Who would have predicted that boring old life insurance would become the ‘killer app’ that makes human replication technology truly transformational? But that does seem to follow from the logic of the situation.
The arguments for information-based life insurance are even more compelling than the arguments for teleportation. The advantages of travelling as information are speed, convenience, cost, and sustainability (in the form of lower carbon emissions). The final product is the same as conventional travel – the customer is (to all intents and purposes) transported from place A to place B. But in the case of life insurance, the product is radically transformed. Whereas traditional insurance merely mitigates the damage of death by providing monetary support to surviving family, the new insurance warrants the life of the policyholder by – in the event of his death – restoring him from a backup file. It changes our relationship to death, which is no small matter.
Is it a change for the better? By generally-accepted standards, it clearly is. Risk reduction has become a motherhood principle in industrialized societies. We use our seatbelts, swear off smoking, wear helmets and high-visibility vests when cycling, visit our doctors for medical screening tests (often unpleasant), and sit through countless safety briefings at the start of professional meetings. We don’t complain, even if we quietly chafe, because we have accepted the goodness of safety as a social norm. Safety is all about reducing the risk of accident and death. We have not, of course, eliminated that risk. Most adults have some personal experience with tragedy. The new life insurance goes a long way towards eliminating tragedy. Tragic death could become an evil of the past, like smallpox.
I realize my story, Phoenix, does not portray the new life insurance very positively. Its protagonist, Frank, abuses the technology, to his own detriment and that of others. But Frank is not typical. He is a thrill-seeker, careless by nature. Letting Frank have life insurance is like giving a credit card to an inveterate gambler – it offers a crutch to compensate for his weakness, with deplorable results. Most of us, I am confident, would not abuse our life insurance policies. We might be emboldened, but we would still take care to avoid dying unnecessarily. Although no longer a catastrophe, death would still be a serious disruption; and society would regard dying too often, like divorcing too often, as a sign of a disorderly life.
Perhaps another story is needed to illustrate the positive aspects of life insurance. But I doubt you will have trouble being convinced of its value. Just look through any daily newspaper and list the real tragedies which, if insurance were in place, could have been undone. Here is a list compiled from the Globe and Mail for today, Tuesday, March 30th, 2010:
At least 38 people were killed in yesterday’s ‘black widow’ suicide bombings of Moscow subway.
An inquiry is held into an 2007 school bus crash which killed a nine-year-old child.
Hillary Clinton requests continued Canadian involvement in Afghanistan after the planned withdrawal deadline in 2011. (141 Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002.)
Ontario scam artist is found dead at home, leaving investors in the lurch.
A Montreal house fire kills four people.
A North Korean mine may be responsible for the sinking of a South Korean naval ship, with loss of 46 crew members.
Sechelt RCMP recover the body of a diver who failed to surface.
Obituary notice of a 25-year woman, cause of death undisclosed.
Obituary notice of a young man in first-year university, cause of death suicide.
Children, young people, husbands, wives, employees – people in important relationships, whose lives matter keenly to themselves and to others – cut off. Those tragedies could have been prevented by technology capable of backing up and restoring human beings. I find it hard to believe that such technology, once developed, will not be hailed as a boon to humanity on a par with antibiotics and vaccinations.
The example of the terrorist bombing makes the point that life insurance would draw the sting of terrorism. If to blow someone up is to inflict an inconvenience on the scale of a few weeks loss of work (besides property damage), terror is reduced to nuisance.
I include the scam artist because if he were revived he could be brought to justice, and could be made to assist in efforts to restore some of his victims’ losses. I include the young man who killed himself because insurance would offer a second chance to him, and to those who love him, to find ways to make his life supportable.
I do not include other obituary notices, of persons ranging in age from 70 to 104, for two reasons: first, although these people were clearly loved, many of their deaths may not have been tragic; and second, because the new life insurance would not do much for them, being already old.
Or would it? Important questions about the new insurance remain unanswered – even – unasked – notably about backups.
