Investing in Immortality

Few would rush to accept an offer of immortality if each successive year were to bring an ever-increasing burden of broken hips, memory loss, and incontinence. This may help explain why so many people find the thought of extreme life extension unpalatable; the best years are not usually represented by triple digits.

Hence, those who actually intend to live forever usually know something about the technology that would make this possible. They understand how the same research that could ultimately conquer aging will also be critical to treating the ailments associated with it. This conclusion is not a difficult one; even today, the leading causes of death for people in their physical prime are not diseases, but accidents, homicide, and suicide. If the biological clock could be stopped or reversed, careful individuals could live in excellent health for a very long time.

To “think immortal”, then, is to engage in sophisticated long-term planning – anticipating the secondary effects of technological progress and the opportunities they present.  But it is also to recognize the way many issues which may not have seemed worth caring about during an eighty-year lifetime could literally be matters of life and death over many centuries. Whether the bell tolls in sixty years or six hundred, the knell would be premature to someone who might have lived as long as the stars.

This type of thinking adds new complexity to the historical dilemma of retirement planning: figuring out when retirement will leave the minimal combination of interest, principal, and entitlements needed to live comfortably until death. The challenge, of course, lies in the impossibility of knowing exactly how soon death will come and how much money will be needed in the meantime. Today’s would-be immortals must not only prepare for physical old-age, but make special arrangements for the cases of “premature” death and indefinite life span. As with any investment plan, a well-balanced portfolio is essential.

Along with traditional fiscal prudence and a combination of high and low risk/yield investments, committed immortalists generally consider it prudent to take out a cryonics life insurance policy as soon as it is practical to do so. These policies, which name as beneficiary an institution where the body or head will be promptly frozen in a maximally preservative state, are no longer the eccentric testaments of the self-absorbed (if they ever were.) It takes a certain scientific optimism to consign one’s corpse to a cylinder of liquid nitrogen; those who do so typically understand what the general public still does not: that a number of credible technological visions exist by which the essential pattern of a mind may be reinstantiated in a new and better form – in a world of material abundance scarcely imaginable today. The popular arguments that a thawed mind would be badly damaged, or that one’s ancestors may not be interested in the high cost of thawing, are thus, to these investors, scarcely worth acknowledging. However, the anti-cryonicists at least make the important point that the future of the frozen may well be cold – a point many immortalists, in their hopeful enthusiasm, may choose not to think about. They definitely should; optimism can put someone in cryogenic suspension, but it cannot bring them out.

Cryonics depends on a future society with the means and the willingness to restore the dead to a better life. But holders of cryonic life insurance, of all people, should understand that those same technologies that could make their rebirth possible may also be used to catastrophic ends. To enjoy a meaningful future, the living and the suspended alike must first have a future, a commodity now taken for granted but destined to become increasingly tenuous as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence approach adolescence. Genetically engineered plagues could be haunting nightmares of virulence. Microscopic, self-replicating nanomachines could spread like a cancer and consume the biosphere. Unfriendly artificial intelligence could see humanity as the infection: a threat to be eradicated.

Contributions to organizations working to bring these technologies to responsible maturity -- rather than our own extinction -- thus make essential additions to an immortalist portfolio. One such organization is the Foresight Institute, which promotes and develops guidelines for the safe development of nanotechnology. Another is the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI), which strives to ensure that the first truly superhuman intelligence will be squarely on our side, working with its creators to safely greet the dawn of ultratechnology and stamp out the indignities of the human condition.

In fact, the potential benefits of compassionate superintelligence are so enormous as to make SIAI a worthy first-tier investment for anyone, immortalist or otherwise. This is especially true for younger people, who stand a very good chance of living through the Singularity (the greater intelligence milestone) even without cryonic arrangements; they and others would be well advised to watch their health and avoid needless physical risk, lest they miss out.

No single portfolio can ever be right for everyone. But if you are interested in the possibility of living indefinitely – if the thought of going “gentle into that good night” angers you – there are investments you can make. In any case, whether you intend to live forever, expect to die next week, or simply want to leave a better world behind for those who will follow you, successfully planning for the future today demands that you carefully consider the kind of future you hope will be enjoyed – and invest in that as well.

[Back to Futurism] [Back to Main]  ©2002 by Mitchell Howe