Longevity and Life Extension

I was interviewed about the likelihood that human lifespan can be extended indefinitely, any time soon. “When Will Life Expectancy Reach 200 Years? Aubrey de Grey and David Brin Disagree in Inteview” 

This is a topic I’ve covered in my article, Do We Really Want Immortality? Funny thing about these immortalist fellows.  Their calculations always seem to portray it happening in time to save them!  But in fact, the news from science seems to keep getting worse for them, not better… e.g. in recent insights into the vastly complex inner computation abilities of human neurons.  It is a case where I’ll be pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong.  But I feel grownups should focus on the guaranteed right bet… investing in our posterity.

To see how far back the fantasy goes, read about Gilgamesh and the Chinese First Emperor, who drank mercury in order to live forever… and died in his forties.  Or read the creepily familiar reasonings of very similar fanatics in Huxley’s brilliant (if slow) After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, a book that you find out on the very last page was actually a sci fi novel, all along!
This quasi-debate provoked a firestorm of controversy over on my Facebook page. One of my responses: I appreciate the enthusiasm of those urging me to BELIEVE(!) that tech-delivered eternal life is just around the bend. Indeed, I am told that BELIEVING(!) is essential to get there and that NOT believing might prevent it from happening. One fellow wrote:
“The power of your expectations is crucial. “

Um right. I get the same pitch from SETI zealots, who proclaim that detection of advanced alien civilizations will result in scientific leaps that may solve all our problems.

Now bear in mind that I am a scientist and sci fi author and I have explored concepts of both future and alien with far more eagerness, breadth and relentlessness that any hundred others you will ever meet. I want us funding ten times as much scientific research as now. I support SETI and have served on some of the commissions, and my name is on the first contact rolladexes. I know all the singularity guys and have listened to them for hours.

So why do I — and Vernor Vinge, the coiner of the term “tech singularity” react with sighs and eye-rolls to all this fervent “hossanah” shouting over salvation from above or an imminent Day of Transcendence, when Death shalt be no more and ye true believers will all be rewarded…

…because we’ve heard it all before. The terminology may be different, but the PSYCHOLOGY is still the same as in every tent show revival meeting across 6,000 years. It’s not just the substitution of anecdotes for actual capabilities. (Lots of stem cell papers, but not one regrown nervous system, yet.) Nor the coincidence that Salvation Day always calculates out to be just in time for YOU!

None of that offends me. Heckfire, I hope you guys turn out to be right. It might happen. I think simplistic notions are stymied by recent results showing how vastly complicated the internal processes of a neuron are — that the intracellular automata interactions and computations going on in there are FAR more complex than just unrolling an charting the incredibly simple and easy human genome……but sure. Let’s all hope. In fact, lots of stuff discovered along the way might be Earth-saving. Like cheap tissue culture meat. That’d be great

But no, I’ll tell you what bugs me. It’s the psychology. The incredibly self-centered, solipsistic, self-serving, “I-am Soooooo-darned-important!” narcissism of the fantasy is what bugs me. The hand-rubbing, chortling I-am-So-gonna-live-forever! zealotry that seems never to entail ANY of the virtues that we’ve long associated with adulthood.

Dig it, find me the extropian who understands how we stand on the shoulders of every generation of parents who tried to raise better kids than themselves, or who ever speaks about the beauty of that chain of pay-forward generosity, the most tragic-poetic tale ever told. Or the noble honor we’ll all have, even if we die, if we can only be one of the most important of the pay-forward generations. ALL I hear is paeans to how grand it will be to receive the end result. Never anything about the OBLIGATION that falls upon us, from that great chain.

I see the quest for individual immortality as kinda cool, tempting… and fundamentally *irrelevant* to the Great Project that I have inherited — that WE have inherited. To build and improve the Enlightenment Civilization of Ben Franklin and the others. To ensure we never slump back into darkness. To build something like Star Trek that deserves to move outward. To make kids who are better than us…

…so much better that THEY will have ideas about what’s wise and good and proper — wisdom that’s far beyond ours. (BTW, this is happening.) Building that posterity is a far greater challenge, yet one our ancestors were up to. It is a project that is far more noble, precedented and plausible than some grand leap to transcendent immortal suppersmart godhood. It is the project that should have YOUR loyalty. And if we happen to get some of the goodies while doing all that, well then fine.

