Institute for Emerging Ethics and Technologies are discussing these days the appropriateness of discussing transhumanism with children, or more precisely: Should we tell them that they have a plausible chance of living forever?
I remember the first time my oldest daughter asked me if I will ever die. Knowing that life extending technologies probably will have the capability of offering much longer, healthier lives than today, I assured that her I probably will be able to stick around for a pretty long time. But I didn’t mention anything about immortality.
Ever since this conversation, singularity and transhumanist scenarios have been riveting more people and are even starting to appear in mainstream media, shaking off at least some of it’s crackpot reputation. Although still not even close to being embraced by public school curricula, the idea that some of us might go on to live forever is slowly winning ground as a possibility that at least should be considered in certain types of long term planning.
So when the day comes that my two younger children ask if mommy’s destiny is similar that of the mouse we berried in the back yard, will I give them an even more reassuring answer? No. And this time around I’m not even sure if I will try to estimate my own longevity. And it is not because I think age related immortality is technically unfeasible, but –
- because I could be setting my kids up for a huge disappointment. That is, I probably would be setting them up for a huge disappointment. Some atheists might argue that religious people have promised their children eternal life in the great beyond for ages, but there is an important distinction. Religious myths about an afterlife have the positive effect of reducing ones fear of death and of comforting people that their deceased loved ones are well taken care of. It even provides some extrinsic awards for good behavior here on earth. And if it all turns out to be a mass illusion, even the most religiously convinced person will never know that they didn’t go where they thought they would go because – well – they are no longer capable of knowing that they didn’t get there. Illusions about scientific immortality on the other hand could add a pretty heavy psychological load when a person needs it the least, namely while in the process of dying. This is especially true when life extending technologies exist, but are not available to every person who desperately pleads for it on their death bed.
- Which brings me to the second point. Why should we equate the law of accelerating returns in computer technology with accelerating returns for mankind? Why do we still believe that just because something is technologically possible it will suddenly cause a watershed of changes? Granted, with a faster innovation cycle it is reasonable to expect a decrease in time between invention and ubiquity. But this doesn’t mean it will become available to everybody. Even technologies that have been around for centuries are still beaming with their gaping absences in great parts of the world. I mean – Cholera? And Diphtheria? In 2011? Where are the sanitation systems that could prevent these diseases and the simple treatment that can cure them? Not exactly rocket science, but a very good example that technology is not alway applied for those who need it the most. Of course, modern technologies have prolific impacts in developing countries too, such as social media helping to bring about regime changes. It can even help underprivileged areas ‘leap frog’ and thus create virtuous cycles of high-tech growth without getting caught up in obsolete technologies. But I’m just not so sure that the vast majority of people are going to get access to technologies that keep their physical bodies or brains around forever at the peak of global population growth. I just don’t think most of us will be considered that indispensable.
No matter whether you side with the transhumanists or the luddites, we need to be prepared for these difficult discussions with our children. Religious people already have the answer as do diehard atheists. Transhumanist theories add a new dimension to that continuum, a dimention that we as grown ups at least should have contemplated beforehand.
What do you think? Here’s a poll. I couldn’t it answer myself, as I didn’t agree with any of the alternatives.