Implementations of immortality

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Fun Theory
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(Inspired by Eliezer's essays on designing utopias.)

I was recently talking to a friend about what key features society would need for people to be happy throughout arbitrarily-long lives - in other words, what would a utopia for immortals look like? He said that it would require continual novelty. But I think that by itself, novelty is under-specified. Almost every game of Go ever played is novel and unique, but eventually playing Go would get boring. Then you could try chess, I suppose - but at a certain point the whole concept of board games would become tiresome. I don't think bouncing around between many types of different activities would be much better, in the long run. Rather, the sort of novelty that's most desirable is a change of perspective, such that you find meaning in things you didn't appreciate before. That interpretation of novelty is actually fairly similar to my answer; I said that the most important requirement is a feeling of progress. By this I mean:

  • Your past isn't being lost as it recedes from you.
  • Your future will be better than your past - in qualitative ways as well as quantitative.
  • You receive increasing social recognition for your achievements.
  • You feel like you are continually growing as a person.

Some of these criteria are amenable to technical solutions - for example, memory enhancements would be very helpful for the first. But simply abiding by the basic principles of liberalism makes others very difficult to universalise. As long as we allow people to make their own choices, there will be some people who end up falling into addiction, or lethargy, or self-destructive spirals. We could theoretically make this rarer by having stronger social or legal norms, so that people still have freedom, but not total freedom. We could also make the consequences of failure less unpleasant (e.g. with welfare systems) and less permanent (e.g. by eradicating the most addictive drugs). Yet even then, the social repercussions of being unsuccessful would still weigh on people heavily - man does not live by bread alone, but by the status judgements of his peers.

Fortunately, perceived social status is not zero-sum, because different subcultures value different things. That helps many more people receive social recognition for their achievements; ideally everyone would find a Dunbar-sized community in which they can distinguish themselves. Sure, some will be envious of other communities, but I think abstract concerns like those would mostly be outweighed by their tangible activities and relationships. For example (although I don't have good data on this) anecdotally it seems that modern homeless communities can often be tighter-knit and more supportive than well-off suburbs.

But splintering society into fragments doesn't solve the question of what the overarching cultural framework should look like - and we do need one. Firstly because subcultures usually need something to define themselves in opposition to; also because moving between subcultures would be much more difficult if they didn't share fundamental tenets. Yet now we're back to the problem of what general society should prize and reward in order for almost everyone to feel like their lives are valuable and progressing towards even more value.

Here's a slightly unusual solution, which embraces Eliezer's recommendation that utopias should be weird: we should strictly stratify society by age. This doesn't mean that people of different ages must isolate themselves from each other (although some will), but rather that:

  • Older people are respected greatly simply by virtue of their age.
  • Access to some prestigious communities or social groups is age-restricted.
  • There are strong norms (or even rules?) about which types of activities one should do at a given age.

Age hierarchies are not a new idea; they've been the norm throughout human history, and were only relatively recently discarded from western culture. Granted, that was for good reasons, like the fact that they tend to hold back social and technological progress. But our challenge here is to come up with a steady-state culture which can provide lasting happiness, not one which maximises speedy progress. Age hierarchies are the one sort of hierarchy in which everyone gets to advance arbitrarily far upwards. They also tap into fundamental aspects of human motivation. Video games are addictive because you can keep unlocking new content or "levelling up". But they're also frustrating because that progress isn't grounded in anything except a counter on the screen. Games like Starcraft and League of Legends instead provide satisfaction through victory over others - but that's zero-sum, which we don't want. The third class of games which people spend most time on - MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft or EVE - augment the experience of gaining resources and levelling up with a community in which high-achieving players are respected. In a long-lived society with age hierarchies, people could always look forward to "unlocking new content" based on their age. Even people who aren't very high-status within their own age group could find respect amongst younger groups; and as long as people continued having children, your relative status in society would always increase.

Note that this doesn't imply that children and young adults would have bad lives. Firstly, despite being respected the least, they also experience the greatest sense of novelty and opportunity. Even if they feel like they're missing out on some opportunities, they can be consoled by the thought that their time will come. And they probably won't be very upset about "missing out" anyway - the experiences which older people prize highly are often not those which young people envy. Teens don't feel like their lives are worse because they don't yet have children and go to nightclubs not cocktail parties. Champagne-sipping parents, on the other hand, usually think their lives have become deeper and richer since their teenage years; neither side is unhappy with their lot. A more speculative example which comes to mind is the traditional progression through stages of enlightenment in Buddhism, where you simply don't understand what you're missing out on until you're no longer missing it. To take this to an extreme, access to the next stage of society could depend on learning a new language or framework of knowledge, in which you can discuss ideas you couldn't even conceptualise before.

