Bayesian probabilities and immortality ethics

Tonight I’ve been teaching today’s tutorial exercises in the university image processing course that I’m tutoring. Tonight’s topic is about classifiers, which are built on a heavy foundation of probability theory. So the lecture was mostly on probability statistics, including applications of Bayes’ Theorem to building classifier models – essentially numerical estimators that assign probabilities to different classes (or categories), depending on measurements made of some sample. The context in image processing is that you measure some statistics of an image, and then assign probabilities that the image shows certain objects. It’s all a bit abstract at this level, but hopefully things will crystallise for the students in next week’s lecture.

I finished off the ethics topic for the week, on immortality, this morning. For historical reasons my topic week starts on Wednesday and runs to the following Monday. Having taught it to 24 students in the past 6 days, I found it interesting that almost all of them generally thought that the idea of developing treatments to let people live much longer lives – say 100 or even 1000 years – was a really bad idea. Most were very concerned about population problems if people didn’t die, and mentioned consequences such as crowding of housing, not enough food, wars, and destruction of the environment.

Only two or three of the kids thought that society could adapt and thrive if everyone lived to 1000 years old – everyone else thought it would be a complete disaster. But when I prompted them to think of good things that might come out of everyone living long lifespans, they came up with good insights. People could learn a lot more, and individuals could invent more new things and make more scientific breakthroughs than any individual who might only live to 80 or so, resulting faster scientific/technological advancement. And if people lived a lot longer – they would be more concerned about keeping the environment liveable, so would make stronger efforts to look after the Earth.

I mentioned that researchers are working on anti-ageing treatments, and some think that a breakthrough will be made soon enough that some people alive now could live to 1000 years. When I said that such treatments would probably be expensive, at least at first, so only rich people could have them – wow, the kids mostly thought that was so unfair that it should just be banned. Only a couple thought that it would be okay to let people use such treatments. The naysayers were worried about wealthy people living long lives and dominating the world, getting into positions of power, and holding on to them for centuries, making the divisions between rich and poor much worse. And even when I suggested the treatments would become cheaper so that everyone could have them, most of the kids thought they should be banned, and nobody should be allowed to have them, because of how disastrous it would be.

I wonder if it says anything about the world today that kids of this age (10-12) are cynical enough to consider that we can’t handle longer lifespans without completely messing up society and destroying civilisation.

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