Re: overpopulation - more

Damien Broderick (
Tue, 07 Jul 1998 21:52:43 +0000

At 08:37 PM 7/6/98 -0700, Robin wrote:

>1. The resources need to be close enough at hand; without FTL-travel,
>it's very hard to see how resources billions of light years away can support
>current population growth rates over the next 10,000 years.

Just so. In the sf novel VALENCIES (written with Rory Barnes) I posited a world with instant wormhole access anywhere, plus rejuvenated longevity and fecundity, in which all the likely earth-like planets in the entire universe were plausibly filled by natural increase (to the tune of some 2 billion people each) by... 4004 AD. Make it 2 trillion each and you only add 10 doublings - circa 4300 AD. Dismantle the planets, then the stars... still runs out pretty fast.

>upload technology, for example, populations can increase much faster than
>it seems plausible for wealth to increase. With uploads, Malthus'
>assumptions may well become reasonable again.

In my rough draft, I note such possibilities thus:

So a modest proposal for the first immortal generation, and its successors, is that world population will first pass through a demographic transition into replacement fertility, plateau out within some 50 years, while adding an additional doubling as the old fail to die. Will rejuvenated, healthy women add their own new generations of babies to the crush? The most conservative expectation is that they will not, because fertility is limited by the number of follicles retained in the ovaries. These have existed since a women was a foetus, and are not renewed. It is possible that telomerase therapy might reawaken the stem cells in expired ovaries, but that seems more like a prescription for cancer. It is also possible that nanotechnology could rewire an aged body to a renewed fertility, but that is an option most people might care to disregard.

But we need to remember than these high-tech innovations will arrive bundled with many others. At the moment, human cloning (in the sense of growing a new baby from an adult's differentiated tissue) is still widely regarded as repugnant and even illegal. In March, 1997, just ten days after Dolly the cloned sheep entered the headlines, President Clinton uttered a predictable pious executive announcement in the Oval Office. `Each human life is unique, born of a miracle that reaches beyond laboratory science. I believe we must respect this profound gift and resist the temptation to replicate ourselves.' That opinion resonated within many hearts, but I do not think it will long remain ironclad. Somewhere, soon, human babies will be born from this technology, carried in human wombs, and it will be quite apparent that they are just like all other babies.

A little later, artificial wombs will sustain the lives of babies for the full nine and a half months from conception (cloned or otherwise). They will be used at first to keep alive children who otherwise would have perished in the womb - but sooner or later this technology will surely become commercially available to parents who do not wish to bear their own children, or cannot, or are too old to do so. And after that - why, even if rejuvenated women have lost their own follicles, and it remains too dangerous to try to regrow them, there will always be the option of having cloned or recombined children who spend the first months of their lives in a life support system as snug as any womb.

If that sounds far-fetched, it is tame compared to other possibilities that science holds out to us. If it ever becomes feasible to replace parts of the failing brain with cyber-implants, designer neurons that take up the burden of failing brain cells as artificial hearts and kidneys are beginning to do with those organs, we may reach a stage where people are as much prosthesis as original. If nanotechnological computers as small as matchboxes, or even tinier, can contain as many working neurodes as the brain contains neurons, we might all carry a kind of back-up redundant copy of each module in our brain's circuitry. What happens then when the protein brain fails in senescence, dies in some last hopeless contest with infection, or is smashed in an accident? If the back-up `black box' system is multiply-wired throughout the organic brain, you won't even know that your original brain has perished!
Indeed, having a constant on-line back-up unit inside your head (or beaming its vast number of bytes to a distant safe site via a kind of cell-phone grid, perhaps linked world-wide through satellites and optic cables) will allow you to shift your point of view, of consciousness, between your body and anywhere else you choose. You would be a disseminated mentality, your awareness stretched effortlessly across the entire globe (but you will need to get used to the psychic whiplash and `motion sickness' of changing point-of-view too quickly or too far). Once your mental functions are at least aptly coded into a machine, it will also become possible to create coding `hand-shaking' protocols with the machine substrates supporting other people's extended consciousness. It will be a kind of artificial telepathy, an extended cyber-empathy in which you might merge at least the fringes of your self into that of a loved friend - or many of them. Ultimately, we might find that enhanced humans have become the benign and transcendental equivalent of Star Trek's Borg, a sort of colony organism with multiple minds, as firewalled as they wish to be or as fluent and intermingled.

Wilder possibilities

If such apparently extravagant changes enter the human shopping menu, matters will not stop there. If you can upload or back yourself up in a powerful computer, you can also clone yourself mentally. That is, you will be able to purchase a machine (or space in one) and `xerox' yourself as an independent copy (call it `xoxing', a term coined by a witty transhumanist). He or she won't be you, exactly, because the history of his or her consciousness would start to diverge from yours the moment the copy was done. But you would be closer than twins. Is this an enticing possibility, or a hideous one? For many, the shudder they feel at contemplating this choice is sufficient answer. Others would wish nothing finer than the creation of a duplicate self. My point is simply this: there are enough people who would happily take up this option, if they can afford it, that the whole question of overpopulation bursts up anew. Forget telomerase therapy, and piecemeal fixes to a body smashed remorselessly by free radicals and virus attack. If uploaded immortality and xoxing are on the agenda before the end of the 21st century - as some computer scientists such as Dr Hans Moravec believe - the first immortal generation will gradually morph into beings we can scarcely imagine today.

I'd *still* like to see some informed calculations showing curves for different postulated changes in population growth given different versions of rejuvenated longevity, etc. The Hanson Runaway Upload Option is clearly so drastic and, um, fertile that almost any outcome will be plausible, but I assume that less discontinuous changes are more accessible to precise treatment (along the lines of Dan's claim that one exponential curve is much like another, something that sticks in my innumerate craw).

Damien Broderick