Exploring the hidden politics of the quest to live forever – New Scientist

Posted: April 2, 2017 at 3:50 am

Transhumanists think that bodies are obsolete technology

Yves Gellie/picturetank

By Brendan Byrne

THERE was a lot of futuristic hype surrounding cryonics company Alcor. When Dublin-based journalist Mark OConnell travelled to its facility in Arizona, he found himself surrounded by corpses in an office park, between a tile showroom and a place called Big Ds Covering Supplies.

In his book To Be a Machine, new father OConnell invokes the twin spectres of death and child-bearing in an attempt to make sense of his subject but he also manages to be staggeringly funny. He explores the intersecting practices of body modification, cryonics, machine learning, whole brain emulation and AI disaster-forecasting.

The transhumanist world view, OConnell writes, casts our minds and bodies as obsolete technologies, outmoded formats in need of complete overhaul. He worries more about the collateral damage such a future will inflict, less on the world views of the supposed visionaries who supply the ideas. Not that the two can be separated.

Throughout the text, it is difficult to ignore Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire and an adviser to Donald Trump. While Thiel, who takes human growth hormone daily and has signed up for cryonic freezing, is not featured directly, the longevity start-ups he funded are, including Halcyon Molecular, 3Scan, MIRI, the Longevity Fund and Aubrey de Greys Methuselah Foundation.

Another pervasive presence is Nick Bostrom, an Oxford University philosopher. But while Thiel wants to extend life, Bostrom is worried about its eradication. He is best known for his 2014 book Superintelligence, which brought thought experiments about AI security to public notice. OConnell finds it disquieting to see the likes of Elon Musk and Bill Gates effusing about this book. These dire warnings about AI were coming from what seemed like the most unlikely of sources: not from Luddites or religious catastrophists, that is, but from the very people who seemed to most personify our cultures reverence for machines.

The race to achieve AI first will be tight, pushing corporations to disregard security

Musk and Thiels recent OpenAI project attempts to address such existential threats by freely disseminating its research. This is meant to encourage the rise ofmultiple AIs, whose balance of power will keep any non-benign ones off-balance. While Bostrom agrees that this plan will decrease the threat from a world-eating singleton, he worries that winning the AI race is incompatible with using any safety method that incurs a delay or limits performance. If basic information is made public, the race to achieve AI first will be tight, pushing corporations to disregard security.

Given Musks public admission that he is trying to move Trump to the left, rumours that Mark Zuckerberg is considering a presidential run and the fact that many users are deleting the Uber app after the company broke the taxi strike at JFK Airport, Silicon Valley can no longer claim to be apolitical. And there seems to be something about transhumanism that draws out reactionaries. As OConnell observes, in one sense the whole ethos of transhumanism is such a radical extrapolation of the classically American belief in self-betterment that it obliterates the idea of the self entirely. Its liberal humanism forced to the coldest outer limits of its own paradoxical implications.

Thiel is strangely for a former libertarian a planner. In his 2014 book Zero to One, Thiel writes of the dot-com bubble as both a peak of insanity and a peak of clarity: People looked into the future, saw how much valuable new technology we would need to get there safely and judged themselves capable of creating it. Depicting how private enterprise failed to bridge the gap between aspiration and realisation, Thiel seems here to be arguing for total mobilisation of the state.

Thiel favours taking huge risks to achieve miraculous results. He champions the government-funded space race and rails against incrementalisation in scientific and civilizational achievements. At the time of writing, Jim ONeill, the managing director of Thiels Mithril Capital, is one of Trumps main candidates to head the Food and Drug Administration. ONeill thinks that drugs should be approved not by safety but by efficacy. Thiel himself has criticised the FDA for being overly cautious, stating five years ago, I dont even know if you could get the polio vaccine approved today a sentiment shared by the president.

If the low-safety moonshot approach favoured by Thiel and the futurist frat houses OConnell describes is applied on a national level, and longevity research funded by a Silicon Valley billionaire does pay huge dividends, a new question emerges: immortality for whom?

Thiel is notoriously anti-competition, writing in Zero to One that only becoming a monopoly can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival, since competitive markets destroy profits. A monopoly price for life extension suggests a future in which we will all be in monetary debt to mortality, working forever to pay off our incoming years.

During a recent public lecture, genomics pioneer Craig Venter discussed his new company that aims to use genetic sequencing to provide proactive, preventative, predictive, personalised healthcare. According to Venter, 40 per cent of people who think they are healthy are not they have undiagnosed ailments such as tumours that have not metastasised or cardiovascular conditions. And he says his method can predict Alzheimers 20 years before its onset, and a cocktail of soon-to-be-marketed drugs can prevent it. Thanks to this $25,000 genome-physical, Venter himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer and operated on.

Can any imaginable public healthcare provision pay for such speculative treatments? Or will there be a widening gap between those who can afford to stay healthy and those who will have to shoulder early-onset penury in the face of their time-limited humanity?

In response to questions about such inequality, Thiel offers little comfort. Probably the most extreme form of inequality, he told The New Yorker six years ago, is between people who are alive and people who are dead.

Jonathan Swifts satirical letter A modest proposal responded to an equally cold-blooded ideology, in his day. But a field whose pioneers sport names like T. O. Morrow (Tom Bells 1990s soubriquet), FM-2030 and Max More demands something different from OConnell an unexpected, often funny effort of restraint.

This article appeared in print under the headline In debt to mortality

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