Tuesday 24 April 2012

I want to live forever!

There is a concept of singularity in general relativity theory, describing a place where gravitational forces become infinite, and the rules of the universe no longer apply. This area is limited by the events horizon, from which no knowledge of the internal state of the singularity can escape. By analogy, Vernor Vinge in 1982 coined the term technical singularity to describe the moment in the history of technology when the rate of acceleration of future development becomes infinite from the point of view of a bystander. This is based on observation that all knowledge growth is self-propelling, and - as Ray Kurzweil argues - Moore's observation of exponential growth of computation capabilities extends both into the far past and the oncoming future.

Not surprisingly, such topic is a potent source of inspiration for science fiction writers, bringing forth numerous stories. Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen, Amber from Accelerando and Adam Zamoyski from Perfect Imperfection are just a few of my favourite characters, taking positions on the curve of progress that are well beyond human capabilities. However, the singularity seems now close enough that it no longer resides in the realm of pure fiction - well established futurologists place their bets as well, trying to proclaim the date of the breakthrough. Reading through the list of such predictions amassed by Ray Kurzweil, a curious pattern emerges: each of the prophets places the term within his own lifespan, hoping himself to experience the event.

Those bets may not be that far off: just from last year, I recall two large pharmaceutical companies starting clinical trials with yet another batch of medications promising to delay the aging process and to relegate it beyond the hundred years milestone. First journalist comments on the story also mentioned - with outrage - how this would necessitate another extension of the retirement age. Which is a bit ironic, considering the fact that initially the Old Age Pension introduced by Otto von Bismarck covered workers reaching 70 years of life, which was only a small percentage of the overall workforce at that time. Before you comment with dismay, consider that passing - or even approaching - the technical singularity means a true end to the scarcity economy. It's a world close to the one shown in Limes inferior, Crux or the books of Cory Doctorow: a real welfare state, where every citizen can be provided with almost anything he needs.

Interestingly, Terry Pratchett hid a gem of an idea of how such a society is born in his book Strata: once a dependable life-prolonging technique is available, anyone earning enough per year to elongate his life at least for the next year becomes effectively immortal. The most amazing - and brutal - events happen at the brink of this revolution, for that truly is the events horizon: beyond the extension threshold, people are on their way to become gods and live forever. Being left behind is one of the most scary things that I can imagine. And unlike the gravitational singularity, this one has a border that permits communication. One-way, mostly, as it's not possible for an ant to understand the giant, but that makes the division even more glaring.

Those that are able to partake in the transition will be, in a way, the last human generation. Oh, surely we will not stop to procreate, but the relation of power between the children and the parents will change dramatically: no longer are they raising a heir, an aid for their old days. As if they are a vampire from old tales - a child becomes a very expensive burden, that only the wealthiest can afford, and a competitor for limited resources. I did mention before that this will be a post-scarcity economy, but still some goods remain in limited supply. A Mona Lisa, for example.

And if you are lucky enough to be a member of the chosen caste, why wouldn't you desire something as unique? After all, your wealth will be unimaginable, with time unlimited for gathering the spoils, and only so few from your generation to share this gift of time. That's the real meaning of the last generation - for others will too, in future, arise to this plateau of eternal life. But being late to the party, most of them will never have the chance to amass such wealth and power.

I don't claim to know when will the breakthrough come. However, when it does - wouldn't it be terrible to miss it just by a few years? We already know some ways to extend ones life. If I can get ten, even five years more, my chances to participate in the singularity grow.
And so, I run.