The War on Dying, the Battle Against Aging (panel one)

The first panel today is on the science of life extension, with a typically crisis-laden title, “The War on Dying, the Battle Against Aging.” (And a heated exchange ensues toward the end of the panel — don’t flip that dial.) The first two speakers, Cynthia Kenyon of UCSF (revealingly profiled here) and Ana Maria Cuervo of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, are researchers. They share some familiar anecdotes about the biology of aging: tapeworms whose lifespans were extended several times over by flipping a couple genes, and so forth.

Aubrey de Grey and Ana Maria Cuervo.

One interesting experimental result I hadn’t heard before is that if you attach an old, infirm mouse to a young, healthy mouse and then inflict a bruise on the healthy mouse (it must be something to sit around thinking up the idea to do this sort of thing), the old mouse will heal much faster than if the young mouse didn’t have the wound. The panelist describing this says that this shows that “external interventions can have a great effect on the body.” This seems like a strange way of putting it, since the “external” intervention is in fact the internal workings of another organism’s body.
Stephen Johnston of Arizona State’s Biodesign Institute seems at first to be the voice of reason in this setting: he talks about approaching aging from the standpoint of disease and detecting and treating early chronic diseases. He offers have a practical, clinical perspective on life extension, noting his initial trepidation about the title of the conference, because “I’ve known a lot of radicals that I’m not sure I’d want to extend their life.” (Um, don’t look to your left, Mr. Johnston, where Aubrey de Grey sits.)
But soon enough Johnston starts heading into transhumanist territory, saying we’ll be melding with robots and computers and increasingly turning ourselves into them. After all, he says, we already have mechanical implants, and “computers already have the computing capacity of our brains.” Ooof. I imagine quite a few people here will believe that because he’s speaking with an air of scientific authority, but let me just note that this claim is well outside his field. Indeed, let me go further, and knock it down outright: we don’t know how to define the whole function of the brain as a computer, and so we can’t define the brain’s “computing capacity” generally. All we can do is compare its performance on particular computational tasks, like adding. This is why computers can perform many sorts of tasks billions of times faster than us, but there are many other tasks we can do that they can’t even perform at all, because we don’t know how to define them computationally. Apples and oranges, folks, certainly for the time being.
Next up, and given the largest speaking slot, is Aubrey de Grey, the aging researcher and activist. He says that radical life extension is a turn-off to a lot of people, “especially people on Capitol Hill,” because they imagine it as people getting old and extending the frail and infirmed portion of their life indefinitely. This is a pretty old understanding of radical life extension (Jonathan Swift depicts it this way in Gulliver’s Travels), though I think he’s also alluding to the problems life extension would potentially pose (and has already posed) for our social and health care systems. De Grey is right, of course, to push back against the idea that life extension would have to occur that way. But it doesn’t seem at all apparent that it necessarily wouldn’t; he’s just saying that it won’t because life-extensionists are trying to prevent that outcome. But the current explosion of chronic and degenerative diseases as life spans increase isn’t hugely supportive of his assertion. Radical life extension, as de Grey well knows, will have to take a form very different from just continuing the life extension we’ve seen so far.
At the end of the panel, Cynthia Kenyon throws some cold water on the anecdotes from the beginning about tapeworms, noting that the same interventions have not produced nearly as dramatic results in mice, and seem to be even less powerful in more complex organisms such as humans — though Kenyon seems also to be setting up how little we know and have tried as reason for optimism about what new interventions we could find. Aubrey de Grey agrees that “the combinatorial approach [flipping genes] rapidly approaches diminishing returns.”
From left to right, Cynthia Kenyon, Stephen Johnston, a questioner (obscuring Ana Maria Cuervo), and moderator Emily Yoffe.
And now for the juicy, tabloid coverage of the conference you’ve all been waiting for: Near the end of the Q&A session, a little spat broke out between Stephen Johnston and Cynthia Kenyon over NIH funding and whether research projects need to have a specific, practical, and easily politically justifiable aim, or whether open and “pure” research should remain funded. Kenyon placed herself on the moral high ground of defending pure research, comparing Johnston to the infamous head of the U.S. Patent Office in the nineteenth century who supposedly declared that everything that could be invented had been (actually an apocryphal story). But it wasn’t clear to me that Johnston was making the point Kenyon imputed to him. I’ll have to watch the video again later, but it was a weird, rude little spat.
(Dear Prudence: I’m moderating a national conference and two of my panelists keep yelling at each other and accusing each other of philistinism. Do I let them duke it out over a live feed? Signed, Moderately Befuddled. [Actually, moderator Emily Yoffe, Slate‘s “Dear Prudence” columnist, wisely and adroitly headed off the exchange and moved on to the next question.])
Fireworks aside, it’s been pointed out to me that the most entertaining part of this panel is watching Aubrey de Grey play with his beard — and watching the other panelists watch him.

