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Why Not Immortality?

A question of biology, technology, and society.
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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?

Scientists once believed E. coli to be immortal. Using cellular mitosis, these hardy cells regenerate and split, regenerate and split. If they can divide indefinitely, then they might live eternally. Absent some calamity, E. coli‘s example might show us how to elegantly and recursively program infinite genes. But this is not how nature works. Old cellular machinery accumulates in one half of a cell while new cellular machinery accumulates in the other. Cell division causes the oldest mechanics to become isolated in the same cell during cell division, and cell death isolates and clears these pockets of damage. Long-lived parts of the system, like genes, even manage short-lived parts of the system, like cells, for systemic health. Mortality clears accumulated cruft from cell lines, but it does not end there. Mortality removes accumulated problems of all kinds, leading to population vitality and renewal.

I posed the question of why we have not evolved immortality to a biologist friend of mine, Carl Bergstrom. He answered, "Biological systems fail because at some point it’s cheaper to make new ones." This is nature’s form of cost-benefit analysis. Optimal design balances the marginal benefit of investing in the old versus investing in the new.1 In a poignant remark eight years before his death, Steve Jobs told Stanford graduates "Death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."a

If we apply the question of immortality to technology itself, the cost-benefit trade-off is even clearer. Why buy a new toaster? It is cheaper than fixing the old one that wore out. Why buy a new car? The cost of a new one has become a better value than the continuing costs of repair. Why buy a new computer? The old one has accumulated so much cruft that it runs too slowly. Either parts have stopped working or it cannot run the latest software. The system is breaking down and, what is worse, it is maladapted to changes in the software environment where we need it to perform.

Here too, in technology as in biology, long-lived portions of the system tend to control short-lived portions for the health of the population. Computer networks survive nodes that come and go and they control behaviors of nodes that interfere with one another. Computers themselves survive apps that come and go, and computer operating systems control apps that interfere with one another. Longevity controls brevity. And, in order to work well, upgrading theses systems requires careful planning.

Legacy systems pose a fascinating challenge especially when obsolescence is unplanned. Consider the Y2K problem, the "millennium bug" where programs using two-digit dates could not handle the switch to a four-digit cycle. Alan Greenspan, then chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, spoke to Congress in advance of Y2K and said, "I’m one of the culprits who created this problem. I used to write programs back in the 1960s and… It never entered our minds that those programs would have lasted more than a few years."7 All legacy systems face problems of remaining current. Designers try to make systems long-lived, but it is impossible to anticipate all future needs. Could a system capable of handling a near infinite number of cases execute efficiently, being built using methods that would not become obsolete? Fast and easily renewed systems, even with occasional hiccups, can be preferable to cumbersome systems that lock in static technology.

Fast and easily renewed systems can be preferable to cumbersome systems that lock in static technology.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s poem "The Deacon’s Masterpiece: The Wonderful One-Horse Shay," captures this insight. The deacon-turned-inventor uses only the finest materials and designs his shay so it has no weakest break point. It lasts sure enough. No part breaks down ahead of another. Yet the end is inevitable. Everything happens in an instant.

Colts grew to horses and beards turned to gray.
Deacon and deaconess dropped away.
Children and grandchildren—where were they?
But there stood the stout old one horse shay.

You see of course if you’re not a dunce,
how it all went to pieces all at once.
All at once and nothing first,
just as bubbles do when they burst.

Cost-benefit analysis of immortality shows that, at some point, renewal creates more social and system value regardless of whether the context is biology or technology.

The argument need not stop there. This same principle holds true for society if we realize that all systems require renewal. Our limited life spans make it difficult to imagine the mortality of the institutions around us, or the need to renew those institutions. We see institutions as continuing, creating context for our choices. Yet we know historically that rules governing interactions among people sometimes stop working. Thomas Jefferson wrote, "We might as well require a man to wear still the coat that fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."b "The earth belongs to the living…Every constitution then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of [a generation]."c Jefferson believed legal regimes should renew every 20 years.

Laws are good. Like healthy genes or beautiful code, good laws make our systems run more smoothly. Yet they too accumulate scar tissue and system patches from redressing wrongs and righting injustices. As part of any working system, rules are subject to renewal. When not renewed, laws accumulate cruft leading to breakdown and to maladaptation. When does institutional renewal make sense? It seems ever more salient as use of the filibuster reaches levels never seen before in the U.S. Senate, and as the U.S. House passes more than 42 symbolic bills to repeal the same legislation when no such bill could have survived a presidential veto.4 Sequestration, inability to pass budgets, downgraded credit ratings—all seem part of a broader social sclerosis. A Gallup poll of priorities has signaled that government corruption ranked number two among concerns of the general public.3 One sitting senator remarked: "Something has gone terribly wrong when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress."d Irrespective of party politics, perhaps the system is maladapted. Perhaps our social institutions need renewal.

Jefferson might have been hasty with his suggestion of renewing every 20 years. In fact there are few simple metrics to judge when renewal becomes necessary. In biology, species have very different life spans and, in technology, systems have very different life cycles. One economic test for renewal offers hope: When do sovereigns or elites spend more resources on themselves or their activities than on their people? When do system controllers consume wealth rather than create it? Nature removes systems whose cells have run amok. Networks isolate nodes that consume too many resources. And, in each, the control mechanisms seek to improve their own detection and recovery methods in order that controls themselves also evolve. Renewal then means improving the players and the rules of play, since new players under old rules just reproduce old plays. An argument that improving governance is infeasible or that control does not need to evolve is naïve: nature replacing individual cells has its cost-benefit analysis, so does consumer replacement of cars and computers. Historically, citizens replace unruly rulers and maladjusted rules.

Why not immortality? It is expensive to be immortal. The risk of immortality is the risk of non-renewal and, until now, mortality has simply been the best cost-benefit form of remedy. Biological, technological, and social systems will always need to renew. A key point of leverage will remain the controllers of each system. Fast-changing fields will amplify this need. Indeed, fast-changing biology and faster changing technology will interact with slow-changing society implying that our institutions will need to adapt faster than they have in the past.

We must also ask how governance changes as individuals within a system become longer lived. If long-lived portions of a system control short-lived portions, the grant of immortality is a grant of greater control. Survival of a control mechanism into future generations implies not just adapting but also creating value for those under the influence of control. As we invent the technology of immortality, we must invent also a society of renewal. We should not seek one without the other. Resources must benefit all contributors to a system, everyone, and not just those in control.

Renewal can be painful, yet it can be joyful. Renewal is not quite immortality but, as any parent can tell you, birth too can be amazing.

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