washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Joel Achenbach
Joel Achenbach

From Here to Eternity

If we never grow old, till death do us part could take a very long time

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page W19

I found a new thing to worry about: immortality. The danger that everyone will live forever, and that I will be forced to write newspaper stories and columns not only for another 30 or 40 years but literally until the end of time, that I'll be on deadline forever, always harried, always irritating some editor, always scrambling for a topic, without having the reassurance of knowing that eventually my work will be done and they will pry my keyboard from my cold, dead fingers.

The immortality fears come after talking to Ray Kurzweil, certified genius. He's an award-winning, multimillionaire inventor, author, futurist and entrepreneur. He's so smart you wonder if maybe he's already got some artificial components jammed into his skull.

(Richard Thompson)

In such books as The Age of Spiritual Machines, he argues that computers will achieve not only intelligence but feelings. They'll love, they'll hate, they'll be remorseful. They'll feel sorry for themselves because they were treated badly when they were just a little chip.

Kurzweil's future is dazzling, weird, and scary: He essentially says that the era of flesh-and-blood mortals running the world is coming to an end. Humans will become more machine-like, employing more artificial components. People may find that they don't want to be meat-based anymore.

"Some people won't have a biological portion at all," Kurzweil told me.

Sex will get complicated, Kurzweil said, as the technology of "virtual reality" enables us to have intense sensory experiences with software-based entities that are indistinguishable from real people. This will all happen in your mind, but it will be just like real life, down to the cigarette afterward. And that raises some moral questions about where to "draw the line," Kurzweil said. He wonders if having an encounter with a virtual lover would break the fidelity rule.

He doesn't know the answer. But you can imagine what people will say:

"Come on, honey, she wasn't even human! I already deleted her!"

Kurzweil predicts that within about 20 years scientists will have found the cure for aging. If he's right, the only sure thing in life will be taxes.

Kurzweil may be overly boosterish about technology, but the gist of his message is incontrovertible: Technological change is accelerating. Things such as biotechnology and nanotechnology will alter our lives in ways we can't imagine.

Already we live in a world of technologies that are indistinguishable from magic. There's no fundamental reason why genomic and biotechnologic advances could not alter the aging process, counteract all those cell-bashing free oxygen molecules, keep our cells dividing longer, and so on. Kurzweil says that when we stop the aging process everyone will be able to stay in their thirties.

I asked him what this might mean for married couples. Some, he said, will remain committed for hundreds of years, but an increasing percentage of marriages will end in divorce.

(Till death do us part always gave us an easy out.)

Kurzweil thinks that many of us are prejudiced against machines, that as biological entities we have an innate loathing of those made of silicon. But I'd argue that the reverse is also true: Technology is prejudiced against human traditions. Machines have no interest in our lives.

Aging has some serious downsides, and no one need romanticize the indignities that come as the decades beat up our bodies. Entropy is unmerciful. I'm at the age where my main hobby is resenting the young. They are so shiny and confident and precociously jaded. My biggest fear is that when immortality comes along, it'll be too late for me, because I'll be considered too old, too damaged by time. The law will say I'm past the sell-by date, and can't get any of those nifty immortality pills. I'll be grandfathered out.

The truth is, society needs older folks, slower folks, calmer folks. The old are not just wiser, but also unchained from ambition. Even those of us who love our jobs can still dream of the day when we are permanently off work, with a big Assignment Declined notice on the door.

But if we remain young forever, society won't be able to afford to support legions of immortal retirees. We'll have to keep working, grinding onward. Centenarians will still be on the make, looking for the next big score. You'll hit 100 and you'll still be expected to go clubbing.

Death isn't a disease, but rather a fundamental right. We spend our entire lives earning the right to exit the stage. And it's something that most of us deserve in the end.

Joel Achenbach writes for the Magazine and Style, and plans to blog into eternity at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company