On Don Delillo’s ‘Zero K’ and the dream of eternal life.

On Don Delillo’s ‘Zero K’ and the dream of eternal life.

During graduate school, I participated in a psychology study on aging. The premise behind the experiment was simple enough: young people, when given the choice, tend to spend their time with new acquaintances, whereas older people would often rather spend time with family. But what happens when we inoculate young people with a sense of their own mortality? Will they make the same choices as their elders?

At the beginning of the study, I was interviewed and asked to play a memory game: photographs of smiling faces, nature scenes, & car wrecks were displayed on a computer screen before then interview, then afterward more photos were shown and I was asked which were repeats from the initial set. Then I was asked to spend twenty minutes a day for the next two weeks listening to a speech about the inevitability of death. No matter what we think awaits us next, I heard each day, one thing is certain. All of us will die. The time we share now is our only time in this life.

That sort of thing.

After two weeks of this, they gave me another interview and a repeat of the memory game. Was I changed by two weeks’ worth of meditation on death?

Honestly, I doubt it. The data they collected from me was probably worthless. I was about to finish my doctorate and leave California, so there was already a sense of finality to most of my actions there. Plus, I’m the sort of depressed weirdo who always thinks about death, psych study or no. I don’t usually get paid $300 to do it. But it seems unlikely that I’d be altered by an experimental treatment so little removed from my everyday experience.

My laboratory baymate also participated in the study. He seemed to be affected more than I was. After two weeks of meditation on death, he started talking about lobsters.

Blue-lobster

I’ve written about the connection between lobsters and immortality previously, so all I’ll say now is that there has been a big push to understand the cellular and molecular consequences of aging in order to reverse them. For instance, our chromosomal telomeres shorten as we age. Can we lengthen them again?  Young blood has a different composition from the blood of older individuals. Can we make someone youthful by pumping young blood through their veins? Caloric restriction extends lifespan. Is there a way to reap the benefits without suffering through deprivation?

The meat machines we call our bodies evolved to live fast and die young, but we might be able to tweak and tune them to persist an extra hundred years.

Two hundred years is still a far cry from immortality, though.

Not, of course, that true immortality is possible. Over time, the entropy of the universe increases. Someday there will be no more life, no planets, no stars – nothing but a homogeneous smear filling all space. But many orders of magnitude separate our lifespans from the expected heat death of the universe. Humans could live much, much longer than we do now and still never need to worry about that cold, lonely end.

Human_brain_01Which brings us to the idea that a human mind could be preserved independent of this biodegradable shell. Conceptually this is not so strange. The workings of a mind are due to electrical currents pulsing through a particular configuration of synaptic connections. If different currents pulse through, you’re having different thoughts. If the synapses are connected in a different pattern, you have a different mind, a different personality, different memories.

If our mind is nothing but the pattern of our synapses, it should be possible to map all their connections and use this information to reproduce ourselves. Even if our mind is also molded by components other than the synapses (such as the myelin sheaths formed by glial cells), it should be possible (using a very powerful computer) to simulate the entire mess.

This is why some people want their heads lopped off and brains frozen after death. Not me. When I read about these people, I generally feel sad. I hate the idea of dying. It terrifies me. But I still believe it adds something to the human experience. And, although my particular brain seems to work well, I’m not sure the people of the future would want to expend the resources necessary to keep it around. They might decide to use their (very powerful!) computers for something else.

zero-k-9781501135392_lgStill, there is the dream. Maybe the people of the future will be able to bring us back to life. And maybe, just maybe, they will want to. This is the premise of Don Delillo’s Zero K. A few very wealthy individuals have funded an institution that will preserve their brains and bodies to be revived at some future time.

Any future resurrection, especially one mediated by computers, would be akin to the creation of an artificial intelligence. It will always be impossible to use nondestructive methods to perfectly map the components of a human brain. Given the quantum-mechanical fuzziness of reality, it’s hard to imagine what the concept of mapping “perfectly” would even mean. A future resurrection would be no more than an approximation of the original person.

Maybe this would be enough. After all, our brains change day by day and yet our personalities remain the same. Even severe brain injuries can leave our identities largely intact. Maybe the information inevitably lost when scanning a dead brain would prove to be irrelevant.

But we don’t know. And so one of the first experiments that anybody would suggest is: Can the resurrected mind pass a Turing test? If someone attempts to engage the resurrected mind in conversation, would the interlocutor walk away convinced that the mind was human?

