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Longevity: The Singularity and Humanity
[Part 1] Technology could increase lifespans to 150 years or longer
Layne Hartsell (prose)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2008-11-09 17:47 (KST)   
Amidst the rapid changes of society ranging from general advances in science and technology to politics and social policy, with respect to knowledge, there is an emergent issue that promises to radically change our lives and our reality. It is predicted that within less than 20 years, the human lifespan will be extended to perhaps 150 or more years. Scientists and futurists on the cutting edge of thought about science and society believe that the increase in lifespan is one step towards what will be known as the Singularity, at which time, life might be extended indefinitely depending upon environmental conditions. The Singularity is the term used for a technological integration unheard of; it is a theoretical future point of unprecedented technological progress, caused in part by the ability of machines to improve themselves using artificial intelligence.

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Futurists are basing their claims upon the concept of accelerating returns which shows that over time, technology increases exponentially rather than linearly. In other words, the amount of time for a new idea to be developed into a technology and for that technology to become available is decreasing in an exponential acceleration. Integral to the concept of acceleration is that the power of the technology accelerates as technology is used for advance. The overall, actual production of the process, as I have described it, yields an astronomical increase in technological capability such that it seems impossible to predict what will happen beyond the "event horizon" of the Singularity. In other words, in the future, the acceleration is expected to increase because of the ability of artificial intelligence to expand and thus curl back on itself and begin to develop itself working with both common reality and virtual reality.

The Singularity, or the technologies that lead to it, are already rapidly being developed; and the difference between our lack of understanding and the need for knowledge, I believe, will be the difference between a regression or an innovation. Individuals must be involved in the processes of society rather than as passive observers affected by unprecedented change, as history was witness to during the industrial, atomic age. The atomic age passed society as shadow rather than as light, as children huddled together ludicrously under desks during nuclear drills and as adults obsessed, irrationally about communism rather than meeting the responsibility of critical thought.

The Future is Now

The Singularity, or the technologies that lead to it, are already rapidly being developed; and the difference between our lack of understanding and the need for knowledge, I believe, will be the difference between a regression or an innovation.
In the early 1900s, the theory of relativity radically altered the perceptions of scientists and philosophers had of the world. Shortly after that, quantum mechanics radically altered perceptions once again. While these two shifts filtered into mainstream society, they generally remained outside of society, except for anemic attempts, some ridiculous, by certain New Age philosophies. Today, one hundred years later, society is still generally thinking in Newtonian terms, with a touch of relativistic understanding, while still coming to terms with the misapplication of powerful technologies. And, society has created plenty of room for retreat into superstitious or mythical belief systems. There is much ground to be covered for us to obtain the information we need, to gain the requisite knowledge and to develop the ability to act. The near future will be an important time for knowledge acquisition about technology and society if we are to meet the future, which is already now.

In the decades before the Singularity, the maturation of biotechnology which is occurring presently, and the rapidly approaching field of nanotechnology, will make it possible to develop therapies which will increase the human lifespan both through rejuvenation and the prevention of disease at the genetic and nano levels. Some of the promising technologies of biotechnology are RNA inhibition; the controlled expression of enzymes, for example, ligase; and the reduction of ageing through the prevention of DNA from losing telomeres during cell division and the general inability to replicate due to a variety of causes such as food toxins or environmental pollution. This degenerative process is called senescence or ageing. These new technologies are already either being developed in the laboratory or are being used in the experimental clinical setting.

For nanotechnology, nearly all of the information is theoretical; however, futurists are predicting the use of tiny "machines" called nanobots which will be able to target a specific area of the body which needs treatment. The nanobots will either make a repair, such as in nanosurgery, or they will integrate themselves into the tissue. In addition, it is thought that nanobots will take over the roles of some cells in the body, for instance, red blood cells. Using nanobots it is expected that the volume of oxygen capacity of the blood will increase such that we might run a mile on a single breath. One can only imagine what the Olympics will be like. However, the most controversial will likely be the integration of nanotechnology into the brain allowing the brain to perform at a level not possible today. If this integration is possible, I foresee an entirely new field of theoretical neuroanatomy coming about to deal with the complexities of nanotechnology at the level of the neurons.

Most people with whom I have discussed this information respond that they would not want to live to be 150 or 200 years old. They feel that after what they consider to be a normal lifespan, 72 years, they will be too old and too tired to live longer. Indeed, to double our lifespan from the current to the projected does seem unnecessary from a certain perspective. At the same time, it was just over a hundred years ago, when the human lifespan began to double to what it is today.

It is possible that most people who lived only to 35 years of age thought that to live to 72 years would be too long and that they would be too tired. Nevertheless, we have adjusted and found life to be meaningful, even in our current "long" life of 72 years. Indeed, rather than being old and tired, today, people run marathons at 50, 60, 70 years old. In Japan, the average age is 82 years per lifetime, which is the highest of the industrialized countries. Centenarians are becoming more common.

Currently, there are any numbers of practices which can be used to increase ones health and lifespan, which are proving to be effective when combined with medical science to extend life through a healthy and active lifestyle, even at advanced ages by our current standards. What is more promising is that most of the current practices or treatments are relatively inexpensive, for example, exercise, vegetarian diets and basic supplements such as vitamins and some pharmaceutical agents. In the future, a healthy lifestyle combined with biotech/nanotechnology will make it possible for us to maintain robust health well over one hundred years. Given the option of a longer, healthier life, I believe that most people will choose it. The matter is essentially one of how we think about our lives. From our present perspective it seems strange to imagine seeing our families expand over the course of tens of decades, rather than just a couple. Families might be numerous line, rather than singular line. Also, our careers might be varied, and thus society will have to make massive changes to accommodate a healthy, highly multiskilled workforce of "elderly" people. Social policies and norms will have to be radically rethought.

