Tech titans want to conquer death – but do you really want to live forever?

May 7, 2015 by Richard Gunderman, The Conversation
Deadlines aren’t a bad thing. Credit: Matt Gibson, CC BY-NC

A recent Washington Post article quotes Oracle founder Larry Ellison as saying that death makes him "very angry." In the same piece, eBay co-founder Peter Thiel calls death the "great enemy" of humankind. And Ellison and Thiel are not alone. Other tech titans including Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin are investing many millions of dollars in attempts to extend the human lifespan and perhaps even conquer death. Says Thiel: "The great unfinished task of the modern world is to turn death from a fact of life into a problem to be solved."

While few people are eager to die, there are difficulties with treating as a technical problem that calls for a technical solution.

For one thing, is and clearly will remain forever beyond the reach of humanity. Every biological organism that has ever lived has been designed to grow old and die. This includes even the world's oldest organism, the 4,800-year old "Methuselah" bristlecone pine in the California White Mountains. Compared to every other living organism, an immortal one might not be "alive" in the same sense.

Human beings are the product of millions of years of evolution, and the scale of complexity is mind boggling.

For example, the average adult human being is composed of some 75 trillion cells. Tinkering with the genes and proteins of our cells may have consequences that we cannot even foresee, let alone control. Numerous visionary works of science fiction, beginning with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, have explored the risks of the attempt to "perfect" ourselves. But there are still deeper problems with the tech titans' quest for immortality.

The quest to conquer death also faces mental, psychological and even spiritual obstacles. One form of immortality envisioned by the tech titans is to store memories in computers, where they could presumably persist indefinitely.

But what would life be like – or would it be life in any recognizable sense at all – to exist as a collection of memories stored in a computer? So far as we know, to live means both to be in a body and to be a body, and there is little evidence that mind and body can be so neatly separated.

From a psychological point of view, the prospect of death may provide one of our most powerful impetuses to seize each day.

In an infinite life there is infinite time to waste

My decades of experience as both a student and faculty member support Parkinson's Law, which says that the amount of time needed to complete a task will expand to fill the time available for its completion. So often it is the limits on our time, such as deadlines, that actually spur us to action.

If we faced no deadlines at all, and the time available to complete every task were infinite, it is quite possible that we would get nothing done.

The prospect of mortality can also bring out the best in us. Facing the end of existence gets us thinking about what kind of legacy we want to leave. It encourages us to live for purposes that transcend our own lives. It illuminates the true meaning of courage, the willingness to put not only our property or our reputation but our very lives on the line for the sake of something greater than our selves.

Before we presume to extend our lives indefinitely, perhaps we should first demonstrate that we know how to live each day to the fullest.

Mortality gives us courage

Some of the greatest works of humankind, including the Bible and Homer's Iliad, brim with reminders that our days are numbered. The Book of Psalms says, "Teach us to number our days, that we might gain a heart of wisdom." In the Iliad, the warrior Sarpedon, son of Zeus, explains to his comrade why he chooses to remain and fight, rather than fleeing to safety:

"Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle, would be able to live forever, ageless and immortal, so neither would I myself go on fighting nor would I urge you on. But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us in their thousands and that no man can turn aside or escape them, let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others."

In the Iliad, only humans can display courage. The gods, who cannot die, lead lives that are, by comparison, rather vain and shallow. Their days are composed largely of petty squabbles and interpersonal intrigues of the sort that populate daytime television drama. Only the human beings, the ones who stand to lose everything, can choose what to stake their lives on. Unlike the gods, they can act with genuine courage – that is, beautifully and well. Perhaps it is only in grasping what we might lay down our lives for that we discern the true purpose of life.

Homer highlights fragility and mortality as keys to compassion. It is in acknowledging our own vulnerability that we become fully open to the suffering of others. So long as we see ourselves as invincible, untouched and untouchable by fortune's outrageous slings and arrows, we are liable to cut ourselves off from humanity – and not only the humanity of others, but our own, as well. This is perhaps Victor Frankenstein's downfall – that he forgets he is human and mistakes himself for a god. Our mortality is not an inconvenience that happens to have been bolted on to us, but an essential part of what makes us human.

