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Communications of the ACM

Economic and business dimensions

Why Not Immortality?


tree lakeside

Credit: Jaymie Koroluk

Google is searching for ways to extend life.5 Ray Kurzweil thinks immortality will be possible by 2045. Exponential advances in either biology or technology could make this feasible. Perhaps we will reprogram malfunctioning cells the way we rewrite old code, achieving biological "escape velocity" once we can repair cells faster than they age.2 Or, perhaps advanced information technologies will make us robust by capturing all the information representing a person, including genotype and phenotype. Kurzweil thinks this will happen for at least some people alive today.

To live forever would be amazing. Think of the wisdom we could accumulate and the human contact we could enjoy. Despite slowing physically, neuroscientist Oliver Sacks wrote of the joys of old age on the occasion of turning 80 years old. With innumerable friends and the passage of time, he feels "not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective."6 If we could be freed of time's physical ravages, life could be even better. We can imagine our junior selves endowing our senior selves to pursue great works, exploration, and (not or) life's pleasures as we each define them. So what is the catch?


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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor of the January 2014 CACM (http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2014/1/170857).
-- CACM Administrator

I could not disagree more with Marshall Van Alstyne's column paean to mortality "Why Not Immortality?" (Nov. 2013) because, unlike the living creatures and appliances he modeled, there is no aspect of software that cannot be designed to evolve. Software becomes obsolete and must be replaced only if its designers do not design for immortality. Consider our cities. Although Julius Caesar would not recognize Paris or Rome today as the places he knew, they existed long before his time, and will continue to exist long after mine. We do not abandon cities and replace them with new ones; cities live forever because we continuously reinvent and renew them. Over time, neighborhoods built for horses and wagons have evolved to suit cars. Office parks replace factories. But even as they morph, cities live on, except in the rare instance when one is destroyed by natural disaster or by war. Although nothing short of the universe itself is truly immortal and even that is in doubt it is time to stop viewing software through the automobile designer's mind-set of planned obsolescence and view it instead through the urban planner's mind-set. Great software should last forever but can do so only if its designers think of it that way, investing in continuous reengineering to make it happen.

K.S. Bhaskar
Malvern, PA


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