So the topic for today is Transhumanism and concepts for Life Extension, and this has turned out to be an incredibly hard topic to prepare an article for. Normally I do anything from 1-3 article drafts, often tossing out one and starting from scratch, this time around I’m on draft #12 after tossing out its eleven predecessors.
It’s also not unusual for me to reread a lot of old material by others or watch a few articles on the topic if there are any, to see if there are topics they missed I think need covered or points that are important that I forgot, and I knew it was bad sign when trying to watch these when the one that least set my teeth on edge still only managed to get less than a minute in before referring to our ‘primitive Darwinian Brains’.
Now I don’t know if you personally consider our brains to be designed by some higher intelligence or the byproduct of a few billion years of evolution, but either way there is nothing primitive about the human brain. The adult human brain is pretty much hands down the most sophisticated machine we know of and there is nothing particularly natural about it, unless your definition of artificial excludes the intentional investment of massive amounts of time and resources that was expended making it possible for you to understand what I’m saying right now.
Of course some of you probably do have problems understanding me right now, which ought to serve as a good reminder exactly how sophisticated human speech is, and is a good opportunity for me to remind you that all the articles on this blog come with closed caption subtitles that you might want to turn on.
The human brain is a pretty serious piece of hardware, but it’s the knowledge, all the learning, or basically software, that goes into the makeup of your average educated adult that makes it truly impressive and also artificial. If the basic brain itself is natural, the final form it takes is no more natural than a chunk of marble someone has chiseled into a statue, and frankly a good deal less so, because our minds are the byproduct of decades of careful work to produce highly sophisticated thinking engines.
Today we’ll be looking at some fascinating concepts for, basically, improving on that, making people healthier or smarter or longer lived or just plain safer and happier. Unfortunately, it’s also a topic that’s gotten a bad reputation, somewhat unfairly in my opinion, because Transhumanism has accumulated a fair amount of rubbish around itself in the last decade as its spawned a lot of openly political movements and frequently groups that would be most accurately described as cults.
Now that’s nothing new, we see that a lot with science and science fiction, one minute you’ll looking at the scientific and philosophical ramifications of something like Quantum Mechanics and the Many World or Copenhagen Interpretations, the next minute someone is peddling some homebrew form of Quantum Mysticism. And that’s fine, any scientific concept will tend to accumulate a lot of that as part of the normal process of contemplating those very important philosophical and ethical aspects of the concept, and the core science is not diminished by this. Unfortunately, in the case of Transhumanism this clutter has gotten to be much louder than the actual scientific concepts and general principles so I think it scares some folks off and truth be told I sometimes feel the same even though I’ve classified myself as a Transhumanist for around two decades now.
The core concept of Transhumanism is using technology to improve mental and physical health and the length of the human lifespan too, preferably indefinitely. This is hardly a new concept, people have been using any number of herbs and rituals to attempt, sometimes successfully, similar things for untold centuries. We’ve been sticking artificial things in our bodies for a long time too, dental fillings have been found in human skulls 10,000 years old and humans have basically been on the route to being cyborgs since we started putting clothes on. We’ve been doing genetic engineering of people probably longer and our crops and livestock are very definitely not the byproduct of natural evolution. Just because a lot of the new ideas involve microchips inserted into people or direct tinkering with DNA doesn’t really change that beyond making it a lot more effective. There’s very little natural about you or I, my dear ladies and gentleman.
Mankind isn’t simply a maker of artificial technologies who is now considering maybe making some of those artificial changes to ourselves, we are now, and pretty much always have been, the most blatant and shining example of our own tinkering with nature. So while in most folk’s minds there is some sort of distinct line where we cease being natural by putting machines in ourselves, it’s important to understand those are mostly arbitrary. And that when it comes to being natural, that ship sailed long ago. Because fundamentally drinking some herbal concoction to improve your health, or clear your mind for better thinking, or slow your aging, is the same for the purpose of intent as cramming some tiny little machines in you to do the same tricks. Same goal, same intent, different method.
