Imagine all the poor transhumanists who were born in the 19th century. They would have been fantasizing about all the rapid transformations in their society, and blithely extrapolating forward. Why, in a few years, we’ll all have steam boilers surgically implanted in our bellies, and our diet will include a daily lump of coal! Canals will be dug everywhere, and you’ll be able to commute to work in your very own personal battleship! There will be ubiquitous telegraphy, and we’ll have tin hats that you can plug into cords hanging from the ceiling in your local coffeeshop, and get Morse code tapped directly onto your skull!
Alas, they didn’t have a Ray Kurzweil or Aubrey deGray to con them with absurd exaggerations.
I was reading this absurd techno-fetishist claim that all we have to do is make it to the year 2045, and we’ll live forever. Any time you see this magic date of 2045 appear, it comes from one source: Ray Kurzweil and his dogma of Singularitarianism. It’s not going to happen. Or rather, there could be some radical amazing breakthrough, but it’s not going to happen as an inevitable consequence of a pattern of technological change, and it’s definitely not going to happen on Kurzweil’s metaphysical timetable.
Here’s the problem: you can’t simply extrapolate current technologies into the future, because a fundamental property of such change is that it requires novel technologies. So no, you can’t sit in the middle of the 19th century and argue that the future is all about the expansion of steam and coal, because someone is going to come along and derail your future with, say, internal combustion engines, or electric motors and high-capacity batteries. And don’t you dare sit there and feel smug about your Tesla car, because if we do innovate, the Tesla will be about as quaint as a Stanley.
But Futurians love to argue that broad trends are predictable, and inevitably will point to Moore’s Law as an example (as does that article!). Sorry, gang, but Moore’s Law is dead. I’d like to call this Myers’ Law — every technological trend will inevitably hit a ceiling, that will require abandonment of the technology — but it’s such a familiar concept to biologists who watch populations change over time that it’s unfair of me to claim it.
Another problem is that Futurians will glibly invent trends that don’t exist. Kurzweil is particularly guilty of this — he loves to cherry pick data and slap it on a graph to fit his preconceptions — and his followers never stop to look at the quality of the data and question the validity of his numbers. They just like the direction the line is going, and that’s enough for them. It makes the Singularity manifest in my lifetime? Then I approve. Don’t question it.
You cannot avoid comparisons to the predicted second coming of Jesus in these things, so go ahead and make it yourself.
That article is specifically talking about aging, though, and says that it’s inevitable that we’ll fix it. There are just seven little problems we have to address, and then we can live forever.
It’s symptomatic of the happy ignorance that permeates the whole idea that one of those problems is…cancer. Yes, we just have to cure cancer, and we remove one of the obstacles to immortality.
They predicted the objections people might raise — but we don’t have a cure for cancer, and that’s simply a ridiculous proposal — by also announcing their strategy for curing cancer. We’ll just turn off telomerases in all of our cells, and then cancer cells will automatically expire! Yay! It’s so easy! Why don’t you go tell your doctor to start giving you telomerase inhibitors?
It’s silly because your somatic cells already inactivate your telomerases. Cancers acquire mutations that switch them back on. There are also less well understood alternative mechanisms of telomere lengthening. Ask a cancer researcher, and they’ll tell you that they don’t expect to find a magic bullet.
It’s also a self-defeating strategy, because another cause of aging is the gradual death of stem cell populations. Every population of cells has a built-in time-limit that kills them off after a certain number of cell divisions — it’s like Carousel from Logan’s Run or the replicant expiration date in Bladerunner. Basically, their cure for cancer is to enforce the expiration date on cells even more forcefully.
But don’t you worry, they’re aware of the problem! So one of their seven strategies is to develop technology that replenishes stem cells. It’s all a hugely circular game of whack-a-mole. We’ll smack down this one problem! But that causes another problem to pop up. So we whack that one down! Then that creates another one. Whack! The hammers are just flying frantically here, and they’re so self-promoting that they don’t actually cure anything, but instead simply fuel an ever-accelerating game of perpetually whirling hammers.
But have no fear. We’ll eventually put a boiler and a coal chute on the hammer smacking machine, and then we’ll live forever!
One thing missing in all the techno-speculation is any consideration of whether individuals ought to live forever, if it were possible, and who is going to receive the benefits of these necessarily expensive biomedical interventions — medical interventions that will require constant life-long tinkering. It’s no surprise that the most enthusiastic proponents of technological life extension are young, well-off libertarian types who assume by default that they of course will be the beneficiaries of Futurian progress, that they will always have the money (forever!) to keep themselves healthy and young, and that the people who can’t buy in to their scheme don’t deserve it, anyway.