An obvious one concerns frequency of backups. If the information required to rebuild a person can be captured and stored cheaply and conveniently, we will no doubt be advised to back up regularly and often, perhaps even daily, following current IT practices in well-run corporations. If a person could be scanned at one’s desk while doing other work, or while sleeping at night, it would be hard to argue against daily backups. Why risk losing your valuable impressions of today’s strategic planning meeting to a freeway accident during tomorrow morning’s commute?
Then there is the question of how much archival data to maintain. The digital record of a human being would be a large file, which I have estimated as on the order of 16,000 terabytes after data compression. If Moore’s Law continues to hold until replication technology matures – say, fifty years from now – the storage required to maintain daily backups of a person for one year will cost less than a cent.
But some predict that Moore’s Law cannot be sustained indefinitely. A more modest option is to maintain only the most recent backup of each insured person. Although attractive in its simplicity, this proposal has a serious shortcoming. We do not always know what’s wrong with us. By the time cancer is diagnosed, it may have progressed too far for the patient’s life to be saved. If you receive such a diagnosis from your doctor, and your only backup is less than twenty-four hours old, you may reasonably feel cheated of the value you expected for your life insurance dollar. If you could only be reconstructed with the fatal malignancy built in, your policy would not be delivering the promised benefit.
Lurking malignant cancers are a concern only if we assume that persons are rebuilt from scanned information ‘warts and all’ – that no data cleansing tools can be brought to bear to remove the cancer information from a person’s file before reconstructing the person. As discussed in an earlier post, we have reason to hope that such tools will exist: information-based human replication technology will likely be flexible enough to allow us to cleanse our backup files of most lethal diseases as well as unwanted body-fat and hair that grows in the wrong places. Whenever people have the opportunity of self-improvement, they avail themselves of it. That being so, I can change the example to a more telling one of progressive neurological impairment which destroys information stored in the brain, and which has already caused a serious loss by the time it is diagnosed. Such a deficit, because it involves a loss of information, could not be ‘cleansed’ from the file.
A patient so diagnosed, and expecting imminent death, might reasonably prefer to be restored from a backup that is not the latest – that is a year or two old, made at a date before the neurological disease set in.
Suppose that I am so diagnosed. I visit my doctor complaining of memory loss, and am referred to a neurologist. Several weeks go by before I am tested and my results are returned by the lab. The neurologist explains that although treatment with drugs and exercises can slow the progress of the disease, no treatment can undo the damage done. If my disease had been caught early enough – two years ago – it could have been completely cured without any impairment.
Servers at my life insurance company hold my backup files from yesterday, the day before, one week ago, dates at monthly intervals for the past year, and earlier dates at annual intervals back to the time I first took out my policy. Since I am allowed to choose which backup to use, I naturally opt to be restored from the latest one that will permit my reconstructed self to avoid this disease altogether.
I use the time remaining to me in my diseased body compiling essential information to help bring my successor up to speed in all my projects. I write an intimate diary of opinions and intentions regarding my personal life, recalling recent meaningful experiences with family and friends. Since I know my memory is failing, I supplement the diary as best I can with photographic and audio documentation. I also enlist my wife’s help. She and I spend hours discussing how she can help my restored self catch up.
The day comes when the ravages of the disease have weakened me to the point that I can do nothing more for my successor. My family and I know that the sooner he is reconstituted, the smaller will be the gap he has to cross to catch up with the times. At this point, something like assisted suicide might become an attractive option.
I say “something like” assisted suicide, because my family and I would not think about it the way people in 2010 think about dying. I would not expect my life to be over. I would expect to continue as a healthier, slightly younger person, who would have no memories of events in the past two years. I would anticipate being told, by my wife, about my incipient brain disease. I would plan to revisit my neurologist, and hold him to his promise (which I would not remember, but which I would have been told about) of being able to cure me. I would anticipate being helped and coached by my family and friends to come up to speed on current events, both public and private, and I would expect my notes and diaries to be an invaluable resource.
The argument for archiving historical backups of insured persons appears compelling. Such a practice would allow us to avert, or undo, tragedies. But maintaining multiple backups changes our relationship to mortality even more profoundly.
