Anders Sandberg on Working Towards Radical Life Extension

Anders Sandberg is one of the earlier participants in the modern transhumanist movement, perhaps better thought of as a distributed and shifting set of overlapping interest and advocacy groups rather than a movement per se. The core of the transhumanist ideal is the overcoming of limits, the use of technology to expand the choices available within the human condition. The diverse membership of these groups has spread and prospered over the past twenty years, taking influential roles in biotechnology, aging research, cryonics, artificial intelligence, and other related fields. In a sense it is the ideas that matter: the defeat of aging and age-related disease so as to indefinitely extend healthy life; engineering away all of the other causes of pain and suffering; expanding our intelligence; building intelligence; seeking to be far more than we are today. Those of us who propagate these ideas and work towards their realization are in a way water carriers, passing the value along. The more people who do this, the greater the support for transhumanist goals such as achieving effective medical control over aging, the better the prospects become for all of our futures.

Like many of the other futurists who used the early years of the internet to find one another and form a community to talk about the practicality of their visions for a golden future, Anders Sandberg engineered a career from an interest in transcending the limits of the human condition through technological progress. These days he works with the Future of Humanity Institute, itself an outgrowth of a portion of the transhumanist community. This is in large part an advocacy initiative, clothed as academia, seeking to put forward a vision - with supporting evidence - for a far better future to a public that hasn't really given the topic much thought. To the world at large, tomorrow is anticipated to be much the same as today. It is strange that this is the case in a time of such rapid progress in science and technology, but most people expect to live in a future that looks much the same as the present, barring small changes in fashion and culture. The possibilities are so much greater than that, however. For one, we stand on the verge of being able to treat the causes of aging, and many people alive today will as a consequence live for long enough to see aging entirely defeated, rejuvenation robustly achieved, and their lives and healthspans made unlimited in length. That shortly beyond that lies an explosion of intelligence and culture out into the universe, of a size and scope to make our present world seem the smallest mote by comparison, is almost by the by.

Below find a link to the PDF version of a radio essay by Sandberg presented at BBC Radio 3, one portion of a much broader effort to make more people pay attention to what could be done to make the world a better place, and our lives radically different and less limited as a result.

Desperately seeking eternity (PDF)

People have tried to extend their lives since time immemorial. The oldest great work of literature, the epic of Gilgamesh is partially about the king's search for the herb of immortality. Up until recently we did not have any deep understanding of what ageing truly is, so doing anything about it was hard. That has changed radically in recent decades. We now understand why we age, and can in the lab even slow it down in test animals. Some treatments can prolong animal lifespans by up to 40 per cent whether by removing senescent cells, reducing caloric intake, or influencing certain metabolic pathways. While none of the methods are likely to carry over straight to humans, the fact that we have gone from ageing being an immutable fact to something that can be manipulated is already revolutionary.

Even if the first clinical methods for slowing ageing arrive a few decades ahead, that is still good news for the majority of people living today. Especially since slowed ageing gives you more years of medical progress. While nothing is certain, it looks like in the long run ageing may become just another treatable chronic disease. Some would argue that slowing ageing is all about achieving immortality. But treating ageing directly makes sense simply in terms of health: ageing is a direct contributor to heart disease, diabetes, weakened immune system, Alzheimer's and many other maladies. Life extension cannot give us eternal life: besides ageing, we are killed by diseases, accidents and violence. And if we fix those, we are still finite beings in a universe ruled by probability. Sooner or later we will be unlucky and perish. But we can maybe make this probability so low that it does not matter much in practice. The real issue might be what we would do if we had indefinite lifespans.

Every time someone dies, a library burns. The experiences, skills, and relationships painstakingly built across a lifetime disappear forever. We cannot prevent any particular library from eventually having a fire, but we can make sure the fires are rare. Humans are precious, and that is why we should not wish them to age. Some might say we need a change of generations to keep our culture youthful. Yet, to continue the library metaphor, few people think the way of maintaining a successful culture is to burn the archives and art museums. There are better ways of changing things than killing the old guard. The physicist Max Planck said that science advances one funeral at a time, but in practice many radical new ideas do sweep the scientific world faster than scientists are being replaced. In the social arena we have seen struggles to extend human rights succeeding faster and faster, despite people living longer: compare the time it took for female suffrage to go from academic idea to political practice with the time it took gay rights to make the leap from unthinkable to orthodox. At any rate, if long lives actually do slow social changes there are still better ways of speeding it up than letting people die prematurely. We have term limits in politics: maybe we should have them for professors and CEOs too.

I have met 18 year olds claiming they do not want to live beyond 20 because they will be old and decrepit, while my 105 year old grandmother still potters on since dying is simply not done. Some people find new meaning again and again, others feel suicidal about Sunday afternoons. It is not uncommon to envision one's life as a book, and then assume it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. This is reasonable since we tend to construct our identities as narratives: we often tell stories about who we are, what we have done, and where we are going, so thinking of a life this way comes naturally to us. But a book can be a short pamphlet, a thick epic, or maybe a never-ending fantasy series ... which one would we want to be like?

Many people who wish for radical life extension are afraid of dying. This is a bad motivation: sooner or later they will run out of time anyway, and living just to avoid something is a diminished way of life. They are not hoping for something of value, merely the avoidance of loss. The problem with death is not just that it can be painful, but that it also irreversibly prevents any more experience, any more action. Our social bonds are broken. Pain can be dealt with, but these other factors point at what makes life worth living. We should seek to live longer because we love life. We should wish to experience good things, gain wisdom, and interact with people in important ways. A long and healthy life is quite useful for this.


I agree with Mr. Sandberg on all points except that he is among those who implicitly assume that all "social change" is positive. What about the vast expansion of state power? Is that a positive social change? It is one that progresses in a ratchet-like manner as successive generations are raised up taking for granted the new powers of the state. Demand for change from energetic youth movements propelled the 20th century's bloody totalitarians to power. Political activism by youths contains a certain naivety that can be deadly. It has become almost anathema to suggest that youths can be a pernicious influence, but just look at the modern history of Iran for example. Anyone who wants to hurry off those inconvenient people with the most life experiences to their demise is probably a proponent of some wrong-headed variety of "social change."

Posted by: José at March 27th, 2016 10:47 AM

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