Quora – Problems of increasing life expectancy

What problems will an increasing average life expectancy cause for individuals and society?

The first thing to get, is that for most people, most of the time, not dying is a really good thing – worth all manner of “problems”. I am certainly in that class of people.

It became clear to me in 1974, as I completed undergrad biochem, that indefinite life extension was possible; and it certainly comes with many problems given all the many levels of biological and social systems we have evolved for living relatively short lives (70 years or less).

Extending life spans will, in the not too distant future, mean being healthy and with fully functioning bodies – so all the losses of function we currently associate with old age will disappear.

That does require some changes.

If we are to keep the population of people on earth to levels that allow everyone a reasonable standard of living, then we will need to reduce the average family size to one child per couple. At that the population would eventually double from the size it is when that policy is instituted. If we get really efficient about our use of energy, and do most of the heavy engineering in space using remotely controlled automated systems, then we could comfortably house about 20 billion people in what most today would consider a high standard of living (good food, safe warm housing, great healthcare, reasonable travel (a world trip every year), reasonable freedom etc. The technical issues to delivering such an outcome are trivially simple compared to the social issues of changing the way people behave towards each other and their environment.

To live in such a world, to have such security and choice and freedom, demands of every one of us responsible behaviour in both social and ecological contexts – and that becomes a very complex set of issues as we are dealing with many levels of awareness.

So in this sense, of increasing life expectancy to the extent that most people would have a reasonable expectation of living for thousands of years, then the major problem will be creating awareness that everyone must accept and protect diversity (far more diversity than currently exists, and exponentially increasing), and everyone must act responsibly in both social and ecological contexts – and neither of those things can be easily quantified – both will be eternal explorations of novel territory, and such exploration can never be free of risk.

So for many people, particularly those on the extreme end of the conservative spectrum in any dimension, it is likely to be a little (or a lot) uncomfortable.

Some people may retreat to conservative havens where the more novel entities are barred from entry unless they disguise themselves as conservative entities and behave as such while there. So the nature of the boundaries that are likely to evolve will probably be very complex, even by the standards of the most complex social structures present today.

And it does seem to be achievable, but not in a world where markets have any significant role in the measurement of value. The scarcity based nature of market values is not compatible with the abundance based systems that are both possible and necessary with fully automated systems, and that transition is likely to be very difficult for many.

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Quora NHS woes

With people living longer and putting more strain on the NHS and economy in general is higher taxation the only realistic solution?

Short answer – No.

Long answer, much more complex.

Money, as a market measure of value, is now probably the single greatest threat to human survival, and that certainly was not the case until very recently.

Money, as an abstract representation of value, has served many very useful purposes. Money allows markets to function – much better than barter.

Markets were great mechanisms for distributing governance, distributing cognition, distributing decision making, distributed risk management at many different levels, as well as the obvious one of distributing goods and services, and as a set of motivational tools (but that is not a simple or obvious topic in reality).

With the advent of AI, and fully automated systems, markets fail in two very different sets of dimensions.

AI systems already out perform humans in any definable game space – so those who control AI (to the extent that they do) also control markets. Thus AI undermines the distributed risk aspect that markets performed, and that was and is fundamental to long term human survival (which at the abstract levels includes governance).

Fully automated systems break markets in a second and far deeper way.

Anything universally abundant has no market value, by definition. If you doubt that, just think of the air you breath. It is, without doubt, the single most valuable thing to each of us, yet it has no market value, due to universal abundance. We go to markets for things we don’t have or with things we have too much of for our own needs – the value markets measure is in fact predicated on scarcity in this sense.

Fully automated systems are capable of delivering universal abundance of a large and growing set of goods and services, but doing so would break the economic system. To save the economic system, we have invented a set of mechanisms to create artificial scarcity – and thus economic value.

The reality is, that the very real poverty that results is there purely to sustain the market system; and the injustice of that is becoming obvious to more and more people. It is not a long term stable strategy; actually it isn’t even a short term stable strategy; it is seriously dangerously unstable.

We are rapidly approaching the ability to deliver better healthcare universally via fully automated systems than the healthcare system currently delivers using people. But in the current system of measuring value in markets, and having that value predicated on scarcity; delivering universal healthcare destroys economic value – puts lots of people out of work, and destroys the capital value of medical and pharmaceutical businesses – even as it actually delivers better healthcare (which in itself has no economic value).

So the problem isn’t so much technical, as the way we think about things, and the “cultural drag” of multiple simplistic approximations that were well adapted to the past they evolved in, but are not well adapted to an exponentially changing present and near future.

