Immortality, pro and con

Two popular articles on radical life extension have recently been making the rounds — dueling articles, in a sense, in dueling publications.
Gustav Klimt, The Tree of LifeFirst, Sonia Arrison, H+/World Transhumanist Association board member and one of the founders of Singularity University, has an article in the Wall Street Journal on longevity, presumably a snippetized version of her upcoming book 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith. The article is a lengthy litany of the same basic longevity claims that have been made for years — worms, rats, and monkeys on restricted diets, social-science data about changes in marriage and Social Security if lifespans were greatly extended, etc. — followed by an ethical analysis on the subject. The analysis does not consider whether any of the aforementioned potential social changes — for instance, increased divorce rates (perhaps intentionally facilitated by “sunset clauses” in marriages) and periods of living alone, which even social scientists acknowledge as harmful to individual and social metrics of wellbeing — could be disruptive or otherwise bad. In fact, the crux of the ethical analysis at the end seems to be: “Arguments against life extension are often simply an appeal to the status quo.” Hmm. Could arguments for life extension then often simply be an appeal against the status quo? Perhaps, then, an ethical analysis either way deserves a bit more fleshing out than the 105 words of meditation Arrison expends upon it here. Maybe that is in her book, but I wouldn’t say this article promises much for it.On the other side, a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Stephen Cave (also author of the forthcoming book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization) discusses the premise of the TV show Torchwood: Miracle Day (the new fourth season of the British TV show Torchwood), in which all of humanity suddenly becomes immortal. This piece is much more philosophically serious. But it makes an old and on its own rather inadequate argument: “our cultural, philosophical and religious systems exist to promise us immortality,” and so we need death to motivate our value systems and our personal drives to action. Cave also adds in a novel sprinkling of social-scientific research to his article to give it a sheen of scientific authority. Still, the force of his argument is tantamount to trying to make lemonade out of existential despair. At any rate, as wild as immortality premises inherently go, this one is particularly outlandish; a more serious inquiry would look at a gradual scenario like the one in Arrison’s article, in which we can watch the social fabric progressively unweaving (or uplifting — your mileage may vary).UPDATE: This post has been corrected to reflect that Torchwood: Miracle Day is not a new TV series in its own right, but a new season of the existing British TV show Torchwood.

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.

Never Say Die! (an event)

Today I’m at a conference in Washington, DC, called “Never Say Die: A Future Tense Event,” held at the New America Foundation (NAF) and hosted by NAF and Arizona State University, with Slate as a media partner. (The link above has a live feed of the conference.) Among the speakers and panelists scheduled today are Aubrey de Grey, the life-extension researcher and advocate, Ted Fishman, author of Shock of Gray, and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. Slate is providing two moderators, in the persons of Will Saletan and Emily Yoffe (a.k.a. Dear Prudence). I’ll be providing bloggy coverage.
Here’s the description of the conference:
Will 250 be the new 100 in the foreseeable future? Human life expectancy has made steady gains over the last two centuries, and anti-aging scientists seeking to spare human cells and DNA from the corrosion once deemed inevitable are eager to trigger a radical extension in our life spans. How likely is such a spike? And how desirable is it to live to be a quarter of a millennium? Will life-extending scientific breakthroughs translate into an interminable twilight for many, or will they also postpone aging?
Please join us to learn about the state of life-extending research, and to ponder some of the wrenching philosophical, societal and actuarial (et tu, Social Security?) questions raised by the efforts to radically grow life expectancy.

The more you know… (about radical life extension)

Keep your eyes peeled when you’re using Hulu and Vimeo these days and you may notice the latest step in the life-extension crowd’s attempt to march into the mainstream. The Methuselah Foundation has created four “public service announcements” that are now in rotation on the two sites.
The four spots are here, here, here, and here.
NOTE: The original ending to this post has been removed, as it referred to possibly misleading identifying details from a previous post, which have also been removed. See the postscript to that post here.

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.

