Central to this concern is the prospect of an “intelligence explosion,” a speculative event in which an A.I. gains the ability to improve itself, and in short order exceeds the intellectual potential of the human brain by many orders of magnitude. ... Such a system would effectively be a new kind of life, and Bostrom’s fears, in their simplest form, are evolutionary: that humanity will unexpectedly become outmatched by a smarter competitor. He sometimes notes, as a point of comparison, the trajectories of people and gorillas: both primates, but with one species dominating the planet and the other at the edge of annihilation. ... Bostrom is arguably the leading transhumanist philosopher today, a position achieved by bringing order to ideas that might otherwise never have survived outside the half-crazy Internet ecosystem where they formed. He rarely makes concrete predictions, but, by relying on probability theory, he seeks to tease out insights where insights seem impossible. ... The people who say that artificial intelligence is not a problem tend to work in artificial intelligence.
Harry Potter brought the philosopher’s stone back as a cultural reference point, but the idea of a universal panacea against death is much older than J.K. Rowling. From Alexander the Great to Ponce de León, tales of conquistadors and rovers stumbling onto fountains of youth are a fable trope. Greek mythology addressed the horror of aging in the tale of pitiful Tithonus, kidnapped by the goddess Eos and granted eternal life. Eos f***ed up and forgot to specify that Tithonus should stay young as well as living, and so her kidnapped boy toy aged into a trembling old man, lasting on and on in babbling, incapacitated misery. In some versions of the story he turns into a cicada, but the moral remains: Eternal life without eternal youth is a curse, which is why RAAD wants both. ... The people who organized RAAD are members of the Coalition for Radical Life Extension, which is the nonprofit offshoot of People Unlimited, a Scottsdale, Arizona–based group that describes itself as “a community of people living physical immortality.” People Unlimited charges a $245 monthly membership fee, and holds regular meetings where members swap antiaging tips and listen to guest speakers. Many of the presenters at RAAD are also members or guest speakers at People Unlimited. ... The coalition’s online mission statement shoehorns immortality into a historical narrative of moral and social progress. ... “Asked whether they, personally, would choose to undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live to be 120 or more, a majority of U.S. adults (56%) say ‘no.’” The study also found that around half the people questioned had never heard of radical life extension; around half also answered that it would be bad for society.
It’s the year 2120. You feel no hunger, no cold, no heat, no pain. There’s no need to eat or to take medicine, though you can if you like. You are beautiful, intelligent, and charismatic, as are your friends, co-workers, lovers. Though the economy is fiercely competitive, retirement is not far off. You do not fear death. Look out your office window and you see sunlit spires towering over tree-lined boulevards. ... At least this is what you think you see. In fact, you live and work in virtual reality. Your city amounts to racks of computer hardware and the pipes that cool them. And you are not "you" in the traditional sense: You are an "em," a robotic brain emulation created by scanning a particular human brain and uploading it to a computer. On the upside, you process information 1,000 times faster than a human. On the downside, you inhabit a robotic body, and you stand roughly two millimeters tall. ... This is the world Robin Hanson is sketching out to a room of baffled undergraduates at George Mason University on a bright April morning. To illustrate his point, he projects an image of an enormous futuristic city alongside clip art of a human castaway cowering on a tiny desert island. His message is clear: The future belongs to "ems." ... This may sound more like science fiction than scholarship, but that’s part of the point. Hanson is an economist with a background in physics and engineering; a Silicon Valley veteran determined to promote his theories in an academy he finds deeply flawed; a doggedly rational thinker prone to intentionally provocative ideas that test the limits of what typically passes as scholarship. Those ideas have been mocked, memed, and marveled at — often all at once. ... Hanson, deeply skeptical of conventional intellectual discourse, argues that academics have abdicated their societal responsibilities by ignoring more speculative work.
