Home > data science, rant > I’d like you to eventually die

I’d like you to eventually die

September 22, 2013

Google has formally thrown their hat into the “rich people should never die” arena, with an official announcement of their new project called Calico, “a new company that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases”. Their plan is to use big data and genetic research to avoid aging.

I saw this coming when they hired Ray Kurzweil. Here’s an excerpt from my post:

A few days ago I read a New York Times interview of Ray Kurzweil, who thinks he’s going to live forever and also claims he will cure cancer if and when he gets it (his excuse for not doing it in his spare time now: “Well, I mean, I do have to pick my priorities. Nobody can do everything.”). He also just got hired at Google.

Here’s the thing. We need people to die. Our planet cannot sustain all the people currently alive as well as all the people who are going to someday be born. Just not gonna happen. Plus, it would be a ridiculously boring place to live. Think about how boring it is already for young people to be around old people. I bore myself around my kids, and I’m only 30 years older than they are.

And yes, it’s tragic when someone we love actually becomes one of those people whose time has come, especially if they’re young and especially if it seemed preventable. For that matter, I’m all for figuring out how to improve the quality of life for people.

But the idea that we’re going to figure out how to keep alive a bunch of super rich advertising executives just doesn’t seem right – because, let’s face it, there will have to be a way to choose who lives and who dies, and I know who is at the top of that list – and I for one am not on board with the plan. Larry Page, Tim Cook, and Ray Kurzweil: I’d really like it if you eventually died.

On the other hand, I’m not super worried about this plan coming through either. Big data can do a lot but it’s not going to make people live forever. Or let’s say it another way: if they can use big data to make people live forever, they can also use big data to convince me that super special rich white men living in Silicon Valley should take up resources and airtime for the rest of eternity.

Categories: data science, rant
  1. September 22, 2013 at 8:39 am

    Indeed. Not only would I like others to die, I’d really like to die myself someday.

    Also, there’s a deep contradiction in these folks’ reasoning: If life is simply a material process that can be indefinitely extended by mere mortals in a lab, what exactly would be the value of doing so?

    • September 22, 2013 at 9:42 am

      I don’t see your contradiction. The value is living longer, if you want to. Mere mortals (scientists and doctors) have been extending our lifespan for a few hundred years. The wealthy generally benefit first, but that will trickle down.

      • September 22, 2013 at 10:15 am

        The trickling down of immortality is an awful idea as well, possibly even worse than just having a few elitists living forever.

  2. Abe Kohen
    September 22, 2013 at 8:52 am

    What if they could have prolonged the lives of Wendy Wasserstein and Gilda Radner? As Emily Litella would have said: Never mind. Rich white women living in New York.

  3. DJ
    September 22, 2013 at 9:16 am

    “For a few to live forever, many must die.”

    “I admit it has its seamy side, this immortality. The Galactic Google [sic] has solved many problems for us, but in solving the problem of preventing old age and death, it has undone all its other solutions.”

  4. September 22, 2013 at 9:55 am

    The obsession with avoiding death! That is an old one in human societies. Maybe someday we’ll figure out how to keep the body alive forever. I am a neurophysiologist, and I believe that will be a long way off, if we ever manage it. One way to make life better now is to stop hating older folks. Internalized and socially operationalized ageism prevents us from enjoying our own lifespan. We assume the only things good or fun in life are those that 20-somethings do. I am 57. I have had a rich and varied experience. I got my Ph.D. when I was 56. I am starting a new career as a neurophysiologist. I study aging. I’d like to extend health until the moment of death, but I don’t want to stop learning, changing, and growing now. The minds of people who dedicate themselves to lifelong learning become more rich, unique, and fascinating with each passing decade. If you stop the hate of age in your own mind, you’d be surprised at how different you feel, the possibilities that suddenly open up before you, and how different the world seems.

    • September 23, 2013 at 9:31 am

      How right you are – your last sentence in particular rings true to my own experience, and it’s why I’ve become an anti-ageism activist (thischairrocks.com, yoisthisageist.com). Spread the word! Cathy, I’m a friend of Peter Woit’s.

