Thursday, March 17, 2016

Longevity in Alien Civilizations

Once an alien civilization passes the genetic grand transition, it would have the ability to significantly prolong the life of the average citizen. Animals seem to have a programmed death built into their genes, the telomeres as currently thought, and with a genetic palette at their disposal, an advanced alien civilization could alter this to extend life.

Aging is a phenomena which affects everything in use. Cars age, appliances age, plastics age, paint ages, everything is affected by the passage of time. Sometimes it is simply random chemical changes with a slow reaction rate, sometimes it is errors in copying, sometimes it is physical wear, and there are probably many more mechanisms by which time affects things. To prolong life, the alien civilization would have to understand all the mechanisms that would affect the citizens, and make sure that the guaranteed life, as limited by these different effects, was longer than the life they wanted to ensure for their citizens.

There isn't the slightest reason to think that any of these problems are not understandable. That does not mean that the best science can extend the life of an average citizen on some alien planet forever. There are natural limits to everything. What the technologists of the alien civilization can do is to find out what is the limiting factor, what cannot be extended, and then figure out how to make other, more solvable aging problems, go away until the limiting factor finishes the life of the average alien.

This is how they could do it, but that is not necessarily how they would do it. On Earth, we just spend money on cures, and sometimes the cures get cheaper and affordable, and sometimes they don't. We can expect the alien world to think through this aspect of life prolongation as well, and to come to a decision on how to handle it.

Recall that alien civilizations have to adopt principles that govern their behavior. Once they cross the genetic grand transition, and the citizens all are highly intelligent, there is no longer the reason for the chaotic decision-making that characterizes civilizations still living on what evolution gave them. They no longer have to try to figure out what the decision-makers' likes and dislikes would be, as liking and disliking would be adaptable by the society so that citizens were pleased with the society they lived in. They would understand the neurology beneath likes and dislikes, and use technology to produce a content society. And why not? If the fundamental principle of the alien society was the efficient use of resources, so that the society could persevere as long as possible and live as well as possible, why would they not adapt likes and dislikes toward that end. It should be obvious that a society where the citizens were unhappy is not a well-designed society. And an advanced alien civilization, full of geniuses, would be well-designed.

So, with the basic principles that underlay a content, efficient, well-designed society, how would longevity be determined? There are cost aspects to this question. What does the cost curve look like for prolonging life? Are the costs so low as to be easily affordable, and so the physically possible limits would be the ones which controlled longevity? On the other hand, it might be possible to prolong life past some threshold, but at very large costs only.

If the situation proves to be the former case, then the answer to the title is straightforward. Genetics is used to extend life to the maximum possible, and everyone dies of the same cause at about the same age. Maybe it is heart problems, assuming the aliens have a heart pumping essential energy- and resource-carrying fluid throughout their bodies. Alien biologists design the heart so that it will last as long as possible, but eventually it passes the repairability stage, and fails.

This example is probably not the actual one that would result, as one can easily think of heart transplants with artificially grown hearts or mechanical pumps of clever design that adapted to the conditions of the moment. So, if not the heart, what? We can't say, but something eventually overcomes technology and the alien expires. Perhaps it is thousands of years, or perhaps only hundreds. Can't say.

The alternate situation is one in which life prolongation costs are substantial, beyond some point in age, and the society has to decide how to set the average citizen's life. For example, if prolonging the life of the eldest 10% of the population uses up resources on the home world at double the rate of keeping the rest of the civilization going, it is obvious a bad trade. What this would translate to is that the entire civilization will run out of resources in only one-third as much time if they used the extreme life-prolongation measures that were so expensive. Would the decision-making entity on the planet decide to end their civilization, or force colonization, three times faster so elderly alien citizens could continue to live?

They would set some limit, but how? The name of the process is cost-benefit analysis, which is what many sensible human individuals and organizations do when making difficult choices, as to which project to do or which product to buy. It is a difficult process to perform, as it requires the quantatization of some measures which we do not know how to quantify. Assume they do, as they will have had centuries more to figure it out. What benefit should be applied to life prolongation? The costs would be easier to figure out for them.

It would seem that a strong factor in this determination is the interaction rate of citizens with each other, versus with the infrastructure. If each citizen spends most of his/her/its time interacting with some central computer artificial intelligence, and does things surrounded by robots or intellos or other non-citizen entities, they receive little benefit from the longer life of elderly citizens. On the other hand, if inter-citizen interactions dominate society, with all kinds of modes of interactions, all types of events involving interactions, many stages in the life of a citizen where they interact strongly with other individual aliens, as opposed to some remote interactions or other interactions where citizens are fungible, easily exchanged, then longer lives have a higher benefit. To be very succinct, if friendship is a large factor in an alien society, they might tolerate higher life prolongation costs. If friendship hardly exists because individuals rarely see one another on a repeated basis, or even hardly see one another at all, then life prolongation would seem to be not worth spending large amounts of the civilization's resources on.

This might be an unexpected result: the existence of friendship in an advanced alien society is a big factor in determining how they spend their money on what we call medicine. It essentially substitutes one unknown for another. Would an alien civilization promote friendship between individuals, or between an individual and something else, for example, a robot?

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