interleaved the responses here to highlight the similarities and differences in their thinking. None of them were ever aware of the others’ responses, nor were they responding to each other. Included here are key responses, with some content edited or omitted for brevity.]
Question 1. Will life extension exacerbate problems of overpopulation and scarce resources?
Second Nexus: Population growth is already a problem. Scientists who think seriously about sustainability agree that we need a dramatic cultural shift to make things sustainable in the long-term. If people live as long as they want to, won’t that make the problem worse?
via Flickr user Lauren Manning
Zoltan Istvan: I don’t worry about population explosion. I worry about wars or existential risk that keep technology from developing. The planet can handle 15 billion people, but it must be done the right way. Not everyone can get exactly what they want. Farming, water usage, fossil fuels, etc. must all be allocated properly to get a stable planet.
Second Nexus: But don’t we have a responsibility to figure out how to get people to act responsibly about the planet, before we attempt indefinite life extension?
Zoltan Istvan: I believe responsibility is to our lives and the length of it. For me, ethics is always a matter of how long we have left to live. And if we are dying earlier because we are paying too much attention to the environment, then I’m not for that.
Jeffrey Joslin: The problem is not necessarily that we have too many people, it’s that we haven’t spent enough time teaching those people how to efficiently prevent waste. We’re over-populated in the sense that too many people knowingly pollute the environment, and
Jeffrey Joslin: ...in the sense that we don’t care about the realities of social strata around the world. We need to teach people how to be happy with only what they need to survive. Material wealth doesn’t lead to happiness or fulfillment, and it never did.
Second Nexus: Doesn’t that mean we should be holding back on the life extension research until we’ve taught people better?
Jeffrey Joslin: I would rather look at solutions which don’t limit our own development as a society. Teach people how to think, share, and live, and most sustainability problems will disappear.
B. J. Murphy: There’s an old - albeit erroneous - belief that as populations increase, resources decrease. This argument originated from Thomas R. Malthus, whose argument became so popular during a period of time that governments around the world began depopulation policies. Malthus made the argument that, due to the “fact” that resources will decrease as population increases, we must prevent increased populations where the population is most susceptible [to explosions that lead to scarcity].
Reality, however, showed quite the contrary. What Malthus forgot to accommodate into his hypothesis was how science and technology might affect the allocation of resources. If he had, he would’ve realized that science and technology not only increases access to resources, but subsequently uncovers new resources that were previously unknown. Not only that, science and technology have helped us create resources that are so efficient other resources [are obsolete]. So long as we can ensure that newer resources are created and distributed properly-- the same applies to energy sources -- we will not run into a problem of carrying capacity for a very long time.
Second Nexus: This is a view that has been advocated very strongly by Julian Simon and others with a “cornucopian” view of the future. However, the biggest fear seems to be one of timing. When I interviewed Paul Ehrlich on the topic of population, his main objection was that technological process isn’t happening fast enough to stave off serious problems. If the 2045 project really met its timeline goals, wouldn’t that be too soon?
B. J. Murphy: I know of Paul Ehrlich, who is another Malthusian advocate. The problem I have with Ehrlich is that, while he may believe that scientific and technological growth isn’t going fast enough to address important issues, his solution, from his book Global Ecology: Readings Towards a Rational Strategy for Man, is for developed nations to become less developed in order for developing nations to keep up.
If we’re to choose between becoming less developed or to continue pushing forward in the exponential growth of technologies, I’d much rather continue with the latter. Evidence clearly shows that, as opposed to only a few regions developing and becoming prosperous, the entire planet is pushing forward side by side. Some are in need of more development, but that shouldn’t deter us from speeding up.
Jeffrey Joslin: One thing's for certain, it’s that humanity will never wait. We never have, and we never will. I agree, maybe we should. But we won’t. We act and we react, but we rarely if ever think before we do either. If we funneled all the resources usually spent on trying to stop the inevitable--whether it’s stem cells, automation, or life extension--into fixing any resulting problems instead, it might just work.
Question 2. Will life extension exacerbate social stratification?
Second Nexus: Money tends to make money, so if people simply continue to live and live, and invest and invest, we could see serious concentrations of wealth. In order to extend life in a socially responsible way, we should probably be thinking about this now. Have you tried to imagine some possible solutions? Is there a creative “futurist” solution on the table?
