Infinite longevity may deprive us of childhood — and that’s a problem


The cycle of life.

Nobody likes to die. Nobody likes to get old and crippled.

(But especially, no one likes to die.) (No, actually, debilitating aging is worse than dying.) (Well, on reflection, I really can’t say which is worse.)

And so we’re fighting aging and death. That’s a noble pursuit. But there’s one danger here that I don’t see discussed often: in a society where everyone can live all they want, there’s likely to be a deficit of children.

I.

Some children will likely still be born even after death is fully conquered (especially, I think, if the human race expands into space). However, biologically speaking, having children is little more than an adaptation to dying. Adaptations that outlive their usefulness tend to wither and disappear. To an extent, this is already happening: in developed countries population is getting older, and the rate of births is below reproduction levels.

Why is this important? Because what makes us ourselves is not our bodies; it’s our culture — our languages, science, art, everything we do and enjoy. And culture has itself evolved as something that gets passed from generation to generation — something that is constantly relearned from scratch. It needs a constant inflow of innocence, of ignorance, of fresh eyes and fresh voices that come to learn and to doubt.

Without this, culture stops evolving and becomes an empty ritual. Old people are cultural fossils of the age when they were young and learning; some of them remain productive — but just compare how often someone’s first book becomes a sensation, as opposed to fifth or tenth.

II.

It may be even worse than that. On top of stopping to evolve, culture in a no-death world may simply stop, period. After all, what is it that entices us to keep creating new books, new music, new ideas, new blog posts? Isn’t it that we learn new stuff and are eager to show off what we’ve learned?

Older people slump in creativity not because they lack the energy of youth. What they miss is the newness of the world, the sense that you have something exciting to share that you have just understood or discovered.

(Someone asked about psychedelics. They can precipitate discoveries and motivate creativity, but your potential discoverables remain finite — which means artificial stimulants can only accelerate the process of getting psychologically older.  What we need, however, is to reverse it. We have plenty of things that open new experiences, but if we want to live forever, we must learn to become inexperienced again.)

A world with 100% of fully developed adults at the height of their bloom is good in theory, but  it may turn out a dangerous dead end. Can we get rid of aging and death without turning into a society of curmudgeons?

III.

Perhaps we can — if we focus not just on stopping aging but on reversing it: on rejuvenation. To remain sane and productive, we need those who must be taught everything we know, from smiling upwards, again and again; and if we’re not birthing them, we must become such blank slates ourselves. We must learn to rejuvenate ourselves (if only the brain) drastically enough to become — repeatedly, life after life — children again.

Call it a compromise with death, if you will. We will have to make it.

This is one of the central ideas in Everday, a futurological treatise in the form of an encyclopedia of a distant future world. (I welcome everyone to read it, comment, and eventually join for collaborative development. It’s on a wiki site for a reason.) In Everday, the process of rewinding yourself back into childhood is called deep sleep.

That is, of course, an intuition, and there’s little that we can base it upon at this time. But one might imagine that a person who “goes back” and voluntarily invelops into a child will lose much of her memories and of (what we perceive as) her individuality — though probably not all. In any case, such a person will be much closer to pre-rejuvenation herself than, say, a two-parent biological child of hers. It’s the same DNA but given another chance — hopefully a better chance, because it’s now known from experience what this specific DNA is especially good at and how to make it happy.

Or it may not be quite the same DNA because, conceivably, humans will know enough about themselves to constantly tweak and edit their own genomes. Just like applying major patches to an operating system requires a reboot, deep sleep may be used for making the especially big and intrusive genome edits.

In Everday, I look at these and many other aspects of deep sleep: how it affects family, early childhood, education, even language; how it may work for bodiless AIs; and even, how we may have to apply the same principle to entities much larger than a single sentient mind.

Outlandish, maybe. But the time to start thinking about all this is now.

Everday on /r/utopia

I posted about Everday on reddit — please upvote and discuss. The utopia subreddit looks quite forlorn, let’s see if we can liven it up a bit.

Here’s a sampling of utopia-related Everday entries from my post:

  • Arf is the universal metamaterial: you grow it, you compute in it, you live in it.
  • Change is what humans found necessary and sufficient to do with their bodies, given complete knowledge and control thereof.
  • City: a utopia within a utopia, the story of its quick rise and slow descent.
  • Deep sleep is how Everday deals with death.
  • Family: it still exists, and may matter more than ever before.
  • Flight: what’s the use of a utopia where you can’t fly?
  • Leaving: and yet death somehow refuses to be completely dealt with.
  • Minds are the AIs of the Everday world — perhaps surprising in their unsurprisingness.
  • Nature Minds are the more interesting kind, even if purely hypothetical.
  • Nomogenesis is a look at what we can, and should, do to Earth’s biology other than compensate for the harm we’ve done to it.
  • Panpraxis is an even more outlandish vision — but why have a world that can’t dream?
  • Roads are just that: roads. Simple things matter, too.
  • Scares were never fully conquered but changed almost unrecognizably.
  • Sparsening was the Big Bang that created Everday — or was it a Big Whimper?
  • String is a typical something bigger that every utopia needs.
  • Understanding is the Holy Grail of a world that’s always on the run from self-complacency.
  • Will is the ultimate money — the latest, and final, universal equivalent for a world without coercion or deceit.
  • Wizards roam the roads of Everday. They can change your life — if you’re ready for it. They can make you one of them.
  • World Sleep is rightfully the last chapter of the book of Everday: not just alphabetically but eschatologically.