The problem with defending death

Todd May has a short essay on death at the New York Times‘s Happy Days blog. The argument is age-old (so to speak), but he reiterates it in a concise, compelling, and beautiful way:

Immortality lasts a long time. It is not for nothing that in his story “The Immortal” Jorge Luis Borges pictures the immortal characters as unconcerned with their lives or their surroundings. Once you’ve followed your passion — playing the saxophone, loving men or women, traveling, writing poetry — for, say, 10,000 years, it will likely begin to lose its grip. There may be more to say or to do than anyone can ever accomplish. But each of us develops particular interests, engages in particular pursuits. When we have been at them long enough, we are likely to find ourselves just filling time. In the case of immortality, an inexhaustible period of time.
And when there is always time for everything, there is no urgency for anything. It may well be that life is not long enough. But it is equally true that a life without limits would lose the beauty of its moments. It would become boring, but more deeply it would become shapeless. Just one damn thing after another.
This is the paradox death imposes upon us: it grants us the possibility of a meaningful life even as it takes it away. It gives us the promise of each moment, even as it threatens to steal that moment, or at least reminds us that some time our moments will be gone. It allows each moment to insist upon itself, because there are only a limited number of them. And none of us knows how many.
Well put. But wouldn’t Todd May’s argument about the importance of omnipresent death in shaping our lives become somewhat twisted and strained if it actually were possible to halt aging (as life extension advocates believe will someday be possible)? It is one thing to argue for the wisdom of accepting death when it is an inevitability. But it would be very different to make a positive case for death when it is no longer inevitable.
In his blog post, May notes that “it is precisely because we cannot control when we will die, and know only that we will, that we can look upon our lives with the seriousness they merit.” But, although we can already decide to die if we so choose, might it not be much harder to look upon our lives with the same seriousness if we had to control when we died? Whatever the choice, our lives would take on a farcical quality, either from the emptiness of living without limits or the tragic absurdity of choosing to die rather than face that prospect.
(Hat tip: Brian Boyd)
[Image: “Q” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, portrayed by John de Lancie]

The Myth of Libertarian Enhancement, Cont’d

Our recent post about libertarian enhancement has received some pushback. For example, commenter Kurt9 says he believes that “the highest moral value in the universe is to pursue one’s own happiness and love of life.” (He says that anyone who disagrees with him is engaging in “sophistry for totalitarianism” — his attempt at peremptorily ending all debate.) For Kurt9, a libertarian, pursuing happiness and love-of-life means super-longevity: “I want radical life extension (multiple 1000 year life span). I want to cure aging and get free of it. I fail to see why you should have a problem with this.”
This gives us another opportunity to discuss libertarianism and transhumanism. Consider: If he were to pursue radical life extension in strict accordance with libertarian principles, he would have to do so free from restrictions imposed by others and without in turn restricting the choices of others. This might be possible if he were a brilliant scientist living out in a solitary shack in the woods without contact with human civilization.
“A Hunstman and Dogs” by Winslow Homer. Courtesy WorldVisitGuide.But living alone in a shack isn’t usually conducive to major medical advances. The actual realization of our commenter Kurt9’s dream would require a society in which thousand-year lifespans were not just attainable but available to guys like him. That would be a society very different from our own. To put it simply, consider all the social, cultural, and economic changes that accompanied the doubling of human life expectancy over the last century and a half, and imagine the turmoil that would be involved in suddenly adding another nine centuries to the lifespan. The changes involved would be radical, complex, far from uniformly good or bad, and extremely difficult to predict beforehand.
This actually hints at a deeper truth connected to how we think about the future. All human beings live in a particular time and place. Moreover, all our choices and our ways of life presuppose a particular society, culture, and set of institutions in which they can be realized. However much fun it might be for fiction or for a thought experiment, in real life it makes no sense to talk about how “the world as it is now” will be different from “the world as it is now with the single modification that one individual can choose to live for a thousand years.” It is a meaningless proposition, as much a practical absurdity as it would be for an ancient Roman to insist that it concerns no one else if he wants to invent and drive an automobile.
The commenter Kurt9 also says that “We have no desire to impose our dreams and choices on other[s]. We seek only the freedom to do our own thing.”
This libertarian “freedom to do our own thing” implies that each individual should be equally free to pursue his or her chosen way of life no matter what that choice is, so long as no one else is harmed. Yet as much as you might not want to impose your own choices on others, it is an inescapable fact of life that our choices do impinge and often impose on others. Consider the old saw about liberty — that your freedom to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose. But in real life, a guy flailing around with clenched fists is going to alter the behavior of everyone in sight. Or, to pick a different example, my neighbor’s choice to mine coal in his backyard obtrudes upon my freedom to choose to live in a quiet neighborhood with unpolluted groundwater and high property values. Or, to offer an example more relevant to some of our readers, your personal choice to develop an artificial intelligence that can write useful computer programs will impinge on my freedom to choose to enjoy a fulfilling and lucrative career as a computer programmer.
Libertarian transhumanists don’t really seem to be interested in protecting each individual’s equal freedom to do and be what he wants. Rather, they are interested in defending their own prerogatives to pursue their particular choices to enhance themselves without any cumbrance or criticism. But even this narrower and more solipsistic version of libertarianism will ultimately have to contend with the fact that as any given individuals gain powers — particularly powers of the sort that would be available to hypothetical posthumans — they will gain also the ability to exercise those powers in spite of and over others individuals in ways that will be far more difficult to prevent, stop, or even detect.
Liberty, rightly understood, does need to be defended. But we must also recognize that the image of liberty that some libertarians hold — epitomized by the iconic rugged frontiersman — depends on a self-reliance and self-constitution that are quite alien to today’s world. We are now more socially, politically, and technologically enmeshed than ever before. And while government tyranny remains a serious concern, there are other kinds of tyranny — including freely-chosen technological tyranny — that we should remain vigilant against.