In 2010, most of us accept aging more or less gracefully, if not willingly. We have little choice about it – the only alternative is premature death. Poets sometimes say that those cut down in the flower of youth are fortunate – but the actions of most people show that they do not agree.
The advent of information-based life insurance will mark a tectonic shift in the landscape of our lives. I am over sixty. I remember things about being twenty that I liked, and would enjoy more of now. I had more energy then – stayed up late, and did not need a nap after lunch. I was physically bolder – readier to fight if called on. My eyes were sharper, and so were my tastebuds. I enjoyed sports like slalom waterskiing, which I have since given up because of poor balance and cracked ribs. I could do seventy-five push-ups without pausing, whereas now I am hard-pressed to do twenty-five. Then I stayed strong without a regular exercise program, whereas now I need weekly workouts at the gym to maintain a lower standard, and if I skip a week, I pay a price in sore muscles when I go back.
When the option of rebuilding oneself from a backup becomes reality, people will no doubt start to think about it as a potential fountain of youth. If given a choice as to which of their backups should be flagged for restoration, many people, I suspect, will be tempted to choose one that is earlier and younger, rather than later and older. They will be tempted despite the loss of experience entailed by reverting to one’s callow youth, and despite the greater challenges that would be faced by the reconstituted young person in catching up on decades of advancing knowledge and technological change.
This scenario raises questions about the relevance of psychological continuity to self-concern. A person undergoes considerable psychological changes, as well as physical ones, over three or four decades. Yet I suspect that many people would be willing to accept the severe psychological discontinity of reverting to the attitudes and opinions of their youth, giving up many years of experience and even (in some cases) wisdom, in exchange for the fondly remembered delights of youth. If I am right, those people would have little difficulty extending the attitudes and emotions of self-concern to their restored youthful versions.
That would not be true for everyone. Some older people do not identify strongly with their youthful selves. That may be because their interests and attitudes have changed. Perhaps they now regard the political opinions they held in their early twenties as hopelessly idealistic, based on ill-founded opinions about human nature. Perhaps they consider their earlier interests and pursuits to be shallow, unfulfilling, even immoral. Maybe they think they were too hard-hearted as a young person, or too soft-hearted. Older people who think this way might be disinclined to accept the trade of youth for experience. They would rather use their life insurance policies as the description implies – to insure what they have, their present-day lives.
The others – the Ponce de Leons among us – present a challenge. If the rules and regulations of life insurance allow policy-holders to choose which of several hundred stored archival versions of themselves should be earmarked as the ‘gold standard’ – to be restored in the event of death – ethical questions arise. Should a ninety-five year old, on the point of death, be allowed to finger a twenty-five year old backup as his continuer? Consider the effects of such a choice.
Society at large is one stakeholder. Replacing a moribund ninety-five year old with a vigorous twenty-five year old effectively increases the population by one. This may or may not be a good thing. Perhaps by the time human replication technology matures, most of the world will have entered a post-industrial phase characterized by falling population. If so, and if we have by then licked the environmental problems caused by over-consumption and resource scarcity, then replacing an old person with a young one may not be bad. However, in this case, somebody will have to bear the costs of re-educating the twenty-five year old, whose skills will be seventy years out of date. Think of the difficulties of entering the 2010 work force with a university education and life experience from 1940 – if your specialty is not classics!
Society could solve this problem by requiring the policyholder who made this choice to fund her own re-education. But the policyholder herself is another significant stakeholder. When, at age twenty-five, she agreed to be backed up for insurance purposes, she may not have envisaged being restored to life seventy years later! She may not welcome being thrust, as an adult, into such a changed world, in which almost everyone she knew is ancient or dead (or, like herself, a rebuilt young person struggling with anachronism; clearly, support groups would be needed for people in her situation), in which most of her knowledge is obsolete, her attitudes and vocabulary laughably dated, her competence in everyday matters seriously impaired. Should she not have a say about this? The problem is that she can only be asked if she is restored to life first. Well, then, should policy-holders state their wishes for revival, at the time they are backed up? Perhaps they should be forced to sign a consent form: I agree to be restored to life in the event of my death within the next ___ years (to be filled in). In that case, it would make sense to delete the backup after the consent period has elapsed – for if that were not done, a conflict would be set up between the interests of the younger person, as expressed by her consent form, and the interests of the elder person whose death is imminent, and who hankers – perhaps sensibly, perhaps foolishly – after youth and vigour. In the eyes of the law and society, they would be the same person. Existing legal precedent favours a person’s last will, provided she was of sound mind when she made it. But that precedent is not clearly right for this case. The person who will have to live with the consequences of the decision is not the older version, but the younger one; so perhaps the wish expressed at her age should be given more weight. Then again, it might be considered that the decision made by the older person is better informed, because of her firsthand knowledge of the intervening decades, and of how her own life has unfolded. She knows things her younger self did not – her financial status, among other pertinent facts.