Here lies perhaps the most far-reaching critique of the quest to conquer death. In supposing that, of all the human beings who ever strode the face of the earth, we are the ones who deserve never to die, we may be falling prey to some of our worst vices: self-absorption, fear and an unwillingness to grapple with some of life's most meaningful and illuminating challenges.

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31 comments

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Grallen
4.6 / 5 (9) May 07, 2015
@author: I'm glad for you that your death, and I'm getting the sense you believe in some rewarding afterlife, is the only thing that drives you from your bed each morning. But others, like myself, get up each day to learn something new, and help make the universe a better place for everyone, if we can. I can smile each time I see that I've helped someone.

I'm an atheist, I see no reason to die. Since we were not designed, the only reason we die is that due to evolution, sets of genes that adapted, survived, altering genes in a multicellular creature AT RANDOM is dangerous, it usually mean cancer, and death. Although, it doesn't seem to stop our cells from doing it anyways.

It's my belief that a loss of a person unique perspective on the world, their memories, and the irreparable pain caused to their loved ones by death is monstrous.

I look forward to a post human world where such suffering is uncommon.
Returners
1 / 5 (5) May 07, 2015
I look forward to a post human world where such suffering is uncommon.


If you were on a computer the hard drive could always crash, or someone could just turn you off and throw you away one day.

Get real man.

You look foward to a flawed afterlife more than a perfect one? Buy Why?
El_Nose
5 / 5 (2) May 07, 2015
where is the commentary on the inability to feed a population that never goes away -- the lack of water resources -- the lack of food -- do the rich nations get this cure first -- ethics plays a part in immortality.

The collapse of the financial systems due to inflation. just put 1000 back when you are 20 and when you are 500 you are golden.

What about only giving this cure for age to those who agree to leave earth -- ships to the stars that take a few hundred years to get there are now feasible. And you don;t pollute the Earth ( original ) gene pool.

immortality would stop evolution in its tracks -- remember men are always fertile -- people from 700 years ago breeding with people of today -- making them shorter, there is evidence that we are becoming smarter and it's not due to education.
NIPSZX
not rated yet May 07, 2015
I don't think these tech geniuses are trying to live forever, they are just trying to extend their lives as far as possible. They are just shooting for the stars and giving it their all, in order to defeat death.
Cacogen
4 / 5 (8) May 07, 2015
"Every biological organism that has ever lived has been designed to grow old and die."

Or not. As far as I can tell, the leading idea is that aging is a matter of evolutionary neglect -- repair mechanisms that function long enough past sexual maturity can't be selected for when rates of deadly accidents and predation are very high. Your ancient ancestors stood a very good chance of being taken by a large cat, if they lived long enough.

"In supposing that, of all the human beings who ever strode the face of the earth, we are the ones who deserve never to die ..."

By that logic, we shouldn't have developed antibiotics or anesthesia -- I mean, who do we think we are that we deserve what thousands of generations before us didn't have?

Run of the mill deathist apologetics. Nothing to see here.
SDrapak
5 / 5 (3) May 08, 2015
I agree that there would be population issues that would need to be addressed.

The other thing is that medical immortality is far from true immortality. People die from lots of things other than disease, such as accidents - cars, falling, steam-rollers a-la Austin Powers, suicide, and of course the people striving to do something amazing like pilot a space ship, those people get crispy all the time, so you're actually risking more when taking risks, you're not just risking 60 years, it may be 600
antialias_physorg
4.2 / 5 (5) May 08, 2015
For one thing, immortality is and clearly will remain forever beyond the reach of humanity.

That's a bold statement (and I feel a very wrong one)...because they say in the next sentence:
Every biological organism that has ever lived has been designed to grow old and die.

