Endless Summer: The Philosophical Prospect of Living Forever
I will be the first. It’s a hard thought to get your head around I know. Six months ago this week, on a Tuesday I believe, I was selected as the only winner of the first lottery (of its kind). With the eyes of the world on me, it was a rather embarrassing experience; and things haven’t improved much since. From that first moment of undeserved fame, I have been extremely conscious of just how unimpressive I must appear. But there is no going back now. Tomorrow I will be uploaded, my body will be discarded; and mediocrity will be a thing of the past. When your lights go out, mine will burn on; in ever brighter ways.
I applied for purely selfish reasons — I don’t want to die. The excitement of becoming transhuman, of stepping beyond our fleshy limitations didn’t tickle me the way it did for most people. It just felt like old news. The technology for computational self-improvement has been around for nearly as long as the AIs have. Though you mustn’t call them this — the term ‘AI’ is now considered a touch racist because there is nothing actually artificial about their intelligence. Not that the AIs seem to care about any of this.
In the years before they arrived, we used to imagine all sorts of nightmare scenarios for what AI would look like. Not that any of this stopped us trying to create it — perhaps it was the voices claiming it couldn’t be done that pushed the science forward as an intellectual middle finger to the doubters. Looking back now it all seems so simple. We wasted so much time thinking of it as a computing problem — trying to find the right inputs to produce an AI output. Circling things a little closer, other people focussed their attention on cracking consciousness and free will, hoping that this might unveil a pathway into the issue.
None of this worked — as it turned out — because they were all just pieces of a much more fundamental problem: creativity. We had to rinse ourselves clean of the reductionist impulse to explain things in terms of constituent parts, the large in terms of the small; we had to do away with Daniel Dennett and his tiny robots. Accepting the world as we found it, brought us to the door of AI. Solving the problem of creativity — something that Karl Popper had already gotten us half way towards — was the well placed kick that broke the hinges.
When it finally arrived, it was underwhelming to say the least. Originally, what we got was just ourselves in a program. Sure they moved fast, constantly rewriting their own code in order to solve ever harder problems; but starting from such a low base, our grand expectations — built up through decades of science fiction — were never likely to be satisfied. Eventually, like new immigrants, the AIs began living parallel lives; and very few of us paid much attention.
What refocussed our minds was the sudden realisation that our disinterest wasn’t being reciprocated. From a distance, the AIs had been involving themselves in our lives with the concentration of an overbearing parent — ironic considering We gave birth to Them. The olive branch recapturing our attention was the surprise offer of intellectual enhancement — silicon chips in the brain. They wanted to take us with them, to shake off our biological limitations and enter their world. Needless to say, the major religions didn’t take the news well: we were being offered immortality without an afterlife. Yet the ground was shifting too fast, and before long they simply moved their goal posts to accommodate the change.
The AIs must have a thing for lotteries, because they used that method back then as well. I still remember the fretful look of panic and confusion on the face of the young lady that won; the same expression that was etched onto me half a year ago. The technology worked, and she was an obvious improvement on the rest of us. A car accident, three years into her new life, put an end to all that. The next candidate, a beastly slob of a man, got himself stabbed to death in a mugging only a month after the surgery.
One can only imagine what the AIs must have been thinking of us after that… how disappointed they must have been. It didn’t look good. An AI crisis meeting was held, and an immediate end to the program announced. It was originally thought that they would restart operations after solving the engineering problem of cellular repair. After all, what’s the point in being superhuman if you are just going to get old and die like everyone else? But as it so happens, the ‘death problem’ wasn’t what really bothered them. It was the hands on requirements of the technology, constantly needing maintenance and manually installed upgrades to keep things going. Biology — even the technologically enhanced variety — is just too cumbersome.
Rather than labouring over solutions to issues like violence, disease and hunger, the AIs simply decided to solve Us. The final equation on the blackboard, the last great, uniquely human, problem; the problem that would erase all others, was the uploading of our minds.
Though there is a fear out there– not entirely unfounded — that superintelligence, for someone like myself, might involve nothing more than enjoying the pleasures of drug use, binge drinking and mundane television at a whole new cerebral level. The AIs — based on Alan Turing’s own gift to the future: the ‘universality of computation’ — don’t share these concerns. They have assured me that — just as it was for them — the ability to form explanatory knowledge — to be creative — is the only relevant hurdle. And natural, biological, evolution has already pushed the human species well past this point — we are all just shells into which new engines can be built.
The world, since I was announced, has been in an oddly reflective mood. Quoting Epicurus and Schopenhauer, strangers will send defiant emails, accusing me of letting my insecurity take the wheel. Apparently death is a banality, and the healthy thing to do is just ignore its growing shadow.
Without the overt sense of hostility that I often get face-to-face, I’ve started enjoying these interactions. Responding with news articles of lives cut short, and of families struggling to cope with those deaths; sobbing their way through trauma and grief, poking endlessly at gaping wounds. I then steer the conversation toward the deprivation and drawn-out suffering that tends to accompany death — the people that Nietzsche saw as failing to die at the right time. Rounding things out, I explain the inevitability of it happening with the uncertainty of its timing, through the imagery of being locked inside Schrödinger’s box, staring nervously down the poison tube. This always seems like a natural stopping point, after which there is just no convincing people that death is an illness worth curing.
Occasionally someone will sign-off an exchange quoting Nick Bostrom: saying that the AIs will still bring death, but on a much grander scale. That they are the ‘Great Filter’ destroying all civilisations that build them — and this is the reason we are not seeing the universe teeming with alien life. The AIs have promised me that this is not the case.
Still there are some doubters out there… I was once amongst them. Having read a little too much dark fiction, they imagine my immortal future as a curse. They think — just as the existentialists did before them — that death is needed to shape life; to make it meaningful. Channelling Bernard Williams, they imagine myself, a thousand-odd years into the future, committing digital suicide in a last desperate attempt to escape the tedium of it all.
Unmoved, but playing along, the AIs organised a public seminar to calm these concerns. It was all down to a ‘parochial misconception’, they said. I don’t know how they ran the math but, largely defined by a desperate fight for survival, the human lifespan apparently averages out to 27 years, 145 days, 5 hours, 33 minutes. So we are already living in the future. Nothing could be more natural they tell us. Death is so permanent, and — as Heidegger put it — the idea of a world without us is so intolerable, that we will be forever pleading for ‘one more day’, like a schoolboy not wanting summer to end.
It all boils down, apparently, to a misunderstanding of what ‘meaning’ actually is. There just isn’t a ‘nausea’ at the heart of life — as Sartre described it — driving people ever closer to the roof’s edge. ‘Meaning’ — as it so happens — has a rather unsexy, sober backstory: apparently it’s just a process of finding challenges, creating knowledge and solving problems. Which is exactly why they want to bring us with them, to avoid a situation where all the problems in our lives are outsourced to more competent beings. The only danger for us, they say, is to remain as we are. Though as they wrapped things up, I did sense a certain smug undercurrent bubbling to the surface: ‘If life is meaningless’ they said, ‘then suicide must be also’.