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Do You Want a 1,000-Year Life Span? The Promise and Perils of Transhumanism

There is a movement afoot, based substantially in Silicon Valley but now taking root around the world, called Transhumanism. Transhumanism purports that illness, social maladies such as a propensity for criminal behavior, aging, and even death are avoidable and in fact will be overcome scientifically in the not-too-distant future. In a recent lecture entitled “Prospects for Extending Healthy Life – A Lot”, Aubrey Grey addressed a crowd at the product innovation division of Yahoo known as Brickhouse with the following words: “I think that many of the people in this room have a good chance of living to one thousand.” Grey is a biologist from the UK who runs something called the Methuselah Foundation, and holds a degree from Cambridge University.

In late 2007, Yahoo executive Salim Ismail said something very similar when he addressed an audience of Silicon Valley types at the company’s headquarters. Lamenting the poor levels of effectiveness of the human brain, he said: “We need to design a better one. We need computer chips monitoring our neural networks. Evolution isn’t going to do this for us. So technology is going to have to do it.” James Clement, executive director of The World Transhumanist Association, told a writer from The Futurist that “Transhumanism is about using technology to enhance ourselves – enhancements like longer life-spans, better cognitive abilities, and improved happiness.”

Transhumanism appears to be pursuing several paths toward immortality; one path is hoping to achieve the goal through the prolonging of life through anti-aging technologies, incorporating nanotechnology-level robots that remove and replace aging cells at the molecular level. Another path is based on the migration of all of the information from one human brain to another, basically downloading and then uploading it as though it were computer files.

Proponents of this approach, sometimes referred to as “Uploaders”, propose that the human brain be sliced into razor-thin segments, scanned, and their information uploaded to a computer program that reassembles the information into a new brain. A third path follows ongoing work in cryogenics, where newly deceased individuals’ bodies are frozen and remain in stasis until technology advances to the extent that they may be thawed and re-animated. (There are about 200 known bodies “on ice” now, and at least another 800 signed up for the program at ALCON in Scottsdale, Arizona.)

Still another tendril off this branch of scientific endeavor desires not only to prolong human life, but also to enhance human capabilities in the course of the work. Andy Rondeau, a Transhumanist programmer quoted by the Futurist says: “The gap between Einstein’s rain was closed. There were synapses going between left and right lobes.” Fellow Transhuminist Kennita Watson then chimed in: “So he was a mutant. Maybe we could engineer the closed gap in our brains. Then we would gain intelligence.” Essentially, the human being is regarded by Transhumanists as an automaton with the body representing the machine and the brain representing the computer.

All of this might be considered junk science or even science fiction, except that it has gained considerable momentum and credibility through the application of millions of dollars in donor funding, especially in Silicon Valley. As of 2009, co-founder and former CEO of PayPal Peter Thiel had invested more than $4 million in the movement.

There is of course danger that arises with all of this promise; Great danger. Nanotechnology in and of itself represents an opportunity for “nanobots” (molecule-sized robots) to fundamentally disassemble the world as we know it, and the scenario played out in the Terminator movies where a superhuman artificial intelligence destroys humanity comes into the realm of the possible.

One interesting observation made by David Gelles, who authored the Futurist article from their January-February 2009 issue, was: “Any resemblance between Transhumanism and apocalyptic Christianity is not something the movement devotees are looking to convey. The vast majority are atheists; if you believe in heaven you don’t need radical life extension.”

I think Gelles has it exactly right, although I have often reflected many times on how wasteful it seems to lose lifetimes of knowledge and experience with every human death. Gelles also pointed out that pundit Francis Fukuyama called Transhumanism “the world’s most dangerous idea” in the Journal of Foreign Policy, musing that the first victim of Transhumanism might well be equality, since human enhancements – when they become available – will likely be affordable only to the very wealthy. This poses more profound dangers socially and economically than most of us can likely imagine right now.

So, do you want to live for 1,000 years or more? What do you think?

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