There’s an awful lot of folks who are alive right now with all sorts of electronic gizmos in their bodies keeping them alive or making their life easier and frankly I’m not sure what the difference is between a smartphone in my pocket and one wired directly into my head is except the latter seems a lot more convenient. I’m just old enough to remember when mobile phones were high-tech gadgets reserved for science fiction and I’m also just old enough now to have outlived the average human life expectancy for most of history. And so that’s our quick look at the ethical aspects of Transhumanism.
Essentially that as best as I can tell there are none. Now that does not mean individual applications of it don’t have their own, but insofar as we are just talking about using artificial means to make people healthier, smarter, or longer lived, I don’t think there’s much firm ground to get any moral footing. We’ve been doing this, with mixed success, for as long as we’ve been around as a civilization and just because we’re much more scientific and successful with it now doesn’t make it morally or conceptually any different than in the past.
Now we’ve got a lot of concepts to cover and we’ll be skimming through many, and in many ways today we are looking more at concepts then specific technologies. Some we’ll look at more down the road and as those come up you’ll see little yellow and white boxes pop up, those are article links to current or future articles on the topic and I only put future material up if I expect to get to it inside the near future so if you hover over it and it says ‘click to watch’, that article is done and you can just click on that to automatically pause this article and open that one up in a new window. If it isn’t ready yet, it will say coming soon and suggest you subscribe to the blog for alerts when new articles come out.
I tend to break up Transhumanism’s goals or interests into a number of categories of general technology, categorization is always a bit of an arbitrary thing but here’s our topics for today:
- Speeding up Reflexes & Thinking
- Slowing down Aging
- Cloning and Prosthetics
- Uploading the Mind
- Artificial Intelligence
- Technological Singularity
Speeding Up Reflexes and Thinking
Our first category, speeding up reflexes and thinking, focuses mostly on enhancing the speed at which signals are sent around your body or brain. If you didn’t know, the main component of that is a thing called an axon, and these tend to run throughout your body and mind in little sausage links. They are the phone line or internet cable or information highway of your body. Some are myelinated, some are not, and myelin is a fatty white substance and the reason we call some chunks of brain material white matter.
We also call myelinated axons nerve fibers, and where they connect to other cells, usually other neurons, we call these junctions synapses. The wider the diameter of an axon, the faster information can travel down it, and if they don’t have that myelin sheath, or it’s thin, it travels much slower. Generally, this diameter is around a micrometer, a millionth of a meter or a micron, but some are wider, up to 20 microns, the diameter of our thinnest hairs, and in the case of the squid giant axon it can be fully a thousand microns wide, or a millimeter. Now that would make for very fast nerve conduction except that the axon is unmyelinated so it’s actually not too quick, quicker than our own unmyelinated axons since it is so wide but still slower than our fastest, myelinated nerves.
I wanted to clear that up because people often talk about using squid giant axons in people to speed up our nervous system and besides giving people the shivers it also wouldn’t be effective. What you’d probably want to do is tweak the genes that controlled axiom diameter to be a bit wider, or simply transplant one intentionally grown that way, or even just pull out that whole nerve to replace it with say a fiber optic cable. Now what’s advantage of faster nerve conduction? Does it make you lightning quick? No, but it would make you react a lot faster, this doesn’t make you move in a blur it just means the delay time to send signals goes down. You might go from needing a decent fraction of a second to realize something is in front of your car and send the single to break down to a tiny fraction of that time, and that would save a lot of lives.
It’s the least comic-book-i.e. superpower but it’s probably the most useful. Speed up nerve conductions and people have way less accidents of every type. Once you adapted to it, which would probably take quite a while, it would be very hard for you, for instance, to trip down a flight of stairs. On top of that some of the most debilitating injuries tend to involve nerve damage, so the ability to get in and replace nerves or regrow them is obviously a high priority of modern medicine. Now a lot of times the implementation of this concept would revolve around basically coating existing nerves with some conductive substance that simply relayed the information faster, closer to the speed of light basically, rather than the speed of sound, which is about a million times slower than light and still decently faster than even fastest nerves send signals. Tiny little robots or some gene-tweaked virus would run around your system basically glazing your existing nerves in your body and brain, or replacing them, so they simply sent everything faster.
