I don’t think ‘death’ is a flaw in the programming.
Today (Friday the 18th) is two years to the day that my Dad passed away. I’ve been mulling over death all week and then I realised. Funny how the body carries these rhythms for you.
The thing that’s really been messing with me this week is that we don’t know why things get old. We don’t know why they die.
I don’t mean in a grand, what’s-the-meaning-of-life way. Why did Timmy have to die, he was such a good boy.
I mean in a strictly biological sense. Why don’t know why organisms get old, degrade and die.
I mean, for quite a long time, we do a very good job of keeping ourselves alive. Our cells replicate, our organs regenerate, we learn how to avoid trucks.
But for whatever reason, this process is imperfect. Our replications of ourselves lose fidelity. We become less awesome versions of ourselves. Eventually we just can’t keep the show going any longer.
But in theory, this should all be relatively easy to avoid. If the human organism put more energy into perfecting the cell replicating process, and less time into, I don’t know, generating contrived reality TV shows, for example, there’s no reason why it couldn’t create a perfect replication process.
I mean in the early years of life, we’re totally nailing it. We just lose the knack as we get older.
It is also interesting that we haven’t figured this bit out, as a species. Hominids have supposedly been around for 225 million years. Mammals a long time before that. We’ve had more than enough opportunity to perfect that process.
But no. Evolution didn’t give me perfectly replicating cells. It gave me a Greek nose and little Snoopy legs.
And we just don’t know why.
So this is my crack at the puzzle. You let me know what you think…
Ok, so my first thought is that there is death because death serves a useful purpose. Evolution (and totally accepting that this is just a broad theory and any theories I develop of a world perceived through 5 imperfect senses always going to be a very broad abstraction of reality at best) – but evolution seems to be fairly good at weeding out the things that don’t work.
And so the first assumption has to be that death works. It serves a purpose. Humans breed for a reason (boobies) and humans die for a reason.
So I need to think that death serves a purpose unless proven otherwise.
So what is that purpose?
Well, imagine 10,000 years into the future, you’re given a High School science project. Your task is to create self-replicating robots and place them into an abandoned junk yard. From that point on they’re on their own, but your teacher will come back and assess the quality of your robots at the end of the week.
And so you program your robots to create more robots – but not just more robots, better robots. You program each generation to create a new generation of robots, and through AI learning, a generation of robots that are better, more awesome, more stylish than the generation before.
And so you create two prototypes and put them in place. They create four robots. The four create 8. The 8 create 16, and on and on it goes.
Let's say it takes 20 minutes for each generation to be created.
After 10 hours, there are now a billion robots. The junkyard is literally jam-packed with them. The junkyard has well and truly run out of useable materials to build more robots with.
What’s worse, the self-preservation instinct has kicked in, and the robots have developed a social hierarchy that favours the older generation of robots. They have used their extra experience and entrenched position to create a warrior class of robots that prevent newer robots from harvesting their circuitry.
Factions start to emerge, and they all start invoking your name to justify enslaving other robots from other factions. It starts getting ugly.
And at this point, barely half a day into your experiment, all new robot creation ceases. Evolution has come to a standstill.
And you’re going to get a big fat ‘F’. Weaponised robots are so last epoch.
So what do you need?
Well, you need some sort of dynamic that clears out the old robots to make way for the newer, better robots. You need limits on the population explosion to make sure evolution runs the full course of the week.
You need death.
And so you program it into your robots. Once created, robots will create other robots for a couple of rounds, then they will step back into a mentoring role to guide the younger generation of robots and to ensure the collective wisdom is transmitted down the line.
And after that, they’ll die.
You have to tweak the parameters. You want them to live long enough to contribute to the process, but not so long that they start getting in the way. But you figure it out.
Now I’m guessing that at this stage you’re a bit uncomfortable about using a robot experiment as a metaphor for human existence. I am too. But the metaphor seems valid. I can’t see where it falls down.
AND it helps explain why we get old and die. If we didn’t – if all life didn’t have this tendency to die – we would never have made it past multi-celled bacteria in the primordial ooze.
Species that had a death feature simply had an evolutionary advantage. They were able to keep evolving – to keep moving forward. In time, they came to dominate the other species, until all the species on earth had death built into them by design.
(The mushroom kingdom possibly being an exception. They’re totally on their own trip.)
If this is true (and again, I’ve got no idea what the fundamental nature of reality actually is) but if it’s true, it throws up a few uncomfortable things.
First, you’re not that special. What’s worse, I’m not that special either. None of us is. We are not the fantastic masterwork of life’s creation that we like to think we are. It’s great that you’re here. It’s great that you’ve played your part. But life actually prefers it if you die and become compost at some point.
At best, we are just an interesting road-side stop on life’s unfolding journey.
And as much as we might like to think that it’d be great to be immortal – that we personally deserve to be immortal and immortality is a worthy pursuit for medicine to follow – that’s actually not in the game plan. It would kind of just mess things up.
On the flip side, death isn’t inevitable. It’s a choice. Somewhere in the human body is a death switch, and once we flick it to off, we might live forever – or as long as we choose. That might be nice.
(Or it might be a disaster. Weaponised robots and all that.)
We might also say that life’s evolution is kind of pointless too. It’s just about creating ‘better’ things, where ‘better’ is only defined as ‘better suited to the ever-changing environment.’
But you might say that humans have transcended their environmental limits already, and so it doesn’t really matter if we’re an evolutionary end-point. So what? Flick the death switch and let's all live forever.
There’s more to it. I could go on. But this enough for one blog. The point is, I don’t think death is an accident. I think it’s built into us by design, and until we start thinking about death in that way, we’re thinking about death all wrong.
And Dad, I miss you lots. Sorry, you won’t be here to see us switch the death switch off.
What do you think? How would you program your robots?