Dilemmas like these are what make the new life insurance a game changer. The problems are compounded when we consider the choices faced by a seventy-five year old who is still healthy enough to reasonably expect at least another decade of life (with modern health-care), but unhealthy enough that he expects he won’t enjoy it. A man in that situation might be tempted to end his life prematurely, because he knows it will trigger his policy, and he has chosen to be restored from a much younger backup. This choice is disturbing to think about. Should he not be allowed to make this choice? Should his insurance policy include a no-suicide clause? (The monetary insurance on offer these days typically contains a limited no-suicide clause – the period is often two years – to discourage people from taking out a policy with the intent of committing suicide.)
In an insurance policy that restores your life instead of paying money to beneficiaries, a no-suicide clause seems draconian. Most suicides are influenced by mood disturbances which are widely regarded – rightly, I think – as mental disorders. People who attempt suicide often recover from their despair, and are thankful their action failed. A 2005 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicated that even a modest program of talk therapy for people who have attempted suicide can reduce the risk of a repeat attempt by 50%. A study published by the World Health Organization in 2008 shows even more promising results. I have personally known one bright young man who killed himself, and another who failed in the attempt and went on to live a happy and productive life. If we had life-restoring insurance, should its benefits be denied to the one who did the job thoroughly? That would be to take a very hard line.
But then, how should the Ponce de Leons be stopped? Or should they? Should we instead respect their choice, although it may shock us, as we are shocked by old people who marry young spouses? Over the past century or so, Western societies have become increasingly tolerant and respectful of many things – differences in race and religion, in sexual orientation, men and women in careers traditionally associated with the opposite sex, premarital sex, serial monogamy, abortion, to name some of them. We seem to be moving towards a limited tolerance of assisted suicide, as a right which can be exercised by someone suffering from terminal illness with debilitating pain. If we are prepared to allow that (whether and to what extent we will remains to be seen) when the loss of life is irrevocable, what grounds can there be for denying someone the choice of avoiding the infirmities and humiliations of old age by reverting to a younger version? Assuming, always, that the younger version agrees. If the younger version does not agree, the ethical picture becomes still murkier. What precedents can we call on to sort it out?
I raise these ethical questions as food for thought. Instead of trying to answer them, I want to use information-based life insurance as another lens through which to examine the core concerns of the Phantom Self project. As we saw, exercising a life insurance policy, expecially if one’s backup is not recent, may entail a much greater disruption in psychological and physical continuity than being teleported. The traces, in brain and body, of months, years, or decades of life may be lost. This raises once again the basic question whether such imperfect continuity is enough to justify self-concern. If I take out life insurance in order to ensure my personal survival (not just to provide my family with a replacement), could I be making a mistake?
If you have been following The Phantom Self, you know I doubt that question can be settled either by logical analysis or by empirical experiment. Still, it is hard to believe that the difference between looking forward to being the person reconstituted from my backup, and thinking of that person as someone else (a ‘mere duplicate’ of my younger self), is illusory. And I think it will remain hard to believe until we have a much better understanding of the psychology, and perhaps also the neurology, of self-concern. It is time to make a more serious attempt to understand how self-concern works. What conditions are psychologically necessary and sufficient for the experience of self-concern? Is there plasticity in our concept of self extended into the future and the past, like the plasticity demonstrated by neurologists in our spatial sense of self, our body-image. If there is, which aspects of the self are plastic in that way?
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