The brain would be preserved there—the liquid nitrogen topped off once in a while—for however long the science and technology community takes to solve some vexing problems. First, how to repair the tissue damage caused by freezing. Second, and more important, how to gain access to the data inside—the neurons and connections and impulses that constitute a person’s memories, emotions, and personality—and bring it all back to life, either in another, healthier body or uploaded into a computer. ... The best way to cryopreserve is to replace all the water in the body with a chemical that essentially turns the tissue into glass as it freezes. Vitrification, as the process is known, prevents the damage caused by ice crystals when a body is frozen in its natural state. But vitrification has its own flaw: No one knows how to reverse it. ... Cryonics was first proposed by the physicist Robert Ettinger in his 1964 book, The Prospect of Immortality. Five years later, the first human was frozen, and a small, devoted community of cryonicists (almost all of them in America) have been debating best practices ever since. Today, the world leader is Alcor Life Extension Foundation
For decades, the solution to aging has seemed merely decades away. In the early nineties, research on C. elegans, a tiny nematode worm that resembles a fleck of lint, showed that a single gene mutation extended its life, and that another mutation blocked that extension. The idea that age could be manipulated by twiddling a few control knobs ignited a research boom, and soon various clinical indignities had increased the worm’s life span by a factor of ten and those of lab mice by a factor of two. The scientific consensus transformed. Age went from being a final stage (a Time cover from 1958: “Growing Old Usefully”) and a social issue (Time, 1970: “Growing Old in America: The Unwanted Generation”) to something avoidable (1996: “Forever Young”) or at least vastly deferrable (2015: “This Baby Could Live to Be 142 Years Old”). Death would no longer be a metaphysical problem, merely a technical one. ... The celebration was premature. Gordon Lithgow, a leading C. elegans researcher, told me, “At the beginning, we thought it would be simple—a clock!—but we’ve now found about five hundred and fifty genes in the worm that modulate life span. And I suspect that half of the twenty thousand genes in the worm’s genome are somehow involved.” That’s for a worm with only nine hundred and fifty-nine cells. ... For us, aging is the creeping and then catastrophic dysfunction of everything, all at once. ... The great majority of longevity scientists are healthspanners, not immortalists. They want to give us a healthier life followed by “compressed morbidity”—a quick and painless death. ... The battle between healthspanners and immortalists is essentially a contest between the power of evolution as ordained by nature and the potential power of evolution as directed by man. ... Aging doesn’t seem to be a program so much as a set of rules about how we fail. Yet the conviction that it must be a program is hard to dislodge from Silicon Valley’s algorithmic minds. If it is, then reversing aging would be a mere matter of locating and troubleshooting a recursive loop of code.
The most intriguing part of the antenna, though, is that it gives him an ability the rest of us don’t have. He looked at the lamps on the roof deck and sensed that the infrared lights that activate them were off. He glanced at the planters and could “see” the ultraviolet markings that show where nectar is located at the centers of the flowers. He has not just matched ordinary human skills; he has exceeded them. ... He is, then, a first step toward the goal that visionary futurists have always had, an early example of what Ray Kurzweil in his well-known book The Singularity Is Near calls “the vast expansion of human potential.” ... But are we on the way to redefining how we evolve? Does evolution now mean not just the slow grind of natural selection spreading desirable genes, but also everything that we can do to amplify our powers and the powers of the things we make—a union of genes, culture, and technology? And if so, where is it taking us? ... Conventional evolution is alive and well in our species. Not long ago we knew the makeup of only a handful of the roughly 20,000 protein-encoding genes in our cells; today we know the function of about 12,000. But genes are only a tiny percentage of the DNA in our genome. More discoveries are certain to come—and quickly. From this trove of genetic information, researchers have already identified dozens of examples of relatively recent evolution. ... In our world now, the primary mover for reproductive success—and thus evolutionary change—is culture, and its weaponized cousin, technology. ... One human trait with a strong genetic component continues to increase in value, even more so as technology grows more dominant. The universal ambition of humanity remains greater intelligence.