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.
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.
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?
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.