Jeffrey Joslin: I don’t think this will be a problem in the foreseeable future. New technology will cause current social and political structures to crumble, and our economy will radically change as well.
Second Nexus: What sort of radical change in the economy do futurists expect to result from new technology?
B. J. Murphy: If economics theorist Jeremy Rifkin is correct, we’ll soon be witnessing what he refers to as a Zero Marginal Cost Society (ZMC), whereby the production of items will cost less than previous production costs. In other words, as a good example, we’ll have 3D printers printing 3D printers at a lower cost than it was to print the 3D printer currently in use. By that time, we’ll have officially abolished currency.
Second Nexus: Do you really envisage us converting over to a non-monetary society by 2045?
B. J. Murphy: While it may seem too soon, I do believe a Zero Marginal Cost Society will occur before 2045. As Rifkin noted, we’re decades in of being what he calls “prosumers,” whereby we’ve already reached a point where we’re producing near-zero marginal cost in the production of music, video, and news. As a result, we’re witnessing massively shrinking revenues in the music-sharing, news-sharing, and book publication industries. Why? Because everyone can make their own music today quite easily, can share them amongst friends without paying a dime. Same with news, videos, and books.
Second Nexus: And if for some reason we haven’t completely done away with money and embraced the Star Trek economy by 2045…?
via Flickr user jordansawatzky
B. J. Murphy: Even if this doesn’t occur, past examples of technological development show that the rich are usually never the ones who solely benefit from advanced technologies. The personal computer is a great example of this, where originally it was extremely bulky, very expensive, and not very efficient. Today, they’re much smaller in size, extremely efficient, and quite affordable. There are indigenous tribes today who carry around cell phones. In the long run, everyone benefits from advanced technologies, not just the rich.
Question 3. How will life extension impact the human psyche?
Second Nexus: People sometimes speculate about people becoming unmotivated, or depressed, or going crazy, or simply becoming less creative because they don’t have the spectre of death driving them forward. Some worry that it would lead to social stagnation. Do you have any thoughts or reactions to those types of fears?
B. J. Murphy: I believe it’s an absurd argument, simply because we have past evidence that this doesn’t actually occur whatsoever. The life expectancy of our species used to be somewhere between 20-30 during the 17th and 18th century. By the end of the 19th century we reached a life expectancy of 40-50. Today we’re at somewhere between 70-80. Have we become depressed as a result? Have we grown bored of our extended life? Have there been an increase in psychological disease? Not really.
Jeffrey Joslin: I believe that having a less limited amount of time on our hands will lead to enhanced drive, enhanced creativity and enhanced desire for adventure. Finally, it’s never too late to do that one thing you always wanted to do. Finally, someone might live long enough to stand on a world in another planetary system. Sure, we’ll all be having dozens of “mid-life crises” in a lifetime, but so what?
Second Nexus: You’ve seen the demographic tables, I’m sure, of political opinions in the United States. As our society becomes more accepting and open-minded on many issues--whether it is religious tolerance, acceptance of atheism, gay rights, or anything else--there is actually data showing that the world moves forward by younger more liberal generations replacing older more conservative generations. This makes some people fear that people sticking around for longer will slow social progress. Is this fear totally unfounded?
B. J. Murphy: This is definitely a legitimate worry in terms of what will occur in mindset development once we achieve indefinite life extension, but we’ve got to ask the question: why is this the case? Why are younger generations more open minded than older generations? Is each generation hardwired to become more open-minded? Or are older generations conditioned longer to a specific mindset that would require longer amounts of time to move away from?
Zoltan Istvan: What people don’t realize when they talk about longevity, is it’s not like they’re going to be living as a human being for 1,000 years. In just 50 years, we will all be plugged
Zoltan Istvan: ...into machines, and our brains will be 1,000 times more intelligent, more adaptable, using A.I. and exploring complex new digital landscapes. We’ll never get bored and we’ll look back at how we once were as humans and think how naive we once were.
B. J. Murphy: And remember, we’re not advocating forcing people to remain alive forever. We’re proponents of indefinite life extension, not immortality. Meaning, where immortality means you can’t die, indefinite life extension simply means living young and healthy for as long as you wish. Understanding this allows us to realize that indefinite life extension is really nothing more than an upgrade to what Dr. Jack Kevorkian advocated. He advocated giving his patients the choice of how they wish to die. As a friend once brilliantly said to me, the goal of a Transhumanist and Longevity proponent is for every future death to be suicide.
