Wednesday, November 25, 2015

How Would Aliens Die?

A lot of hand-waving goes on in this blog about how asymptotic technology will reach its limit, across the board in all areas of science and engineering, most of which we either don’t consider science or haven’t invented yet, and problems that we face will dissipate. Technology will solve everything.

Obviously, there will be limits to what technology can do. The correct statement about asymptotic technology is that technology will be able to cure all curable problems leaving the incurable ones. It is not clear to us now where the boundary will lie. We understand there will be boundaries, and we can try to guess or deduce where they will be. But there is no magic, and limits will exist.

Consider longevity. Nowadays extension of life is being done by curing the various means by which death takes us. In an alien civilization, this will have gone on until all the cures have been found. People will either live forever, or they will voluntarily die, or they will involuntarily die. Those are the options.

To live forever means that two problems have been solved by the alien medical experts. One is that of wear and tear. This occurs down at the cellular level, where protein synthesis from the DNA core gradually gets more error-prone, owing to copying error and internal damage to the protein synthesis machinery. The DNA itself in any individual cell gets corrupted, gene by gene, and the errors start interfering with the cell’s viability. If the genetic engineers have left apoptosis in the cell, after some time the cell dies before it becomes dangerous, and in an immortal alien, would be replaced. But this is a reliability problem. Yes there are many cells, but they all accumulate errors, and when it comes time to replace a cell which died either from apoptosis or from the accumulation of viability problems, the cell to be copied has errors in it. So the new cell starts off with more errors than the previous generation had. It is clear where this ends. The entire cellular mass of the alien citizen gradually gets more and more full of errors on the cellular level. How would they cure this to achieve immortality? Probably by introducing new cells, stem cells perhaps, which could right the coding errors. The new introduced cells could be checked for errors before being implanted. So, there is at least a concept about how cellular coding errors and protein defects might be contained.

Wear and tear also occurs in structures at larger than cellular levels. Anything wears out. In a complex biological organism, there are methods for repairing the wear, organic methods built into the cellular coding, which rebuild organs and other structures. These would be improved, but there are limits from reliability, just as with cellular machinery. Some sort of medical intervention would be periodically required. But there doesn’t seem to be any wear problems that cannot be cured.

The second problem with immortality is finiteness. A brain, or whatever is used for the computational part of an alien’s body, can only hold so much information. Then something has to be lost if something else is added in. Perhaps alien heads, or whatever part of their body holds their brains or whatevers, could be made larger. This doesn’t solve the problem, it only postpones it. So, if genetic engineering is used to recycle brain cells, aliens would have to get used to forgetting things, and having to relearn whatever it was they knew. Over centuries, this might not be such an onerous task.

Thus, with extensive cellular therapy, some surgical intervention, some re-education and probably a few things not yet considered, aliens would not die from longevity problems unless that was the design of the society. Before getting into this topic, one thing has to be dismissed. Accidental death. Assume the alien civilization monitors accidents, and as they happen, they take steps to reduce their incidence rate, just as we do. So by the type asymptotic technology is behind them by a few centuries, their accidental death rate should be very low, owing both to the reduction of opportunities for accidents and the ability of the society to respond to one and preserve the victim’s life and bring them back to full health and capability. The same for infections.

These interventions might be expensive, in whatever currency the alien civilization used, and possibly would chew up too large a fraction of the living standards of the society. This might be looked at as a variety of scarcity of the second kind, as discussed elsewhere in this blog. There are limits as to the annual expenses of the civilization, and perhaps these medical costs would exceed it. This is not at all clear, but it is certainly an issue that might interfere with immortality, and simply reduce it to longevity. If it did interfere, then when some level of repair was needed, it wouldn’t be provided. Adios, citizen.

This leaves the other options. Would the society choose to have their citizens live forever or for a very long time, expensively, or would their memes be constructed so that they went voluntarily off to die in some calm way at some time that was most appropriate? This relates to how the alien civilization has set its goals. They could have a goal of maximizing the healthy lifespan of all citizens, but they could also have adopted one that clashed with this goal and put limits on it. If they wanted to use their resources for other things, such as interstellar colonization, they might have to cut back on medical expenses. This, of course, is not the only way an alien civilization could expend resources. They could have decided to make their home planet resources last as long as possible, meaning low population, but also lower living standards including medical remediation of wear and tear. They could have decided to have their living standards be higher for the new generations of citizens, rather than have a lop-sided level of expense, with the older citizens consuming the majority of the expenses of the civilization, mostly on medical interventions. They could have projects of their own, which we have not considered for ourselves, such as building some giant monuments meant to last for a million years on their planet, as a memorial to themselves. It may sound foolish, but there are examples we can think of here on Earth.

So to conclude, aliens would die, if they do die, of the cutoff of medical intervention or in a meme-controlled termination of life process. These last two options are not exactly exclusive of one another. The meme for voluntarily abandoning the will to live might be triggered by some wear and tear problems arising. Either way, death is more controlled and individual and society dictated than anything we have ever planned for ourselves.

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