Creating People Seems Like a Necessary But Not Terribly Nice Thing to Be Doing

Less us ponder the subject of having children in the face of the existence of aging coupled with the possibility of progressively defeating aging - perhaps to the point where some of us alive today will escape age-related death by the skin of our teeth. Or perhaps not if we don't get our act together here and now. Evidently we need to have children in order to have the chance of incrementally defeating aging by building ever better versions of a biological repair kit to reverse ever more of the damage that causes degeneration and death. This task is one of decades, long enough that it may be today's researchers who start the job, but it'll be younger hands that finish it - their children and grandchildren. Yet creating people is somewhat like drafting them into a war and a human condition that they didn't ask for:

There's a task we need you for, son, you and the rest of your generation. We may or may not manage to complete it, but we certainly won't without your help - and if we don't get this done, we're dead all too soon, a slow death, heavy on the pain and suffering. We'll be dragged away first so you get to see the end in all its horror, with plenty of sleepless nights to think it over before it happens to you as well. Oh yes, and most people don't see the need for any of this work and think the pain and suffering and death is just dandy. So that's the deal, a raw one all round - welcome to the asylum, son. No need to thank me.

I'm sympathetic to the hedonistic imperative view of pain and priorities in technological development, and I also think there's a fair but short-sighted argument to be made for nihilism along the lines of voluntary species extinction. It runs something along the lines of a utilitarian consideration of suffering, slavery, existence, natural rights, and similar concerns.

I call that short-sighted because, if we're going to be utilitarian, we should consider that the point and beneficiary of all this technological development - not to mention the bone mountain of suffering and corpses we stand upon and continue to build - is very much not us. Our own longevity and diminished future suffering is a tiny side-effect on the way to providing massively greater benefits to our future descendants, be they biological or machine intelligences. They will be so greatly endowed by the cumulative efforts in advancing technology that ensuring their existence (and ensuring that it comes about as soon as possible) will far and away outweigh our needs in any utilitarian consideration. We are short-lived, small in number, small in mind, and planet-bound evolved intelligences, while our descendants of future centuries will not be any of those things. There will be trillions of them, a near infinite variety of forms of mind, ageless, absent suffering, and hopefully wiser than us for it. They will exist because we, our forebears, and our children suffered the limitations and risks of our present existence in order to build the road that little bit further - and because we chose to inflict the same on others by bringing them into being.

So having children still looks to me largely like throwing new people into a horrible situation in order that some of them will try make it better - and with some hope that they might benefit as individuals, but also the great risk that they will not, and suffer greatly as a consequence. Beyond that, there is an abstract grail that will be enjoyed by people yet to come - our descendants made in biology or machinery - who we will likely never know, and whose era will be brilliant and golden beyond our imagining, but only if we strive to lay the foundation stones here and now.


As Aubrey says "we will need much more effective somatic gene therapy than currently exists, and I think that will need a lot of trial and error" ... For me, it doesn't sound like 20, 25, 30 yers, but 50 or possibly much more. We are going to grow older, like everyone before us, unfortunately, for me the hope in 30/35 years is a future version of cryonics, more reliable ( if you can say that ) and available. I'm not even talking about the magic thing, that is, the singularity, uploading and all that kind of stuff, which mighty/may be possible one day but not in our lifetime, maybe that's another chance, maybe we will be resurrected through Quantum Archeology in a very distant future, if it does makes sense.

"Or perhaps not if we don't get our act together here and now"

With all due respect, this kind of mantra is a bit repetitive, isn't it ?

Posted by: SMBoW at September 2nd, 2011 4:33 AM

I find this post to be a sad and sobering one. Have you recently come to the conclusion that the development of life extension therapies rapidly enough to be of benefit to people currently alive is unlikely?. In the past you have seemed quite bullish toward the prospect of such technologies being developed within a timeframe likely to benefit both yourself and the readers of your blog. Did you change your mind and if that is the case, can I ask why so?

