Death is Optional and Humans are Superfluous

If a country, if a people, today are left behind, they will never get a second chance, especially because cheap labor will count for nothing. Once you know how to produce bodies and brains and minds, cheap labor in Africa or South Asia or wherever, it simply counts for nothing….

… this time, if you’re not fast enough to become part of the revolution, then you’ll probably become extinct. Countries like China, missed the train for the Industrial Revolution, but 150 years later, they somehow have managed to catch up, largely, speaking in economic terms, thanks to the power of cheap labor. Now, those who miss the train will never get a second chance. __Edge.org


In the affluent parts of the world, death is not yet optional, but it is becoming more “postponeable” for larger numbers of people. At the same time, human fertility across the globe is most prolific in low IQ populations of the third world, and in low IQ immigrants to Europe and the Anglosphere.

Advances in Life Extension

In two recent articles, Brian Wang looks at methods of disposing of senescent cells, and a $425 million venture fund to spur start-ups that will work to slow aging, reverse disease, and extend life. You can also read more about senolytic treatments and big financing for radical life extension at the long-lived and respected life extension website Fight Aging!

The SENS Research Foundation is another funding group pursuing the extinction of ageing and death via specific mechanisms.

SENS Goals

SENS Goals

Others pin their hopes on the development of super-intelligent machines that can solve the problems of biological ageing, or the creation of machine substrates capable of supporting our “downloaded minds” for indefinite time periods. It is growing increasingly likely that biomedical scientists, engineers, and technologists will develop genetic therapies that will make human bodies and minds more robust, resilient, and “anti-fragile.” Genetic therapies that will include germ line cells.

“For the first time in history, if I’m rich enough, I don’t have to die”

What effect will the ability of the few to live super-long lifespans have on human societies as a whole? A “violent class schism” may be in the offing, as those populations unable to afford or effect the new technologies — the growing ranks of the superfluous — refuse to just sit on the sidelines and go extinct.

Below you will find excerpts from a provocative conversation between Historian Yuval Noah Harari and Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, where Harari discusses his disturbing thoughts on the possible social consequences of effective treatments for ageing, and more sophisticated machine intelligence.

HARARI:… the new attitude is to treat old age and death as technical problems, no different in essence than any other disease… People never die because the Angel of Death comes, they die because their heart stops pumping, or because an artery is clogged, or because cancerous cells are spreading in the liver or somewhere. These are all technical problems, and in essence, they should have some technical solution. And this way of thinking is now becoming very dominant in scientific circles, and also among the ultra-rich who have come to understand that, wait a minute, something is happening here. For the first time in history, if I’m rich enough, maybe I don’t have to die.

KAHNEMAN: Death is optional.

HARARI: Death is optional. And if you think about it from the viewpoint of the poor, it looks terrible, because throughout history, death was the great equalizer. The big consolation of the poor throughout history was that okay, these rich people, they have it good, but they’re going to die just like me. But think about the world, say, in 50 years, 100 years, where the poor people continue to die, but the rich people, in addition to all the other things they get, also get an exemption from death. That’s going to bring a lot of anger.

KAHNEMAN: Yes. I really like that phrase of “people not being necessary,” can you elaborate on this dystopia?… I was worrying about what computers would do in displacing people… when I was a graduate student, and that was more than 50 years ago, and I thought that’s a very serious, immediate problem. It wasn’t a serious immediate problem then, but a serious … not immediate, but it may be a serious problem now. You have thought about it deeply, can you tell us about people becoming unnecessary, economically, and unnecessary militarily? What will that do?

HARARI: The basic process is the decoupling of intelligence from consciousness. Throughout history, you always had the two together. If you wanted something intelligent, this something had to have consciousness at its basis. People were not familiar with anything not human, that didn’t have consciousness, that could be intelligent, that could solve problems like playing chess or driving a car or diagnosing disease.

Now, what we’re talking about today is not that computers will be like humans. I think that many of these science fiction scenarios, that computers will be like humans, are wrong. Computers are very, very, very far from being like humans, especially when it comes to consciousness. The problem is different, that the system, the military and economic and political system doesn’t really need consciousness.

KAHNEMAN: It needs intelligence.