Bad Humbug, Good Humbug, and Bah Humbug

Blogger Michael Anissimov does not believe in Santa Claus, but he does believe in the possibility, indeed the moral necessity, of overcoming animal predation. To put it another way, he does not believe in telling fantasy stories to children if they will take those stories to be true, but he has no compunctions about telling them to adults with hopes that they will be true.

An obvious difference Mr. Anissimov might wish to point out is that adults are more likely than children to be able to distinguish fantasy from reality. He can (and does) submit his thoughts to their critical appraisal. While that difference does not justify what Mr. Anissimov regards as taking advantage of children by telling them convincing fantasies, it does suggest something about the difference between small children and adults. Small children cannot readily distinguish between fantasy and reality. In fact, there is a great deal of pleasure to be had in the failure to make that distinction. It could even be true that not making it is an important prelude to the subsequent ability to make it. Perhaps those who are fed from an early age on a steady diet of the prosaic will have more trouble distinguishing between the world as it is and as they might wish it to be. But here I speculate.

In any case, surely if one fed small children on a steady diet of stories like the one Mr. Anissimov tells about overcoming predation, they might come to believe such stories as uncritically as other children believe in Santa Claus. I can easily imagine their disappointment upon learning the truth about the immediate prospects of lions lying down with lambs. We’d have to be sure to explain to them very carefully and honestly that such a thing will only happen in a future, more or less distant, that they may or may not live to see — even if small children are not all that good at understanding about long-term futures and mortality.

But in light of their sad little faces it would be a hard parent indeed who would not go on to assure them that a fellow named Aubrey de Grey is working very hard to make sure that they will live very long lives indeed so that maybe they will see an end to animal predation after all! But because “treating them as persons” (in Mr. Anissimov’s phrase) means never telling children stories about things that don’t exist without being very clear that these things don’t exist, it probably wouldn’t mean much to them if we pointed out that Mr. de Grey looks somewhat like an ectomorphic version of a certain jolly (and immortal) elf:

Long Live the King

Aubrey de Grey, a great advocate of immortality, is not worried about “immortal tyrants” for three reasons. First, because tyrannicide will still be possible. Second, because the spread of democracy will preemptively forestall tyranny. Third, because one immortal tyrant may not be so bad as a succession of tyrants, where the next guy is worse than the last. Each argument shows characteristic limits of the transhumanist imagination.

As far as tyrannicide goes, like many transhumanists de Grey stops well short of thinking through the possible consequences of the change he proposes (we are all speculating here, but we can try to be thorough speculators). Remember that tyrants already tend to be fairly security-conscious, knowing that whatever happens they are still mortal. Why would the prospect of having power and immortality to lose make them less risk-averse? It seems rather more likely that the immortal tyrant will be extremely risk-averse and hence security-conscious, and therefore represent a very “hard target” for the assassin — who will have equally much to lose if his mission is unsuccessful. As it is, most people living under a tyrant just do their best to keep their heads down; tyrannicides are rare. Throw immortality into the mix, and they are likely to be rarer still.

As far as democracy goes, de Grey exhibits a confidence characteristic of transhumanists generally: he knows what the future holds. I would certainly join him in hoping that democracy is here to stay and increasingly the wave of the future, but I don’t know that to be true and I don’t know how anyone could know that to be true. The victory of democracy over tyranny in the twentieth century was a near thing. History tells us that good times readily give way to bad times. The belief that democracy represents a permanent cure to the problem of tyranny is facile, in the way that all easy confidence about the direction of history is facile.

Finally, de Grey falls back on the proposition ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’ — better Lenin than Stalin, to use his example. Leaving aside the question of how different the two leaders actually were, here de Grey is apparently trying to be hard-headed: It may not be all sweetness and light when we’re all immortal after all! Like many transhumanists, he is not very good at moral realism. You have to wonder: would the character of the immortal tyrant really stay the same over time? If, as the old maxim holds, absolute power corrupts absolutely, it would seem very much more likely that life under an immortal tyrant would get worse.