Posted by: Jay Thompson at September 4th, 2011 5:53 PM

I remain bullish on the hypothetical timeline: the one in which a billion dollars in funding for SENS and SENS-like work emerges over the next decade. The longer that takes to come about, the worse that prospects look for anything other than a gentle boost to life span for those of us in the middle of life now. Bear in mind that much more happens over twenty years than a lot of people allow for when you gauge your own feelings of pessimism or optimism. The post here is a trivial exploration of the thinking about what you're doing by creating people who are subject to risk of suffering rather than a trivial exploration of what the level of risk might happen to be.

That said, the natural progression of viewpoints with the passing of years is, I think, from realistic optimism ("things are going fast enough") to optimistic realism ("cryonics is looking good right now"). You get to move the slider yourself, of course.

I do think the next generation down from me, the 20-somethings, have a far, far better chance of things than I. I will be extraordinarily (posthumously) surprised if they are not beneficiaries of working rejuvenation biotechnology. But things are far less certain for folk like me. It has always seemed a strange coincidence that - by all wild guesstimates - people right in the middle of their lives now, myself included, are right on the verge, where things could slide one way or the other based on an avalanche of circumstances from the most trivial success or failure here and now.

Posted by: Reason at September 4th, 2011 7:19 PM

Well, I'm 28 and I figure I should bet on needing cryonics to be on the safe side. That doesn't mean I've given up on the growth of antiaging technology. But I can't assign 100% confidence to it being near-term enough. Furthermore, if I can promote the growth of cryonics that is something that could save millions (perhaps billions) of people currently in their 50's and more.

The other thing is that cryonics benefits both in quality and price from economies of scale. The only caveat there, as Mike Darwin has pointed out, is that our expectations of quality for this medical procedure could increase and thus lead to price increases. There would be regulation, minimum training requirements for personnel performing the procedures, and so forth.

In a world where rabbit kidneys can be cryopreserved and brought back with full functionality, I find it plausible that we will be at that point with entire brains in 20 years or so (though they won't have a body to be transplanted into yet). In a sane world this should merit billions of dollars in annual research investment, just as anti-aging therapies should.

But of course, full functionality is *not* the minimum necessary condition to save a person's life by information-theoretic criteria. For all we know (and it is guesswork pending centuries of future scientific investigation), current imperfect vitrification techniques (or even more primitive preservation techniques like chemical fixation) are completely adequate. It could be the case that *later* imperfect vitrification techniques are the necessary minimum, but we don't know that. Like seatbelts in cars or life-jackets on boats, using the best available cryonics at any given point in history reduces your statistical chance of being dead in the permanent sense.

Posted by: Luke Parrish at September 5th, 2011 9:05 AM

It is indeed kind of a sad post. Reason, I notice you place a lot of important on SENS, and I agree that it's certainly something that should be funded and pursued. (Though it's still mainly a series of hypotheses at this point) But I'm not sure if getting a billion dollars to fund SENS is necessarily the "end all be all" of life extension.

I'm still not sure if it might not be possible to sidestep some or all of the problems SENS aims to fix by using tissue replacement, *including* when it comes to the aging brain. Though I don't wish to put words in his mouth, I infer from the paper written below by de Grey that he thinks it may be possible to maintain a continuity of consciousness mainly by just gradually replacing old cells in our brains with new ones, like would be done with other organs in the body, so that many interventions on a sub-cellular level might not even be necessarily. (again, that's just my inference) I'd be interested to hear your opinion on what he has to say in the paper. Do you agree the inference I'm making?

Of course, SENS should still be pursued regardless, as none of us really know what's going to end up working in the end, but perhaps this paper points the direction to another possibility for significant life extension separate from SENS. (though I certainly could also envision combining SENS interventions with brain cell replacement)

Posted by: kim at September 6th, 2011 5:24 PM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.