The Law of Requisite Usefulness

Fighting the aging process does not necessarily mean devising drugs or biomedical procedures such as stem cells or tissue engineering. In fact, these procedures are unlikely to work. Instead, it may be useful to consider how our biology behaves within a highly technological society, and to this end, the notions of the Global Brain and the noeme are relevant.

The Global Brain (GB) is an emergent world-wide entity of distributed intelligence, facilitated by communication and the meaningful interconnections between millions of humans through technology (such as the internet). For my purposes I take it to mean the expressive integration of the majority of human brains through technology and communication, a Metasystem Transition from the human brain to a global brain. The GB is truly global not only in geographical terms but also in function.

Chris Cao of Sony Online Entertainment once said: “We are no longer defined by where we live, grow up and die. We are defined by what we say”. What we say, i.e. the information we share with others within the GB, has a direct influence upon our real and virtual persona, our noeme.  I proposed this term to denote a novel evolutionary replicator, in line with genes and memes. The noeme is the intellectual presence of a physical person within the Global Brain and it represents, in fact, a real human avatar. Whereas in a virtual domain an avatar is the graphical representation of the user, in the real world a noeme is the abstract representation of one’s bio-digital presence and it is identified by the information-sharing  strategies of the individual.

These notions can be useful in a variety of ways. Many of us at the ELPIs Foundation for Indefinite Lifespans, together with some other researchers, believe that extreme human lifespans will not be achieved through simple interventions which are directed at the individual in isolation.

A more sophisticated approach (and one more likely to succeed) would be to consider humans within our niche, which is defined by the increasingly complex technological developments in the specific context of our society, and that of planet generally. There will come a time (perhaps the time is imminent) that there will be a considerable blurring of the line between real and virtual existence. This, I believe, will catalyse a more favourable situation which can promote extreme healthy human longevity, and I further explain this argument below. In the meantime, I see merit in people embracing sophisticated information-sharing techniques such as living in two or more societies simultaneously: one or more real and one or more virtual societies.  Many thousands of people already live in two real societies simultaneously. For example, people who live in one country for many months and in another country for the rest of the time, switching from one society to another without severing the bonds with the society they leave behind. Moreover, some of these people also belong to virtual societies such as Second Life and/or MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games).

A Complex Living

The biological relevance of living simultaneously in as many societies as possible is this: The increased value of information input reaching the brain, together with the intellectual and emotional stimulation associated with living in such environments activates neural, immune and hormonal pathways which increase the rate of tissue repair. The mechanisms are described by the notion of Hormetic Environmental Enrichment, whereby an increased stimulation or challenge up-regulates biological repair mechanisms resulting in measurable benefits to the organism.  Typically, enrichment can be social (direct or indirect contact with others), occupational (psychological and physical control of challenges), physical (altering the physical complexity of the environment), sensory (visual, auditory etc.), or nutritional (types and frequency of meals). The case of the digitally-enriched environment encompasses the first four of these domains.

Researchers from our organization have argued that in order for people to live longer, their societies also need to live longer, and in order to do this, we need to increase the input of meaningful information into both the person and the society as a whole. Therefore, cognitive activities that increase informational input are useful in this respect. A virtual society based on MMORPGs provides challenging environments with continual neurosensory positive or negative feedback. It engages its ‘citizens’ to construct a character by performing prestige-gaining actions, and by developing sensory, physical and emotional activities that they would  not have performed otherwise. A Second Life environment may be used, for example, as a virtual conference facility, where useful flow of actionable information between its citizens can be facilitated. This augments the information content of the society, heightens its robustness and reliability, and makes it more durable, i.e. ‘fitter’ in evolutionary terms.

One consequence of this is that individuals who live in such societies embody an increasingly indistinguishable combination of their real self and that of their online avatar. Their noeme  (the result of this combination) is being continually enhanced and their information content increases. I have argued elsewhere that a strong noeme is essential in promoting extreme lifespans, whereas weak noemes are eventually eliminated by evolutionary forces. This is based on the concept of Selective Reinforcement, whereby an appropriate agent (or action) is selected and retained if its content of information is of a sufficient and appropriate magnitude.

Research has shown that an online avatar can live longer (user retention) within a society, if this avatar is well connected within that particular society.  What seems to matter in the retention of an avatar is the number and strength of its connections i.e. their ‘integration’ with the society they live in. This is a universal theme also encountered in the retention (survival) of neurons in the brain.

Many people choose anonymity while on line. This has no positive effects on the user’s persona as a whole (i.e. it does not enhance their noeme) therefore missing an opportunity to strengthen and improve their connections and information-sharing capabilities. A low number of connections, associated with a reduced strength of those connections fails to integrate one’s presence in the world, making them easily expendable in the evolutionary sense.

Practical Steps

The aging process is demarcated by increasing entropy and loss of useful information input due to a progressively reduced number of challenges. It has been described as a loss of useful biological complexity. In order to increase complexity (and thus increase the information content and reliability of our biological reserves) it is possible to use a basic universal principle which suggest that complexity within a system increases when the variety and connection of individual parts of that system increase with regards to a) space (more numerous), b) time (more frequent), and c) dynamical scale (more powerful). Using this as a metaphor, in the case of real human avatars (i.e. noemes), I suggest that in order to increase complexity, and thus increase their evolutionary fitness in a niche of modern technological environment, one should:

  • Increase the number of their connections both in virtual and in real terms. In practice this could mean that in order to be well connected one should, for example, not reject any ‘friend’ or ‘connect’ request from anybody, either online or in reality.
  • Increase the unity of their connections. Use only one (user)name for all environments across all platforms.
  • Increase the strength of their connections. One should provide as much information about themselves as possible, and join as many online information-sharing facilities as practicable
  • Avoid using trivial or outdated platforms

A persistent theme throughout this discussion is based on concepts drawn from evolutionary theory. Modern evolution is underpinned by the notion of ‘co-operation’ (not competition) leading to increased fitness within a progressively more technologically advanced niche. Those who are able to adapt to this, will succeed in surviving, and will surviving longer compared to those who choose competition as a strategy for survival. Those who fail to respond to the challenges of an increasingly technocratic society are not useful to the whole and, as their fitness decreases, so do their survival rates.

If we accept that the GB will eventually become fully operational (and this may happen within the next 40–50 years), then there could be severe repercussions on human evolution. Apart from the fact that we could be able to change our genetic make-up using technology (through synthetic biology or nanotechnology for example) there could be new evolutionary pressures that can help extend human lifespan to an indefinite degree.

Humans will become so embedded and integrated into the GB’s virtual and real structures, that it may make more sense from the allocation of resources point of view, to maintain existing humans indefinitely, rather than eliminate them through aging and create new ones, who would then need extra resources in order to re-integrate themselves into the GB.

The net result will be that humans will start experiencing an unprecedented prolongation of their lifespan, in an attempt by the GB to evolve to higher levels of complexity at a low thermodynamical cost.

To this end, a principle derived from cybernetics summarises the issue: the Law of Requisite Usefulness states that the length of retention of an agent (human) within a network is proportional to the agent’s contribution to the overall adaptability of the system. Therefore, the more ‘useful’ we are to the evolution of the entire network, the longer we will be retained (live).

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