Documenting the Coming Singularity

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Is Death Really Necessary?

Not if you believe Ray Kurzweil. According to Ray, because we see death (and taxes) as inevitable, we rationalize its utility and try to convince ourselves that it is a good thing. The idea we've come up with is that somehow death gives meaning to life. But is death an inevitability?

Kurzweil points out that death is an artifact of evolution that no longer applies. In a society where resources were scarce, it made sense for humans to die in order to allow those who were younger, those of child-bearing age and those who cared for the young to have access to these few resources. Recall that evolution's only goal is the survival of the species in question.

Consider the following chart of changes in human life-expectancy:

Cro-Magnon Era: 18
Ancient Egypt: 25
1400 Europe: 30
1800 Europe and the U.S.: 37
1900 U.S.: 48
2002 U.S.: 78

We now know that the materials that make up our bodies and brains, the hardware, is not what makes us who we are, since it changes constantly. The actual atoms in my body right now will not be the same atoms in my body in a month or two. So what makes me a unique individual? The patterns that persist are the things that make me me. A good analogy that helps us to picture this truth has to do with the ripples in a rushing brook. The molecules of water are changing every second, but the ripples, or the patterns made by the molecules persist. The question then becomes, why should the software be dependent on the particular hardware it runs on?

Currently, when our human hardware crashes, the software of our lives-our personal "mind file"-dies with it. However, this will not continue to be the case when we have the means to store and restore the thousands of trillions of bytes of information represented in the pattern that we call our brains (together with the rest of our nervous system, endocrine system, and other structures that our mind file comprises).

Death is a tragedy. It is not demeaning to regard a person as a profound pattern (a form of knowledge), which is lost when he or she dies. That, at least, is the case today, since we do not yet have the means to access and back up this knowledge. When people speak of losing a part of themselves when a loved one dies, they are speaking quite literally, since we lose the ability to effectively use the neural patterns in our brain that had self-organized to interact with that person.

Did you catch that last part? The emotional pain we feel when a loved one passes, or even when they are just separated from us by distance, is very literally like losing a part of ourselves. We now know that, just as our brains make our thoughts, so do our thoughts (and experiences) make our brains. Permanent patterns are formed in our brains as we live our lives and interact with those we love. The loss of one of these people then means that those patterns have no one with which to interact with; they have lost the very person they were created to relate to. No wonder it hurts.

Since Kurzweil predicts that we will have successfully reverse-engineered the human brain by the late 2020s, his advice to us is to "live long enough to live forever." That is, if we can survive another 20 to 30 years, we will be among the lucky ones who are alive when technology learns how to radically extend our lives. I'd like to be there. How about you?


Spaceman Spiff said...

First: I thought that the changes in life expectancy were mostly due to preventing infant deaths and other low outliers like that rather than actually extending the life of healthy people. I'm pretty sure that healthy people have always lived about as long as they live now and died around when they die now.

Second: Kurzweil makes this argument: death makes sense when resources are scares, so death is no longer necessary. Implicit is the idea that resources are no longer scarce, but that is ridiculous. Some crazy number like 30,000 kids die of starvation a day. The whole world does not, and cannot live like we live here in the US. The resources just don't exist.

Even in this country, the rate at which we consume damages the land, the water and the air, and, if we continue, will eventually make it unusable.

If the retirement age stays at 65, and the baby boomer generation mostly lives into their 90's, then my much smaller generation will have to pull off a truly miraculous supply of resources to keep everyone at the quality of life they expect.

My prediction not-so-conservative prediction: it aint gonna happen, and in 50 years, everyone will know that the prophets of prosperity like Kurzweil were incredibly optimistic, and shortsighted, and only our own greed and pride made us listen to them when we should have been noticing the extreme poverty of most of the world that supports our ridiculous wealth.

Barry Mahfood said...

I can understand your POV, coming as it does from a contemporary frame of reference, but you are mistaken in a couple of respects. First, people are living longer and more active lives than before. Second, the ability of technology to create wealth and prosperity is solidly documented. Consider the mechanical looms that caused such a stir and created the Luddite movement in Britain. It cost some loomers their jobs, but it also made clothes cheap and accessible to everyone.

Kurzweil is not saying that current resources would support humanity. He is saying that technolgy will make resources abundant for everyone. In the same way that the developed nations, even the poorest among them, have plenty of food, clothing and shelter, resources that were scarce in earlier times, you can extrapolate that curve into the future. Nanotech will make almost any product cheap to make from a few basic raw materials.

Nanotech will also be able to reverse environmental damage.

There are certainly dangers that need to be addressed, but the future can be a bright one.

Spaceman Spiff said...

I suppose there are two perspectives. It is clear enough that technologies have quite often created new problems that didn't exist before. So one can either predict that it will always fix those problems in the nick of time, or that eventually one of those problems will get out of hand.

Based on my understanding of the economics of it all, I remain convinced that the resources to maintain the standard of living we in the US expect simply does not exist either for very many people or for very long.

paddy said...

Good article - of course death can be cured, just like any other ailment. Our only job is to work out how a society without death by old age will function. How hard could it be..?

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