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