The serious possibility of Indefinite Life Extension.Posted: December 9, 2012
My belief in the possibility of indefinite life extension explained.
There is a significant chance that indefinite life extension, in a completely healthy painless state, will be possible in our lifetime. I am using the term “indefinite life extension” rather than immortality because true immortality is impossible, at least according to the laws of physics as we currently understand it. That, and the fact that immortality has a number of negative connotations associated with it, such as being unable to die despite being in terrible suffering.
Indefinite life extension, on the other hand, is simply the ability to live until you no longer desire to live. Whether that may be in 10 years, 100 years, or a million years is simply up to the person to decide.
For me, I find living pretty fun. I enjoy life on average, even if I may not enjoy certain moments in my life. That’s why I want to live for one more day, one more month, one more year, one more century, and one more millenium. I think I may even be up for living a few billion or trillion years.
But this essay is not meant to persuade you that living forever can be fun. It’s not meant to persuade you that nobody actually hates living; when people say they want to die, it’s suffering, rather than life that they wish to escape from. It’s not meant to convince you that there are no physical laws of the universe that say that life must be suffering.
This essay is about the serious, life-changing possibility of indefinite life extension. Within your lifetime. I genuinely believe that any rational person should at least consider this, even if they reject the argument at the end. It’s important enough for you to dedicate a day or two to consider this issue.
Why? Because even the smallest probability in living a billion years is meaningful, when you multiply the expected utility. If you find living fun, and most people do (the people that don’t tend to commit suicide), you should find living twice as long twice as fun. There’s no arbitrary age when living changes from being fun to non-fun, when the polarity flips, and people should die. There ARE problems associated with aging, such as disease, weakness, and sickness, but having indefinite life extension would also mean taking care of those problems as well. People can’t live forever if they get sick and die.
If you think living twice as long should be twice as fun (after all, having fun for two days is twice as fun as having fun for only a single day), then living a hundred times as long should be a hundred times as fun, and so on. Because there is no diminishing marginal utility on living ( People don’t stop having fun after they hit an arbitrary age), then you might say that having a 50% chance on living twice as long is equally as desirable as a 100% chance of living regularly, given that everything else (such as friends, environment, family) stay the same.
You may not FEEL like living twice as long is twice as fun, but the math works out. Trust the Math, not your intuition – making decisions based on how you feel about things can be misleading, because something that doesn’t feel fun can be really fun (such as charity!) and something that isn’t really fun can feel really fun (such as winning the lottery! Research has shown that people severely estimate how fun more money would be, and most lottery winners actually end up less happy. )
The only way things can stop being fun is a change in environment, such as the death of a friend or family. That’s a problem with the environment, not a problem with living forever in and of itself. That’s why I’m trying so hard to get my friends (You) to seriously consider living forever, so that the next few billion years will be fun too.
Plus, historically speaking, the future is always more fun than the past! Our current quality of life is better than it has ever been, with not having to care about an 80% mortality rate, or being tortured for being a heretic, or not having to worry about being chased by a giant cat and eaten.
If we take a billion years as the amount of time you can add to your lifespan if you seriously consider indefinite life extension (and I have reasons to believe that it will probably be longer than that, due to things like increased simulation speed, but I won’t go into that for now), then living for a billion years will be ten million times more fun than living for a hundred years.
So we can say something like “A 0.00001% chance of living for a billion years is about equally as desirable as a 100% chance of living for a hundred years, assuming that the amount of fun doesn’t change.”
(And if it changes, it’s far more likely to increase rather than decrease, based on historic trends. )
But let’s ignore that for the moment for ease of calculation. If these two options are equally as valuable, I merely have to convince you that the probability of living indefinitely is higher than 0.00001% for you to gamble your life for this.
