The Great Pause Week 92: Christmas in the Metaverse
If you had the money would you pop the pill?
A friend writes from Bali:
Imagine, in ten years, being able to take a pill at a certain age, say 60 or 70, that would allow you to stay the same age for ten or more years.
It may be possible!
Now imagine that it would cost $15,000 USD. And realize that for most people, paying for the pill would not be economically viable. Assuming that such a pill would be unsanctioned by any government—due, let's say, to unforeseen risks—the technology would remain in private hands.
If you had the money would you pop the pill?
Russian-born billionaire investor (Facebook, mail.ru) Yuri Milner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos have launched a venture seeking to use biological reprogramming to rejuvenate cells. Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte from the Salk Institute, UCLA professor and pioneer in epigenetic clocks Steve Horvath, and Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka have joined their advisory board; Richard Klausner, the one-time chief of the National Cancer Institute, is CEO.
Milner and Bezos’ Altos Labs hopes to go to the head of the class in Rejuvenation Biotechnology. It is trying to catch Google founder Larry Page’s Calico Labs, launched in 2013. Calico also hired elite scientific figures and gave them generous budgets, although it took until May 2021, for Calico to publish its first preprint , reporting:
… that a transient reprogramming approach inspired by amphibian regeneration restored youthful gene expression in aged myogenic cells. Our results suggest that transient pluripotent reprogramming poses a neoplastic risk, but that restoration of youthful gene expression can be achieved with alternative strategies.
“Neoplastic risk” is biologese for novel tumors, cancers, or mutant cells that could damage either local organ function or compromise life function.
Page and Bezos are not the only Silicon alley actors in this space. Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Peter Thiel (former PayPal CEO), Elon Musk (Tesla), and Peter Diamandis (SpaceX, XPrize) are all advocates. Once you have more money than you could spend in a thousand lifetimes (Bezos and Musk are worth half a trillion in the latest Forbes rankings), the tendency is to go for the thousand-year-life pill rather than leave it all on the table. The genetic imperative, to quote transhumanist philosopher, Zoltan Istvan, is to “safeguard one's own existence above all else.”
My friend in Bali next asks:
If we can take pills and live 150 years what will we experience?
And if a 40 year old today could conceivably live to 150 what about the babies being born now? [Would it be] 250 years for those who can afford it?
Even if governments were to get on board with life extension, how will we define terms such as retirement, senior citizens, etc.?
There is no doubt in my mind that entrepreneurs will rush into these potential gold mines faster than they can type telomere.
Noticing the ethical dimensions of extreme longevity is not a new thing in science, philosophy, or literature. Indeed, as Ajit Varki and Danny Brower observed in Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind (2013), magical thinking of life everlasting is the singular common theme found in all religions. See the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh or the pyramid papyri. Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Benjamin Franklin all toyed with the idea of scientific life extension. Robert Boyle (1627–1691), proposed "to replace the blood of the old with the blood of the young.” Defying death was at the heart of Shelley and Stoker’s success in Frankenstein and Dracula, both of whose title characters, one should note, viewed indefinite lifespans (agerasia) as a hellish curse.
It may be helpful to recall that the original subtitle that 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley used when putting Frankenstein to paper that rainy afternoon in 1816 in Geneva, in order to take up a dare from Lord Byron, was The Modern Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus (Προμηθεύς, meaning “forethought”) was the god of fire, credited with the creation of humanity and civilization. For his unauthorized bequest of sacred knowledge to the unworthy, Prometheus was sentenced by Zeus to be bound to a rock while an eagle came to eat his liver every day, which would then grow back overnight, only to be eaten again the next day. In modern Western culture. “Promethean” is associated with overreaching or unintended consequences. And let’s face it, giving fire to those chattering apes really was a bonehead move.
A Spring 2013 Pew Research poll in the United States found 41% believed that radical life extension (RLE) would be good for society, while 51% said they believed it would be bad. Never ones to be swayed by public opinion, and flush with Silicon Valley unicorn droppings, billionaire agerasiastas are now exploring anti-aging drugs, nanotechnology, cloning and body part replacement, cyborgs, cryonics, strategies for engineered negligible senescence, genetic editing, fooling genes, mind uploading, young blood injection, microbiome alterations and epigenetic reprogramming. So one needs to ask, suppose they succeed?
A global population of nearly 8 billion is unsustainable without additional resources, like four more Planet Earths. I could say we are on a collision course with biodiversity, extractable minerals, climate, and each other but we have already collided. It is like watching grey mold grow on an orange. For the longest time, there was none. Then all of a sudden….
USC Professor T.W. Murphy reminds us that the earliest economic theorists—Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill—saw population growth as a temporary phase, ultimately limited by the prime physical resource: land.
In that time, land held the key to outputs from farming, timber, mining, and game—thereby dictating economic development. What these pioneering economic thinkers did not foresee was the arrival of fossil fuels, and the technological developments that accompanied this energy explosion.