Well what about if we start designing biological organisms or what about if we choose to ditch our biological form altogether?
Neither of these alternatives seems particularly far fetched.
But what would life be like – or would it be life in any recognizable sense at all – to exist as a collection of memories stored in a computer? So far as we know, to live means both to be in a body

No reason why adding a body (be it virtual, robotic or even biological) would be impossible? Anyhow thought processes that are virtualized need not run at the same speed as biological ones. If you want to live for millions/billions of years why not slow them down? There's no rush.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) May 08, 2015
From a psychological point of view, the prospect of death may provide one of our most powerful impetuses to seize each day.

But it is not the only impetus. Curiosity is another strong one. For some people something like a sense of duty might even be enough to keep them plodding on. There must be a myriad of reasons to keep on going besides "I don't wanna die" (certainly young children keep on living before they relize that death is in the cards).
the amount of time needed to complete a task will expand to fill the time available for its completion.

Curiosity (or just plain old boredom) would see to it that we eventually get things done. I think the author should try to hang around scientists, musicians, craftsmen and artists more. There are many people who are very well motivated to get stuff finished - even without a deadline or other external compulsions.

In the end immortality would not mean we live forever. It just means we get to choose when to die.
antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (6) May 08, 2015
where is the commentary on the inability to feed a population that never goes away

If it's not a biological population then there's no problem. Even with a biological population: if we just not start having babies forever (i.e. every person has on average one baby before they choose to autoeuthanize) then there's no problem.

The collapse of the financial systems due to inflation.

Economics is only relevant in an age of scarcity. If we ever get to the point where resources are 100% recycled (i.e. built up from an atomic level and after use reduced back to an atomic level) then economy vanishes. While technologically far out I don't think it's totally unthinkable to get there.

immortality would stop evolution in its tracks

True. But off world our evolutionary heritage would be completely out of place. If we leave Earth then designing our own biology (provided we want to keep it) to suit new vistas is a 'must have' in any case.
nowhere
5 / 5 (2) May 08, 2015
I look forward to a post human world where such suffering is uncommon.


If you were on a computer the hard drive could always crash, or someone could just turn you off and throw you away one day.

Get real man.

You look foward to a flawed afterlife more than a perfect one? Buy Why?

Unless of course they prevent death due to aging by addressing the factors that cause aging. So you stay in your body as a healthy 21 year old for as long as no accidents happen.
Why gamble on an improbable magic perfect second life rather than doing the best to make this one real life all that?
antialias_physorg
4.2 / 5 (5) May 08, 2015
If you were on a computer the hard drive could always crash, or someone could just turn you off and throw you away one day.

So? Someone can shoot you right now (or order you to go out and fight and get shot). Or you could suffer a stroke. What's the difference? On hardware you could be backed up (or if that is too much like a 'twin' being resurrected but not 'yourself' then you could think about a RAID configuration where a crash of one element would be like having a very minor stroke, but where you still could be reconstituted to 100% of the original.)

That you're on hardware doesn't mean you cannot also have a body to protect/maintain said hardware. If we already posit moving from biological into tech-hardware then there's no real reason why we shouldn't be able to do the reverse as well someday.
antialias_physorg
4.3 / 5 (6) May 08, 2015
those people get crispy all the time, so you're actually risking more when taking risks, you're not just risking 60 years, it may be 600

If you live very long you will likely become more risk averse. E.g. living in houses that will, on average, collapse and kill you once every 1000 years is an OK risk to take for someone who will live only 80 years. But for someone who could live a million years? Totally unacceptable.

(Note: Not my idea about the risk aversion for long lived species...I got that one from a Star Trek episode. Go figure.)
dbsi
2.3 / 5 (3) May 08, 2015
…immortality would stop evolution in its tracks…


@Richard Gunderman

You are quite wrong like with other conclusions in your article. The evolution of the human species is already accelerating and will likely do so more in the future - with or without immortality. Aided by technology and driven by competing with non human intelligence from here and us and at some point in time, from elsewhere in the Universe.
dbsi
3 / 5 (4) May 08, 2015
Sorry for my previously & prematurely escaped post.

