The low-hanging fruit of technological progress

The website Alternative Right has an interesting article on the declining pace of technological progress:

The world of 1959 is pretty much the same world we live in today technologically speaking. This is a vaguely horrifying fact which is little appreciated…Certainly, people can be forgiven for thinking we live in a time of great progress, since semiconductor lithography has improved over the years, giving us faster and more portable computers. But can we really do anything with computers now that we couldn’t have done 30 or even 50 years ago?…Some wise acre is likely to pipe up and sing the glories of “Nanotech,” a “subject” which was “invented” in K. Eric Drexler‘s Ph.D. thesis in 1989. In the 20 years since he penned his fanciful little story, we have yet to see a single example of the wondrous miniature perpetual motion machines Drexler has been promising us “real soon now.” I wonder what his timeline for delivery of this “technology” will be?

The author dismisses the idea that the rapid technological progress between 1959 and 1909 was possible because these generations focused on the “easy stuff” but I wonder if this explanation can be so easily dismissed. Even if we allow for the credible hypothesis that laissez-faire capitalism is more conducive to accelerating technological change than a mixed economy, it cannot be ignored that commercial incentives favor picking the low-hanging fruit first. The current generation is left with more complicated technological  and biomedical objectives such as molecular nanotechnology and rejuvenation of the human body.

A sober mind should never get too carried away with either optimism or pessimism. One major advantage of making cryonics arrangements is that it eliminates some of the anxiety that comes from recognizing that credible rejuvenation therapies may not become available in your lifetime. Patients in cryostasis have time, a point that is not always fully recognized by skeptics of accelerating technological progress.

Peter Thiel: Utopian Pessimist

Peter Thiel, one of the few original minds in the life extension and accelerating-technological-change community, is featured in a short interview at Wired. Thiel seems to be aware of the limitations of extrapolation of trends:

We’ve been living in a unique period of accelerating technological progress. We’ve gone from horses to cars to planes to rockets to computers to the Internet in a very short time. It’s not automatic that that continues.

In a 2008 essay for the Hoover Institute, Thiel writes:

Thought experiments are notoriously misleading. Unlike more rigorous forms of scientific investigation, there are no empirical means to falsify these mental exercises. The optimistic thought experiment exists largely in the mind. The vistas of the mind are not always the same as reality. One could do worse than to ignore Milton ’s seductive promise: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

As has been argued on this website before, the life extension movement suffers from an abundance of individuals who engage in thought experiments and organize conferences to talk to other people who engage in thought experiments.  But the fight against aging  cannot be won through speculation and wishful thinking alone but is in serious need of an “empirical turn”  that will unleash an avalanche of experimental research (for example, such as envisioned by the newly formed non-profit company Livly).

Further reading: 2008 Reason Interview with Peter Thiel

The singularity is not near

Singularity skeptic Mark Plus drew my attention to the following blog post. The author writes that:

Chalmers’ (and other advocates of the possibility of a Singularity) argument starts off with the simple observation that machines have gained computing power at an extraordinary rate over the past several years, a trend that one can extrapolate to a near future explosion of intelligence. Too bad that, as any student of statistics 101 ought to know, extrapolation is a really bad way of making predictions, unless one can be reasonably assured of understanding the underlying causal phenomena (which we don’t, in the case of intelligence).

He ends his post by the following observation:

It is nice to see philosophers taking a serious interest in science and bringing their discipline’s tools and perspectives to the high table of important social debates about the future of technology. But the attempt becomes a not particularly funny joke when a well known philosopher starts out by deploying a really bad argument and ends up sounding more cuckoo than trekkie fans at their annual convention.

There are several arguments that can be made against simple extrapolations of past trends and the way many transhumanists think about the progress of science.  Some of these arguments have been made in my own piece Scientific Optimism and Progress in Cryonics. It is striking that when futurists have to estimate a timescale for important breakthroughs these events almost invariably are projected to happen within their lifetime, and even if they do not, there is some way to be a part of them. This tendency itself is indicative of how rationalism, wishful thinking, and self-interest can shape our ideas about the future.

Lifequest

Back in the late 1980’s, from Lake Tahoe, we published seven issues of short stories devoted to cryonics and where that might lead, primarily to uploading and a future now much like that envisioned in far more detail by Ray Kurzweil in his writings on the Singularity. The early issues were mainly about the emotions of those deciding on cryonics and trying to get themselves frozen, while the later issues delved into everything from nanobot warfare and gray-goo meltdown dangers to Albert Einstein unexpectedly going “self-conscious” and emulated as a powerful entity, in connection with an entertainment virtual reality endeavor. There are three stories by Thomas Donaldson that are quite poetic about the far future, and two by Lee Corbin, which stretch the imagination to the point of envisioning a present-day intellect being able to experience the heat death of the universe, but there are just as many stories which deal with very basic human emotions about cryonics.

