Friday, June 21, 2013

Response to a Friend's Questions on Life Extension

In response to my previous post, "What Life Extension Actually Is", my friend posed several more questions. I responded to them on Facebook and I'll reproduce them here.
Here are his questions:

I am curious though, ... do you think it would be sustainable to have everyone on the planet live indefinitely? I'm trying to imagine what would happen if no one died of age-related causes but the world continued to procreate. Do you see there being any economic and/or population challenges there?

Also, I would imagine that the technology needed to make this possible would be extremely expensive (e.g., you cited a Russian billionaire who is heavily invested in the project). Do you see this technology being made available to the common man?

Here are my answers, with a few minor tweaks:

Good questions.

Your first: Will it be sustainable? Honestly I can't see that far into the future, though I can envision some possibilities and see some trends.

I think it's an important question to ask, but it is less important than eliminating the suffering of aging and dying. Essentially, letting people get sick or die when we have the capability of stopping it is a bigger sin than overpopulating the Earth, especially considering there are things that we can envision now to address overpopulation, and surely new ideas would come to us once we get to that point. We don't sit idly by as someone drowns, or dies of pneumonia, or infection from a simple scratch. I'm sure we all agree it is wrong to do so. Address the most important problem first.

Like I said, there are some trends that I think are working in our favor. The biggest of these is the strong negative correlation between education, most especially of women, and birth rate. The United States actually has a birth rate below the replacement rate, and would be declining in population were it not for immigration. Just a few days ago there was an interesting RadioWest interview about this. Our birth rate is around 1.9 births per woman, which is below the (current) replacement rate of around 2.1 births. Other countries are much lower, including Japan, as I'm sure you're aware, which is around 1.4.

So this has led social scientists to predict that the world population will peak at about 9 billion people around 2050, after which it will begin to decline. So we've already begun addressing the problem naturally.
Second, I don't think we're near the carrying capacity of the Earth. We have become much more productive and efficient in farming, energy usage (in spite of using more), resource usage, etc. I don't think we're near limits on any of these, though gains will grow harder to get to. But we can hold many more people than we currently do.

I strongly believe we will colonize other worlds throughout space. I think this will be very challenging, though, due to the vast distances and timescales involved, and the amount of energy required, and there are some disincentives to being the person leaving the Earth. Still, there are important reasons to become multi-planet, the most important of which is to make the human species more resilient to natural dangers. Besides, who wouldn't want to be the first missionaries to preach the gospel to other worlds. :-)

I am worried about economic disparity, especially considering descriptions of the Nephites at their best, or the city of Enoch, or the United Order. There is a pattern that has held pretty well, though, that at first new technologies work poorly, are expensive, and few have access, then they become mainstream, and eventually it becomes reliable and everybody has access to it cheaply. Think cell phones for a good example. I can see rich people monopolizing access to important technologies. Yet healthy, biologically young people are more productive and so make better workers, and contribute more to GDP, they get sick less, they are less of a burden on others such as children, they can buy more stuff. I wonder if it would even make sense to give free access to aging medicine for the economic benefits that would result from a productive, purchasing society.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What Life Extension Actually Is

I posted the picture below on Facebook, and I got a comment from a friend with questions about my thoughts on the subject. I got so excited, then spent the next bunch of time writing down my thoughts and getting burned out (it's bedtime -- actually after) that I figured I should post them here.

Here is the picture:

So-and-so (you know who you are), thanks for your question. As you can probably tell, this is a subject that I'm excited about, and anytime someone expresses interested in it I have to pounce.

There's actually a lot of thought going on now among different groups and public figures about living forever. Just a few days ago in the news there were a number of articles about a Russian multi-millionaire Dmitry Itskov's quest, plan, and timeline, to live forever. Here is one, from a quick Google News search, that unfortunately doesn't seem to contain his timeline, but gives a lot of the story. And I know you've heard of Ray Kurzweil, who has been a champion of living indefinitely for quite a while, who now works for Google. Ray Kurzweil is a co-founder of the Singularity University. I bring these up to illustrate that there are smart people thinking about, as well as money going into, this subject.

Aubrey De Grey is another influential individual in this area, having helped start the Methuselah Foundation -- fitting because he famously sports a Methuselah-style beard -- and later the SENS Foundation, short for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. As far as I know he is not a theist, but he gave one of the keynote talks at the 2013 conference of the Mormon Transhumanist Association, and was quite friendly towards us Mormons, and seems generally respectful of religion in general. (Video)

(Bunch of links. I'm not necessarily endorsing any of them. Except the MTA. ;-) )

If you look in to what some of these various people envision as humanity's future you'll find that there are different, perhaps complimentary, visions. I think that Aubrey De Grey's approach may be more near-term in terms of both achieveability and, importantly, public acceptance, so I'll kind of focus on that. I really recommend looking up some of his videos -- a YouTube search gives plenty, and some of these are short and sweet. If you're interested in a longer video, I'll push you towards the MTA conference keynote video. It was a great talk; he gave a good overview of the subject, and tried to create a shared vision with religious people.

Aubrey De Grey's number one goal is to prevent the suffering that people experience from diseases of old age. And when we describe this as our goal it makes a lot of sense. As he describes in the MTA video, if we eliminate the causes of damage to our bodies experienced during aging, or repair the damage before it becomes pathogenic then we prevent the diseases of old age. This bring us back to the original graphic. If we can stop or repair the age-related damage done before someone gets Alzheimers, or wears out her knees, or (hopefully for me) loses his hair, then we haven't lengethed the older years of reduced capacity and suffering, but we have added years of capability and vigor.

