Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Sunday, October 4, 2009

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.]

5 comments:

  1. "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?"

    Or maybe he just likes his beard.

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  2. I met Aubrey a couple of times - I was not aware that he is taking "massive cocktails of supplements and drugs". Do you have anything on which you base this claim? (I know Ray Kurzweil is taking these things)

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  3. Excellent point, Nenad — thanks for bringing it to our attention. We have removed that reference from the post, and added a postscript noting the change. Our apologies for the mistake.

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  4. The maintenance technologies proposed by de Grey are in fact absolutely nothing like taking supplements a la Kurzweil, and your statement to that effect is wrong and misleading.

    At best supplements - and more sophisticated metabolic manipulations via designed drugs - can only slow down the rate at which damage accumulates in our biochemistry due to the inherent nature of the operation of our biochemistry. e.g. damage to mitochondrial DNA caused by mitochondrially-generated free radicals.

    Frankly I'm dubious about the supplements. When you see studies showing commonly available supplements producing 30% gains in mouse longevity like the most recent engineered compounds or genetic manipulations can, then I'm interested. But those studies don't exist.

    What de Grey proposes is to repair or reverse the damage that causes aging - an approach which (a) is likely to be less complex to develop than safe methods of effectively slowing the rate of damage accumulation, and (b) is much more valuable to those already made old by damage.

    Slowing aging is pretty much a wash for the elderly, but repairing aging is a big deal. The slow-moving debate within the scientific community as to whether to focus on slowing aging via metabolic manipulation or whether to follow the path of repair is the debate that will determine how long we all live. No joke.

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  5. @Moot: I was mostly being facetious. I'm sure he does like his beard, though that possibility is perfectly compatible with the ones I was raising. (Maybe he likes it for those reasons.)

    @Reason: Thanks for this important added information to the post. I certainly didn't mean to be misleading, though you're quite right that de Grey was making the case for methods that repair damage instead of merely slowing it.

    Still, at a higher level, he was also making the case for why slowing aging is actually much more likely to lead to the Singularity than more difficult approaches like uploading our minds. Even though he explicitly said that Kurzweil-style supplements will only get us so far, the case he laid out for anti-aging innovations was actually lending support to anti-aging technologies in general. I believe he said that drugs that slow damage are important in the short term because they allow us to live until we've got the much more effective drugs that actually reverse damage.

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