Stepping back from the weirder implementations, how might longevity impact close relationships? There's a story I remember reading about a world in which people live arbitrarily long; every few decades, though, they simply leave their entire social circle, move away, and start afresh. This seems like a reasonable way to keep a sense of excitement and novelty alive. However, my friend argues that if you live for a very long time, and become close to many people, then you'll eventually stop thinking of them as unique, valuable individuals. I do think that there are enough possible ways to have relationships, and enough variation between people, to last many, many lifetimes, so that you can continually be surprised and grateful, and develop as a person. But I concede that left to themselves, people wouldn't necessarily seek out this variety - they might just decide on a type, and stick to it. I think that age stratification helps solve this problem too. Perhaps there can be expectations for how to conduct relationships based on your age bracket: at some points cultivating a few deep friendships, at others being a social butterfly; sometimes monogamous, sometimes polyamorous; sometimes dating people similar to you, sometimes people totally different; sometimes staying within your age group, and sometimes spending time with people who are much older or younger and have totally different perspectives. In our world, people would shirk from this - but I imagine that a very long-lived society would have a culture more open to trying new things.

Lastly, we should remember that the dark side of having strong social norms is enforcement of those norms. To some extent this can be avoided by creating a mythos which people buy into. Cultural narratives affect people on such a deep level that many never question the core tenets (like, in the west, the value of individualism). It would also help if there were separate communities which people could join as an act of rebellion, instead of wreaking havoc in their original one. But in general, creating norms such that even people who challenge those norms do so in non-destructive ways seems like a very difficult problem. We're basically trying to find stable, low-entropy configurations for a chaotic system (as opposed to stable high-entropy configurations, such as total collapse). Even worse, the system is self-referential - individuals within it can reason about the system as a whole, and some will then try to subvert it. There's much more which needs to be figured out, including entirely new fields of research - but nobody ever said designing a utopia would be easy.

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I was recently talking to a friend about what key features society would need for people to be happy throughout arbitrarily-long lives - in other words, what would a utopia for immortals look like? He said that it would require continual novelty.

There's a high risk of typical-minding here; different people value and are made happy by different things. I get the feeling that you value novelty vastly more than I do; when I imagine a utopia, routine and stability almost immediately jump into mind as desired features, as opposed to novelty. Obviously I would desire some amount of novelty, but it's mostly in the context of slotting into a roughly stable daily or weekly routine, rather than the routine itself varying much. (e.g. Thursday evening is for games, the games may vary and becoming increasingly complex, but they are still generally played on Thursday evenings). At the very least, I would want a mostly stable "island of calm" where things mostly remained the same, and where I would always return when I was tired of going on adventures.

As a consequence, I find myself having a very strong aversion to most of what you have sketched out here - it may very well be utopian to people like you, but it reads as distinctly dystopian to me. In particular, this bit

But I concede that left to themselves, people wouldn't necessarily seek out this variety - they might just decide on a type, and stick to it. I think that age stratification helps solve this problem too.

basically reads to me like you're saying that it's a problem if people like me have the freedom to choose stability if that makes them happier than variety does. (I expect that you didn't mean it that way, but that's how it reads to me.)

Obviously I would desire some amount of novelty, but it's mostly in the context of slotting into a roughly stable daily or weekly routine, rather than the routine itself varying much. (e.g. Thursday evening is for games, the games may vary and becoming increasingly complex, but they are still generally played on Thursday evenings).

The point about typical mind fallacy is well-taken but I don't really see how you can be confident in preferences like the one quoted above given that the timeframes we're talking about are much longer than your lifespan so far. I mean, many people have midlife crises after only a few decades of such routines. I have a strong intuition that after several centuries of games every Thursday evening, almost anyone would get very bored.

At the very least, I would want a mostly stable "island of calm" where things mostly remained the same, and where I would always return when I was tired of going on adventures.

