Insights by Danielle Fong

notes from a girl from the future

A case for immortality in a finite universe

Some futurists and bioethicists, argue that, on a planet with finite resources, prudence dictates that immortality is not to be aspired to — that the resources used by a life lives by the old might only displace the possibility of a life lived by the young. I think that this is a pessimistic view; one that does not allow for the grandest of possibilities.


The 2012 Hubble eXtreme Deep Field

An immortal race is one that can dream of spreading throughout the stars. There are 5 billion billion planets in the goldilocks zone, potentially capable of life, more than the total number of cells on Earth.

Any of these could serve as a lifeboat, were a catastrophe to occur in our other homes. The story of civilization, and the only light of consciousness that we know exists in the universe would continue to live, would flower and spread and thrive.

An immortal race is one for whom planetary constraints are personal constraints. The choices you make echo throughout eternity — and you see it. Would an immortal person retire to a soon-to-be underwater Florida and carry on with their planet warming ways? In just the same way that declining child mortality rates and other markers of wealth reduce the urge to rapidly reproduce in early adulthood, would an immortal race also give more thought and tender care for their lives, environment, community? One would have the time.

An immortal race would be wiser. Not all of them, surely; but those who throughout the centuries have guided us well, towards health, safety and greatness, will naturally form networks and communities and be respected in their life and judgment and rule. That which can only be learned through experience will be deep in their bones; the boon of their wisdom would be available for all around them, not subject to decline, embrittlement, and decay. The old founders and masters of organizations and disciplines would stay with us, providing not only the old precepts, but the old questions, the old intents, and the new views in response to a new world.

How different would the republic be, were Plato to have stayed with us?

The change of society with respect to critical technological changes is always underestimated. Look at how strongly fertility rates decline as life expectancy rises!

(correlation does not equal causation, but surely something *is* going on here. Were I in a traditional society, at 13 I might have already been pressured to bear children. I am currently twice that age, and do not even yet feel pressured to make a family. I feel that I have the time to build the world I want to bring children into)

From another perspective, suppose the default was immortality. Faced with resource constraints, would we *choose* to let some members of the population get sick and die just to apprehend their resources? Wouldn’t to do so seem barbaric? Necessary — possibly — but only considerable as a very last resort!

Finally, an unaging race is not invincible. We are still at risk crossing the road.

“It has become, in my view, a bit too trendy to regard the acceptance of death as something tantamount to intrinsic dignity. Of course I agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that there is a time to love and a time to die – and when my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way. For most situations, however, I prefer the more martial view that death is the ultimate enemy – and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light.”

Stephen Jay Gould 

As we may discover…


Vannevar Bush, with the first modern analog computer

“The National Research Foundation should <be> free from the obligation to place its contracts for research through advertising for bids. This is particularly so since the measure of a successful research contract lies not in the dollar cost but in the qualitative and quantitative contribution which is made to our knowledge. The extent of this contribution in turn depends on the creative spirit and talent which can be brought to bear within a research laboratory. The National Research Foundation must, therefore, be free to place its research contracts or grants not only with those institutions which have a demonstrated research capacity but also with other institutions whose latent talent or creative atmosphere affords promise of research success.”

Vannevar BushScience, the Endless Frontier (1945)

Vannevar Bush took over the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1938. The period from then until the Mansfield Amendment of 1973 (which turned ARPA into DARPA) was probably the most productive and efficient period for government sponsored research in history.

The competitive bid process, centralizing research in the universities and national labs, came later. I conjecture that, dollar for dollar, this process is 100x less effective than the old ARPA and National Defense Research Committee approach of finding and funding nascent research where and how it is ready to be done.

Also, even if historically it’s been difficult to predict, a few people have been all-stars. Vannevar Bush is one, as was Von Neumann, J.P. Morgan (who was a one man Silicon Valley, funding Edison, Ford, Tesla), Thomas Edison (who employed both the young Tesla and Ford!), Marvin Minsky, Stewart Brand, Ernest Rutherford, Arnold Sommerfeld, Neils Bohr, Steve Jobs, Bob Taylor, J. C. R. Licklider, J.R. Oppenheimer, etc.

Even in the modern era, where a billion dollar software company is a “unicorn”, showing up only once in 1,538 VC funded startups, some pick them time and time again. (like Keith Rabois, who has personally funded 8 of the 36 since 2003 — Square, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Yelp. Palantir, Youtube, LendingClub, Yammer.)…/11/02/welcome-to-the-unicorn-club/

The modern, largely faceless NSF doesn’t give the authority for a modern Bob Taylor to pick researchers and research projects with anything like the facility that Keith has been able to pick his own investments. Time for a change

(hat-tip to David Dalrymple and  Katriona Guthrie-Honea)