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Quora – Have you ever been against recognised theories?

As a scientist, have you ever been against a recognized scientific theory? Which theory was it and why were you against it?

Yes, many.

One example – gradualism in evolution.

It was clear to me in logic and statistics that large populations would change slowly, but small populations could change rapidly.

It was also clear just from looking at the moon through binoculars, that big things hit it, leaving big scars, so similar things probably happened here on earth (but life and erosion etc covered the tracks so to speak).

Those two things alone suggested clearly that we would find a vast spectrum of mechanisms where major changes occurred over relatively short times and/or in relatively restricted places.

A modern synthesis is vastly more complex than the accepted theoretical structures I was initially taught, and rejected as being too simplistic.

We now understand that many different mechanisms (not simply the two outlined above) can alter the rate and direction of evolution in some contexts, and that such things can be recursively selected for (our immune systems being a prime example).

A second example is the notion of truth.

I was taught, and most still believe, that one may know truth.

That now seems highly improbable.

We now have sufficient information about the complexities of reality, and the mechanisms of our own sensory and neural networks systems, that I am clear that my experiential reality is a subconsciously created model of reality, and the best models I can have can only ever be simplistic approximations to the reality that seems to actually be present. Reality does in fact seem to be that complex.

Some of those model can be very useful, and accurate to quite a few decimal places in some contexts, but that does not mean that they are true in any absolute sense of the word, and it does make them very useful approximations to whatever reality is (which is all that is really relevant in evolutionary terms).

When I was young, most accepted that science delivered Truth.

Now I, and I suspect a majority of serious scientists, accept that reality seems to be sufficiently complex and contain sufficient levels of fundamental uncertainty, that the best any of us can hope for is contextually useful probabilities, not any sort of hard knowledge.

And in some common contexts, those probabilities can be a very close approximation to unity (to 10 or more decimal places, so near enough for most practical purposes, but not actually unity).

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Quora – increasing lifespans

What’s the most interesting research going on right now for increasing life span?

I suspect Ray Kurzweil knows the answer to that, but he seemed to quite intentionally not answer the question that Peter Diamandis asked him on that subject in their most recent interview. That to me indicates that the question has been answered, but that they do not yet have the technology to scale it to universal delivery; and they have not yet found a way to convince most people that it is a good idea.

I strongly suspect that the greatest issues in that respect revolve around accepting that universal cooperation, and universal tolerance of diversity, and the universal supply of all the reasonable needs of life and liberty, are requisites for a reasonable probability of indefinite life for anyone. Some modes of thought have a great deal of difficulty accepting those realities.

The biggest issue we seem to face is the over-simplistic (and fundamentally wrong) notion that evolution is all about competition.

Competition can certainly play a role in evolution, but when thinking about emerging complexity, cooperation is far more important (by a full order of magnitude) than cooperation. That needs to be deeply understood, all levels.

It also needs to be understood that all levels of complexity have necessary sets of boundary conditions that need to be met to sustain their existence, and those conditions are rarely simple, but are usually extremely complex, with boundaries allowing easy passage for some things, while making the passage of other things more difficult, and actively transporting some things (both ways). Simple hard boundaries are rarely (if ever) useful.

Two of the major risks to indefinite life and liberty are the twin tyrannies (the majority and the minority); thus at every level we need multiple independent and redundant systems. In this context, some of the great strengths of market capitalism have been the ways in which it has promoted distributed computation, cognition, information flows, and governance. Unfortunately markets fail to deliver useful value measures when faced with the technological capacity to deliver universal abundance (of anything). Thus we need to develop mechanisms for the distribution and redundancy of all of those functions that are not market based.

And many of our social institutions embody necessary systems that few (if any) are fully aware of. So there is deep risk present in being overly hubristic and moving too far too fast, without sufficient awareness.

Solving the biochemical requirements for indefinite life extension are trivial in comparison to the levels of social and cultural issues present.

In this context Artificial General Intelligence is both the greatest source of risk mitigation strategies and itself a great source of risk if developed in a narrow or competitive environment.

So we find ourselves in a deeply complex situation, one that has fascinated me for 44 years, since I first became fully conscious of its strategic reality.

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Dead wood

Dead wood

What deadwood needs to be removed from your life so you can flourish?

Hi Laurie,

Yes, sort of.
Looked at purely from the perspective of the tree, deadwood is, well, dead.

Looked at in a wider ecological context, it provides a home for many different species, fungi, bacteria, worms, insects, reptiles, birds, mammals – all making a home and a living from the decaying tree matter.