CaptureUnfortunately, the characters Delillo sculpted to populate Zero K allow him to skirt this idea. It’s worth mentioning that Delillo’s White Noise is one of my all-time favorite books. I think he’s a great writer, and in his other books have loved the way he does dialogue. He beautifully depicts the interpersonal disconnect that permeates modern life. Consider this passage from White Noise in which two professors visit a tourist trap together:

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove twenty-two miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides–pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.

“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now.”

He seemed immensely pleased by this.

This is not a conversation. The speaker is unconcerned by the narrator’s lack of response. I think this is a beautiful, elegant commentary on modern life. You could read Martin Buber’s philosophical texts about the meaning of dialogue, or you could learn the same concepts while having a heckuva lot more fun by reading Delillo’s White Noise.

And yet. I think Delillo does a disservice to the ideas he’s exploring in Zero K to have the characters of his new novel also converse with each other in this disjointed way. Consider two fragments of dialogue, both from about a hundred pages into the novel (which just happens to be when I first realized that this style of dialogue, employed throughout, might be problematic here). In the first, a wealthy man is speaking to his son about his wife’s decision to be put down before she deteriorates farther:

“Yes, it will happen tomorrow,” he said casually.

“This is not some game that the doctors are playing with Artis.”

“Or that I’m playing with you.”

“Tomorrow.”

“You’ll be alerted early. Be here, this room, first thing, first light.”

He kept pacing and I sat watching.

“Is she really at the point where this has to be done now? I know she’s ready for it, eager to test the future. But she thinks, she speaks.”

“Tremors, spasms, migraines, lesions on the brain, nervous system in collapse.”

“Sense of humor intact.”

“There’s nothing left for her on this level. She believes that and so do I.”

In this next, a traveling monk is describing the facility to that same son – the wealthy man’s son is our window into this world.

“This is the safehold, the waiting place. They’re waiting to die. Everyone here dies here,” he said. “There is no arrangement to import the dead in shipping containers, one by one, from various parts of the world, and then place them in the chamber. The dead do not sign up beforehand and then die and then get sent here with all the means of preservation intact. They die here. They come here to die. This is their operational role.”

2000px-Turing_Test_Version_3.svg
A Turing test: Can we distinguish between an artificial intelligence and a human being?

If I were evaluating a Turing test and my conversational partner started speaking this way, I’d suspect my interlocutor was a robot. In my experience, most humans don’t talk this way.

By making the human characters more robotic, resurrection becomes an easier prospect. The more computer-like someone sounds – liable at any moment to spout off lists of facts instead of sentimental interpretations of the world – the easier it would be for a computer to encapsulate that person’s mind. The stakes seem artificially lowered.

I’m not trying to say that the resurrection of Elizabeth Bennett would dazzle me whereas bringing back Mr. Darcy would leave me yawning. But even Mr. Darcy, for all his aloof strangeness, feels far more viscerally engaged with human life than any of the characters in Zero K. Which, to me, undermines this particular exploration of the ideas.

Would you die happier knowing that a rigid automaton vaguely like you would someday be created, and maybe it would live forever? For me, the answer is “no.” I think my passions matter.

On immortality.

Ravana_Statue

In my last essay, I mentioned Ravana’s boon.  Immunity to harm from gods.  But that wasn’t what he wanted.  Here’s another quotation from the Uttara-kanda, this time from the Robert Biggs translation (it’s less literal than the Dutt translation, which means fewer bizarre sentences.  Less poetic, though.  But I definitely appreciate that he did all that work and then posted it online, free of charge):

“[Ravana]* fasted for ten thousand years, and at the end of each thousand years he offered one of his heads into a sacrificial fire.  In this way he passed nine thousand years and offered nine of his heads into the sacrificial fire.  At the end of ten thousand years when he was about to cut off his tenth head, Lord Brahma appeared before him.  Very satisfied by [Ravana]’s austerities, Lord Brahma stood there accompanied by other demigods.  Then he said: ‘O [Ravana], I am so pleased with you.  Quickly choose the boon you desire, O knower of what is right.  What desire should I now fulfill.  Your effort should not go in vain.’  Then, with an overjoyed heart [Ravana] bowed his head and replied in a faltering voice: ‘O lord, the greatest fear for living beings is death.  I choose immortality.’  When requested in that way, Lord Brahma replied: ‘You cannot have complete immortality, therefore ask me for some other boon.’