This isn't ruled out by my proposal; note that "progress" doesn't mean discarding every aspect of the past. However, I am suspicious of this sort of island of calm, for roughly the same reason that I doubt it's valuable to most adults to regularly visit their childhood treehouse. (Also, if there are other people in this 'island of calm', then you can't force them to stay the same just for your sake...)

[This] reads to me like you're saying that it's a problem if people like me have the freedom to choose stability if that makes them happier than variety does.

People get stuck in local maxima, and often don't explore enough to find better options for themselves. The longer people live, the more valuable it is to have sufficient exploration to figure out the best option before choosing stability.

The point about typical mind fallacy is well-taken but I don't really see how you can be confident in preferences like the one quoted above given that the timeframes we're talking about are much longer than your lifespan so far.

I'm not highly confident in them, but then your proposal also seems to make several assumptions about the nature of the preferences of very long-lived people. While "people will eventually get bored with routine" is plausible, so is "people will eventually get bored with constantly trying out new stuff, preferring more stability the older they get". At least the latter hypothesis doesn't seem significantly less likely than the former one, particularly given that currently-living humans do seem to shift towards an increased desire for stability the older they get.

In the face of uncertainty, we should be allowing people to engage in a variety of different approaches, rather than having entire society locked into one approach (e.g. age stratification). Maybe it empirically turns out that some people will in fact never get bored with their Thursday routine (or prefer to pre-emptively modify their brains so that they never will), while others do prefer to modify their routine but less than would be implied in your proposal, while others still end up creating a subculture that's similar to the one you've outlined.

People get stuck in local maxima, and often don't explore enough to find better options for themselves. The longer people live, the more valuable it is to have sufficient exploration to figure out the best option before choosing stability.

Certainly, but there are many ways of encouraging exploration while also letting you remain stable if you so prefer: e.g. AIs doing psychological profiling and suggesting things that you might have neglected to explore but would predictably enjoy, human-computer interfaces letting you view the experiences and memories of others the way that we watch movies today, etc.

Age stratification in a world where people live arbitrarily long means you never have an opportunity to become a respected elder in your society; generations of more respected super-elders will be around no matter how old and wise you get.

Also, in this world, are people youthful indefinitely? I think many of the age related changes in activity choices are driven by physical aging, not maturity, e.g., choosing cocktail parties over clubbing happens not because you realize one day that cocktail parties are a richer experience, but because one day you realize you get too tired by 10pm for the club scene.

One interesting effect is an infinite time horizon over which to accrue interest, such that everyone will eventually have the ability to live on passive income, which should make any welfare system only applicable to the very young. Assuming people can have children indefinitely as well, it might be wise to have a system in place whereby you can only have children if you can fund endowments for them. This would:

  1. eliminate the need for welfare for the young
  2. tie the rate of population growth to the rate of economic growth (overpopulation is always a risk in inmortal societies)
  3. ensure wealth transfers from older, richer to younger, poorer generations
  4. build in a 'level up' goal (you know you've made it when you can afford your first child)

I think ultimately, people won't be able to rely on a particular societal configuration to keep them amused (and I'm not sure that is good goal for society anyway) and they'll be forced to turn inward. Meditation, or other practices (or possibly drugs) that facilitate experiencing "the now" in a powerful way will become important.

Age stratification in a world where people live arbitrarily long means you never have an opportunity to become a respected elder in your society; generations of more respected super-elders will be around no matter how old and wise you get.

For any x, you eventually get the opportunity to be in the top x% of society! And assuming that the size of a social circle/community stays roughly fixed, eventually you'll be at the very top of your community. Maybe the more respected super-elders will be in some other galaxy, but not on your world.

Also, in this world, are people youthful indefinitely? I think many of the age related changes in activity choices are driven by physical aging, not maturity, e.g., choosing cocktail parties over clubbing happens not because you realize one day that cocktail parties are a richer experience, but because one day you realize you get too tired by 10pm for the club scene.

Yes, people would be youthful indefinitely. I think there's a mix of reasons, but getting bored/moving on is definitely one of the main ones. Picture a jaded 40 year old in a nightclub - is the limiting factor really tiredness?

(minor nitpick)

Firstly because subcultures usually need something to define themselves in opposition to

This is not my experience; e.g. various geek, fandom, and art subcultures define themselves primarily around a positive thing that they are creating/doing/enjoying, rather than as being opposed to anything in particular. Sure, there might be a bit of in-group snobbishness and feeling superior to "mundanes" or whatever, but at least in the groups I've participated in, it's not particularly pronounced or necessarily even present at all.

