Immortality might not be boring after all

Paul Raven @ 12-08-2010

Via George Dvorsky, ethicist Alexandre Erler has a rejoinder for me, and for others who believe that immortality might become boring.

Here it should be stressed that even though some people might find the human lifespan that characterizes today’s developed countries optimal, and even though they might feel that any additional years they might gain would quickly become boring and would decrease their sense of the value of their life as a whole, this clearly isn’t everyone’s perception of things. Some people have creative powers, a range of projects, and a thirst for knowledge and pleasure that make their current life expectancy seem extremely limiting.

(Kinda where we were going while biting back at Paul Carr’s “deathhackers” diatribe the other day. The prospect of being able to get more things done certainly appeals, but right now I’d prefer an effective mechanism for suppressing the need to sleep eight hours in every twenty four.)

As for those who might share Walsh’s view and enjoy their life more due to the awareness of their own mortality, they might still preserve that benefit by committing themselves not to use life extension technologies when these become widely available. Of course, when the time to kick the bucket seemed near, they might find themselves unable to respect their previous commitment. But they might perhaps protect themselves from such a hazard by writing advance directives stipulating that life extension procedures should not be made available to them.

In other words, “if it bothers you so much, opt out publicly”. Seems fair enough to me.

But I wonder if immortality (or even a significant increase in longevity) still looks possible in a world without antibiotics? For those rich enough to quarantine themselves away from myriad virulent microbial nasties in the general populace, probably so… and they’re the folk who’ll get access to longevity treatments first.


Personality back-ups: immortality through avatars?

Paul Raven @ 11-06-2010

The possibility of digitising the human mind is one of those questions that will only be closed by its successful achievement, I think; there’ll always be an argument for its possibility, because the only way to disprove it would be to quantify how personality and mind actually work, and if we could quantify it, we could probably work out a way to digitise it, too. (That said, if someone can chop a hole in my logic train there, I’d be genuinely very grateful to them, because it’s a question that’s bugged me for years, and I haven’t been able to get beyond that point with my bootstrap philosophy chops.)

Philosophical digressions aside, low-grade not-quite-proof-of-concept stuff seems to be the current state of the industry. Via NextNature, New Scientist discusses a few companies trying to capture human personality in computer software:

Lifenaut’s avatar might appear to respond like a human, but how do you get it to resemble you? The only way is to teach it about yourself. This personality upload is a laborious process. The first stage involves rating some 480 statements such as “I like to please others” and “I sympathise with the homeless”, according to how accurately they reflect my feelings. Having done this, I am then asked to upload items such as diary entries, and photos and video tagged with place names, dates and keywords to help my avatar build up “memories”. I also spend hours in conversation with other Lifenaut avatars, which my avatar learns from. This supposedly provides “Linda” with my mannerisms – the way I greet people or respond to questions, say – as well as more about my views, likes and dislikes.

A more sophisticated series of personality questionnaires is being used by a related project called CyBeRev. The project’s users work their way through thousands of questions developed by the American sociologist William Sims Bainbridge as a means of archiving the mind. Unlike traditional personality questionnaires, part of the process involves trying to capture users’ values, beliefs, hopes and goals by asking them to imagine the world a century in the future. It isn’t a quick process: “If you spent an hour a day answering questions, it would take five years to complete them all,” says Lori Rhodes of the nonprofit Terasem Movement, which funds CyBeRev. “But the further you go, the more accurate a representation of yourself the mind file will become.”

It’s an interesting article, so go take a look. This little bit got me thinking:

So is it possible to endow my digital double with a believable representation of my own personality? Carpenter admits that in order to become truly like you, a Lifenaut avatar would probably need a lifetime’s worth of conversations with you.

Is that a tacit admission that who we are, at a fundamental level, is a function of everything we’ve ever done and experienced? That to record a lifetime’s worth of experiences and influences would necessarily take a lifetime? Emotionally, I find myself responding to that idea as being self-evident… and it’s the intuitive nature of my response that tells me I should continue to question it.


NEW FICTION: MIGUEL AND THE VIATURA by Eric Gregory

Paul Raven @ 01-06-2010

One of the best things about publishing new stories is seeing writers take old ideas and remake them afresh. A few months ago, we had Sandra McDonald remixing the post-apocalypse trope, and now Eric Gregory updates the urban vampire for a nanotech-infested near future in the favelas of the Global South.

“Miguel and the Viatura” mashes up religion, poverty, exploitative corporations and transcendant technology, but remains at its heart a powerful story of character, of a younger brother led astray. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have.

Miguel and the Viatura

by Eric Gregory

“We’re close,” said Joaõ. “Keep your eyes open.”

It was hard enough to watch the road. Foot traffic was heavy, and police in hardsuits patrolled the walks, faceless behind their faceplates. The air was usually fine in Pinheiros District, but Joaõ had insisted they both wear masks, and Miguel’s eyepieces fogged constantly. “Are we late?” he asked. The only thing worse than crossing the city to see his father would be doing it for no reason at all. If they missed him, Miguel would punch something.

Preferably Joaõ. Continue reading “NEW FICTION: MIGUEL AND THE VIATURA by Eric Gregory”


Who wants to live forever?

Paul Raven @ 26-04-2010

OK, here’s a deceptively simple debate to start the week off with – if physical immortality was available to you, would you take it? Arguing the case against is Annalee “io9” Newitz, and here’s Jason Stoddard playing earnest devil’s advocate for the longevity lobby.

I have no ethical issues with human immortality, but I’m not sure it appeals to me personally; I’ve long believed that mortality is the only thing that has truly motivated humans to create things greater than themselves, and as such I kind of like the knowledge that I’ve only got so long to get stuff done. That said, every year that passes sees my faith in that idea becoming more shaky…

So, what’s your choice – to go gentle into that good night, or to burn the candle at both ends forever?


Blue genes: poetry encoded in DNA

Paul Raven @ 25-03-2010

Via Lauren Beukes comes the news that Canadian poet Christian Bök has thought of a way to transcend Keats’ epitaph of being “one whose name was writ on water”; he seeks a poetic immortality that could outlive the human species itself, by the expedient of encoding some of his work into the DNA of a hardy strain of bacteria.

… it’s a tricky procedure, and Bök is doing what he can to make it even trickier. He wants to inject the DNA with a string of nucleotides that form a comprehensible poem, and he also wants the protein that the cell produces in response to form a second comprehensible poem.

You can’t fault the guy’s ambition. Who knows – his work might be rediscovered in some nigh-unimaginable future where interest in poetry hasn’t withered away to nearly nothing.

Then again, maybe it’ll stage a comeback – Damien Walter argues that the social media era is ideally suited to poetry’s narrative and expressive concision. I’d very much like to see it happen… but I’ll not hold my breath just yet.


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