Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"What it Means for Society to Drastically Prolong Life" (panel two)

The second panel at today's conference was called "Happily Ever After? What it Means for Society to Drastically Prolong Life." The first speaker was Ted Fishman, author of the concisely-titled book Shock of Gray: The Aging of the World's Population and How it Pits Young Against Old, Child Against Parent, Worker Against Boss, Company Against Rival, and Nation Against Nation. The title actually tells you a lot about his talk, which seemed remarkably level-headed and even-handed for this conference.

Fishman didn't seem to have a dog in this fight, but just noted that life extension could play out a number of different ways, some rather good and others quite horrific. He worries in particular about social engineering projects, noting in particular that the Chinese went from encouraging families to have ten children under Mao to the notorious one-child policy. Fishman made this observation about global conflict: "If we think about the fight people are already willing to put up over the life they have, imagine if we were fighting to preserve much longer lives." I haven't read Fishman's book, but after his brief talk, I'm very interested to do so.

Many of the conference speakers commented on how the population is aging at a staggering rate, with the fraction of the population over age 65 increasing from less than a tenth a few decades ago to the territory of a quarter or a third in the near future. Which reminds me of a perennial, basic problem for transhumanists and proponents of radical life extension: ostensibly, they should be celebrating this great gain in long life. Yet their ideology is, almost without exception, based upon a fetishization of youth and a loathing of old age. There's a weird sense in which getting closer to their goal actually gets them further away. Which may be part of why today, at the greatest point for longevity in human history, we have a conference panel that refers to a "war on dying" and a "battle against aging." As I've noted before, transhumanists paradoxically are only likely to feel more desperate and more martial as they get more of what they want. One wonders what they are liable to do as that sense of desperation increases.


Ted Fishman and Jason Furman.

Speaking next was Jason Furman, Deputy Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, and Deputy Director of the National Economic Council. He gave a wonky, mile-high analysis, and noted among other things that the Obama administration's entire contingency plans for what we would do if the population started living to 150 or 200 consists entirely of Furman's own thoughts on this in preparing for the conference over the last few days. I think I actually find this more reassuring than not.

Next up was S. Jay Olshansky, a demographer, frequent commentator on aging issues, and professor of epidemiology at UI-Chicago. Olshansky said that with life expectancy, you reach a point of diminishing returns: when you keep putting in the same amount of effort, you get less and less for it, which is why we've been stuck with life expectancy in the 75/80 range for a while. He noted that even if we completely cure cancer, we would only gain 3-3.5 years in life expectancy; for heart disease, 4 years; for both together, less than the combined 7 years.

Life extension should not be our goal, Olshansky argued; health extension should be. If we radically extend life, we may push into the region of life spans where we see types of ailments and degenerative diseases that are far worse than we've seen today. We may get to a point, that is, where the tradeoff is worse. But if we delay the aging mechanisms entirely, our situation could be much better: a three-year delay in the biological onset of aging would be the equivalent to curing cancer. And he thinks a seven-year delay is possible. Olshansky's presentation seemed to be the most sensible, levelheaded, practical-minded one here — although I am skeptical about the notion that we will find horrible new degenerative diseases if we push up the life span, unless it's well past the range that many people are already living now.

After Olshansky, Arizona State University professor Jason Robert (pronounced ro-BAIR) gave a weirdly rambling exposé of how he recently lost a hundred pounds, won $4,000 at a slot machine, and bought a sweet bike. (I'm not making this up. I have no idea what the connection to anything was, though he tried to explain it later.) Robert offered a whirlwind tour of the potential ethical issues related to radical life extension — changes in the social structure chiefly, changes in distributive justice, and changes in human flourishing. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to have time enough to really go into any of these issues.

In his presentation, Robert divided the bioethics world into shiny-eyed bio-libertarians, naming Ron Bailey as an example, and set up quite a pair of straw men in Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass as bio-Luddites who don't like any technology. These are caricatures of all three men. But Robert offered these caricatures so he could set himself up as the reasonable moderate, offering a "liberal" approach, whereby people can get together to discuss different understandings of the good, and how those understandings should lead us to develop new technologies. Which is in fact just the idea behind Leon Kass's approach (and, I think, is implicit in Fukuyama's and Bailey's expressions of their own ideas of the good).

The Q&A session following this panel was mostly unremarkable, except for one speech by Jay Olshansky. He said he was very disturbed by a conversation he was part of the evening before the conference — a conversation among the panelists over dinner last night. As Olshansky related it, talk of life extension and aging populations very quickly gave way to talk of health-care rationing and killing off the elderly to make way for the young. He didn't name names, and nobody stepped up to confirm or refute what he said — in fact, it wasn't mentioned again.

NIH director Francis Collins had to go testify on Capitol Hill, so the keynote presentation was canceled. So that's all she wrote. For some alternate coverage, delivered with more of an air of neutrality and picking up on various details I missed, check out James Hughes's post on the conference.

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.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Calling All Monoliths

Back in the eighteenth century, there was a good deal of interest in creating automata, and, like today, it signaled a shifting understanding of the human. Two major tech blogs have recently featured a couple of such projects coming out of Japan. I know between little and nothing about the technical strengths and weaknesses of these robots, or the purposes they are designed to serve. But as an outside observer, I found the contrast between them, and the reactions to them, instructive.


Take the first project, HRP-4C. It was gutsy of its creators to surround it with real-if-not-very-good dancers — but it was right on the line between gutsy and foolhardy, and I thought it stayed mostly on the foolhardy side. The Gizmodo blogger, on the other hand, found it “pretty amazing.” I’m not sure what they are seeing: its movements seem wooden and jerky, not that far advanced over the Disney audio-animatronics that I recall from my youth. And its voice? If we start from the fact that most pop music these days seems designed to make the singer sound synthetic in one way or another, it sounds great. But in any case, “amazing” suggests a pretty low bar.


Actroid-F is a different kettle of fish. Its abilities are more limited than HRP-4C’s, to be sure. But there are a few moments in the video where, if you had isolated them and told me it was an actress pretending to be a robot and not doing that well, I think I would have believed you. That Engadget headlined its post “Actroid-F: the angel of death robot coming to a hospital near you” makes me think that maybe there is something to the “uncanny valley” after all. (Full disclosure: I’m still rooting for some robotic version of Emily.)

It is only to be expected that in the not-so-distant future, these efforts will look as quaint as do the automata of the eighteenth century. But why, exactly? I can only imagine that our transhumanist friends must be somewhat conflicted about these humanoid robots. On one hand, they represent useful progress in areas that will help open doors to human redesign. But on the other hand, how shortsighted it must seem to spend so much effort on replicating those poorly designed meat machines we want to get rid of!

Or perhaps, on that ever-so-desirable third hand, these robots represent transitional forms in a process of making us comfortable working with our evolutionary successors. If transhumanists think we can climb out of the uncanny valley and create robots only an expert can appreciate as such (as in Blade Runner), they might consider those robots to be something like our monolith-transformed hominid ancestors in the opening sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like those apes who haven’t seen the monolith, the humans living among these familiar looking beings may not appreciate the extent to which they are witnessing the dawn of some very new age — and as a result might soon get their heads bashed in. But I forgot — we will develop friendly AI.

The Dawn of Man