Now, we have fallen into something of a lulled complacency: having rescued ourselves so far from the end-of-growth predictions of the early economists, the temptation is to conclude that they were just wrong and we have outsmarted natural limits. This is dangerous thinking. In the end, nature is indifferent to how smart we imagined ourselves to be. If we were truly clever, we would start thinking about a world that does not depend on growth, and how to live compatibly within planetary limits.
Just because we can point to some completely legitimate examples of decoupled activities and many impressive substitution stories does not mean that an entire economy can be based on indefinite continuance of such things. We are physical beings in a physical world and have non-negotiable minimum requirements for life. The activities and commodities that support critical functions cannot continue to expand indefinitely, and will not become arbitrarily cheap once their expansion hits physical limits. The finite nature of our world guarantees that such limits will be asserted, committing economic growth to stall in turn. Nothing, in the end, escapes physics.
So, while acknowledging that growth in the past has brought uncountable benefits to the human endeavor, we have to ask ourselves: If the end of growth is inevitable, why does it remain our prevailing plan?
To which I would answer, “because that kind of magical thinking is hard-wired, just like denying our own death.”
Orbiting Tech Billionaires
Future tech advancements could erase the energy shortfall being created as we descend back into the safety of renewables after lingering too long in the rare air of the fossil fuel summit death zone, but those advancements could be long in the future, if at all. USAnians’ per-capita use of energy is roughly five times the global average. It is difficult to imagine how much greater might be the energy consumption of our orbiting biotech billionaires. Thanks to oil and gas, today’s humans live the equivalent of 25 billion people on the planet at the living standard of nineteenth century per capita energy use—functionally a quadrillion horses and oxen. Can the planet support an additional demographic category of 250-year-old megaconsumers at 21st century living standards?
Murphy asks a more troubling question.
Let’s say that a given forest can support an ultimate number of deer, labeled Q, in steady state, while the current population is labeled P. The difference, Q - P, is the “room” available for growth, which we might think of as being tied to available resources. Once P = Q, no more resources are available to support growth.
For the megaconsuming, long-living billionaires, a simple solution would then present itself. Is it time to cull the herd? By reducing the draw on resources from billions of short-lived Plebians, the longer-lived, superior Patricians could continue to expand their numbers, and consumption, retaining just enough numbers of their rivals to clean their pools, service their helicopters, and fetch food for their tables.
It seems I have wandered off into a popular meme of recent Sci-Fi dystopias. For the privileged elite, those never end well. Murphy’s textbook provides a better denouement:
Salvaging a decent future requires keen awareness, quantitative assessment, deliberate preventive action, and—above all—recognition that prevailing assumptions about human identity and destiny have been cruelly misshapen by the profoundly unsustainable trajectory of the last 150 years. The goal is to shake off unfounded and unexamined expectations, while elucidating the relevant physics and encouraging greater facility in quantitative reasoning.
Whether genetic predispositions are as easily purged from our lizard brains as Murphy seems to think they can be is another question.
There is fortunately a third alternative, whose real estate and boundaries are currently experiencing a bidding race amongst the tech titans—Facebook’s Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook, Google, Netflix, Forte, Xaya, Roblox and all of their Chinese counterparts. Zuck has already branded it—Meta®. The metaverse of science fiction is now science fact—with wearables coming off the Foxcon assembly lines in Guangzhou like Model T Fords in 1908.
Picture Christmas in the Metaverse. Papa and Mama hear the patter of little feet on the stairs and rouse themselves, donning robes and slippers, and oh, yes, their Oculus soft lenses, as they follow the sounds of mirth to the living room. There, dappled by dawn sunbeams through frosted windows and the twinkling of Christmas tree lights, the children jump around, agog at all the splendid presents in front of the tree. Jonny is playing with his electric hovertrain monorail. Junebug is skipping her musical rope. Even Fido has gotten into the act, finding a beef-flavored bone-treat in his bowl by the fireplace. Then a gloved-hand reaches down from the chimney and the upside-down head of the Jolly Old Elf himself appears laughing a hearty Ho! Ho! Ho! And just as quickly, by laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, he is up the chimney and gone. The family rushes to the windows and out there, across the breast of the new-fallen snow, Santa gives a whistle, and away his sleigh flies.
Then papa looks at mama and they both turn to look at their googly-eyed children, and it matters not a whit that these babes are entirely artificial, as are the tree, the toys, the fireplace, the whole set. So, later, will be the Christmas dinner with lab-cultured turkey and all the trimmings, or the trip down to the opera house to see The Nutcracker, and finally, the cocktails on the deck overlooking the Bay of Bengal feeling a warm summer breeze before they retire that night.
If world population could be reduced in this way, while resources are still available to support the energy-intensive meta-infrastructure, and, oh, climate catastrophe could still be averted, then why not?
Maybe that would be a better use of those billions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.
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