@El_Nose
immortality would stop evolution in its tracks

No!
@Richard Gunderman
Every biological organism that has ever lived has been designed to grow old and die.

You are wrong like with other conclusions. The evolution of the human species is already accelerating and will do so more in future. Aided by technology and driven by competing with non-human intelligence from here and us and at some point in future, from elsewhere in the Universe.
There was no design involved in our past evolution but it is now becoming relevant in our future. If we fail, we risk to become extinct by our own evolving technology. If we succeed we have likely the means too, to become immortal.
Clearly evolution not just leads to reproduction, aging and death, but to intelligence, knowledge and culture too. These in turn want to be preserved over time as long as possible and likely, the bigger it gets the longer it lasts.
trxtgreen
3 / 5 (4) May 09, 2015
These so called transhumanist tech titans have a ridiculous amount of entitlement. The world has hundreds of millions of people bathing in sewage, being brain damaged from famine or malnutrition, countless diseases that cripple people in their prime, and these guys are all obsessed with spending millions making sure they live forever.

Sorry to spoil the fantasy, but not only will none of them live deep enough into the future to take the immortality pill, what's more, I HOPE they don't become immortal. I HOPE they eventually die, although after a long and prosperous life with no pain, which everyone is entitled to. It'd be the worst thing in the history of the species if next year some scientist invented a cure to aging, as then the world would rapidly overpopulate and we'd destroy the Earth and ourselves. It'd be great for 50 years (if you were rich), and then it'd all come crashing down like a tower of wooden blocks.
trxtgreen
5 / 5 (2) May 09, 2015
Hey, ten thousand years from now if we spread out into space or can live super-sustainably and can support a population of 100 billion or a trillion, then sure, ideally, we should end death due to aging. What I'm saying is that if it happens anytime remotely soon, our planet is screwed, as the remaining resources will be consumed and societies would collapse all because Ray Kurzweil or Mr. Ellison wanted to live another few lifetimes while the rest of the world burns. Meanwhile, there are millions of brown people going blind because they can't see a doctor.
Grallen
not rated yet May 10, 2015
Life expectancy drops fertility rates.

If you have time, children can wait:

http://markettech...tes.html
stezlaf
not rated yet May 10, 2015
This article misses several important points. For one, the goal of most of the mentioned researches is to prevent aging, that is, to prevent debilitating, degenerative diseases -- a consequence of which is the end to disease related death.

This brings us to another point:: Eliminating aging does not mean a person is unable to die. There will still be accidents and injuries. Therefore, people will still have a sense of mortality. In fact, I would perhaps feel more responsible for my safety, knowing that my death was 'in my hands' and not due to the inevitable effects of aging.

I also think that people will have a greater sense of responsibility about the state of the world, knowing that we will be around to see the consequences of our own collective actions.
stezlaf
4 / 5 (4) May 10, 2015
I think it is inevitable. A hundred years from now, we will look back at this time and think of it as a sort of dark age when people were forced to die at the whim of nature. We will think it absurd that we ever thought life on this planet should be limited to such imposing conditions.
Semmster
not rated yet May 10, 2015
Add another 'impossible' thing to the list of things that humankind has accomplished. All the nattering for or against will not change a thing. Just take a look at history.
koitsu
1 / 5 (1) May 10, 2015
I thought the first paragraph of the above was an introduction to an article about someone's strategy to cheat death.

But surprise--it was an introduction to an editorial of the author regurgitating various people's thoughts on death.

I want my time back.
I Have Questions
not rated yet May 11, 2015
Even if there is no heaven and it's just black darkness forever it's not like you are going to get board or anything.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (1) May 11, 2015
I also think that people will have a greater sense of responsibility about the state of the world, knowing that we will be around to see the consequences of our own collective actions.