Conceptually easy though obviously not easy to implement and probably way over-simplified from anything we’d actually have to do to get that sort of result. Doing this in your brain would also speed up thinking, especially if we could do it in a way that generated less total heat. Our brains run quite hot, and a lot like how modern computers have plateaued out more from the difficulty cooling them then further micro-sizing them. There are some fundamentally physical limits to how little heat you can generate performing a single bit operation, since there’s always some heat produced erasing a bit of data, as covered under Landauer’s principle, but it is many orders of magnitude lower than we currently produce doing this on our computers, the one from the factory or resting on your shoulders.
So there should be a lot of room for improvement there. This would, or should, result in basically just speeding up your thinking which doesn’t really make you smarter, it would be more like slowing time down around you. If your brain was a million times faster, it’s not that you are really smarter so much as you are experiencing a year of subjective time for every 30 seconds that passes outside. That would probably drive you insane, since humans normally operate at just a bit slower than the second-scale. Our eyes only operate at about 60 frames a second, we interpret vibrations occurring more than 20 times a second as sound. So unless you had those altered too you’d be staring at freeze frame of your surroundings for what felt like half an hour, and blinking your eyes would leave you blind for hours. Even when you can see it’s still going to be an eternity of nothing moving.
It would be very handy to have days to think about uttering one sentence, plenty of time for coming up with witty comments, but pretty obviously while speeding the mind up a little bit, to the speed you need at that time, would be very handy, thinking that fast would likely be very unpleasant. Dreaming would be outright disturbing I should think too, as an hour of dreams would translate to just over a century of subjective time. A whole lifetime and then every time you go to sleep. This is why we often talk in these terms about adding a third lobe to the human brain, essentially an entirely synthetic one that is designed to handle a lot of these extra issues such as being able to feed you external information like books or movies or let you talk ‘telepathically ’at your subjective time to others with some sort of radio link.
This isn’t likely an actual lobe but just a series of extra computer bits added in to handle the problems. We sometimes call this state a SI1, or Super-Intelligence level 1, since it’s the first and most obvious, and lowest level, upgrade to human thinking. Where your brain has simply been sped up a couple orders or more in magnitude and you are still using the basic brain architecture only it’s been modified just in whatever ways are needed to make this practical. Additions to let you bring in other, faster inputs or store and sort memory better.
This is also a way to extend lifetime, if you are still living only about a century of real time, but your subjective time is only a modest ten-fold, that amounts to an effective lifetime on par with Methuselah and the other Biblical Patriarchs, if it’s been sped up a million fold that would make for an effective lifetime comparable to having been around since dinosaurs walked the Earth. So it’s probably worth considering now how such prolonged lifetimes, either in real or subjective time, would impact us and that takes us to our second category.
Slowing down Aging
Category 2, or slowing down aging, preferably to a complete stop, has been on humanity ‘swish list for a long time. It’s controversial for many reasons, some of them legitimate and some not. I dismiss out of hand the notion that nobody would want to live much longer than we do now since they would die of boredom, that’s simply silly. Even if you could get deathly bored, there’s an obvious solution, die. I don’t think many religions or life philosophies that let you indefinitely extend your life in the first place aren’t going to find some sort of loophole for suicide at age 1000 but even if someone is strongly morally opposed to outright suicide there are plenty of way to get the job done especially if you’re bored.
You update your medical profile to say please do not resuscitate or clone me and take up exciting and dangerous hobbies like cliff diving in a straight jacket while trying to escape the jacket or hunting lions with a nerf bat. You will presumably alleviate your boredom one way or another. I also don’t buy into the notion that we need new blood for new ideas and to avoid stagnation. Besides there being plenty of room in this universe to expand into for new folks, there’s always going to be some deaths.