So it really is a non-trivial question, about how much our narrow focus and simplistic models of complex systems lead us to make changes that fundamentally alter systems that we have little or no knowledge of the long term importance of.

And yes, we must each make our personal journeys, exploring ourselves and the contexts within which we exist; making and expanding our models, appreciating what is, and creating what might not have otherwise existed (in so much as we do).

I think I have reasonably clearly identified at least 20 levels of complex adaptive systems within me.
Yes I can influence the development of any of them, and I can only work on one at a time, and each level is far too complex for me to do anything other than consciously make a simple sketch and essentially make a best guess as to how to proceed and why and to what purpose.

In that context I love the Walt Whitman quote “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Some of those multitudes might consider others to be “dead wood”, but the “dead wood” might consider itself to be very much alive. ‘Tis an eternal debate and enquiry.


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Quora – Is the principle of falsifiability falsifiable

Is the principle of falsifiability scientific? Is it falsifiable?


It is axiomatic of a system of exploration.

It assumes that we as modeling entities exist, with our models of ourselves and our reality at some scale of resolution.

It assumes that we exist as some sort of subset of some larger matrix (which we normally term reality).

It is supported by a great deal of evidence, but the very notion of evidence is predicated on some sort of set of axioms or principles.

In our case, it seems that this set of axioms has been selected and embodied in us by the repeated, recursive process of the differential survival of variants on themes at different levels of biology and culture and understanding over vast times.

When one starts to seriously explore the systemic spaces of possible systems, and to seriously look at the systems embodied in the many levels of life on this planet, and what seems to very probably be the evolution of understanding present (models of models of models … of complex adaptive systems upon systems upon systems …..); the picture has a beauty and a fractal vastness and eternal uncertainty that holds the potential for continued interesting existence for the balance of eternity, should one manage to mitigate all the many levels of risk present.

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Quora – Personal evolution

Do humans change personal evolution by changing their way of thinking?

Short answer yes.

Long answer is much more complex.

It seems very probable that the direct impact of thought on genetic structure is a close approximation to zero.

The indirect impact of how we think (in so far as our thoughts impact our actions in reality) can be significant. Taking too long to think before attempting to get out of the way of an oncoming truck can have an impact on gene frequencies in a population.

And genetics are not the most interesting aspect of personal evolution (important as they are in our being, and in that of our species).
In chapter 11 of his 1976 classic “The Selfish Gene” Richard Dawkins brought the word and the concept of “meme” into public discourse. Nothing has quite been the same since.

It seems very probable that most of our personal evolution happens on the mimetic front.

What we think seems to be partly influenced by our genetics (via their influence on structures within our brains, nervous systems, and sensory systems in particular), mostly the result of patterns we learn (both explicitly and implicitly from others), partly the result of many different sorts of chance or randomness, partly the result of our experiences and partly the result of our own efforts.

We may have only one body, with one mouth, but in psychological terms we are much more like a complex community than we are singular entities.

There is a saying in neuroscience – One neuron is physiology, 2 neurons is psychology. It is an over-exaggeration, and it does give a feel for just how rapidly the complexity of neuronal interaction increases as the number of neurons increases. We each have more neurons in our heads than there are people on the planet (by a factor of about 10). That is a lot of room for individuality and communities on many different scales.

As Walt Whitman once famously said “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

We are all like Walt. The more we become aware of the multitudes within us, the more effectively we can manage and lead them. And like in all communities, some are more easily influenced than others (and that goes deep).

So yes certainly.


Try out new ways of thinking, and being. Suspend judgement for a bit, and see what it is like to actually try something new.

And do so with your eyes open – there are very real risks and dangers. Most of the social prohibitions against certain ways of acting and thinking are there for very powerful reasons, that might have nothing at all to do with the common understanding of why they are there. Evolution is often like that, it embodies things long before those things are accurately conceptualised.

And the Buddhist story of the four cups of instruction is a good one. When trying something new, work at achieving beginners mind, like a clean, upright, intact and empty cup, ready to receive the “tea” of experience. Dirty cups cloud the experience, holes let it drain away too soon, upside down cups hold nothing, full cups cannot hold anything new.

So certainly, how you approach understanding yourself, and others, and the world in which we are contained; is crucial to how we evolve as individuals (think here a planet wide ecosystem of personalities and other complex but not fully conscious entities – all contained within us).

Personal evolution happens.

We don’t have to influence, and we can if we work diligently at it.

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