Accelerating Future Transhumanism, AI, nanotech, the Singularity, and extinction risk.


Greg Fish on Life Extension

Greg Fish, whose past posts on transhumanism have mainly appeared to be about why he doesn't like mind uploading and why we need to copy the human brain to the last neurotransmitter to create AI, recently defended the merit of life extension against Paul Carr.

Paul's post at TechCrunch has some funny bits:

Oh yes, go to any Silicon Valley party right now and you'll find a scrawny huddle in the corner discussing the science of living forever: a topic that's gone from fringe to hot to cliche in -- ironically -- less time that it takes a tsetse fly to start getting interested in girls. But then why wouldn't it when the science of ageing touches on so many valley obsessions?

I am really enjoying the recent media against life extension. The arguments just aren't persuasive. Arguments against LE filled with holes are an essential complement of solid arguments in favor of LE.


Neil S. Greenspan: Hogwash About the Singularity is Here

Huffington Post has had a lot of articles about the Singularity lately. The most recent one is "Hogwash About the Singularity is Here" by Neil S. Greenspan, a Cleveland immunologist.

The article puts forward the usual "complexity of biology" and "exponential growth cannot continue forever" criticisms of Kurzweil's predictions. Most of these criticisms have already been addressed by Kurzweil at the end of his last book. I think there are good points on both sides, but critics like Greenspan are ultimately being too pessimistic.

What I find interesting in articles like this are not the specific criticisms, which I've heard many times before and somewhat agree with, but the moral valence and indignation present in the critique. Biologists like Greenspan are angry that Kurzweil is, in their view, glossing over the complexity of biology. The most morally valent part of the article are the comments, actually. I'm going to skip looking at the moral part this time, and look closer at a scientific statement that Greenspan makes.

Greenspan goes directly after "nanobots" in one part:

There is no basis at present for believing that medical interventions based on the postulated but not-yet-realized nanobots, often-invoked by Singularity enthusiasts for the resolution of all medical threats and malfunctions, will perform their duties without trade-offs and side-effects like those associated with every other therapeutic agent ever employed.

One could argue this, but I'll bet that the reason why Greenspan sees "no basis" is that he knows next to nothing about the postulated "nanobots" he is criticizing. Note how his argument is based simply on the generalization that there are "trade-offs and side-effects" with every therapeutic agent. This is true, but trivial. Some of the trade-offs are quite modest. Am I really trading much by letting my skin get pricked by a needle to inoculate me against a deadly disease? Is the recent rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria really all that huge of a price to pay given the suffering that antibiotics have alleviated in the more than half-century since they started to be mass produced? Is using a condom for casual sex really that much of a bad tradeoff, given what our ancestors had to deal with without them?

I'm not going after the specific content of Greenspan's criticism here so much as the worldview it represents: that things will always be roughly the same in medicine as they are now. That's the default view of the future of medicine that non-specialists, like elementary school teachers, conveyed to me while I was growing up. Fortunately, I eventually met people working in biotechnology who said that the progress mankind has achieved so far in medicine is quite primitive in comparison to what we will one day achieve. Today's medicine will be viewed as medieval from the perspective of the future.

The fact that nanobots are indeed relied upon for the more extreme regeneration, life extension, and disease prevention scenarios does show a strong potential point of failure for the transhumanist vision. If nanobots turn out to be impossible, does that mean we will be stuck with the same old medicine forever? Not likely, because there are a variety of other approaches and techniques for fine-grained intervention in human biology that do not depend on nanobots.

Increasingly sophisticated bioMEMS already exist and have been used in the bloodstreams of animals, mostly as sensors. To be able to navigate the body effectively, "nanobots" are not likely to ever be used anyway -- they would just get tossed around by the blood and have to spend too much energy to make progress. Any robot that performs medical functions in the human body is likely to have a diameter greater than 1 micron (1000 nanometers), and probably more like 5 microns (5000 nanometers) making them microbots, rather than nanobots. Microbots already exist, the primary challenge is improving them; making them more durable, biocompatible, mass-produced, and sophisticated. Molecular assembly lines already exist, and it is only a matter of time until biomedical devices are created using them.

Greenspan closes with the following:

It is entirely reasonable to expect significant diagnostic and therapeutic progress to continue, but predicting complete conquest of disease is unrealistic in light of both the numerous deficiencies in our understanding of the subtleties of cellular and molecular function that are likely to persist in some measure for many years and the extremely-difficult-to-avoid trade-offs that afflict most medical interventions. Indefinite human lifespan remains wishful thinking well beyond the realm plausibility.

Again, maybe so, that these deficiencies will persist "in some measure" for many years, but the specifics mean the difference between a widespread adoption of enhancement and life extension or not. Reports funded by government agencies, such as Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, seem less pessimistic than Greenspan on human enhancement made possible by our "understanding of the subtleties of cellular and molecular function". And has Greenspan ever heard of the engineering approach to aging, where instead of trying to stop all possible sources of metabolic damage, focus is merely put on removing age-related damage faster than it can accumulate? I would particularly be interested in hearing his take on the latter, purely as a scientific matter rather than a moral one.

It is worth noting that even if we "conservatively" assume that average lifespan in the 21st century will be roughly the same as progress throughout the 20th -- that is, improving by about a fifth of a year per year for people in developed countries, and we assume today's average lifespan is about 75, then by the year 2100, people will live an average of 95 years. Not that radical of a number, but thinking of an entire society of active people in their 70s and 80s is probably more than many of today's unimaginative minds can handle. To them, this little patch of history in which they were born is considered typical of reality in general, and any major change will come as a surprise.


SENS Foundation Los Angeles Chapter, First Meeting

From Maria Entraigues. Here is the event page.