HARARI: It needs intelligence. And intelligence is a far easier thing than consciousness. And the problem is, computers may not become conscious, I don’t know, ever … I would say 500 years … but they could be as intelligent or more intelligent than humans in particular tasks very quickly…. for most of the tasks that humans are needed for, what is required is just intelligence, and a very particular type of intelligence, because we are undergoing, for thousands of years, a process of specialization, which makes it easier to replace us. To build a robot that could function effectively as a hunter-gatherer is extremely complex. You need to know so many different things. But to build a self-driving car, or to build a “Watson-bot” that can diagnose disease better than my doctor, this is relatively easy.

And this is where we have to take seriously, the possibility that even though computers will still be far behind humans in many different things, as far as the tasks that the system needs from us are concerned, most of the time computers will be able to do better than us

The same thing will happen with these promises to overcome death. My guess, which is only a guess, is that the people who live today, and who count on the ability to live forever, or to overcome death in 50 years, 60 years, are going to be hugely disappointed. It’s one thing to accept that I’m going to die. It’s another thing to think that you can cheat death and then die eventually. It’s much harder.

While they are in for a very big disappointment, in their efforts to defeat death, they will achieve great things. They will make it easier for the next generation to do it, and somewhere along the line, it will turn from science fiction to science, and the wolf will come.

KAHNEMAN: What you are doing here, in terms of prediction, is about trends. The trend is clear, what progress means is clear, but when you describe people as superfluous, you are presenting the background for a huge problem. Who decides what to do with the superfluous people. Especially, what are the social implications that you see, the technical or technological development that you foresee?

HARARI: … We’re basically learning to produce bodies and minds. Bodies and minds are going to be the two main products of the next wave of all these changes. And if there is a gap between those that know how to produce bodies and minds and those that do not, then this is far greater than anything we saw before in history.

And this time, if you’re not fast enough to become part of the revolution, then you’ll probably become extinct. Countries like China, missed the train for the Industrial Revolution, but 150 years later, they somehow have managed to catch up, largely, speaking in economic terms, thanks to the power of cheap labor. Now, those who miss the train will never get a second chance. If a country, if a people, today are left behind, they will never get a second chance, especially because cheap labor will count for nothing. Once you know how to produce bodies and brains and minds, cheap labor in Africa or South Asia or wherever, it simply counts for nothing. So in geopolitical terms, we might see a repeat of the 19th century, but in a much larger scale.

KAHNEMAN: What I find difficult to imagine is that as people are becoming unnecessary, the translation of that into sort of 20th-century terms is mass unemployment. Mass unemployment means social unrest. And it means there are things going to happen, processes going to happen in society, as a result of people becoming superfluous, and that is a gradual process, people becoming superfluous.

We may be seeing that in the growing inequality now, we may be seeing the beginning of what you’re talking about. But have you thought, in the same way as you’re thinking in interesting and novel ways about technology, have you thought about the social side?

HARARI: … the biggest question maybe in economics and politics of the coming decades will be what to do with all these useless people. I don’t think we have an economic model for that. My best guess, which is just a guess, is that food will not be a problem. With that kind of technology, you will be able to produce food to feed everybody. The problem is more boredom, and what to do with people, and how will they find some sense of meaning in life when they are basically meaningless, worthless.

My best guess at present is a combination of drugs and computer games as a solution for most … it’s already happening. Under different titles, different headings, you see more and more people spending more and more time, or solving their inner problems with drugs and computer games, both legal drugs and illegal drugs. But this is just a wild guess.

… looking from the perspective of 2015, I don’t think we now have the knowledge to solve the social problems of 2050, or the problems that will emerge as a result of all these new developments. We should be looking for new knowledge and new solutions, and starting with the realization that in all probability, nothing that exists at present offers a solution to these problems.

KAHNEMAN: What is very interesting and frightening about this scenario is that it is true, as you point out, that people have lived to work, or worked to live, and that what you are describing is a scenario in which work is unnecessary for most people.

There is a class of people who work because they enjoy it, and are able to do it, and then there is most of humanity, for which work no longer exists. That mass of people cannot work, but they can still kill people. How do you see the possibility of strife and conflict, between the superfluous people and those who are not?