Finally, the problem is not really just tyranny, it is evil. In his Wisconsin State Fair speech of 1859, Lincoln notes, “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction!” Immortal evil means a world where the prideful will never be chastened, and the afflicted only consoled by giving up the very boon that de Grey promises us.

Scenes from the Singularity Summit

Here are a few images from this past weekend’s Singularity Summit, now that it has drawn to a close.

Here’s Aubrey de Grey autographing a book for a conferencegoer:

And de Grey wasn’t the only fellow sporting such ample facial hair; here’s an attendee:

These beard photos might make you wonder about the demographics of the conference. Judge for yourself:

Not that there were no women’s faces to be seen. The presentation by Juergen Schmidhuber gave us a big one:

There was only one woman presenter at the conference, Anna Salamon — although she got to speak both first and last. Here she is chatting with a conferencegoer.

And next, a shot of a woman attendee: Ilana Pregen, asking the question that Brad Templeton so brusquely dismissed.

Stay tuned for more conference wrap-up today.

On persuasion and saving the world

The penultimate item on the agenda of the 2009 Singularity Summit is a panel discussion, on no particular topic, involving Aubrey de GreyEliezer Yudkowsky, and Peter Thiel. The moderator is Michael Vassar of the Singularity Institute. And it is in that order, from left to right, that the four men appear in this picture:
From left: Aubrey de Grey, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Peter Thiel, and Michael Vassar.
Vassar starts with a question about when each of the panelists realized they wanted to change the world. Thiel says he knew when he was young he wanted to be an entrepreneur, and once he found out about the Singularity, it was just natural to get on board with it and “save the world.”
Yudkowsky says, “Once I realized there was a problem, it never occurred to me not to save the world,” with a shrug and arms in the air. (Very scattered laughter and applause. The audience seems uncomfortable with him. I am, anyway. As I noted earlier, everything the guy says seems to drip with condescension, even in this room filled with people overwhelmingly on his side. He keeps having to invent straw men to put down as he talks.)
De Grey says he knows exactly when he realized he wanted to make a difference. It was when he was young and wanted to be a great pianist, but then realized that he’d spend all this time practicing — and then what? He’d just be another pianist and there are tons of those. So he decided he wanted to change a world. Then later he discovered no one was looking at stopping aging and he was horrified, so he decided to do that.
The moderator asks what each man would be working on if not the Singularity. De Grey says other existential risks besides aging. Yudkowsky says studying human rationality. (If only he would. A Twitterer seems to share my sentiments.) But he says it’s not about doing what you’re good at or want to do, but what you need to do. Thiel would be studying competition. Competition can be extremely good, he says, but can go way too far, and crush people. He says it was better for him as a youth that computers got better than chess, because he realized he shouldn’t be stressing himself so much over being a super-achieving chess player.
They get into talking about achievement a bit more later, and Thiel says he thinks it’s really important for people to have ways to persevere that aren’t necessarily about public success.
De Grey highlights the importance of “embarrassing people” to make them realize how wrong they are. We’re all aware of some of the things people say in defense of aging, he says. Thiel says his own personal bias is that that’s not a good approach, because there are so many different ways of looking at things, people have so many different cultural and value systems, and there may be deep-seated reasons they believe what they do. He says he likes to try hard to explain his points to people.
The rest of the discussion is not especially noteworthy. A bit of celebrity worship and ego stroking. Peter Thiel easily takes the cake for charm on this stage.

Methuselah speaks

[Continuing coverage of the 2009 Singularity Summit in New York City.]
Aubrey de GreyThe conference’s last batch of talks is now underway, leading off with one of the Singularity movement’s most colorful characters, Aubrey de Grey, and is titled “The Singularity and the Methuselarity: Similarities and Differences.” (Abstract and bio.) De Grey has a stuffy British accent, long hair, and a beard down to his mid-chest. (I imagine this is meant to point to longevity in some way or another, though how precisely is difficult to discern. Is he showcasing how long he’s been alive? Or maybe trying to get us thinking about longevity by looking older than his forty-six years?)

