Sunday, December 10

Since you asked: The technology billionaires aiming to disrupt death



I take it you are not sold on the idea that death, just like the horse and cart, might one day be disrupted with the help of some innovative engineering?

No. But I have noticed that there’s been a rise in the number of modern day tech messiahs claiming they hold the secret to eternal life.

Back in my day we used to call these characters charlatans. But today I understand they are called “transhumanists”. And they come extremely well funded.

So you don’t believe in the science of longevity?

I have no problem with the science of longevity. I have a problem with those that in my view dish out false hope to people and conflate mysticism with science.

Like Ray Kurzweil?

You mean the respected scientist, futurist and entrepreneur, currently employed by Google, who has convinced himself and many others that by 2045 technology will probably have surpassed humanity’s ability to control or understand it.

At that point we, the lowly meat sacks, will be faced with one of two choices: embrace the cybernetic revolution by joining with the machines, thus transcending mortality and the limits of human intellect; or expose ourselves to the chance of an extinction-level event.

Fair enough. Ten years ago, Kurzweil’s theories would have fallen on the fringes of accepted scientific theory. But science may be catching up more quickly than you think. Albeit more on a biotech front than on the cybernetic one.

I am waiting for examples

How about the work of Aubrey de Grey, gerontologist and co-founder of the California-based Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (Sens) Foundation. He recently stated that, based on his research, there is an 80 per cent chance a person alive today will be able to escape old age and ill-health indefinitely.

Ah, the path towards the discovery of the fabled philosopher’s stone?

He prefers to describe it as “longevity escape velocity”, something that involves the targeting and killing off those cells in the body that have lost their ability to divide, allowing healthy cells to replenish tissue in their place. The aim is to keep old age at bay, at least until the big leap in rejuvenation technology hits the market. Although, based on his own work, Mr de Grey reckons that within six to eight years we will find a way to delay the ageing process in 60 year olds so that they do not feel 60 until they are actually 90.

And how old is he, exactly?

He’s 51, which puts him within the reach of his own immortality prediction.

And what if it turns out that those estimates have been biased by wishful thinking?

He, along with a number of other technologists, claims we may be able to cheat mortality by preserving our consciousness in a digital format instead.

Hang on, are these predictions being made by scientists or techies?

It is a fine distinction. For now, at least, it does seem that a lot of the money being directed into longevity research is coming from a group of technology billionaires who are not getting any younger.

Tech titans like Peter Thiel and Larry Ellison?

Exactly. Though the transhumanism movement is much bigger than that. Notable supporters include Nick Bostrom, a philosopher, Ramez Naam, computer scientist and science fiction writer,Zoltan Istvan, a writer and philosopher, and Dmitry Itskov, a Russian billionaire. There is even a Transhumanist political party — both in the US and UK.

That seems to be mainly a list of businessmen, computer scientists, philosophers and other wishful thinkers.

The movement has wealthy critics. Bill Gates, for example, commented earlier this year that it seems pretty egocentric to be funding projects for some to live longer while we still have malaria and tuberculosis in the world.

And that presumably does not scratch the surface of the worrisome ethics?

You are right. Many are concerned about the impact that extended longevity might have on global demographics and resources, specifically our capacity to keep having children. There is also the question of whether it should be up to a handful of billionaires to be making moves that affect society in this regard.

Indeed. What is the price society as a whole must pay so a few can live forever?

You might also want to ask, who wants to live forever anyway?