Question 4. What will indefinite life extension mean for work and retirement?
Second Nexus: Many people have argued that if people just decide to go on living and living as long as they want, retirement benefits would have to be eliminated. Talk a little bit about the relationship between work and resources in the future society you picture.
Zoltan Istvan: There will be no jobs, just pleasure and exploration. Work in the way of 9 to 5 jobs will totally disappear. There will be education, upgrades, and games we play. A universal basic income will keep everyone afloat and satisfied. And to get there, we just keep innovating tech. The technology and creation of robots will force the issue.
Second Nexus: A future where nobody has to work seems like a pretty distant goal. Help me to understand how we get to there from where we are now.
B. J. Murphy: Getting to the point where technologies are so advanced that they’re replacing themselves with no extra cost will require a transition period where technologies are taking over everyone’s job, i.e., technological unemployment.
This scares a lot of people because, if we aren’t careful in how we manage this transition period, we’ll be leaving millions of people unemployed, if not more, without any benefits to keep them afloat long enough to start benefiting from a Zero Marginal Cost Society. In my opinion, the best method of addressing technological unemployment will be the development of what is known as a Basic Income Guarantee (also known as Universal Basic Income).
What this will do is create a brand new welfare system that grants everyone - both employed and unemployed - a fixed income per month, which doesn’t affect whatever other income you may be earning elsewhere.
Second Nexus: So over time, technology will advance to the point where more and more of our basic needs--procuring and manufacturing food and resources, caring for ongoing energy requirements, etc.--can be taken care of without any need for human involvement. People will just get income from the resources produced by technology. The basic income produced by technology will get larger and larger, until nobody has to work at all, for anything. Is that the idea?
Zoltan Istvan: Yes, robots and software will take care of everything, as far as our basic needs. We’ll be free to do what we want, as long as we don’t allow the robots to think for themselves and take us over.
Second Nexus: Rebelling robots! Well, at least that would give us some new challenges to look forward to during our lifetimes of infinite leisure.
Keep Looking Forward
One of the most striking things about re-watching old television sitcoms from the 1990s, apart from the hairstyles, is the number of plotlines based on people being unable to locate or contact each other in emergencies. Whether they accidentally leave someone behind at the side of the road, or they can’t tell their friends that the party venue changed because the friends have “already left the house,” or lovers frantically chase each other from place to place and hilariously miss each other every time, the panic and frenzy of not being able to “connect” was very real and a constant topic of both anxiety and mirth.
Not a single one of those television plotlines could be written today. In a world where smartphones are ubiquitous, and newer devices like Apple Watch are spreading quickly, they no longer make sense. That is how much the world has changed in just a couple of decades.
But there was no thunderclap. There was no day when you woke up and suddenly everything was different. The change was rapid, but not miraculous. There was a gradual process. The first mobile phones were terrible, and only a few people used them. The technology improved, the service improved, and it spread. Eventually, features were added, and they also went through a process: from texting to video messaging, the technology went through standard phases of being simple and glitchy until the wrinkles were gradually ironed out.
I want you to remember the evolution of smartphones, because there is a lesson there about how to think about the 2045 Initiative and the Avatar Project. You won’t wake up tomorrow to the release of companies offering to upload your brain to a T-2000 Cyborg Robot. If they did, you’d be right to be apprehensive, just as it would have been a disaster if, one day in 1990, we tried to simply connect millions of people together with video call-enabled smartphones. The cyborgification of the human species will be gradual, like all technological development has been.
"Skynet for Dummies" via Flickr user Kenny Louie
The most pronounced theme that I heard from all three futurists I interviewed was this: The development of Avatar technology, and the social changes that will come along with it, is a process. The disasters and fears cited by naysayers won’t happen, simply because the technology is not going to change overnight. Change will happen incrementally, humanity will address the problems as they arise, and we will adapt. That’s how systematic change always works.
But it does mean that we have to start asking these questions now. We have to be prepared to navigate our way down the river of progress so that we don’t end up crashing. And if you think that it all seems so far off in the future that there’s no need to have the conversation yet, it’s only because you haven’t been paying attention. The change has already begun.