De Grey is running through the standard gamut of life-extension medical technology. Gerontology, he says, is becoming an increasingly difficult and pointless pursuit as it attempts to treat the inevitable damage of old age. But if we reverse the damage, he says, we might be able to extend our biological age at a rate approaching the pace of time.
He goes through more math than is really necessary for us to get the concept that we can increase the rate at which we’re slowing aging. He mentions the concept of the Longevity Escape Velocity (LEV), which is the rate at which rejuvenation therapies must improve in order to stay one step ahead of aging. De Grey offers a somewhat-awkward neologism: the point at which we reach LEV, he says, is the “Methuselarity.” This is when we’re not quite immortal but we’re battling aging fast enough to be effectively immortal. (I have in mind an image of a cartoon character sprinting across a river and laying down the planks of a bridge in front of him as he goes.)
De Gray claims that we double our therapy rate every forty-two years, and that this is more than good enough if it’s kept up to reach LEV. Also, he notes, LEV decreases as our rejuvenation powers get better and better. He’s building a case here for maintenance technologies, like the massive cocktails of supplements and drugs that Kurzweil takes in hopes of slowing their aging.*
There are some interesting implications of his calculations. One of them, he notes, is that once we increase average longevity past the current maximum (about 120 years), the hardest part is over (since LEV will steadily decrease). This means that, he says, the first thousand-year-old will probably be not much more than twenty years older than the first 150-year-old. And the first million-year-old will probably only be a couple years older than the first thousand-year-old.
De Grey concludes by pointing out a tension between his project and the goals of some of the others in the room: He claims that after the Methuselarity, there will be no need to be uploaded. “Squishy stuff will be fine.” He notes, however, that this may significantly increase our risk aversion.
A questioner asks about his personal stake in the Singularity. De Grey says he’s not selfish because all of this travelling takes a toll on his health and longevity, and his work benefits others much more than himself (presumably, in an aggregate utilitarian sense that their combined increase in longevity outweighs his).
De Grey really breezed through that talk. The audience and the Twittersphere seemed to love it, though.
[One of de Grey’s slides.]
[* As originally written, this post stated that Aubrey de Grey is on a diet-supplement regime similar to the one Ray Kurzweil is on. Upon examination, we have no reason to think that is true; in fact, this interview seems to suggest that it is not. We have amended the text and apologize for the confusion. -ed.]

Gregory Benford on living longer

[Continuing coverage of the 2009 Singularity Summit in New York City.]

Next up next is Gregory Benford, the astrophysicist and science fiction author, on “Artificial Biological Selection for Longevity.” (Abstract and bio.)

Gregory BenfordHis talk is so far pretty straightforward: figuring out genes that cause disease and eliminating them, which he refers to as “re-tuning bad signals.” He’s talked about “Methuselah flies,” which have been selectively bred to live longer. These flies, he notes, do not have decreased quality of life as they live longer — they are having sex, he says, long past when the normal flies have died. “If that’s something that interests you,” he says, then you should pay attention to this. Lots of laughter and applause. This has been very common among speakers — making a “joke” about living longer or having better sex, which not really a joke, just a sort of glib affirmation of everyone’s aims here. It feels weirdly like a pep really or a political meeting.
Benford is talking about longevity studies, and notes that women have been living longer than men for several centuries. “Or at least, it seems longer,” says Benford. Much male applause. Take that, women!
Benford’s talk is over, and unless I missed something, he really didn’t say anything. He is chairman of the board of a company and is basically just hawking his gene sequencing services that test for your genetic defects. And then they give you nutritional supplements accordingly, to try to fend off whatever diseases you’re prone to. Here’s a slide discussing what his company does:
A questioner asks what the FDA has to say about this, since they don’t recognize aging as a disease (yet). Benford calls on David Rose to answer the question. Rose says the FDA is regulating health, but he says “everyone in this room is going to hell in a handbasket, not because of one or two genetic diseases,” but because we’re getting uniformly worse through aging. And that, he says, is what they’re trying to stop. Scattered but voracious applause and cheering. It’s that same phenomenon again — this weird rally attitude of yeah, you tell ’em! Who is it that they think they’re sticking it to? Or what?
Benford clarifies his talk in response to another question, saying that the goal of his company is to target specific genetic weaknesses using natural remedies. It’s not just aiming at everything, he says. This is meant to be in contrast, perhaps, to Kurzweil’s approach of taking massive general supplements.
And now on to Kurzweil again…