Folk from the Russian side of the longevity advocacy and transhumanist communities have initiated a range of interesting ventures and perspectives in the past few years. Take KrioRus, for example, or the work of the Science for Life Extension Foundation. Following in the same vein, I see that at the recent Singularity Summit the founder of an interesting new initiative called Russia 2045 presented his view on the best path for longevity science, mixed in with a heady brew of can-do Russian sci-tech nationalism - an attitude that might instill a certain nostalgia for the recent past of American technological exceptionalism in the older readers here.
We believe that it is possible and necessary to eliminate aging and even death, and to overcome the fundamental limits of the physical and mental capabilities currently set by the restrictions of the physical body. ... We believe that this country still possesses the necessary scientific and technical potential that will allow us to embody such a lofty objective. Such a project will turn Russia into the world's ideological leader and will revive the leadership status of our country in many different scientific and technical areas.
Willingness to get up and try is the first necessary step on any path, and a great deal of the work at present in advocacy for rejuvenation biotechnology lies in drumming up the will to try to extend human life at all. All too few people think about it or even much care, sad to say. If Russian scientific pride - something that I think isn't all that unreasonable, given the achievements made by that community under the circumstances forced on them by history - makes a difference, then I'm all for it.
To my eyes, the most interesting aspect of this Russia 2045 initiative is that, unlike any other serious proposal I'm aware of, their focus is on getting out of biology and into machine bodies as rapidly as possible. Bear in mind that in the long term every plan for radical life extension ends up with we humans changing out our biological parts for machinery - but that is generally proposed to happen somewhere past the point at which nanotechnology supersedes biology in terms of effectiveness, when there is increasingly little difference between biological and nanoscale machine systems. Both operate on the scale of single molecules, but the artificial system will be much better at it than the natural system - because it will be designed rather than evolved. We will replace our biology with machinery because the machinery will ultimately get the job done much more effectively.
Until that time arrives, however, much of the longevity science movement focuses on biotechnology, medicine, and the development of other ways to keep the biology we have repaired and in good shape. Not so for Russia 2045, however. The early parts of their plan look much like this:
- Develop an electromechanical body-shaped chassis.
- Develop a robust, lightweight life support system for the brain.
- Decant the brain into the life support system, and place the system in the body-chassis.
- Focus on biotechnologies to sustain the aging brain.
- Develop ways to replace the brain as the substrate of the mind, such as by uploading or slowly replacing brain cells with nanomachine brain cell emulators.
- Lastly, incrementally improve the body-chassis to better serve its role as a mind carrier.
In essence, this is a course to throw away as much of the body as possible as soon as possible - a path based on a different set of preconceptions about difficulty and efficiency on the road leading to an artificial brain hosting a once-biological human mind. If aiming for life spans of thousands of years, this is the exactly same place we'll get to in the end even if we start out by maintaining our biological bodies and brains for as long as possible through rejuvenation biotechnologies. I'll point you to an article entitled The Million Year Life Span or back into the archives for a piece on whole brain emulation if you're interested in thinking about the stage of replacing the biological brain with a machine brain - I won't talk about that today. It's certainly a long way off in comparison to a range of more important first steps on the road to greatly extending healthy human life.
Instead, let's consider how the next twenty years of "robot body as fast as possible" might unfold, and what advantages and disadvantages that might incur in comparison to a strategy that focused instead on rejuvenation biotechnology and keeping our fleshy bodies. I would hope that we can all agree that efficient humanoid artificial bodies will be realized in this time frame: between the robotics and the powered exoskeleton industry (both for military use and as a replacement for wheelchairs for the disabled), a lot of people are already working on this. The real challenges here are:
- A reasonably complete, safe, and reliable neural-computer interface
- A robust and safe life support system for a disembodied brain
I don't think that either of these can be seen as much off the starting blocks at this point - it's still the case that every small advance in working with neural interfaces is widely touted, and in the grand scheme of things those advances are not all that impressive. Researchers remain a long way away from being able to provide good images to the brain, or correctly identifying general intent and language use from brain activity. Without progress in a general neural interface to allow communication and action, I can't see much impetus in the scientific community for building a brain life support system - the ethics groups would shut that down pretty quickly.
Thus my wild stab in the dark guesstimate is that the research community is at this time better placed to realize SENS than it is to build a full neural interface. Other folk may know better than I on that front. Either way, this isn't a critique of plausibility regarding the technology; building these systems is a very plausible long-term goal. There's no strong objection from physics or physiology, but both are very hard tasks. In taking this path, research and development groups would be substituting the difficulties of much of rejuvenation biotechnology with the difficulties of electromechanical systems and brain-machine interfaces.
The first objection that came to mind after looking over the Russia 2045 vision is much the same as my objection to WILT: in ideal circumstances, it will lead to extended life, but only for so long as you have access to a technology base capable of maintaining your (bio)technologies. If you fall off the wagon and out into the wilderness for a few decades, then you will probably die, or at least suffer a greatly raised risk of death and serious systems failure. There are certain advantages to an approach to longevity based as much as possible on repairing the biology we have: we know that what we have is fairly robust.
In any case I encourage you to look over the Russia 2045 website. Progress towards any given goal depends on a healthy competition between different practical methodologies, and the "straight to the machine body" school of thought hasn't gathered as much support as it might in recent years, and nor has a body of work accumulated to explain exactly how the next twenty to thirty years would run under this scenario. I look forward to seeing that change.