The good news is that you don’t have to gamble away your entire life. The most you will ever risk is a few days of your time to ponder this decision. In the most pessimistic view, you may even risk a few years of life, because the technology to live indefinitely may not be free. And since money is time, you may spend a few years working to obtain it. But even so, working is usually funner than non-existence, so comparing losing a few years of your life to having to work is not necessarily a fair comparison (And if non-existence is funner than work, I’d suggest trying a new job.)
The even better news is that the probability of indefinite life extension is significantly higher than 0.00001%. If I’m allowed to make a suggestion based on the things I know so far, I believe that it’s much closer to 30%~ or so, making this a really good investment for the level of risk incurred. (Have you ever seen an investment with an average expected ROI of 3 million? )
A list of all the potential ways death can be vanquished would be very long, so I’m only going to list the most promising ones, the combined probability of any one of them succeeding within our lifetime is about 25% or so.
These technologies are: Uploading, cryonics, genetic engineering, nanotech cellular repair, biomedical telomere rejuvenation, and creating AGI.
Furthermore, the rate at which technology is discovered in general is accelerating exponentially. More technological progress has been made in the last 20 years than all of human history before that. This is because getting technology usually allows us to advance science at a faster rate, thus increasing the rate at which new technology is discovered too!
The human genome project is a good example of this concept because it is easily quantifiable. In 1990 scientists had managed to transcribe only one ten-thousandth of the genome over an entire year. Yet their goal was to sequence the entire genome in 15 years. After seven years, only 1 percent had been sequenced. Most people said they would not finish on time.
But, in fact, the project was on track. The rate of progress was doubling every year, which meant that when researchers finished 1 percent they were only seven steps away from reaching 100 percent. The project was completed in 2003, a few years before schedule. People assumed it would take centuries because they thought scientific progress was linear.
This phonemonen is very easy to underestimate because human brains are not evolutionarily hardwired to intuitively grasp exponential growth. There are certain fields, such as computer speed, that double every year. Other technological fields are slower. Since most of the methods of indefinite life extension I have mentioned above are more difficult to quantify and chart out than genome coding, I cannot say exactly how fast they are progressing, and if progress doubles every month, or every 10 years.
However, I will use Real GDP per Capita (Real means that it is adjusted for inflation) in order to illustrate, in general, the average rate of technological progress. Because Real GDP per Capita is a measure of the average rate of all the things in the economy, it can be a good measure of how fast, in general, human society is progressing.
The World’s Real GDP per Capita doubles every 15 years, and has done so for the last few thousand years. This means that if one were to expect to live for 75 more years, he could expect to find that by the end of 75 years, the world would be in year 4400, and the equivalent of 2400 years of this year’s technological progress would have passed. ( 2^5 * 75 = 2400)
If this shocks you, then you already realize that humans are naturally bad at grasping exponential growth. If you want to accurately predict the state of the world in 75 years, you would have to imagine the world in year 4400, rather than in year 2085.
In order to convince you that indefinite life extension is entirely within our grasp, I will need to talk about it’s methods. If you know nothing about how we can live indefinitely, and yet try to calculate the odds of not dying in the next 75 years, your mind will come up with a blank page. As a result, you may severely underestimate its likelihood, because you may subconsciously believe that your lack of knowledge can be extended to all of humanity’s lack of knowledge, when this may not be the case.
The first method is uploading. To do a thorough scan of the brain, and simulate all neurons in your brain in a computer. If there is a part of you that is responsible for consciousness, we can take that too, and simulate it. If we have to simulate you to the quantum level, there’s no reason that cannot be done as well.
Yes, even if we upload you, you are still you. You are not a copy. Your identity is a mathematical algorithm, a rather complex one, but still a mathematical algorithm nonetheless. This is because the universe (including you!) is turing complete, and any turing complete language can be simulated by any other turing complete language. Your identity isn’t in specific atoms, because if you die but the atoms in your body still exist, you do not exist. You are a collective of thoughts, feelings, ideologies, and emotions. Your identity is conserved regardless of what hardware is running you. We know this to be true because most of the atoms in our body are changed every few years, and yet we do not treat this as a form of death.
