Humanity has come a long way when it comes to taming death. We have learnt to protect ourselves from other predators, to secure a reliable access to food, to shelter ourselves from the weather’s whims. But more impressive still might be how much our collective medical knowledge has improved, from treatment through to surgical intervention and prevention. Humanity has even managed to outrightly eradicate some diseases, e.g. smallpox (Carter Center, n.d.) Surely, we must be pleased with these achievements. Not only have they averted a great number of premature deaths, they have also prevented a lot of suffering related to morbidity and emotional anguish caused by disease.
In light of all the good medical progress has brought about so far, it seems like research ought to continue in this direction until disease and old age have been defeated altogether. Though far-fetched, such an ambition is not restrained to science fiction only. Concrete research is being done to investigate ways to slow down and perhaps event prevent entirely the deterioration of cells with age, thus introducing the possibility of amortality (SENS Research Foundation, n.d.). If this is at all possible in theory, the intelligence explosion associated with AI will undeniably make it a reality.
However, many probably feel uneasy with the thought of amortality. There are many legitimate reasons to feel such uneasiness, but here I would like to investigate only one. The three or four generations that presently co-habitate simultaneously already represent an important strain on the resources of this planet. Now, if we were to keep having children at the rate we do without dying, this strain would turn into an outright Malthusian catastrophe. So how do we avoid this catastrophe?
One solution might be to prevent the majority of people from having children to avoid overpopulation. However, this could easily lead to violence: the single antecedent of the one-child policy in China is enough to make us suspicious of intrusive demographic regulations. Moreover, even if we assume that it is possible to regulate births without resistance and violence, being deprived of the option to procreate might still greatly diminish the qualities of human lives. After all, we are hard-wired to want children: passing down our DNA might even be the only thing that gives meaning to our lives. An amortal but child-less society could then be worse overall than our own mortal society, hence offsetting our motivation for seeking amortality in the first place.
An alternative solution might then be to regulate access to amortality, instead of reproduction. The bluntest method to do that would be to appeal to the highest bidders: only the people who are willing and capable to pay some minimum amount of money would be “eligible” for eternal life. We might otherwise opt for a “merit-” or “utility-” based criterion: only the most “deserving” individuals, or those that are the most “beneficial” to society, should be made amortal. No matter which criterion we choose though, there seems to be something intrinsically and fundamentally wrong with such a selection. Not only might we doubt our ability to choose the most “deserving” individuals appropriately. But we might also think immortality is one of these things everyone is equally entitled to, and that we should then be uncompromisingly egalitarian on the subject. Faced with the impossibility to make everyone, or even a majority of people, immortal, the best thing to do might be not to make anyone immortal.
At this point, we might decide that medical progress should simply aim to make death less traumatic and painful, instead of overcoming it entirely. However, I would like to mention a third alternative to reconcile the pursuit of immortality with our Malthusian worries. These worries arose from our awareness that the resources of our planet are limited and already overused. However, why should we think that humanity will always be limited to this single planet? After all, the achievements enabled by AI would extend beyond medicine. AI would allow us to travel further, faster, and for longer, to access new sources of energy, to tame so far inhospitable environments, etc. This has led some researchers to believe that, in possession of AI, humanity could very well expand beyond the boundaries of this planet by gaining access to its “cosmic endowment”, which “range from 6x1018 to 2x1020 reachable stars with the combined capacity of between 1035 and 1058 human lives” (Bostrom et al., 2016, p.9). If this line of reasoning holds, our Malthusian worries are unfounded.
Bostrom, N. (2016). Superintelligence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bostrom, N., Dafoe, A. and Flynn, C. (2016). Policy Desiderata in the Development of Machine Superintelligence. [ebook] Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford. Available at: https://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/Policy-Desiderata-in-the-Development-of-Machine-Superintelligence.pdf [Accessed 20 Feb. 2018].
Carter Center. (n.d.). Disease Control and Prevention. [online] Available at: https://www.cartercenter.org/health/itfde/index.html [Accessed 2 Mar. 2018].
Pinterest. (n.d.). Tarot Art - Death. [online] Available at: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/560416747357559942/ [Accessed 2 Mar. 2018].
SENS Research Foundation. (n.d.). [online] Available at: http://www.sens.org/ [Accessed 2 Mar. 2018].