  5. September 22, 2013 at 10:13 am

    I believe that we have already well exceeded the carrying capacity of this planet. I rather like the precepts on the Georgia Guidestones and two in particular; don’t let the population of the planet exceed 500,000,000, make room for nature.

  6. Simone Simonini
    September 22, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Great point, but you’re not thinking big enough. Maybe we could introduce a mandatory retirement age from life, or ban wasting scarce medical resources on people over 60.

    • Abe Kohen
      September 22, 2013 at 11:24 am

      Why stop at 60? Why not 40 or 20?

    • September 22, 2013 at 10:29 pm

      I didn`t see the movie “the price of life”, but the plot seems to be along these lines. The difference is that you can buy more lifetime! Rich people live forever!

  7. September 22, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    My bet is that there is nothing to “worry”: Everybody who is alive today will die at the same age at which people are dying today. Big data is not going to change that anytime soon, Although I am big fan of big data: please don’t overstretch its potential to infinity (literally!), the hangover will be of the same size then…

    • benfitzg
      September 22, 2013 at 5:28 pm

      but it’s big data! I don’t think you can imagine how big it is. It’s huge…

  8. orthonormal
    September 22, 2013 at 1:18 pm

    You do realize that overpopulation depends on fertility rate way more than on mortality rate, right?

  9. September 22, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    guessing that they’ll figure out how to get humans to survive without sleep first. this is essentially increasing life by 33%, no?

    (in the sense that life = time/attention available to be marketed to and consume goods!)

  10. September 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Dear Mathbabe/Ms O’Neil:

    Fortunately, we (the Irish) have been down this road before.

    One of our eminent patriots and greatest writers, Jonathon Swift, envisioned the agonizing fate of people condemned to immortalitaty, referred to as the Struldbrugs in his historical satire ranging across the politics of his era as well as human nature.

    Gulliver’s Travels has been in print continuously since 1726. The apparent ignorance of the Calico project leaders concerning Swift’s description of life as an immortal illustrates both their overweening arrogance and the gaps in their education.

    As for your assertion that the carrying capacity of the Earth has been reached, or will be reached anytime soon, that topic requires a separate explanation,

    Summary: no, we are nowhere near the carrying capacity of the planet.

    Humanity’s flaws with regard to the distribution of the wealth it generates; and its ineffective governance of exploitation of shared resources such as the fish in the sea and clean air, are separate topics.

    It’s not a technical problem, it’s a political problem rooted in the vices of human nature.

    Here’s a summary of Swift’s view of immortality:

    Struldbrug

    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    In Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, the name struldbrug is given to those humans in the nation of Luggnagg who are born seemingly normal, but are in fact immortal. However, although struldbrugs do not die, they do nonetheless continue aging. Swift’s work depicts the evil of immortality without eternal youth.

    They are easily recognized by a red dot above their left eyebrow. They are normal human beings until they reach the age of thirty, at which time they become dejected. Upon reaching the age of eighty they become legally dead, and suffer from many ailments including the loss of eyesight and the loss of hair.

    Struldbrugs were forbidden to own property:

    As soon as they have completed the term of eighty years, they are looked on as dead in law; their heirs immediately succeed to their estates; only a small pittance is reserved for their support; and the poor ones are maintained at the public charge.

    After that period, they are held incapable of any employment of trust or profit; they cannot purchase lands, or take leases; neither are they allowed to be witnesses in any cause, either civil or criminal, not even for the decision of meers (metes) and bounds.

    Because:
    Otherwise, as avarice is the necessary consequence of old age, those immortals would in time become proprietors of the whole nation, and engross the civil power, which, for want of abilities to manage, must end in the ruin of the public.

    ============================================

    As for Jonathan Swift himself, he went to his reward on October 19, 1745, at age 78.

    He left most of his fortune, 12,000 pounds sterling (equivalent to about £1,978,456.77 in 2013, according to unreliable historical inflation figures), to found a mental hospital, originally known as St Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles.That asylum opened in 1757, and still exists as a psychiatric hospital.

    Swift, long a campaigner for human rights, wrote the epitaph for his marker near the place in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, where he is buried.

    William Butler Yeats poetically translated the Latin as:

    Swift has sailed into his rest;
    Savage indignation there
    Cannot lacerate his breast.
    Imitate him if you dare,
    World-besotted traveler; he
    Served human liberty.