Full access to all of this is on our basic LifeQuest Index Page. At the bottom you’ll find links to the Amazon.Com pages, where the republished stories are available on Kindle as well as in hard copy. If you take the ‘author link’ a little way down the main Amazon.Com page, you’ll see a blog where just this morning an entry was made for a new story, “The Box”, online in Power Point downloadable as PDF. For any who might wish to have a brief glance, here’s the LINK for that.

Hope you enjoy these stories; they’re available on line, so it’s not necessary to buy a copy on Amazon. On the other hand, if you have a reluctant relative or friend you want to try to bring over to your way of thinking, the hard copy version might be helpful.

Cryonics and philosophy of science

The 2008-3 issue of Alcor’s Cryonics Magazine contains a number of articles about the pitfalls of (excessive) scientific optimism and its potential adverse effects on the organizational and practical aspects of cryonics. My own contribution contrasts cryonics as medical conservatism with the kind of scientific meliorism that is often associated with movements such as transhumanism and singularitarianism. In particular, I express reservations about the arguments that intend to show that reversible cryopreservation and resuscitation of cryonics patients is inevitable because the required technological advances do not contradict our current understanding of the laws of physics. Instead of relying on abstract “rationalist” arguments I propose to focus more strongly on generating and disseminating empirical evidence that people who are engaged in science and medicine today will find persuasive, especially as it pertains to revising our contemporary definitions of death.

The same issue also contains an important contribution by Glen Donovan about the relationship between science and cryonics. Is cryonics a science? If it is not a science, what is it? This piece discusses cryonics from the perspective of the philosophy of science. This is an approach that has received little attention to date but it seems to me that the status of cryonics and its associated research programs can benefit from  discussing cryonics utilizing the tools and concepts of analytic philosophy. In particular, one project that could constitute an  important contribution would be to give specific empirical meaning to a concept like information-theoretic death.

Aschwin de Wolf – Scientific Optimism and Progress in Cryonics (2009)

Cryonics and transhumanism

The association of cryonics with “transhumanism” seems inevitable but is problematic.  It seems inevitable because cryonics should be most attractive to people with a very positive perspective on the future capabilities of technology. Barring rapid advances in mitigating aging, cryonics  offers the only credible option for transhumanists to become a part of that future. It is unfortunate because it can have adverse effects on the objective of making cryonics a part of conventional medicine, and further alienates people who are open to the idea of human cryopreservation but fear the future.

For some people the choice for cryonics does not so much represent optimism about the pace of technological progress, or a desire for immortality, but rather skepticism about our contemporary definition of death.  This is not a trivial distinction. Despite some popular misconceptions, cryonics is not necessarily linked to having an extreme position on the pace of technological progress.  One can be a conservative regarding the timescale that it will take to develop credible cell repair technologies and be a staunch cryonics advocate without any contradiction.  Similarly, a commitment to cryonics does not necessarily mean that one has to root for the most radical and optimistic school of thought in nanotechnology.

The unfortunate association between cryonics and transhumanism has recently been addressed by ex-Alcor president and cryonics advocate Steve Bridge in his perceptive article Has Cryonics taken the Wrong Path? The Unnoticed Conflict between Rescue Technology and Futurist Philosophies. So far Bridge’s article has had limited effect and cryonics representatives are rarely invited to speak at any conferences outside of the predictable “Transhumanism-Singularity Industrial Complex.” This development does not just reflect a lack of effective and credible spokespersons that can make a persuasive scientific case for cryonics, it also reflects a lack of concern about cryonics being perceived as one element in a larger transhumanist or Singularitarian project.

There seem to be indications, however, that this climate is changing.  Cryonics activists such as Mark Plus and longevity advocates such as Anne Corwin have increasingly  expressed reservations about certain strands of futurism and the unsolicited identification with these movements. Another welcome development is scientific researchers such as Richard Jones who do not necessarily disagree about the  possibility of molecular cell repair technologies but reject the meliorist and quasi-religious tendencies in contemporary futurism.

In a recent blog entry about Ray Kurzweil, Richard Jones writes:

One difficulty is that Kurzweil makes many references to current developments in science and technology, and most readers are going to take it on trust that Kurzweil’s account of these developments is accurate. All too often, though, what one finds is that there’s a huge gulf between the conclusions Kurzweil draws from these papers and what they actually say – it’s the process I described in my article The Economy of Promises taken to extremes – “a transformation of vague possible future impacts into near-certain outcomes”….The difficulty, then, is not that there is no science underlying the claims Kurzweil makes, nor that this science isn’t very exciting on its own terms. It’s that this science can’t sustain the sweeping claims and (especially) the fast timescales that Kurzweil insists on.

It would be unfortunate for cryonics to be identified with naive thinking about society and technology and sellers of snake oil. Recent management and staff changes at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation indicate a renewed emphasis on sound business operations and medical credibility. It remains to be seen if these changes constitute a broader effort to re-position cryonics as an important player in the world of medical innovation.