*The name used for Ravana throughout that passage is Dashagriva, which means “Ten-necked one.”  I substituted it throughout.  And, right, maybe it’s worth quoting just the final lines of the Dutt translation of that passage, cause it’s rather more abrupt in its denial: “Thus accosted, Brahma spoke to the Ten-necked one, ‘You can not be immortal.  Do you therefore ask of me some other boon.’ ”

So, the dude did all that meditating; once he was getting offered gifts, he wanted eternal life.  And Brahma, like most gods, was not thrilled at the request.  Jehovah was equally ticked at the prospect of his newly-enlightened playthings gaining immortality: here’s a passage from the King James Bible:

“And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”

So, people want to live forever, and gods aren’t going to help them do it.  That sounds like a job for science!  Indeed, many laboratories are researching ways to extend lifespan.  I don’t think any bioscientists imagine their efforts will ever result in immortality — that’s more a computer science aim than a bioscience one at the moment; here’s a reasonable introductory review into the study of human connectomes — but it seems pretty clear that they’re hoping their work can aid human longevity.  Which I get, obviously, despite my penchant for Malthusian pessimism (“Assuming then my postulata as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.  Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio.  Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.  A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second.”Thomas Malthus, a legendary curmudgeon).

CaptureLike there’s my graduate school baymate (the way our labs were set up was pairs of desks tucked into long alcoves of bench space, so there always wound up being one person who you talked to and collaborated with most), who planned to study lobsters after getting his doctorate: lobsters have limited senescence.  That is, they show fewer signs of aging than humans do; if we were more like lobsters, perhaps nursing homes would be rowdier places.  Of course, they’d needed to widen the hallways, reinforce the floors, etc., but I’m sure that’d seem like a fair trade for a little bit more vivacity.  Currently my buddy isn’t actually working on lobsters – he’s pursuing research more likely to help people in the near term – but someday maybe he’ll get back to it.

But the research into lobsters is focused on figuring out why they live a long time.  And there are similar studies focused on the secrets of other long-lived creatures; the most recent one I caught was a paper on whales.  The authors analyzed the bowhead whale genome and found that there might be extra copies of some DNA repair enzymes, and less of certain metabolic proteins (like a premature stop codon in a protein named UCP1 that generates heat).  About what you might expect: if you want to live a long time, DNA repair is good, metabolism is bad.  And it’s interesting, sure, but, again, unlikely to extend lifespan in the near future.  Good-lookin’ droids, but not the droids Ravana was looking for… anything that comes from that work will help other people a long time from now.  And that’s no good.  Honestly, interrogate any Malthusian and eventually they’ll tell you: the problem with longevity is that everyone else might attain it too.  If there were an a magic plant to provide immortality to just me, right here and now, then that’d be fine.  Unless a serpent happened by and stole it.  Then I’d probably be sad and start to weep.

But in the meantime, we’ve got some strategies for life extension to discuss!  Things that you could try today.  Like perfusion with hydrogen sulfide.  That’s right – inhale a horrible toxin in order to live!

(Don’t actually try this, by the way.  Hydrogen sulfide isn’t good for you.)

The first study using hydrogen sulfide to lower metabolic rate was done in Mark Roth’s lab: they were gorking mice with it, the idea being that a low metabolic rate, low oxygen consumption, etc., might make you more likely to survive massive blood loss or nasty surgery without physiological damage ... if you’re not in a suspended animation-like state and you experience hypoxia, bad things happen to your brain.

Capture
Figure 2A, Miller and Roth (2007).

Or course, that’s all for acute episodes dosed with hydrogen sulfide.  The Roth lab also did a study where they raised worms with or without 50 parts per million hydrogen sulfide in the atmosphere, and the worms with hydrogen sulfide lived longer (see Figure 2A for a nifty graph).

The next strategy is to supplement your diet with glucosamine.  This is an inhibitor of glycolysis: roughly speaking, the process by which your cells turn food into energy.  Work done in Michael Ristow’s lab showed that when mice were fed glucosamine every day for the bulk of their lives, they lived a little longer (see Figure 3C for the nifty graph).   And they presented significance testing for whether or not lifespan was increased… but didn’t mention a percentage for how much longer the mice lived.  Glancing at it, I’d say not much.  But some!  A little bit more time!

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Figure 3C, Weimer et al. (2014).

