Re: Geniebusters

Lyle Burkhead (
Fri, 16 Apr 1999 10:28:44 -0700

Hi John, I wondered why you hadn't been heard from.

John Clark writes,

> I really don't understand your position. If extinction for most
> and the permanent elimination of death for a few is not big enough
> to be called a singularity or a discontinuity in human affairs,
> then I don't know what is. Death is the most constant framework
> in all of civilization, if that ends I don't know what will happen
> but I do know things will be different, very very different.

Good point. To some extent it's just a matter of semantics. I should clarify one thing: I don't think the whole process will be finished within a half-century. It will be well underway by 2050, but it will take a lot longer to reach a conclusion. Nevertheless I grant you that on a geological time scale, a major extinction event and the emergence of a new phylum (or a new kingdom) could be considered a discontinuity. However, what appears from a distance to be discontinuous may appear differently if you take a closer look at it. From a delta-epsilon standpoint, there will be no discontinuity. In any case, the concept of "the Singularity" is irrelevant to this discussion.

I am not saying that there will be a "permanent elimination of death," just that it will not be *necessary* to die, i.e. our cells will not degenerate. That doesn't mean death will be eliminated for the few humans who take the trouble to incorporate hard technology into their cells. Far from it. New diseases will emerge. The arms race between humans and microbes will continue. Maybe we can evolve faster than they do, maybe not. The arms race between different groups of humans will also continue. Violent death will always be possible. In other words, human affairs will go on pretty much as before.

In the last 200 years, we have already seen the potential elimination of death, in the sense that it is no longer necessary for most people to die young. This has certainly had a dramatic effect on human society, but the change has taken place within an unchanging framework. In the coming century we will see a further development along the same lines -- it will no longer be necessary for some people to die at all, at any age. This too may have dramatic effects on society, or it may not, but in any case this too will take place within an unchanging framework.

Organisms come and go. On a longer time scale, species come and go. This will continue. As hard life emerges from soft life, organisms will still eat each other, and on a longer time scale species will still come into existence and eventually become extinct. (Think of corporations, which could be considered the prototype of hard life: corporations come and go. Industries come and go.) Biological changes, like other changes, will take place within an unchanging framework.

Since my original "hard life" post was on the old list (not in the archives), maybe I should restate what hard life is. It is possible to design cells with the following properties:

  1. They have a richer model of themselves and their environment than natural cells do, and they can control their own evolution.
  2. They incorporate new materials, such as teflon, polyethelene, carbon nanotubes, etc., that natural cells don't have access to.
  3. They have more powerful sources of energy than natural cells, i.e. their chloroplasts and mitochondria are more efficient than those in natural cells.

This is what I call "hard life." Hard cells will not completely replace soft cells (i.e. natural cells), but over time they will relegate soft cells to a minor position in the ecosystem, like anaerobic bacteria. That's the extinction event I am speaking of. I have no idea how long it will take, or how it will play out, in detail.