HARARI: Once you are superfluous, you don’t have power. Again, we are used to the age of the masses, of the 19th and 20th century, where you saw all these successful massive uprisings, revolutions, revolts, so we are used to thinking about the masses as powerful, but this is basically a 19th century and 20th century phenomenon.

If you go back in most periods in history, say to the middle ages, you do see peasant uprisings. They all failed, because the masses were not powerful. And once you become superfluous, militarily and economically, you can still cause trouble, of course, but you don’t have the power to really change things…. as a historian, the most important thing to realize is that the power of the masses, that we are so used to, is rooted in particular historical conditions, economic, military, political, which characterized the 19th and 20th centuries. These conditions are now changing, and there is no reason to be certain that the masses will retain their power.

KAHNEMAN: What you’re describing, the scenario that you’re pointing to, is one of fairly rapid technological progress, and it really doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about 50 years or 150 years. There is a social arrangement that has been around for a long time, for decades and centuries. And they change relatively slowly. So what you bring to my mind, as I hear you, is a major disconnect between rapid technological change and quite rigid cultural and social arrangements that will not actually keep up.

HARARI: Yes, this is one of the big dangers, one of the big problems with technology. It develops much faster than human society and human morality, and this creates a lot of tension. But, again, we can try and learn something from our previous experience with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, that actually, you saw very rapid changes in society, not as fast as the changes in technology, but still, amazingly fast.

The most obvious example is the collapse of the family and of the intimate community, and their replacement by the state and the market. Basically, for the entirety of history, humans lived as part of these small and very important units, the family and the intimate community, say 200 people, who are your village, your tribe, your neighborhood. You know everybody; they know you. You may not like them, but your life depends on them. They provide you with almost everything you need in order to survive. They are your healthcare. There is no pension fund; you have children, they are your pension fund. They are your bank, your school, your police, everything. If you lose your family and the intimate community, you’re dead, or you have to find a replacement family.

… Suddenly, within 200 years, the family and the intimate community break, they collapse. Most of the roles filled by the family and by the intimate community for thousands and tens of thousands of years, are transferred very quickly to new networks provided by the state and the market. You don’t need children, you can have a pension fund. You don’t need somebody to take care of you. You don’t need neighbors and sisters or brothers to take care of you when you’re sick. The state takes care of you. The state provides you with police, with education, with health, with everything.

… In the most advanced societies, people live as alienated individuals, with no community to speak about, with a very small family. It’s no longer the big extended family. It’s now a very small family, maybe just a spouse, maybe one or two children, and even they, they might live in a different city, in a different country, and you see them maybe once in every few months, and that’s it. And the amazing thing is that people live with that. And that’s just 200 years.

What might happen in the next hundred years on that level of daily life, of intimate relationships? Anything is possible. You look at Japan today, and Japan is maybe 20 years ahead of the world in everything. And you see these new social phenomena of people having relationships with virtual spouses. And you have people who never leave the house and just live through computers. And I don’t know, maybe it’s the future, maybe it isn’t, but for me, the amazing thing is that you’d have thought, given the biological background of humankind, that this is impossible, yet we see that it is possible. Apparently, Homo Sapiens is even more malleable than we tend to think.

We can also learn something from the Agricultural Revolution… Without agriculture, you could not have cities and kingdoms and empires and so forth, but if you look at it from the viewpoint of the individual, then for many individuals, life was probably much worse as peasants in ancient Egypt then as hunter gatherers 20,000, 30,000 years earlier. You had to work much harder. The body and mind of Homo Sapiens evolved for millions of years in adaptation to climbing trees and picking fruits and to running after gazelles and looking for mushrooms. And suddenly you start all day digging canals and carrying water buckets from the river and harvesting the corn, and grinding the corn, this is much more difficult for the body, and also much more boring to the mind.

In terms of ideas, in terms of religions, the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East. This is where people like Ray Kurzweil, are creating new religions. These are the religions that will take over the world, not the ones coming out of Syria and Iraq and Nigeria. __edge.org Conversation between Kahneman and Harari

The conversation between Kahneman and Harari is a provocative one, generating several lines of thought worth pursuing. We sense that in the end, Harari’s vision is unmercifully filtered by the lenses of “the modern academic milieu,” the echo choir of groupthink that reflects and resonates from all surfaces of media, government, academia, vested interest lobbies and think tanks, and popular culture.