The economics of magic pills: Questions for Methuselists

In its 2003 report Beyond Therapy (discussed in a symposium in the Winter 2004 New Atlantis), the President’s Council on Bioethics concludes that “the more fundamental ethical questions about taking biotechnology ‘beyond therapy’ concern not equality of access, but the goodness or badness of the things being offered and the wisdom of pursuing our purposes by such means.” That is certainly right, and it is why this blog chiefly focuses on the deeper questions related to the human meaning of our technological aspirations. That said, the question of equality of access is still worth considering, not least because it is one of the few ethical questions considered legitimate by many transhumanists, and so it might provide some common ground for discussion.

In the New York Times, the economist Greg Mankiw, while discussing health care, offers a fascinating thought experiment that sheds some light on the issue of access:

Imagine that someone invented a pill even better than the one I take. Let’s call it the Dorian Gray pill, after the Oscar Wilde character. Every day that you take the Dorian Gray, you will not die, get sick, or even age. Absolutely guaranteed. The catch? A year’s supply costs $150,000.

Anyone who is able to afford this new treatment can live forever. Certainly, Bill Gates can afford it. Most likely, thousands of upper-income Americans would gladly shell out $150,000 a year for immortality.

Most Americans, however, would not be so lucky. Because the price of these new pills well exceeds average income, it would be impossible to provide them for everyone, even if all the economy’s resources were devoted to producing Dorian Gray tablets.

The standard transhumanist response to this problem is voiced by Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity Is Near: “Drugs are essentially an information technology, and we see the same doubling of price-performance each year as we do with other forms of information technology such as computers, communications, and DNA base-pair sequencing”; because of that exponential growth, “all of these technologies quickly become so inexpensive as to become almost free.”

Though my cell phone bill begs to differ, Kurzweil’s point may well be true. And yet if that were the whole picture, we might expect one of the defining trends of the past half century to have been the steady decline in the cost of health care. Instead, as Mankiw notes:

These questions may seem the stuff of science fiction, but they are not so distant from those lurking in the background of today’s health care debate. Despite all the talk about waste and abuse in our health system (which no doubt exists to some degree), the main driver of increasing health care costs is advances in medical technology. The medical profession is always figuring out new ways to prolong and enhance life, and that is a good thing, but those new technologies do not come cheap. For each new treatment, we have to figure out if it is worth the price, and who is going to get it.

However quickly the costs for a given set of medical technologies falls, the rate at which expensive new technologies are developed grows even faster — as, more significantly, does our demand for them. In the case of medicine, what begins as a miraculous cure comes in time to be expected as routine, and eventually even to be considered a right (think of organ transplantation, for example). What Kurzweil and the like fail to grasp is that, absent some wise guiding principles about the purpose of our biotechnical power, as we gain more of it we paradoxically become less satisfied with it and only demand more still.

But if our biotechnical powers were to grow to the point that “defeat” of death truly seemed imminent, the demand for medicine would only grow with it. The advocates of radical life extension already believe death to be a tragedy that inflicts incalculable misery. That increased demand would only magnify the perceived injustice of death (why must my loved one die, when So-and-So, by surviving one year more, can live forever?), and could create such a sense of urgency that desperate measures — demeaning research, economy-endangering spending — would seem justified.

For believers in the technological convulsion of the Singularity, the question of access and distribution is even more pointed, since the gap between the powers of the post-Singularity “haves” and “have-nots” would dwarf present-day inequality — and the “haves” might well want to keep the upper hand. To paraphrase the Shadow, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of posthumanity?”

(Hat tip: David Clift-Reaves via Marginal Revolution.)

[Photo credit: Flickr user e-magic]

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.]