Insurance against death through cryonics

Let’s face it: we’re all (still) getting older, and aging leads to death. This is a major reason for cryonics’ existence — to preserve ourselves, usually in an aged, diseased, and/or deteriorated state, until medical science is capable of curing our ailments and prolonging our lives. Because many people (especially young cryonics supporters) tend to think that they will benefit from radical life extension therapies in their own lifetime, some choose to forgo making early cryonics arrangements. As discussed in a recent post, even if aging is ended or reversed there will remain a non-trivial risk of death by accident or other fatal incidents. Others who support cryonics but endlessly put off making their own arrangements also take an enormous risk in securing their own cryopreservations. It is important to be an activist for your own cause, too, after all.

That most people do acquire the financial means and/or appropriate insurance coverage to make arrangements as soon as they determine that they want to be cryopreserved is a cornerstone upon which cryonics providers rely to operate as efficiently as possible. The fact is that life insurance is easiest and cheapest to obtain when you are young and healthy. In an age where people nonchalantly dole out hundreds of dollars a month for their cell phone usage, life insurance coverage that will pay out the required amounts for your cryopreservation upon legal death is a trivial payment (on the order of $20-80/mo for a healthy young adult). Even if you are not totally sure yet whether you want to be cryopreserved, obtaining insurance at a young age that can provide for your cryopreservation is a wise move. Arriving on the doorstep of a cryonics provider as a “last minute case” is not advisable, since these are often the most demanding and controversial cases, and are also frequently subject to family interference.

Unfortunately, there are situations in which persons who have been dedicated to cryonics for many years fall upon hard times or are otherwise disposed of the ability to maintain their cryonics arrangements. For these legitimate cases, a plea for help can be raised when presented with adequate information concerning the person, their involvement in cryonics, and the nature of the circumstances leading to their disability to provide funding for cryopreservation. Of course, those who are already disabled or terminally ill before hearing about cryonics make up a good proportion of these legitimate claims, as well.

However, some of these “pleas for help” are not infrequently issued to the general cryonics populace at large via cryonics-specific Internet message forums, with little to no circumstantial information provided to assess the validity of the request. Such requests leave a lot to be desired in terms of properly addressing the need of the person desiring assistance, and devalue the importance of acquiring and maintaining cryonics arrangements throughout life, so they are not dependent upon others when bad times finally do befall them.

Looking forward, the last thing cryonics providers need are multiple series of last-minute cases and daily fundraising appeals when the “Singularity” turned out not to be as near as some people might have thought….

Ev Cooper's cryonics classic published online

Few, if any, cryonicists today can retrace their personal interest in cryonics to Evan Cooper. Despite the broader recognition of Robert Ettinger’s book, “The Prospect of Immortality,” which was commercially published in 1964, Cooper’s privately published 1962 manuscript, “Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now,” is an important parallel effort in what would later become known as cryonics. Soon afterward Ev also started the first cryonics organization, the Life Extension Society (LES), from which several other cryonics societies eventually emerged.

Ev was a charismatic leader, but the LES lost influence over the years as the various Cryonics Societies began to operate in earnest; particularly after the Cryonics Society of California performed the first human cryopreservation of Dr. James H. Bedford in January 1967. Later that year Ev called off his annual LES conference and  began to diminish his efforts, leaving the movement by 1970.

Always an enigmatic character, no one knows much about why Ev disappeared and removed himself from cryonics. Cryonics activist Mike Darwin notes in the March 1983 issue of Cryonics Magazine that Ev’s former wife, Mildred, said that “he turned away from cryonics because of overload, burn-out, and a general sense that it was not going to be a viable option in his lifetime.” In the same issue, Saul Kent notes that the political struggles engendered by the emergence of the new cryonics societies also seem to have played a role in Ev’s decision to walk away from cryonics. He spent the remaining years of his life sailing along the Eastern seaboard until he failed to return home after an attempt to sail his inadequately repaired boat from Martha’s Vineyard to Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1982. Ev Cooper was presumed lost at sea.

We may never know exactly why Ev Cooper turned his back on cryonics — he destroyed all personal papers and most of his correspondence sometime before his death — but we can surmise that in order to have been the first cryonicist (or at least the first advocate of forming a cryonics movement), Ev must have been an optimist. His book, reissued by the Society for Venturism in 1991 and offered below in both printable HTML and PDF formats with the help of Mike Perry, is a forward-looking synthesis of information, indicative of Ev’s ardent hope for the potential of science to benefit humankind. Ev’s book not only discusses the use of cold to preserve patients in the hope of future resuscitation, a substantial part of his manuscript is devoted to reviewing different scientific means to achieve “physical immortality.” The author also anticipates a lot of other “futurist” topics like synthetic biology, transhumanism, mind uploading, and the singularity.

We remain hopeful that Ev’s other expectations in life were met, and are duly thankful for his early and unique contribution to the field of cryonics.

“Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now” by Ev Cooper (writing as Nathan Duhring):

** HTML format

** Adobe portable document format (PDF)