As a side effect, De Grey would say, people stop dying from getting old. Of course this doesn't stop people from dying of accidents or germs, for example; but humanity has been addressing these problems, too, by things like self-driving cars, airbags, building codes, vaccines, and basic sanitation. I expect that as we continue to lengthen lifespan that human life will become more valuable to us, and we will continue to look for better ways to prevent these other causes of death. Or we'll all get so bored of living so long that we'll all commit suicide. But I also hope that life will get more interesting as we progress.

I know many people hold to the necessity of dying, even suffering. I admit there's something kind of romantic about holding one's head high as one enters the twilight of one's life and prepares to meet the inevitable. But I think we have to be honest -- aging sucks. Anyone who thinks otherwise is lying. I've been lucky to not have seen much death in my life, but I watched both of my grandfathers in the last years of their lives. One, whom I lived close to before his death, I was able to see in just the last few days before his death. No. There's really nothing romantic about it.

I've become old enough and aware enough to learn of friends' parents and others dying from things like cancer. No. There's really nothing romantic about it.

So, back to Aubrey De Grey: If we can achieve what he and others are *right now* trying to achieve, then we will be able to prevent dying from old age. Which means that we would be able to live indefinitely, meaning we could have reasonable confidence we wouldn't die from old age, but we never could be sure the Sun won't blow up and kill us, or aliens won't try to colonize our planet, or a piano drops on our head, or our neighbor gives us an anthrax letter. We will just have confidence that nothing in particular *has* to kill us.

Probably he is too optimistic. Probably the causes and required fixes for aging are more complex than anybody realizes, and we won't cure aging anywhere near when people like Aubrey De Grey think we will. But I feel compelled by my Mormonness to believe that we will eventually get to this point, because of the principle of Eternal Progression, or what Ray Kurzweil might call the Law of Accelerating Returns.

If we never can repair damage to the human body then that must mean that there is some barrier or filter that prevents us from getting to that point, whether man-made or due to complexity (which I think is finite, though I'm no mathematician nor philosopher). The scriptures are full of stories of people who were damned at some point, due to their wickedness. And this is always a possibility. The natural man can prove to be the great filter that damns us. But we must always have faith that if we keep God's commandments and use the means that the Lord has provided for us that we can continue to progress beyond the level we are at, which tells me that no matter how complex the problem, it's just a matter of time and faith.

I have faith in a future resurrection. I really do. It takes a lot of the fear out of growing old and dying, because I believe that it's not the end of me, or the end of my family and friends. I hope I will not die. I think it's possible I will not die. But if I do, well, c'est la vie, and I hope my kids never die, and they will seek after their dead, and I will be resurrected to be with them, and my parents too, and my grandparents too.

OK. Whew. I think I addressed the first two lines of your question. Let me take a breather.

Do we have to die? Or, in other words, is it necessary for us to experience death?

My first thought is no, because I can envision myself living indefinitely, or if not me, at least someone. But I can still die in 100 years, or maybe 1000, or maybe a billion or something, but maybe eventually I'll die. I do wonder what a billion-year-old me would get out of the dying experience, and I'd hope by then I could make it painless.

Related to this I want to ask, is it necessary to suffer? I don't think so -- though I think that suffering is unavoidable. But I don't go around flagellating myself to increase my suffering, or wish that everybody could be born with genetic abnormalities or get hit by a car or something. I think it's wise to reduce suffering wherever and whenever we can, even though we learn by suffering and can have joy in painful situations. We Mormons believe in a God that weeps. God weeps because God cares, so as long as we care we have the potential to suffer. But God overcomes, and so should we.

Mormons believe that there are a number of people who never died. For example, "Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death", or the Three Nephites who, "shall never taste of death" and "shall never endure the pains of death", or John the Beloved, who, "shalt tarry until I come in my glory". So it seems that maybe death isn't a necessary experience.

Well, actually it depends on your definition of death. When Jesus pulls back the veil of the covering of his temple, and all flesh sees him together, "there shall be no sorrow because there is no death." Yet in the very next verse it says that, "An infant shall not die until he is old; and his life shall be as the age of a tree; and when he dies he shall not sleep, that is to say in the earth, but shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye...". And the death of an infant who has grown up is described quite differently than what most deaths today are.

It seems to me that these verses are describing a radical change, and not death. Or maybe we could say that death is necessary, but death only has to mean some kind of a change from our current state, not a ceasing to be alive.

I feel closer now to Mormonism and to the LDS church than I've felt for a long time. I've come to appreciate more the Book of Mormon's teachings about the natural man and its admonitions to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as a witness of God, though I usually am more on the natural man side.

So I want to emphasize that trying to eliminate aging doesn't trump charity, or take the place of keeping the commandments; it is being charitable, it is keeping the commandments.

We must not build a tower, but an ark, not a Rameumptom, but a ship to cross these great waters. We have to overcome the natural man, which is an unnatural thing, but the pattern lies in John the Beloved, when he said, "Lord, give unto me power over death, that I may live and bring souls unto thee." I'm mixing multiple stories here, but I hope I'm conveying my point.

Thanks for asking me questions, and getting me worked up enough to blog about something. I'll see you later.