=== Would Extended Life Bring Cowardice? ===

In a related article, Seth Shostak, of the SETI Institute (and my frequent nemesis on the issue of METI), speculates that living forever may be a bad idea: “Here’s the problem in a nutshell: if we extend human lifetimes a lot — to millennia, rather than centuries — all the small risks you heedlessly take every day will have a devastating cumulative impact. Most jobs will become unattractive, because just about any occupation becomes, eventually, a deadly occupation. We’ll automate nearly everything we can, and stay at home immersed in a virtual world.”  

Sigh.  Seth is a smart fellow who often has interesting insights. Alas, he also keeps making broadly absurd declarations about what will automatically happen… Advanced aliens WILL do this&such!  They can only beam messages THIS way! If discussions about METI (sending messages to space) are opened up to a broad spectrum of sages and the public, the result will be a clamp of silence on Earth that will last… Forever!!!  Whatever just-so story enters his head — that is the way the universe operates, without exception.

In this case, the counter-examples are blatant.  Rich, healthy, long-lived folk are the principal source of participants in extreme sports, in thrill seeking hobbies and attempts to break world records. Will dynamic immortals, plagued by ennui, really sit and twiddle their thumbs, just because Seth Shostak decides “logically” that they ought to?  Feh.

=== and Related Science Matters ===

A team from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow has developed a ‘pioneering’ lighting system that can kill hospital superbugs such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile. The technology decontaminates the air and exposes surfaces by bathing them in a narrow spectrum of visible-light wavelengths, known as HINS-light. It works by exciting molecules within the bacteria, which in turn produces ‘highly reactive’ chemical species that are lethal to it.  (Hey, didn’t I predict something like this in EARTH?)

Forty years after federal laws criminalized the use of psychedelics for non-medical purposes in FDA-regulated psychological and drug research, the study of these drugs is picking up again, and their use in treating certain patients shows promise. Researchers are finding that the drugs may help improve functioning and lift the spirits of those with cancer and other terminal diseases, as well help treat people with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result, the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration have eased regulations and also given approval to researchers at Johns Hopkins University and New York University’s Langone Medical Center to study the use of psilocybin to treat death anxiety among cancer patients.

In the first comprehensive global survey of temperature trends in major lakes, NASA researchers determined Earth’s largest lakes have warmed during the past 25 years in response to climate change.  ALSO… The past 12 months have been the warmest ever recorded by NASA. Until now, the hottest year on record has been 1998, when temperatures were pushed up by a strong El Nino – a warming event in the Pacific. This year saw a weaker El Nino, and that fizzled out to be replaced by a La Nina cooling event. So scientists might have expected this year’s temperatures to be substantially lower than 1998 – but they are not. Within the bounds of statistical error, the two years are likely to be the same.

On April 8, the networking hardware that routes traffic on the Internet got new marching orders: Requests for data from 15% of Internet addresses-includingDell.comYahoo.comMicrosoft.com, and U.S. government sites-were directed to go through China.

Recently NASA quietly moved its two long-grounded X-34 space planesfrom open storage at the space agency’s Dryden center – located on Edwards Air Force Base in California – to a test pilot school in the Mojave Desert. At the desert facility, the mid-’90s-vintage, robotic X-34s would be inspected to determine if they were capable of flying again. Provided they’re in flyable shape, it’s far more likely the space agency will make the X-34s available to private industry.


1 Comment

Filed under psychology, science

One response to “Longevity and Life Extension

  1. Matt

    Mr Brin, since joining WordPress I have read, liked and subscribed to many blogs – yours is the only one that I consistently read and enjoy!

    I whole heartedly agree with your view on Seth’s article about extended life. I believe it really does come down to something as simple as boredom.
    you’re 350, you’ve learnt every language, seen every sight, been working in the same job for 100 years. Of course you’re going to start trying to push the boundaries. You’re going to push them until you fail (and die). Seth really mustn’t understand the boredom of extended lives? Or maybe I under-estimate the banality of the modern human being?

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