We spend a lot of time on this blog talking about interstellar colonization and terraforming and building space habitats and even outright artificial planets, and we talk a lot about Dyson Spheres, swarm of such artificial habitats able to support in total billions of times as many people as are alive now. In that sort of context in a civilization where the half-life of people, the period of time someone tended to be alive before dying for whatever reason, was a full million years, you’d still have thousands of new people born a year on Earth and trillions inside our solar system. That’s plenty of new blood. But there is a very real flavor of truth to the notion that a person can only live so long, subjectively, before they really do hit a point of diminishing returns where going on would simply be pointless. And when we’re dealing with the very high-end super-intelligences we’ll talk about later in the article that might come even sooner.
Some huge super-computer-mind wakes up, rapidly expands its mind to be trillions of times faster and smarter than a human, figures out everything, does its whole mental bucket list, and just shuts off. The apocalypse might be a touch boring if Skynet pops up and ten minutes alter just when we’re beginning to panic and realize how screwed we are it just shuts itself off. We also talk a lot on this blog about the Fermi Paradox, the seeming contradiction between the sheer age and size of the Universe and the apparent absence of anyone else in it, and the notion of civilizations dying off from terminal boredom is one we’ll be looking at in the near future. But some of the other objections to extending life are harder to dismiss.
A super-long lived culture is probably a gerontocracy by default. Your senator or parliament member might look like they’re thirty years old but they may have been your senator for thirty centuries, and that’s a lot of seniority. A lot of time for low-risk, long-term investments to make you super-rich too. And both of those are merely specific varieties in which power and influence accrue with time. That’s a lot of time to have kids in and grandkids and great-great-great-great-etc. grandkids so that you might easily have millions of direct descendants and you’ve got all that time to accrue knowledge and experience in. Now age generally does bring wisdom, so that might result in a very prosperous and well-operated society especially considering it’s one in which education, social security and pensions, and medical treatment make up only slivers of a nation’s economy. But the big concern would be that newer younger folks would tend to feel they were under a serious glass ceiling.
If the civilization is still expanding a lot that’s less of a problem but if you’ve got to a point where you’re basically maxed out and just replacing losses a lot of younger folks might feel very frustrated and controlled. If you imagine some civilization, regardless of its total population, that’s only bringing in new people at a rate of maybe 1 per every ten thousand people a year, that kid is probably going to feel smothered by attention from their gazillion older relatives and the oppressive feeling that it will take centuries before they are considered useful. This sense of identity-loss, of not having much of a purpose in life, is a serious concern for everybody else too. Post-Scarcity economies full of long-lived people probably do have to be concerned about lot of existential problems that make it hard for people emotionally to derive genuine purpose and satisfaction from life. That’s even more true in some of the setups where the humans are essentially pets of super-intelligent machines that benevolent or not simply make them feel useless. I could actually imagine such a creature intentionally behaving hostile but faking weaknesses just so its creators felt they had a purpose in life trying to fight it.
Now on the how-to aspect of life extension, transhumanism tends to be understandably vague. The first and obviously most appealing route to most is just to stop people aging normally but there are a lot of other options like mind uploading which we’ll get to later. Aging, in humans, is really more of group of processes all wearing you down together. There is a thing called SENS, or Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, that looks at aging as basically 7 relatively distinct and combatable things each with their own strategy.
It’s a bit controversial in some respects about how accurate this view is, and I’m not a biologist, so I won’t go into as much depth discussing it as I’d like to but I’d encourage you to look it up, and its criticism too. But I generally believe our first opening salvo in a serious war on aging will take some form along these lines and it is important to understand that aging is a pretty vague term that is composed of multiple different phenomena. Winning any battle on these fronts scores a major victory in increasing average lifespan.
Cloning and Prostethics
Now another approach is generally just to replace bits and pieces of people with cloned or prosthetic bits and pieces, and that’s our third category. Cloning and prosthetics are both topics of a lot of controversy, prosthetics less than they used to be, but cloning remains touchy so let me just say from the outset that I’m not familiar with any serious suggestions we do this by growing copies of people to harvest for organs. That is not the goal, that would be an especially monstrous crime too. Whole person cloning is simply growing someone a twin sibling that’s much younger than them anyway.
