I have been off the web for a few days, so yesterday I was catching up on my reading. Three articles I read that had to do with potential “improvements” in the human condition caught my eye. Two of them were in the January 11th New York Times Magazine section: the cover story by Gareth Cook, entitled Mind Games (here), and an article by Robin Henig, entitled Death by Robot (here). The third article was the cover story in the January 9th issue of the Palo Alto Weekly, written by Joshua Alvarez and entitled After the Last Death (it is here). The first describes a heroic and clever attempt to produce a complete map of the connections between the neurons in a human mind. The second deals with the extent that robots built to do such tasks as fight in wars and take care of the sick can and should make moral choices. The third is concerned with aging and the length of the human life span — if you would, engineering humans.
We are on a major run on technological sophistication and application due to the rapid increase in the power of digital software and hardware, with its attendant ability to gather and reduce huge amounts of data, combined with the resources put into research, development, and company start ups because of the potential to make money. This has resulted in great optimism about the future, especially on the part of people who have become wealthy and famous by riding this wave. But contrary to the wishes of technological determinists, the outputs of technology are not always good for society.
I have always been a believer in a long ago book entitled Normal Accidents, by Charles Perrow, that claims that there will always be accidents in complex systems, and that if we can tolerate the cost of them (airplane crashes) we should go ahead with the system, but if we cannot tolerate the cost (nuclear warheads on intercontinental missiles) we should not build the system—or at least build it very cautiously, and think hard about possible failures as we do so. We humans are a complex system we should think hard about playing God with our species, at least until we prove that we can cure such trivial problems as automobile traffic jams.
The Gareth Cook article mentioned above is about an obviously brilliant scientist named Sebastian Seung, who is one of a group of people who believe that our memory is made up of interconnections between neurons, and if we could understand the process and the result, we would have the contents in the mind (information, emotions, values, etc.) in the form of data. In other words we would know everything there. Granted this is a huge project, but Seung believes it can be done over a few lifetimes, and has clever ways of using games to encourage massive numbers of people to be involved in the process. But shouldn’t we be thinking about what that might mean, and what we might use it for? How would we “read” this map. Who would do so? It is great science, and would give us great insight into the mind, providing we could figure out how to read it. And this insight would probably lead to major new insights on treatments for unacceptable behavior and brain diseases, and human brainpower, But probably people would also consider it a road to a new form of mind control, surveillance, or building a super-human species (silicon life?). Good? Bad?
As to moral choices by robots, should they make them? Some people might like their “care robot” to shut off life support at a certain point. Some would definitely not. Should military robots make decisions about how much “collateral damage” to cause?
And then there is the question of life span. The Palo Alto Weekly article contains comments by people involved in improving the health and happiness of aging people, obviously a topic that will become even hotter as the hordes of outspoken Boomers continue to become older (interesting that this is the “Don’t trust anyone over 30” generation, who resented being dominated by people in the age group they now populate). Some of the people interviewed in this last article feel that the present life span will continue to slowly increase because of better knowledge about living and eating well, but this is good providing that medical care is accessible by all, and that treatments for age-related diseases such as dementia, diabetes, and cancer continue to improve.
But a couple of the people interviewed are firmly convinced that we willand should learn to radically increase our life span. One of them, Joon Yun, a physician who is now president of Palo Alto Investors, a Venture Capital firm.is behind the Palo Alto Longevity Prize, a $1 million science competition aimed at ending aging by improving the body’s ability to restore itself as it becomes older. He speaks of a 150 year life span. But according to the article, he believes that it is theoretically possibly to attain a 1,000 year life span, or even more, by eliminating natural aging and death from internal causes biy learning to maintin the ability of the body to repair itself that it has in the early years. As he states, “We’ve got the technology to hack the aging code and end aging. Question is not “if” but “when” we want it to happen”.
In fact, there is an increasing amount of activity in the San Francisco Bay area in longevity (Ellison Medical Foundation, Calico (Google), AbbVie, Buck Institute). But drastically increasing life span is an incredibly disruptive concept, socially, and should receive quite a bit of thought as well as research money. There are many downsides. What would happen to populations, motivations, economies? Would you have liked to be under the thumb of your parents more years? Would you like the wealthy to have time to accumulate even more money to influence politics? Would you really like to put in the work to build a completely new or several careers (since you would be pretty bored with your present one)? Would you like even more years to “keep up with the kids”?
Many of my friends are dying these days from what used to be called old age. Their last years are not often wonderful. In comparison, my father and grandfather’s instant deaths from massive heart attacks while still wellequipped with their mental and physical facilities have a certain attraction. If life span is radically lengthened, such aging factors as dementia and frailty need to be dealt with— perhaps first.
I personally vote with the people in the Palo Alto Weekly article who went with the “work-hard, exercise, have fun, eat right, and don’t try to live forever, because you won’t” philosophies. We are wired not to want to die, but we all will, and the length of life is more a matter of what is in our memories than how many days have passed.
I differ from some of my friends, in that I don’t exercise enough and probably eat and drink too much to live as long as I might. But as one of my physician friends (who does not like repetitive exercise, but is in his 90’s and is in great mental and physical shape) calculated, an hour a day exercise every other day in a gym for 50 years is 9,125 hours, or 1,140 eight- hour days, 0r 228 forty- hour weeks, or the equivalent of 4-1/2 years of digging ditches as a union member, which is a lot of potential play time and doesn’t guarantee one would live 4-1/2 years longer. And eating and drinking is fun.
And finally, I think it will be a while before we “hack the code”. Decoding the human genome has proven to be only the tip of the iceberg.