Human choice and our right to a future tense

Steve Jobs once said: "Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is life's change agent." It may well be true but the idea that we need to vacate and make room for others offers little comfort as we contemplate our own mortality.

Knowing we will die is another difference between humans and other animals. We are aware of our mortality. Specifically we are aware that death is both inevitable and uncertain.

Only humans experience the awareness of death as giving meaning to life. Only humans can anticipate living in the future, to make decisions which balance the desires of the here and now with the desires to be held by a future self. We can only achieve true agency through having awareness of the present moment, because it is only the present moment that we actually have.

It’s a strange and compelling paradox. It is only through the juxtaposition of the certainty of death, positioned against its uncertain timing, that we can make sense of life’s decisions. We all have to learn to live fragile lives, ones we must appreciate can end at any moment without warning. Or may continue for years.

According to the philosopher Todd May, death pervades life, partly because a good amount of our thinking is concerned with escaping its grip. But wanting to live forever isn’t a solution. May argues that immortality may be far worse than dying because a meaningful life is one where there simply isn’t time to do everything. “If death is a bad end for us all, immortality would be a lack of end for us all,” he writes.

May frames the dilemma as the most important facing humans and not one we can think our way through. Instead we have to live it. “It is a dilemma that structures how we go about creating ourselves.”

How would you think about the choices you make if an AI could predict exactly when you were going to die?

Great Human Strength: We are capable of living happy, productive, agency-filled lives knowing they will end, but not knowing when.

Great Human Weakness: We can go to great lengths to create stories that limit the power mortality holds over our lives.

Machine Opportunity: Designs that help us live life to the fullest and flourish through our choices.

Machine Threat: Designs that restrict our lives by restricting our choices and therefore our right to a future tense.