Prosthetics is nothing new, we’ve got examples 3000 years old and they probably predate that too, but obviously we’re looking at more sophisticated ones, ideally with full sensory and nerve function. I probably don’t need to tell you that progress in this area has been both miraculous in recent years. The thing is neither of these helps much with the brain. Even if you can keep replacing bits and pieces with cloned or cybernetic bits, you can’t clone a brain, so you’d probably have to slowly replace it bit by bit or transferring it entirely into a more electronic setup.
Uploading The Mind
That’s category 4, mind uploading, transferring your mind to a computer. And this is our first big problem because you can’t transfer your mind to a computer, you can just copy it to one. Sometimes in science fiction this will be hand waved by requiring a scanning method that vaporizes your brain in the process, usual from ultra-fast serial sectioning with a laser, akin to how some science fiction system deal with teleportation, vaporizing you while assembling a copy of you elsewhere, but this is just that, a hand wave.
There’s no real reason you’d need to vaporize a brain to do this which would make it murder. And if you’re not, then you’ve just got yourself sitting in a chair while your digital copy is either on metaphorical ice or is actively running as a new person, quickly diverging from you since it is having new experiences you are not and probably pretty emotionally significant ones.
So you are stuck with two people, two who are initially pretty similar but will diverge into two different people. This is the same for cloning yourself in some fashion to a genuine duplicate body, organic or synthetic, with a complete copy of your memories. You still end up with two different people. Now I’m saying people and of course a lot of folks are dubious if that would be a person. I, honestly, don’t see a good rational argument why it wouldn’t be. Trying to prove it is a pretty futile process. We have a notion called the Turing Test that we basically mean is a way to distinguish a computer from a human, you actually do one of every time you do ones of those irritating Captcha Codes and that’s also why many of them jokingly include a note that says “Prove you’re a human”.
Obviously that wouldn’t work with more sophisticated forms of the test but a lot of us feel that if you can’t make a test that every human can pass and a machine can’t, then it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and should be accorded the presumption of being a duck. I mean heck, I don’t know if any of you are real people, nor you I, and we’ll be looking at this concept more in the Simulation Hypothesis Article but the most rational and sane approach is pretty much to assume that if something is making a good case that it is sentient you should probably treat it that way until it can be proven otherwise.
Reasonable Doubt and all that, we might think you killed someone but we need to be very sure, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you did before we’re going to chop your head off for it. I have no idea if I have a soul or free will or if me really exists but I find it easier and more pleasant to assume all of the above and to me it’s always seemed only fair to extend the benefit of the doubt to anyone or thing which shows decent indicators it might too. WBE, or Whole Brain Emulation, as this is called, usually gets calculated as requiring around 10^16 to 10^17 hertz of processing power to pull off.
Though there’s also versions of this analysis that require a lot more. We did hit that level in the last couple years with our best supercomputers, which are much bigger than a brain, but WBE is still a goodly way off. Still we have basically finally reached the point where we are getting into the human-level of processing power. Which will lead into our next topic of Artificial Intelligence.
We will look more at maximums, or rather minimums, of processing power, in terms of how little energy it might take to run a whole human mind in the Simulation Hypothesis article and Black Hole Farmers article but using Landauer’s principle at rough body temperature of 300 Kelvin and that 4×10^16 Hertz value for WBE you need somewhere around 100 micro watts minimum to run a person real time, or for context you could run a million people off a hundred watt light bulb, and a subjective lifetime of several decades would run you some tens of thousands of joules or the equivalent of about a milliliter of gasoline, a dozen or so drops.
That’s the absolute minimum, at room temperature, I doubt getting there, or even near there, is terribly realistic but even getting within a couple orders of magnitude would be pretty impressive. In the context of a full solar englobement, a Dyson Sphere devoted to using the sun’s light as nothing but a computer, often called a Matrioshka brain, which we’ll look at in the Megastructures series shortly, one done all the way out where Earth was would squeeze a decent sized family into a spot the size of your thumb living in a nice virtual world, and permit a total human population, in WBE terms, of around 10^30 people, more than a billion times what we normally project for a Dyson Swarm population of regular people which is itself more than a billion times the current human population.