Do we need suffering?

An interesting discussion on Reddit where I posted a link to my Nomogenesis: Would it be wise to just eliminate all suffering? Setting aside animals for a moment, what about people: is it conceivable that suffering may sometimes be beneficial — that it may let us feel or understand something that we would otherwise be blind to? Would we become “lazy, self-centered, narcissistic” if we protect ourselves from anything unpleasant?

Chinese room: what does it disprove?

Chinese room is a famous thought experiment by John Searle which purports to show that a machine, no matter how complex, cannot be conscious. It replaces a machine by a regular conscious person who, however, is partly unconscious — unaware — of some area of knowledge, such as Chinese language. Still, this person (hidden in a closed room) can communicate in perfect Chinese with anyone on any topic simply by following a (supposedly large and complex) set of rules that “correlate one set of formal symbols with another set of formal symbols” (i.e., English with Chinese) that someone else has created for him. According to Searle, this paradox — that you may not know a single Chinese word and yet pass for a fluent Chinese speaker by adhering to a set of rules— proves that even if a machine appears conscious and passes Turing test with flying colors, it is still not really conscious, not any more than the person in the room really knows Chinese.

One immediate problem with this argument is that speaking Chinese, difficult as it may be, and appearing conscious and intelligent are tasks that aren’t quite analogous. To know Chinese, you just need to know Chinese; to appear minimally intelligent, you have to know a lot more about a lot more things. It may be argued that, for all its complexity, any language is ultimately a formal system that can be described by rules; for intelligence, this is much less clear. However, I’m not going to pursue this line of attack — I have something better.

There’s another problem: at best, this argument proves that a seemingly-conscious machine can, but not necessarily must, be non-conscious. If it targets AI proponents as religious believers, all it can do is turn them into agnostics, not true atheists. If “just following some rules” is Searle’s definition of “being not really conscious,” then he must first show that we conscious humans are not, ultimately, just following rules ourselves. This argument certainly doesn’t accomplish that. “I feel that I am not a machine” can easily be a delusion: the man in the Chinese room, if he’s never seen any real Chinese speaker, may well think that what he does is speaking Chinese — that all other Chinese he’s communicating with are also English-speaking people who sit in their rooms with similar sets of rules. To me, this is a serious flaw of the argument — but it’s not what dooms it.

Searle purports to demonstrate how what appears on the outside (someone can speak Chinese, an AI is conscious) may contradict what really is (cannot and is not). But even if we accept Searle’s propositions on what is and what appears, the argument still fails because these two facts have no common base — they apply to different entities. To an outside observer, it’s not “the person in the room” who speaks Chinese: it is the room as a whole, with all its rule books and vocabularies. And whoever authored all those ingenious books, it surely wasn’t the guy who is currently in the room using them.

That is the real problem with Searle’s argument. The person in the Сhinese room is simply irrelevant. In following the instructions, he makes no free will choices of his own. Any impression of Chinese prowess, for the observer, comes from the instructions. Therefore the only entity about whose intelligence we can argue is whoever made these instructions — and that entity is outside this thought experiment. The difference between a set of rules, and that same set of rules plus something that does nothing but follow them, is immaterial.

Searle’s argument is like claiming that a phone isn’t conscious when it translates someone’s intelligent responses to your questions. Surely it isn’t, but why should we be concerned with it? The phone is not who you’re talking to, even if it’s necessary for the conversation to happen.

Searle’s thought experiment totally misses the point it’s trying to (dis)prove. Which is perhaps unsurprising, given how badly its model — a live-but-dumb processor plus a dead-but-intelligent memory — reflects what’s really going on inside the entities that are, acceptedly, intelligent or speak Chinese. The Chinese room is similar to a digital computer with its CPU (that does the number crunching) and RAM (that stores programs and data) — but it’s very unlike a real brain where, for all we know, the same neural tissue works as the memory and the processor at the same time.

Everday: up to R

Here comes the penultimate Everday dump, up to letter R inclusive.

Almoster and almoster. Only a handful of links remain red.

There’s a lot. Apart from the grand Nomogenesis, you can ponder the mysterious Nature Minds, get some nostalgia for northern summer, enjoy a puppet show or some nature art, or read the dreadful tale of the Poetry Machine. As for me, panpraxis is my favorite.

So we are at rev. 14153. The last batch will be the remaining 15% of the book. Will I really finish this one day? Can’t believe.