Hearing about a book, Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality, was the impulse for this post. The book, a fictionalized exploration of biology of aging and death, raises the possibility that living up to 1000 years or more may not be such a far-fetched thing.
So at last we will be immortal!
Or are you saying that our bodies will be immortal?
But to what avail?
Do we really want our physical forms to be around forever? Who would want a frail body to look after once we can have a fulfilling and perpetual existence in ‘cloud’, in a universe shaped exactly to our liking?
I am convinced that as a species we have run the gamut and are nearing the end of our biological existence. We better get ready for an in silico existence, if not an extra terrestrial one. No one knows when we will acquire capability to inhabit other planets but when it comes to a non-organic existence, we have already started creeping in that direction. Just chart the increase in time, over the last few years, which you spend in virtual domains including Facebook and Twitter each day. The culmination of this transition will of course be the complete relinquishment of our dependence on our bodies.
Paradoxically biological immortality might prove to be the death knell for our civilization, if not our species. One good thing about a clock ticking away is that we all work (or at least some of us do) frenetically to get something worthwhile done between the two bookends. This has sustained our growth for thousands of years. With that pressure removed, won’t we become slackers?
One theory advanced for aliens not visiting us is that once an intelligent being is able to create perfectly satisfying virtual environs, real world exploration is not so thrilling anymore. You could create, or ask the computer to create, a perfect new adventure for you, one every nanosecond or one every millennium. Why explore boring planets. With cheap virtual reality devices entering into market, it will be interesting to see how many youngsters will sign up to become astronauts.
We may like to imagine that even in a virtual universe we create for ourselves we would want to keep making progress, and keep developing ‘cerebrally’, given that we would continue to be challenged and stimulated by our friends and peers who would also dwell in the same ethereal world. However, I am not too sure if we would remain tolerant of anyone challenging our line of thinking, if in our virtual existence, we could simply wish them away, replacing them with more pliant ones.
In the final count, it might be just each one of us, alone. Alone, yes but lonely, never. Because we will always have the constructs and automatons, most beautiful ones, with just the right level of intellect accompanying us. After all we will be the ones imagining them into existence.
Once the transition is complete, it would not be as if a new species would be created (Homo siliconensis? Homo eletcronensis?), evolution itself would have evolved. And evolved in the most dramatic way. No more constrained by the physicality of molecules it will leap forward in ways unimaginable, at a speed quantum states can flip flop. Perhaps we were only here to give birth to this new species. Having fulfilled our “cosmic” role, having served as the bridge from molecules and chemistry based evolution to the one that is based on pure information, are we really needed? Will that be the end of our species? Or will that be our evolving into Gods? Won’t we be indestructible then?
Will it then be the Nirvana that Hindus and Buddhists so crave? Or the comfort that Shakespeare offers his soul?
So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.