On behalf of SENS Foundation I am writing to you to invite you to join Dr Aubrey de Grey for our first SENSF L.A. Chapter meeting to be held on Friday, July 9th, 2010, at the Westwood Brewing Company (1097 Glendon Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024-2907) from 5pm until Aubrey has had enough beer :-)

This will be an informal gathering to create a local initiative to promote the Foundation's interests and mission.

The idea of forming a SENSF L.A. Chapter, which is planned to have monthly meetings, is to create a network of enthusiasts, field professionals, potential donors, sponsors, collaborators, students, etc. Also to promote educational efforts in the area, and to reach out to the Hollywood community and gain their support.

Please RSVP.
We hope you will come and join us!

Maria Entraigues
SENSF Volunteer Coordinator


Aubrey de Grey at Singularity Summit 2009: The Singularity and the Methuselarity: Similarities and Differences

Aubrey de Grey at Singularity Summit 2009 -- The Singularity and the Methuselarity: Similarities and Differences from Singularity Institute on Vimeo.


Phil Bowermaster Responds to Annalee Newitz: “Five Arguments Against Four Arguments Against Immortaility”

Phil Bowermaster responds here. Me, I can appreciate the io9 post as a masterpiece of generalization from fictional evidence; including images, I count eleven specific appeals to fictional evidence. This appears to be an early form of co-processing, where content from an external device (in this case, poor television shows) heavily intertwines itself with the thinking processes of the writer, to the point where reality cannot be distinguished from fiction.


A Little Perspective from the Deep Past

Check out the short post by Reason at Fight Aging, "A Little Perspective from the Deep Past":

The growth in health, welfare, and wealth of 18th century Europe was a glittering spire when set against any measure of the grand history of humanity. A pinnacle set abruptly at the end of a very long, very gentle upward slope.



Aubrey de Grey: The Role of Mitochondria DNA in Aging

H/t to Michael Graham Richard for the link.


Aubrey de Grey on CNN (Video)

Aubrey de Grey and Dan Buettner are interviewed by Dr. Sanjay Gupta on "how to live longer". H/t humanplus blog.

Interesting insights from Buettner. The common denominators of long-lived populations worldwide include 1) plant-based diets (go veg for moral and health reasons!), 2) they live in environments where they are forced into physical activity, and 3) they eat beans, nuts, and sometimes tofu (on Okinawa). He says that the current longevity ceiling, if we do everything perfectly, is about 90, and that for most people, who would otherwise live to around 80 or less, "ten good years" are "on the table".

Dan Buettner and Dr. Sanjay Gupta both show that they actually understand regenerative medicine to an extent and Gupta remarks on the evolutionary pressures that tend to lead to the body being designed primarily to reproduce, raise children, and afterward go downhill.

Congrats Aubrey! Such a high-profile interview, and of course you nailed it.


News Roundup, Vegetarian Issues

Glenn Reynolds has an article on the Singularity at Popular Mechanics.

Ron Bailey has the "deets" on the recent Manhattan Beach Longevity Summit.

Hank Hyena, a seemingly new-ish writer at h+ magazine, has a cool article on in-vitro meat, titled "Eight Ways In-Vitro Meat will Change Our Lives". One of them is "exotic cuisine":

In-Vitro Meat will be fashioned from any creature, not just domestics that were affordable to farm. Yes, ANY ANIMAL, even rare beasts like snow leopard, or Komodo Dragon. We will want to taste them all. Some researchers believe we will also be able to create IVM using the DNA of extinct beasts -- obviously, "DinoBurgers" will be served at every six-year-old boy's birthday party.

Give me that endangered snow leopard burger!

And to transhumanists who still eat meat from highly intelligent animals like pigs, I ask -- why do you consume and cage animals who are obviously aware of their pain and suffering and yet still expect superintelligences or superhumans to treat you with respect? The human/not-human simplistic dichotomy of morality is not going to work as a moral structure in the long term. We're going to need more precise technical definitions of what we value, even if those definitions disagree.

There is a line above which all animals should be profoundly respected, in my opinion, and I'm not sure where that line lies, but it's probably pretty low. I am a mostly-vegetarian myself (eat fish and dairy occasionally), and to any vegans out there, I would be interested in hearing your opinions on shrimp and oyster. Does anyone know how many neurons are in a shrimp brain?


Behold… the Mighty Naked Mole Rats!

Naked mole rats may be ugly, but they have an advantage -- you can get cancer, and they can't. Naked mole rats are the only known cancerless animal. Scientists have found that there is a very straightforward and interesting reason why. From the press release:

Despite a 30-year lifespan that gives ample time for cells to grow cancerous, a small rodent species called a naked mole rat has never been found with tumors of any kind—and now biologists at the University of Rochester think they know why.

The findings, presented in today's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that the mole rat's cells express a gene called p16 that makes the cells "claustrophobic," stopping the cells' proliferation when too many of them crowd together, cutting off runaway growth before it can start. The effect of p16 is so pronounced that when researchers mutated the cells to induce a tumor, the cells' growth barely changed, whereas regular mouse cells became fully cancerous.

"We think we've found the reason these mole rats don't get cancer, and it's a bit of a surprise," say Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov, professors of biology at the University of Rochester and lead investigators on the discovery. "It's very early to speculate about the implications, but if the effect of p16 can be simulated in humans we might have a way to halt cancer before it starts."

Next, all we need to do is cross our genes with naked mole rats, and we'll become cancerless mole people for all eternity. Problem solved!

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Michael Anissimov Interviews Aubrey de Grey on the Singularity

I have a new interview with Aubrey available at


Aubrey on MSNBC Today

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