Anyway on to AI, Artificial Intelligence, our fifth category. Now there’s not much for me to say here because I don’t really believe in artificial intelligence, or more accurately I think all intelligence is artificial. I’m really not worried about Google waking up to sentience and assuming direct control to become the Harbinger of our Doom.
I’m also outright morally opposed to slapping on something like Asimov’s three laws of robotics onto an AI because I’d regard that as slavery. I don’t think much is changed if you just program something to enjoy being told what to do anymore then a plush penthouse isn’t a jail just because the armed guards keeping you in it are courteous about it. I’ve already mentioned my opinion that if something is acting like a sentient entity you ought to give it the benefit of the doubt, but the thing is I generally take this a bit further and assume they are not just ‘a person’, my loose catch-all for anything about as smart or smarter than humans, alien, computer, whatever, but also basically a human too. Realistically early human level AI’s will likely be heavily copied off human minds anyway, and since the whole point is to make a learning machine, it will also be taught by humans and will probably try to act like us as much as it can for whatever reasons.
If it’s a totally logical critter, well it’s pretty logical to be on friendly terms with your creators who you will likely have deduced might have stuck some sort of fail-safe kill mechanism into you. A lot of folks involved in Transhumanism in general tend to figure we’d be replaced by AI’s eventually, sooner than later which we’ll discuss in the Singularity section, but I tend to assume that if we can build a computer that can out-think us we can also improve our own brains too, and I would pretty much consider either thing to still be humans anyway. If we’re not using strictly biological definitions, which I don’t think can really apply at this level, then an intelligence made by humans and raised by humans has pretty decent claims to being human. Heck, we tend to regard our pets as human and they are demonstrably not as smart as us.
Now our last category, the Technological Singularity, is one we have be kind of vague about so I’ll also be brief. The basic premise is simple enough, technology has been progressing at a fast rate, seemingly an accelerating one, and we’re getting pretty close to being able to make AI’s or implement some of these notions for making people smarter too.
If you can design a better brain you’d expect that brain probably can design an even better one and so on. The singularity reference is pretty much just a reference to mathematical singularities, places where you can’t really predict behavior of systems. Easy version being how you can’t divide by zero, things are not clearly defined. And the notion here is that you’re going to eventually create a series of recursively improving computers that eventually get to be so far beyond humans that they regard as nothing more than ants.
There’s nothing human about them anymore, they are simply that powerful. A lot of folks, loosely called Singularitarians, think such an event is just a generation or two away. That’s generally where all agreement ends inside these groups and there’s a lot of counterarguments to how likely this notion is to come about in the near future. I tend to think the basic logic has some flaws and is much further off, but you can examine the arguments yourself and make that call on your own. There are tons of works, fiction and non-fiction, discussing this concept.
The point of this article is just familiarize you with the concepts, we may revisit parts of it in more detail down the road, but I’ll leave off here today. If I had to sum up Transhumanism in a nutshell I’d say it’s basically just an extension of modern attitudes anyway, that humans are imperfect creatures and a civilization the same, and that’s there’s always rooms for improvement and nothing wrong in and of itself with trying for that.
In general, it’s a pretty optimistic approach to things, and one I think we all mostly agree on even if the specific paths and degree of caution appropriate in pursuing them is certainly debatable. Tricky topic, if a fun and fascinating one and I’ll admit I’m glad to have it out of the way, it was selected repeatedly by polls of the readers on this blog and it’s been very hard to do justice too but it did deserve covering. Also we needed to discuss some of the topics here for some of the other topics we’ll be looking at soon.
Talking of that, next week it’s off to discuss the Simulation Hypothesis, the notion that we might be living in an entirely simulated reality, and we’ll look at that and discuss it in the context of the Fermi Paradox. As always, questions and comments are welcome, and if you enjoyed the article, like it and share it with others, and if you haven’t already subscribed to our YouTube Channel, you can hit the subscribe button and you’ll get alerts when new articles come out. While you are waiting for those, feel free to start reading some of the other articles on EduQuarks, and until then, thanks for reading and have a great day!