Good point.
It might also change the way we look at crime. A life sentence is a lot scarier when it means 'indefinitely' rather than 'until natural death'.
Returners
1 / 5 (1) May 11, 2015
So? Someone can shoot you right now (or order you to go out and fight and get shot). Or you could suffer a stroke. What's the difference?


good counters.

Now let's make everyone into the Borg.
Returners
1 / 5 (1) May 11, 2015
What if you have a really hard time adapting to your new "body" architecture? What if it's driving you nuts and stuff, how would you proceed?

What about computer viruses reprogramming your brain?

How do you plan to oppose those forces?
SaulAlinsky
5 / 5 (2) May 11, 2015
Some people have trouble accepting their natural bodies as it is. They still get along.

Actual viruses reprogram your DNA and can affect cognition. We're still here.
jeffensley
1 / 5 (1) May 11, 2015
Very good piece. The desire to conquer death is indeed a selfish one. Considering we don't really know what makes us special, how arrogant is it to presume that we should live on while robbing people of the future their opportunity to exist? While I'm fairly certain it will never happen, achieving the ability to become immortal will most likely lead to our own annihilation. We shouldn't be spending any intellectual energy on this ill-conceived idea and it's disheartening to read that many with money and influence are pursuing it.
mark_plus
3 / 5 (2) May 11, 2015
This shows a real lack of imagination. First of all, if these "tech titans" have some success, people will call these new technologies something like "health care."

And secondly, people who expect to live a lot normal than normal will probably figure out in their local, piecemeal, pragmatic fashion, how to adapt to the changes that brings. The ones who can't or won't adapt will shake out any way.

If anything, I predict that greater longevity will result in greater mental health. According to Terror Management Theory in psychology, when we learn about death as children, the knowledge traumatizes the human mind and results in a chronic traumatic stress disorder. These "tech titans" want to do us a favor by attacking the root cause of the fundamental mental illness afflicting all of us, including children old enough to understand the reality of death. I don't see why anyone would object to that effort.
jeffensley
2.3 / 5 (3) May 11, 2015
So in order to deal with this traumatic stress, you propose to do away with death altogether instead of us simply learning as a society how to accept it and have a healthy relationship with it? We in the western world try and hide from death as long as possible which is EXACTLY why it's so traumatizing to face. The sooner we accept our own mortality, the sooner we learn to live healthy, productive lives instead of lives of mere distraction. There's a reason many Buddhists meditate on death and dying. I see there way as far more advanced than this ego-centric immortality mess.
simon155
not rated yet May 18, 2015
Your lifespan does not dictate your character. It's true by old age some would turn their back on the notion of immortality. Others would embrace it.

In life regardless of our expectation of life spans, we all demonstrate differing values and priorities. Some choose to devote themselves to the good of others. Others choose to think only of their own needs, living a self absorbed and often meaningless life.

The same would be said of immortals. Immortality itself does not make you indestructible. Yet an infinite lifespan comes with an infinite cycle of life's events. You may go through periods of amusing yourself, excusing the wasted years with "there are plenty left". You may alternatively plan ahead for making a real difference. You might devote more time and thought to others knowing your own life will endure and you'll get plenty of time for yourself later.

This ultimately isn't decided by your lifespan, but the same circumstances you face now. We all change though.
simon155
not rated yet May 18, 2015
Perhaps the greatest risk to the majority of humanity is this single notion. Those with the greatest wealth and greed are most likely to be those affected by such opportunity. What does this hold in store for the rest of mankind? The worst forms of hoarding, oppression and abuse amplified by unlimited years for the worst among them. Most likely followed by revolts, warfare and hand in hand with the decline of humanity.

It's the one thing most often overlooked - just as positions of power often attract the corrupt and self serving more than most. The less corrupt rarely tend to embrace such opportunity except where they see a chance to make a difference.

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