Hmm. Yeah, you're probably right. Although there is the common phenomenon of social subgroups stratifying into smaller and smaller cliques, which is some evidence that oppositional group identity matters even if it doesn't feel like it from the inside.

An alternative to needing to seek novelty would be to cultivate equanimity. Past me would have shared your desire to find ways to have novelty, but present me is more equanimous and so more indifferent between different conditions (not totally indifferent, of course, just not different on so many dimensions). In a scenario where people are living forever, they'd have plenty of time to stumble in to something like a spiritual practice with meditation that would help them better cope with the long forever.

Long post Possibly a good idea in here somewhere. I need to learn brevity

In short: Humans have complex and highly varying preferences. Designing a Utopia is highly meta. Don't expect any short object level description of a world everyone would value to exist. The constants of all humans values are things like "most peoples preferences care more about humans than about paperclips", ie invisible background frameworks.

Who says the system has to be stable, or even at an equilibrium? Human social dynamics are almost certainly chaotic. Almost any circumstance where we can design a utopia to last for aeons is one where we have pretty much got FAI. The AI can be used to control and regulate the system, you don't need it to be stable on its own. It can use everything from overwhelming hard power (send in the robots to lock them up, or the nanobots to override nervous systems) to subtle soft social manipulation. If most people want to be near the top of the social pecking order, options include creating new minds that don't mind being pecked. (sentient or not)

An age based system could be extremely frustrating to bright young minds. It could also encourage total laziness, if all metrics of social worth are based on age, not experience, some people will start thumb twiddling. Of course, some people like thumb twiddling. Many of the proposed utopias I've read about look dull, or unpleasant, or not for everyone. What we need is lots of different utopias next to each other, so people can move about and see whats for them. Options include

Back to nature Utopia. Like what a caveman would imagine as the perfect world. The fruit is always abundant, the weather always nice, ect.

Scifi Ripoff Utopia All the tech is covered in glowing dials, the robots are humans in funny suits.

Rationality Utopia, Eleizer's already written about this one. Might be near Science Utopia, with its brilliant equipment, and researchers given free reign to study anything interesting.

Wirehead Utopia? Catgirl Utopia? Religous fundamentalist Utopia, now with extra prayer. Steampunk utopia. A bookworm utopia that consists almost exclusively of libraries. The list goes on and on. Any attempt at a simple one size fits all seems like it won't fit everyone.

This is basically the same as the Libertarian Archipelago idea. Actually, the ideas mentioned here are the planet of hats type. Utopias with one defining feature. Some will have many complex features that add up to a nice place to live. Some people will want more of a mix of several themes. Some parts will be weird. Some will be high grade transhumanism. Some will be granny knitting group utopias, and not weird at all. Not everyone likes weird. Some will be exciting, some will be calm. The space of utopias would stretch as wide as the space of human scocieties and cultures, although generally moved in the nicer direction. To a truly alien mind, they would have strong similarities, almost all the utopias are focused around humanlike entities. But to see the similarities, you would need to see your humanity as a special case. To an individual human, there will be worlds that trigger almost any emotional reaction. (but not usually the really bad ones, although some prudes would be revolted at orgy world, some hippies would find cyborg world abhorrent, ect)

Another issue is where you draw the line between unusual preferences and mental illness. If someone deliberately bangs their head against walls, do we give them "headbanging utopia with extra walls" or do we treat them, and stop them banging their head? Would it matter if they were otherwise fully functional?

One problem with the age thing is, in the absence of death, following the system doesn't get you to the top - those above you are always higher.

It would also help if there were separate communities which people could join as an act of rebellion, instead of wreaking havoc in their original one.

What do you do with people that don't want to live in an age stratified society?

How, other than by outright mind control, would you expect to call a "mythos" into being?

You can't make other people like what you like. You can't remake the pattern of everybody else's life for your personal comfort, or for the comfort of whatever minority happens to think "enough like you do". If you try, you will engender violent resistance more or less in direct proportion to your actual chance of succeeding.

There's not going to be just one "other side", either. You can't negotiate with anybody and come up with a compromise proposal. There 7.6 billion views of what utopia is, and the number is rising.

So how about if we stick with a cultural norm against trying to force them all into a mold? Total warfare isn't very longevity-promoting.