Letter to a friend

It took me a while. But, I finally came around to writing this letter to an acquaintance with significant economic power. Insignificant compared to the US President; but significant compared to mine.

The thoughts in this letter are very general. The questions could be addressed to any person of his class. So, I see no harm in publishing it. I'm interested in what people of power think of these questions.


[Dear powerful/influential friend:]

I'm wondering about your thoughts on life extension, artificial intelligence, human-machine integration, and the future of the human species (assuming there's going to be any).

I don't generally have this kind of conversation with people of your generation, largely because they seem to not be interested in this topic. Most people appear to assume that the way things have been for ourselves, our fathers and grandfathers are how things are going to continue, even in the face of compelling evidence that this is unlikely to be the case.

Chances are, humanity in 100 years is going to be very different from humanity today - if, indeed, it continues to exist. I think the future is going to be greatly influenced by some or all of the advances mentioned above:

(1) Life extension. Half a century ago, we only first discovered DNA. A decade ago, we came up with a process to fully read it. Work is currently ongoing to understand it. In future decades, we will learn to manipulate it.

To a great extent, our first and foremost enemy is, and has always been, nature. We live comfortably because we've largely tamed it. We did botch a lot of the taming, did it the easy way rather than the right way; through issues such as climate change, it's going to cost us. But, the taming of nature is why most humans are currently alive.

To a great extent, the foremost natural enemy we haven't yet overcome is our own fragile, vulnerable, quirky, haphazardly built bodies. Yes, life is a miracle, and so on and so forth, but ultimately, we don't die because we need to. We die because our bodies are deteriorating crap, and our challenge is to figure out how to fix them before we expire.

Chances are, in the next several decades, we will learn how to fix our bodies. We will learn how to stop aging, and how to stop most diseases, including cancer.

My concern is, not enough is being done to speed up this development. We will get there eventually, but I would like to still be alive when cures for these problems are discovered. Yet, most everyone, rich and poor, seems to be blithely unaware of this. Most people are happily committed to wasting their ONE chance to live essentially forever, by fixing their bodies during the paltry 70-90 years before they expire.

Our countries invest trillions into warfare, and even more trillions into treatments for mere symptoms - just shepherding the walking dead, failing to cure anything - all while investing almost NOTHING into research that would fix mortality. Somehow, this seems fine to everyone - walking towards an unnecessary grave as we placate ourselves with belief about non-existent afterlife.

(2) Artificial intelligence. A decade ago, IBM built a computer that crushed the world's foremost chess masters. Recently, they built a computer that understood questions in English, and crushed human competitors in Jeopardy. These are types of specific intelligence. A general artificial intelligence has so far evaded researchers.

Computers grow more powerful, however. The supercomputer that crushed humans in Jeopardy will be a tablet computer in a decade. Algorithms will improve, and general artificial intelligence will be reachable.

We should pray (to, sadly, non-existent deities) that human-machine integration, and our understanding of our DNA, progress faster than development of general AI. When the first AI is created, it will be the first entity in our recorded history with access to blueprints of its own creation. It will be able to improve on those blueprints. It will be able to create a yet smarter AI. The next generation AI will be able to do the same to its own blueprints, until, after several generations, an AI arises that will vastly exceed humanity in its intelligence. What the AI proceeds to do after that is beyond our knowing.

If this happens, humans may be eclipsed by the AI, like chimpanzees are eclipsed by humans. We should hope that we will be able to make ourselves smarter - through integration with machines, through manipulation of our DNA - to be able to compete with an AI when it arises.

(3) Human-machine integration. One could argue we've already progressed a fair bit in this regard. Search engines have become extensions of our thought process. Computers and gadgets have become the way we communicate. In the interest of improving our ability to solve our problems, live more fulfilling lives, and stay competitive as an intelligent life form, in the presence of a possible AI, we should be working to integrate our minds with technology further.

This research, of course, is receiving the same pittance, in terms of investment, as research into anti-aging. We will eventually get there, but with little thanks to governments and philantropists, who could make the research happen much faster.

Bill Gates spends his fortune postponing the deaths of some Africans to 70 instead of 7. At a cosmic scale, these are not the investments that need to be made. We're spending our fortune to buy a fish, instead of a fishing pole. We have the opportunity in our hands to live till we are millions of years old, to travel to the stars, to learn the deepest mysteries of the universe. Each passing minute, we're letting this opportunity slip between our fingers, till we die simply because we did nothing. Our species may be conquered by an AI like the chimps we are, or the world might be conquered by people who were smart enough to invest into the problems that matter.

You're older than me; you have a bit less of a chance to see all this happen. But the chance is there. I know you try to live a healthy lifestyle, so you aren't planning on dying any time soon. Meanwhile, the number of discoveries in each decade will keep rising. We may well be able to extend lives in a couple of decades, and make people youthful not long after. If you live until 90, you might perhaps also live until 90 million. If that happens, most of your existence will be, from our current perspective, enhanced beyond recognition. Most of your experience might be as what we would now consider a demi-god.

Those are the stakes on the table.

My question is - have you considered this?

You are acquainted with a fair number of fairly influential people. Have they considered this? Is anyone thinking of this seriously?

Because evidence suggests that they have not.

Why are people whose main purpose in life seems to be to get ahead, not investing into possible immortality?

1 comment:

Boris Kolar said...

Why do you think you're going to die? I would say dying is one of the few things you can't do.