“What receives less attention but is equally consequential is the extreme scenario in which AI saves all of humanity by making us immortal. Just as we are unprepared for life-destroying AI, we are equally unprepared for our AI savior.”
oomsday fears surrounding artificial intelligence are peaking. In the most extreme scenario imagined, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will destroy all of humanity. This idea has received significant attention lately. For example, in a recent survey of CEOs, 42% said AI could “destroy humanity in five to ten years.” What receives less attention but is equally consequential is the extreme scenario in which AI saves all of humanity by making us immortal. Just as we are unprepared for life-destroying AI, we are equally unprepared for our AI savior.
Imagine a world where AI helps us to develop nanobots that cure defects in our cells right as damage occurs. This is one of the many possible ways in which AI could potentially bring about immortality. In an even wilder case, imagine if AI enables us to merge our consciousness with machines so that we become timeless digital beings. However this may play out, it is worth stopping to ask: Do we want a future where AI—one way or another—radically extends the human lifespan? And, if so, how do we prepare for it?
It is easy to argue that we do not, in fact, want this future. Any anti-aging discussion is fertile ground for science fiction dystopias. For example, what if we develop the ability to live forever, but only the extremely wealthy are able to take advantage of the technology? The longer they live, the more wealth and power these individuals accumulate until 99% of humans are servants of the god-like elite. Alternatively, AI enables everyone live forever but only if people upload their consciousness to the digital realm. When evil forces conspire to overtake this realm, it quickly turns into a version of hell, and everyone is stuck there for an eternity of pain and misery.
Science fiction scenarios aside, we are simply not wired to live forever. This fact is not only built into the rhythm of our lives but also into the structure of society. In the United States, for example, full retirement benefits are offered to people in their late 60s. People work their entire lives with this understanding. Who wants to tell grandpa that, thanks to breakthroughs in medical science, he is now too young—at 82—to stay in retirement?
All the reasons not to extend the human lifespan, however, must be balanced against the benefits of life extension.
In this vein, Elon Musk has argued that extending the human lifespan will lead to untenable stagnation in society. Old people’s views get stuck in the past. They do not innovate. Their primary contribution to society (beyond sucking up resources) is voting for retrograde politicians. Although I have argued against this perspective in Merion West, Musk’s observation is certainly largely true of the elderly in today’s world.
All the reasons not to extend the human lifespan, however, must be balanced against the benefits of life extension. At a basic level, virtually everyone wants to see science succeed in the fight against terminal illnesses. According to the American Association for Cancer Research, 81% of American voters want their tax dollars to go toward funding medical research, and 74% favor the federal government increasing spending on cancer research. Ending cancer is one of the core aspects of the longevity movement. Everyone willing to spend tax dollars on ending cancer has implicitly signed up for delaying the effects of aging and deferring death.
There is also a strong moral argument for deploying AI to help us achieve immortality. Assuming that life is inherently valuable and worth sustaining (not exactly a controversial assumption), then it would be wrong to delay life-furthering technologies. Consider an innovation as simple as the toilet, which has saved over a billion lives by preventing the spread of disease. Impeding the development and proliferation of the toilet would have directly led to the untimely deaths of over a billion people, so doing so would have clearly been wrong.
If the humble toilet can save a billion lives, consider the life-saving potential of artificial intelligence. “AI will make us immortal, so every month we delay its progress costs 5 million lives,” writes computer scientist Pedro Domingos. It is true that at least 5 million people die each month, or over 60 million a year (in 2021, the figure was 69.25 million). To put this in perspective, Ireland has a population of roughly 5.1 million. Every month, we lose the population of Ireland. These are children, mothers, friends—priceless human souls, often leaving us far too soon. These deaths are not all from age-related illnesses, but many of them are. And those deaths can potentially be prevented by AI.
In practical terms, there are many ways that AI could help us achieve breakthroughs in life extension. To list a few examples, AI-powered technologies could be used for: collecting data and analyzing patterns, identifying aging biomarkers and rejuvenation therapies, developing personalized medicine, and powering wearable devices for longitudinal health monitoring.
Balancing the pros and cons, I am persuaded that we should welcome AI’s help in extending the human lifespan. The downsides might become real, but they are still hypothetical, while the upsides are clear: Medical science achieves its promise of defeating cancer, providing personalized medicine, and ultimately giving us healthy bodies for a longer time.
On the individual level, desiring for AI to help extend the human lifespan is the first step in preparing for it. If we pretend like it is not happening (or cower in fear of it occurring), there is no way we will be mentally prepared for it. At a societal level, governments and technology companies should continue to pursue regulations to safeguard against AI destroying the world. However, it is past time for them to begin considering policy shifts for the opposite possibility, where AI saves all of humanity from death itself.
Peter Clarke is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. He can be found on Twitter @HeyPeterClarke