In the famous work on paradigm shifts, Thomas Kuhn (1962) elucidated the changes that occur due to new knowledge from science which, in turn, develop our thinking and ultimately change society as time moves into the future. Before long, paradigm shift was discussed widely in the academy and then expanded into the mainstream. It was an idea that helped us to develop an orientation with how our lives were changing because of rapid scientific development. The importance of knowledge and understanding cannot be overstated. The ability to understand is necessary for our navigation in life to meet the conditions around us. Thus, in the last few decades, the basic understanding of information and the development of knowledge has become a prominent issue since the accelerating advances in technology have had such astounding effects on our everyday lives. Kuhn sought to identify what was happening and to provide an analysis. Drawing on Kuhn, the current theory of accelerating returns will lead to paradigm shifts occurring frequently enough to blur each shift within others. The composite of shifts will look as though a massive shift is occurring. And, it will be. The term for this kind of shift is called a metashift.

Consciousness

Ultimately, the conscious human being is the subject of all sense we have of society, the world, life. Thus, the protection of the preciousness of life is the protection of the seat of consciousness as we know it currently -- being-ness of humanity.
Looking back, metashifts have occurred in evolution either consciously, unconsciously, or at times when consciousness was not considered to be. Long ago a shift occurred when life moved from prokaryotes to complex eukaryotic cells. It is thought that the newly evolved, larger eukaryotic cells incorporated prokaryotic cells as energy "factories." The energy organelles we see today called mitochondria are thought to be the ancient prokaryotic cells.

DNA which is the blueprint for the structures which lead to life is also rewritten, or evolves, according to the external conditions. In the remote past, the forces within the cell itself and in the environment shaped the new emergences over hundreds of millions of years into higher complexity. In other words, there is a kind of force pushing life along towards greater integration and complexity. In the near future, DNA will be changed or modified in a conscious manner in very little time. We could say that there is, in addition to the internal force pushing us to evolve, which is nature, another force is pulling us towards greater development -- that force is intelligence. Nature and nurture are interrelated and cannot be separated.

Another well-known metashift began to develop around 10,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent. This shift resulted in the massive development of DNA and the human brain due to the developments in culture such as agriculture and writing. Both internal (biological) and external (environment, social) events shaped a future, as they are at this present moment, as we incorporate new technologies into our lives. If intelligence is seen as the force of development of greater complexity, then all of our Singularities are titanic expressions of intelligence and the potential for the expression of it. As we become more conscious, the level of responsibility increases, and this is why it is of utmost importance for widespread knowledge acquisition and the overall recognition of our shared humanity. The expression of life is intelligence itself.

The most famous of the metashift and Singularity thinkers is Dr. Ray Kurzweil. His work as an inventor of new technologies has put him on the cutting edge of new products, such as text and voice recognition and "intelligent" machines. As a futurist, he has endeavored to bring forth information about science and society for better understanding and to increase dialogue and debate. The major question is how will our lives change in response to technological advancement? He is quite right that our ability for thought will be challenged because of the acceleration of information and knowledge which comes out of the metashifts that will occur up towards the technological Singularity. The most important aspect of the changes in society will be humanity itself and what humanity means.

Naturally there is the growing concern over losing our humanity. It is a valid concern and the merits of this concern need to be heard, based upon evidence rather than fear. Looking back into recent history, we stand aghast at the devastating applications of technology through human systems and structures infused with ignorance, greed and aggression. Issues must be addressed for careful navigation of the acceleration we either are undergoing or will undergo in the near future. I would make the case that it is time now to take up the issues of the acceleration towards the Singularity, and that will happen through education and active participation.

Another important aspect is the democratization of the technology and its use, which will require decentralization and an active, informed populace. Dr. Kurweil is tirelessly promoting public education in this direction. He points out that the current projection of technology is towards decentralization through the market, which also results in lower prices and the availability of technologies. In other words, high tech developments as we see them today tend towards a natural decentralization due to democratic market forces and competition.

With democratization and the leveling of the playing field in an integral market, we can be confident that the developments of the near future are guided carefully. It is true that some aspects of life need to be left alone and not "developed," if only for the current time, while there are other aspects of development that show tremendous hope for the future. Given the power of science, the direction that the course of history takes will be largely up to the dialogue, debate and participation which occur to guide scientific application. True progress through science will come with our prior development of society within the framework of our humanity.

Ultimately, the conscious human being is the subject of all sense we have of society, the world, life. Thus, the protection of the preciousness of life is the protection of the seat of consciousness as we know it currently -- the human being. Each and every human being is special and inviolable. Reflected socially, this is the reason for the justice and legal systems and declarations of human rights which we have in place. Essentially what is being protected is the manifestation of consciousness, because consciousness is the wellspring of our humanity.

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Layne Hartsell has graduate degrees in biomedicine and developmental psychology. He works in education and social work with his wife, Patcharin Chaimongkol. They live in South Korea and Thailand.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Layne Hartsell

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