If one open-mindedly leaps into the future far enough, he is likely to see some startling things. But depending upon the leaper’s training, discipline, and creativity, most of what he sees will be distorted by conventional thinking, thrown off-course by unconscious straight-line extrapolation, and in the end, simply wrong. One’s sense of history can be reasonably accurate, and yet his sense of the future can be hideously off-target.

But it is too soon to judge, without having read more of Harari’s ideas.

There are many reasons to anticipate a rapid growth of superfluous — uneducable, untrainable, unassimilable — human souls, in the third world and inside third world slums of first world cities. Unless they can be given something peaceful to do to occupy their time, it is likely that they will turn to violent crime and other destructive pursuits.

As the technology of “human replacement” grows more sophisticated and efficient, more and more persons who had always felt themselves “high on the food chain” will discover themselves to be growing more superfluous and less significant. According to Harari it is not just taxi drivers and computer programmers whose jobs are at risk. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, actuaries, engineers, and middle class professionals of all types are at risk of being pushed aside by the creation of the “intelligence without consciousness” being designed into new machines.

Harari is right about that — it is much easier to embed “intelligence” into machines if you do not try to include consciousness. Artificial general intelligence of a conscious nature may be 500 years away, as Harari muses. But sophisticated machine intelligences of specialised nature are not at all far away in time.

The combination of being left behind by the longevity revolution and being made superfluous by the machine intelligence revolution may prove to be a lethal one for most people and populations that find themselves caught in that trap.

Rapid disruptive technological change will produce unpredictable effects over time on human populations and societies. That is why it is best to plan ahead for multiple eventualities.

Robustly resilient people with broad competence in multiple skills should be well placed to work both within and outside of “the system.” Particularly if they have a good understanding of the underpinnings.

Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.




More: Cloning is another approach to “immortality.” Can long-dead historical figures be brought back to life using cloning?

Perhaps the most fascinating aspects to the Kahneman – Harari conversation excerpted above, are those dealing with the shift from a mass culture to a system-privileged culture, from an open culture of at least modest social mobility to a more fixed-class culture firmly constrained by “the system.” Wealth and connections to the system determine who will have access to the new technologies of longevity and abundance, according to Harari.

At the very beginnings of the original Al Fin blog, we dealt with some of the same concepts from a different — less system-constrained — perspective. The “next level” perspective was just being fleshed out at the time. Since then the Al Fin blogs have gone through many evolutionary changes, as new contributors came and went — and as parts of the system, such as Google, exerted undue influence on the free expression of ideas.

Perhaps it is time to revisit particular concepts of The Next Level that have been neglected for the past ten years, and combine then with The Dangerous Child? Stay tuned.

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2 Responses to Death is Optional and Humans are Superfluous

  1. NekasM says:

    Sveik, “… the shift from a mass culture to a system-privileged culture, ” Something like Elysium, but it already is true in some degree in Latin America(Hindu:cast system). + they who live in guarded places with large walls and private army’s already are different psychically and mentally , it seems.( Never have been there) I’m afraid Harari vision could embrace more accuracy to what future holds. The most tragic thing is that most persons are not noticing it or don’t want notice it- humans(not privileged or tho’s who contribute most to they life style) could fast lead in that world to be very costly luxury to support and spend other resources on them, just like in many sci-fi movies.
    Your logo resemble an eye in eye in eye in eye……….

    • alfin2101 says:

      Keen observations, thanks.

      Harari says that Japan represents a forerunner society for his vision. But in terms of “superfluous people” the elite-centred examples of Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia appear to be running ahead. As corrupt as Japan is, it is not nearly so quick to throw away its people.

      The masses are easily lured into an urbanised dependency relationship that leaves them helpless to do for themselves. They become the equivalent of helpless lifelong adolescents, forever at the mercy of a quasi-parental “system.”

      It may be time to start pulling together some of the several disconnected threads woven by earlier Al Fin blogs.

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