    Good Luck & Best Regards, Wilson

  11. John
    September 22, 2013 at 5:47 pm

    Hmmmm… isn’t Living Forever an “asymptote” that humanity has been striving for?
    I’m guessing it’s like the horizon. You may head towards it but that doesn’t mean you will get there since it always recedes.

  12. September 22, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    PS: In the Arab sections of the umma [global community of Muslims], there’s an adage loosely translated [in fact, modified for current American sensibilities] as “A persons who has children lives forever.”

  13. Guest2
    September 22, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    This is Mannheim’s Generation Problem from the 1920s. Yeah it’s a problem if no one dies. Transitions to adulthood would never happen, and nothing would change.

    But each new cohort reshapes and refashions “culture,” retaining what is good. Hopefully.

  14. beewhy2012
    September 23, 2013 at 1:59 am

    Great post! The search for the fountain of youth is as illusory now as it ever was and probably as ruinous.
    Ray Kurzweil may well get his cure for whatever specific cancer he falls prey to, but will he then have enough time to figure out how to fend off the deterioration of his kidneys, digestive epithelium, pancreas, liver, joints, ligaments, bone density, arteries and veins, lungs, not to mention his mind and all the other body systems that deteriorate with age?
    And should he succeed in defeating these onslaughts of time, how cosy would he be then living in a world where the average daily temperatures range well above 100° with alternating droughts, massive storms and floods, widespread famines and wildfires, polluted water tables, oil-slicked seashores, vast die-offs of monocultured agricultural plants and animals, degraded infrastructures and, what the heck, extensive societal breakdown?
    I’ll keep the hemlock in my bedside table, thanks.

  15. September 23, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    I wrote the following years ago, you’ve reminded me:

    Been reading Kurzweil for a while, and his thinking strikes me as decidedly anti-human. He hates us, hates himself, thinks if he becomes something else the something else that’s no longer him will magically be happier, better, more worthwhile.

    [Further discussion of Kurzweil’s other big idea, “the singularity,” and why if true AI is achieved we probably should kill it.]

    Analogously, when humans find the way to achieve physical immortality, another of Kurzweil’s obsessions (and he is not alone), it will become the duty of all rock-throwing teenagers of whatever age on the planet to kill the immortals. Just look ahead to the year 2150, and Bill Gates and Madonna and Richard Branson and Carly Fiorina and the DeVos family and a bunch of Bushes and Moons and Kurzweil and Craig Ventner and Murdoch’s son and 10,000,000 other ruling class non-entities are still there, quasi-zombies because there’s no way they’ll maintain intact the identities or memories or passions over the centuries that actually make a person, but still there: in charge: owning it all: eating up the air and the opportunities: being glorified by the celebrity worshipping media they still own: dowsing the least spark of new life. Now imagine those who are born into this world, or sprout from the proverbial test-tube, or however it’s done by then. Youth will have been robbed of all life, they will have no higher duty than to kill all immortals and reduce the civilization back to a state of semi-creative barbarism.

    Youth is beautiful. We all know our subjective experience to be more consistently alive in youth than it becomes as we age. The greatest passions of human experience and the greatest creativity spring from youth. An immortality of the old begins to foreclose on life for all.

  16. September 23, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Kurzweil and the quantified self folks..what a wild combination…they can all quantify together and live forever (grin).

  17. oki"llbite
    September 26, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    Don’t worry, they are ALL going to die. As is anyone reading this comment. Medical science operates on a timescale that IT nerds just can’t grok. And then there’s the rather largish problem that we really still have no idea what the hell is going on organisms – I bet we will still be discovering tons of surprising things about epigenetics when these guys are pushing up flowers.

    The company these guys founded is doing pre-clinical research – if you assumed they had good leads, it would be a decade before the drug hits the market. Trust me, they don’t. And death seems pretty well programmed into higher animals – it’s not its a super “simple” case of fixing a defective gene and replacing it with a normal one, which is obviously an easy fix – right? Like, muscular dystropy. Oh, that hasn’t been cured after several decades of research. And I’d be willing to bet aging is more complex than all those other just about to be cured diseases like cancer and schizophrenia.

  1. September 22, 2013 at 11:13 am
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