The immortality brigade

A fifty-seat room was never going to be big enough. People fill the aisles, sit on the ground and peer around the door. A man comes in a little late clutching a box bearing the LifeExtension ‘nutriceutical’ brand. Sunlight glints through the windows, dappling the trademark grey-speckled beard and ponytail of today’s speaker, the somewhat notorious Aubrey de Grey. For the next two hours, this room will house discussions of whole-brain emulation, ‘strong’ (self-improving) artificial intelligence and molecular medicine’s promise of immortality. For the moment, this was a room of Singularitarians.

The precise definition of the Singularity depends on who you ask, but popular variations usually involve the principle of exponentially accelerating returns in technology, invoking Moore’s law which states that transistor density, and hence computer speed, doubles every eighteen months. We quickly end up on the nearly vertical slope of the exponential curve, with colossal advances occurring near-instantaneously. At present, we can adapt to new technologies like the internet because they progress relatively slowly. If the scale and pace of modern research caused such advances came much more quickly, humans might have trouble keeping up with the cutting edge.

Consider what might happen if we were able to significantly augment human intelligence with machines. We would then be able to use our newfound intellect to build better machines, which would further improve us, allowing us to further improve on them… A point of explosive exponential increase.

Quite what a post-Singularity world will look like is impossible to say, but the potential payoffs are large: the end of ageing, the ability to augment, back up and restore one’s brain, collective consciousness and a life of leisure enabled by the advent of strong AI are a few of the benefits touted by advocates.

Most striking is the apparent inevitability the advance of computing technology: since its inception in 1965, Moore’s law has held unwaveringly. It presumably has some physical limit above which further improvements are not possible. Some predict that it may not last more than five or ten years more. Of course, such prophesies have been made for the last thirty years, and still processing power grows apparently unabated.

It’s de Grey’s turn to speak. His appearance is no less striking than his talk: he wears a loose, lime-green check shirt, sleeves rolled up, and sports a ponytail and bushy beard that comes down practically to his navel. He resembles a biblical prophet working dress-down Friday at an internet startup. de Grey’s organisation—Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, or SENS—promotes the development of techniques that can maintain and repair the ageing body.

“When this does become a possibility,” de Grey explains, “no government will fail to deliver this technology universally as the cost of maintaining an ageing population is so vast. And when the prospect of immortality is on the cards for all of us, perhaps we’ll take other existential risks—climate change among them—more seriously.”

Strikingly, de Grey presents a model showing that the quality of molecular medicine need only double once every forty-two years to allow those alive today to live forever with sufficient regenerative treatments. “For fuck’s sake,” he exclaims, “that’s the time it took to go from the Hindenberg to Concorde.” Murmurs of approval from the audience, though his talk contains a dispiriting vacuum of information on how sophisticated our abilities currently are or whether any projects in the pipeline are keeping us on track for the goal of immortality within our lifetime.

The debate in the room quickly turns intense, with a gamut of views expressed and discussed. Unsurprisingly, a meeting such as this tends to involve detailed discourse on the vagaries of developing AI or of whole-brain emulation, rather than on the basic feasibility of the Singularity. de Grey expressed his own, rather serious, doubts: a key necessity is the ability for an artificially intelligent machine to recursively improve upon its own intelligence, but de Grey suggested that there might be a mathematical upper limit to the rate of this improvement. Beyond this, though, there is little more than superficial discussion of how likely the Singularity is to come to pass, which for a field as apparently fantastical and potentially revolutionary as this is disappointing.

Even de Grey’s speech on ending ageing went mostly unchallenged, despite the implications his work could have. Many contemporary philosophers, transhumanist Nick Bostrom among them, have opined on the ways in which engineered immortality would radically change the way society operates, but de Grey himself is oddly silent on the matter. This seems surprising—public opinion of Singularitarians seems to be generally apathetic or negative, with the Singularity painted as a ‘geek religion’ of sorts, and views on ending ageing are even less accepting, so those espousing post-human viewpoints need to make the moral case for their convictions. In this room in Birkbeck, though, de Grey is probably preaching to the converted.

The term ‘Singularity’ is likely to see frequent use among technojournalists in search of an impressive but baseless story in the years between now and whenever the Singularity actually comes to pass. An important point is that some of the technological advances promised are very feasible and almost inevitably are right outside the door. Public discussion of the ethical quandries invented along with smart drugs or personal genome sequencing is important if we are to avoid these innovations causing damage rather than good due to imprudent or unscrupulous use.

After a brief adjournment to the Marlborough Arms, the Singularitarians disperse into Bloomsbury. de Grey cycles off to get a train back to Cambridge, beard flowing behind him. For a man who plans to live forever, it’s a little surprising he doesn’t wear a helmet.

First published in a ‘science in London’ feature in Pi Newspaper, November 2009.