We know that we will have enough computational power to fully simulate a person in a few decades. This is because of Moore’s Law; computational power doubles every year, and has doubled for the last 100 years. The main factor limiting this method of life extension is the ability to scan the human brain at a deep enough level to allow for simulation to occur.
I will be plotting these factors and the odds of any of these problems interfering with this method of life extension. I will put the approximate date that these probabilities are calculated with to be 2085.
Sufficient computational power for simulation, and simulations can be run relatively cheaply: 0.82
Humans are turing complete entities: 0.92
The capacity to scan the human brain to the necessary ontological level exists: 0.1
Science-interfering societal collapse does not happen: 0.90
Government interference with uploading does not happen: 0.75
Other unforeseen black-swans do not happen: 0.80
Total odds: 0.04073, or 4%
The second possible method of life extension is through cryonics. In simply terms, this means that after you die, but before cellular damage has occured, your body is frozen, but in a way that preserves the cellular structure to a near-atomic level. It is not merely “freezing” a corpse, but doing so in a way that preserves the detail of every cell and organelle. In the future, you will be revived, either through uploading, or by scanning you at an atomic level, and rebuilding you through nanotechnology and atomic engineering.
Some people argue that if all the atoms in your body are reassembled, it will not still be you. They are wrong, because it has been scientifically proven in Quantum Mechanics that atoms are indistinguishable, not just empirically, but philosophically (not just as far as we can observe, but as a mathematical certainty) Atoms are simply probability amplitude distributions, the result of the universal wavefunction factorizing (a fancy term for saying “an illusion created by something more fundamental” )
Consider that the definition of death has been before throughout history, as our medical knowledge, and therefore our ability to extend lifespan, increases. For thousands of years, humanity has assumed that when the heart stopped, a person died. However, after the invention of defibrillation and pacemaker, this was no longer the case, because it became possible to artificially stimulate the heart. Therefore the current definition of death is “brain death”, when the brain is no longer operational.
It is exceedingly likely that this current definition will soon be revised; the laws of physics do not prevent us from reviving people who are brain dead. Consider that although the brain no longer works, all the information that makes the brain do what it does still exists, down to the atomic level. A far better definition of death is informational-theoretic death, or when it is physically impossible to revive a person, because the necessary information in order to revive that person has already been lost.
The probability of Cryonics being successful has been calculated by a number of people, I like this particular estimate, which is neither overly-optimistic nor pessimistic, by Robin Hanson (Economist).
Civilization still exists and has kept growing in technical capability. 0.8
Your cryonics org and it successors have kept you continuously frozen. 0.8
Someone is willing and allowed to pay modest costs to revive you. 0.8
Brain science has workable input/output models of relevant brain cell types. 0.5
Usual freezing quality preserved relevant model-needed details. 0.8
Cheap scanning tech slices & 2D scans brains at model-needed spatial, chem resolution. 0.8
Error correction codes reconstruct most connections across slices, fractures. 0.8
Cheap computers can real-time sim entire scanned sets of connected cells. 0.8
Sim life seems worth living enough that they don’t prefer suicide. 0.8
Such sims of you are as worthy as your kid of your identifying with them. 0.8
Total Probability: 0.9329, or 9%
Is that all to cryonics? No, there is much more I will not cover. But I will direct you to these two FAQs if you wish to find out more, or you may ask me directly.
The third method that is Genetic engineering, cellular repair, and Telomere rejuvenation. These three, although slightly different methods, are so interconnected that it is easier to lump them all together, and call it the “biological” methods of solving aging.
We know that it is entirely possible for biological lifeforms to live indefinitely, because there are a number of animals that are not biologically programmed to die, and therefore can live indefinitely. One example is the Turritopsis nutricula, also known as the immortal jellyfish.