Or there’s caloric restriction.  Caloric restriction is something that’d be more reasonable for you to try at home than the whole huffing hydrogen sulfide thing, although I still wouldn’t recommend it.  Even though there’ve been very promising results in a variety of species… even in humans, so if you happened to decide today that this is something you’d want to do, the evidence is on your side.  Massively reduce the amount you eat and you might live longer.  Or not.  Caloric restriction also sounds a lot like anorexia, which causes horrible health problems.  Good job, photoshop!  And it’s apparently tricky to balance caloric restriction to be exactly right to promote lifespan without succumbing to all those anorexia-related health problems.

But in summary, it seems to be metabolism that kills you.  Oxygen eventually destroys cells.  And mitosis, which has to occur to replace your cells, involves doubling your DNA, which can never be 100% error-free.  So once you live enough, you’ll die.

The current strategies used to extend life – hydrogen sulfide, glucosamine, caloric restriction – seem primarily to slow metabolism.  So I don’t really think you’d be getting much more life.  You would persist in the world for more time, but would you be having more fun?  Would the integral of your fun vs. time graph over your entire lifespan even match that of someone living faster and less healthily?

I mean, I know my answer.  Not that I’m particularly unhealthy, but I volunteer as an assistant coach for the high school long distance runners, which means I go out and run with them a couple times a week, which means my metabolism works pretty hard.  I’m using up my heartbeats young; I won’t live forever.  But I still like doing it; I like running and I like running with them, talking with kids on the team, trying to make their time in high school a little less horrible than mine was.

img466psAnd as a last salvo for this essay, it might be worth quoting at one more curmudgeonly writer who’s pointed out some of the flaws in the whole “help everyone live longer” scheme: good old Jack Vance, whose debut novel “To Live Forever” is the best allegory for pursuing a tenure-track academic career I’ve ever read.  Seriously, if that’s your gig, you should check it out.  Yes, Jack Vance wrote pulp, but he was still a great stylist (it’s taking a great deal of restraint on my part not to quote a passage from his “Eyes of the Overworld” here… maybe I’ll try to find a way to work it in to a later, shorter essay) and the world he describes in “To Live Forever” feels eerily familiar to me, despite Vance having never taken part in it.  Here, I’ll quote a few passages from the beginning of that book: as you read, perhaps you’ll want to imagine modern terms like “impact factor” or “citation tracker” where he wrote “slope.”

At this time the word “slope” was charged with special meaning.  Slope was a measure of a man’s rise through the phyle; it traced the shape of his past, foretold the time of his passing.  By the strictest definition, slope was the angle of a man’s life line, the derivative of his achievements with respect to his age.

The Fair-Play Act carefully defined the conditions of advance.  A child was born without phyle identification.  At any time after the age of sixteen he might register in the Brood, thus submitting to the provisions of the Fair-Play Act.

If he chose not to register, he suffered no penalty and lived a natural life without benefit of the Grand-Union treatments, to an average age of 82.  These persons were the “glarks,” and commanded only small social status.

The Fair-Play Act established the life span of the Brood equal to the average life span of a non-participator–roughly 82 years.  Attaining Wedge, a man underwent the Grand-Union process halting bodily degeneration, and was allowed an added ten years of life.  Reaching Third, he won sixteen more years; Verge, another twenty years.  Breaking through into Amaranth brought the ultimate reward.

To apply this formula to the record of each individual, an enormous calculating machine called the Actuarian was constructed.  Besides calculating and recording, the Actuarian printed individual life charts on demand, revealing to the applicant the slope of his lifeline, its proximity either to the horizontal boundary of the next phyle, or the vertical terminator.

If the lifeline crossed the terminator, the Emigration Officer and his assassins carried out the grim duties required of them by the Act.  It was ruthless, but it was orderly–and starkly necessary.

The system was not without its shortcomings.  Creative thinkers tended to work in proved fields, to shun areas which might prove barren of career-points.  The arts became dominated by academic standards; nonconformity, fantasy and nonsense were produced only by the glarks–also much that was macabre and morose.

So, as soon as humans learned how to live forever — Jack Vance postulates an uploading methodology similar to the connectome-based schemes I linked to earlier — there had to be a way of determining which humans would live.  And it’s at that point that many of the most promising candidates would resort to conservative behavior; better to inch toward success than swing with all your might and maybe miss.  Better to propose a project that you know will yield something than to throw all your effort into a grand scheme and maybe come up with nothing. No publication, no grants, no tenure.