According to scientists studying the proccess of aging, there are currently seven major problems that are to be overcome before allowing indefinite life extension. They are:
Mutations in Chromosomes causing cancer due to nuclear mutations/epimutations:
These are changes to the nuclear DNA (nDNA), the molecule that contains our genetic information, or to proteins which bind to the nDNA. Certain mutations can lead to cancer. Non-cancerous mutations and epimutations do not contribute to aging within a normal lifespan, so cancer is the only endpoint of these types of damage that must be addressed.
Mutations in Mitochondria:
Mitochondria are components in our cells that are important for energy production. They contain their own genetic material, and mutations to their DNA can affect a cell’s ability to function properly. Indirectly, these mutations may accelerate many aspects of aging.
Junk inside of cells, aka intracellular aggregates:
Our cells are constantly breaking down proteins and other molecules that are no longer useful or which can be harmful. Those molecules which can’t be digested simply accumulate as junk inside our cells. Atherosclerosis, macular degeneration and all kinds of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease) are associated with this problem.
Junk – outside of cells, aka extracellular aggregates:
Harmful junk protein can also accumulate outside of our cells. The amyloid senile plaque seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients is one example.
Cells – too few, aka cellular loss:
Some of the cells in our bodies cannot be replaced, or can only be replaced very slowly – more slowly than they die. This decrease in cell number causes the heart to become weaker with age, and it also causes Parkinson’s disease and impairs the immune system. Another example are neurons, which our body does not replace.
Cells – too many, aka Cell senescence:
This is a phenomenon where the cells are no longer able to divide, but also do not die and let others divide. They may also do other things that they’re not supposed to, like secreting proteins that could be harmful. Immune senescence and type 2 diabetes are caused by this.
Extracellular protein crosslinks:
Cells are held together by special linking proteins. When too many cross-links form between cells in a tissue, the tissue can lose its elasticity and cause problems including arteriosclerosis and presbyopia.
Once these problems are addressed, biological immortality is obtained.
I will freely admit that I do not know enough about human biology to calculate the probability of solving all of these problems. It would be fairly arrogant to claim otherwise, as I am not a full time gerontologist. However, I do know that the people alive today most knowledgeable on this, such as Aubrey de Grey, believes in a 90% chance we obtain a significantly increased lifespan within the next 100 years, as most of these problems become solved, and “robust human rejuvenation”, 50% probability, within the next 25 years.
I do however, admit that it’s probably very likely that he is overly optimistic, due to a wide range of biases such as the affect heuristic. For this reason, I will give an overly-pessimistic adjustment on his probability estimated by a factor of ten. Therefore the probability of biological immortality is 0.09. I admit that this is fairly arbitrary, and done for the sake of obtaining a more accurate final probability estimate, than merely guessing.
The final method is self-recursive AI, also known as the technological singularity. The logic is simple
A: We will build computers of at least human intelligence at some time in the future, let’s say within 100 years.
B: Those computers will be able to rapidly and repeatedly increase their own intelligence, quickly resulting in computers that are far more intelligent than human beings.
C: This will cause an enormous transformation of the world, so much so that it will become utterly unrecognizable, a phase Vinge terms the “post-human era”. This event is the Singularity
Self-recursive AI, sometimes also called AGI, once created, will almost definitely solve the problem of aging.
“However, I strongly support the goal of AI, because success in that area – if, as Luke says, it’s done right – will indeed solve all other technological problems, including the development of medicine to defeat aging.” -Aubrey De Grey
The question then is the probability of AGI being invented in the next 75 or so years.
This has already been calculated through Bayesian inference and statistics by a wide variety of different people far more knowledgeable than I am.
The absolute reasonable lower probability estimate on AGI being invented is 0.01, and I will be using this figure for calculation purposes.
Uploading Success: 4%
Cryonics Success: 9%
Biological Methods Success: 9%
AGI success: 1%
Total Probability of any one succeeding: 24.798%
Therefore a reasonable estimate of the possibility of indefinite life extension is approximately 25%.