The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible (Arthur C. Clarke's 2nd law)

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Methuselarity and longevity escape velocity (extended abstract)

Aubrey de Grey, SENS Foundation

The Methuselarity: A Singularity With A Twist

The technological singularity hypothesis focuses on the potential for the rise in computer capabilities over time to continue to accelerate - possibly to the point where humanity ceases to have a clear idea of, or much control over, how computers will change our world in the future. In this essay I will explore some aspects of this hypothesis, including sociological as well as technical ones, and contrast it with an ostensibly similar concept, which relates to our ability to combat aging using medicine and has been termed the Methuselarity.

1. The underwhelming impact of a friendly technological singularity

The high current media profile of work on the technological singularity probably results, largely, from the anticipation that the transition it describes will unimaginably momentous in its impact on our daily lives and our world view. If astronomically powerful computers arise and get "out of control", effecting changes in our world that we had not anticipated or "authorised", those changes may indeed be momentous, and very possibly undesirable. However, researchers in this area seek a very different outcome: that such computers will indeed arise, but that their actions will be invariably in the greatest possible accordance with humanity's desires.

 This leads me to suspect that the technological singularity may actually come and go virtually unnoticed by humanity. If we create extremely powerful, and also extremely autonomous, computer systems that are irrevocably set up to look after our best interests, one feature of the human psyche that they may particularly take into account is that most of us are really not very interested in them, as compared to our interest in each other, in nature and such like. We're interested in things that they do, of course, such as video games, but mostly not in how they do it. (This is, I believe, well demonstrated by the inexorable market-driven trend for computers to become easier to use and less and less like computers of yore.) Accordingly, hypothetical post-singularity computers may be so user-friendly that we cease even to notice that they exist, and that the world was not always so enjoyable for us. That may seem quite different from today, but the pertinent question is: how will the world work just before the singularity? Over the coming decade or three, we will surely see a continuing infiltration of computers into the fabric of our lives - and, I suggest, out of the fabric of our attention. A contemporary, and clearly very circumscribed but I hope nonetheless illustrative, example of what I am suggesting here is the computer technology in modern cars, of which most drivers are - and are happy to be - virtually oblivious. I predict that this trend will have become ubiquitous by the time the technological singularity occurs (and, indeed, may well participate in heralding it).

In summary, then, I contend that the technological singularity may well exhibit a paradoxical inverse relationship between the rate at which the underlying technology grows in functionality and the rate at which its progress commands the attention of its beneficiaries - us.

2. The Methuselarity: a very different event

In the industrialised world today, at least 90% of all deaths are from causes that afflict older people much more than young adults. In short, therefore, they are deaths from aging. Contrary to popular belief, aging is not a fact of life as immutable as the impossibility of perpetual motion: in fact, continued progress in medical research is quite certain to improve our ability to postpone the ill-health associated with having been born a long time ago. But how rapidly?

Essentially all research on postponement of age-related ill-health has historically focused on slowing aging down - retarding the rate of the lifelong accumulation of various types of damage. More recently, however, it has become increasingly acknowledged that we might alternatively develop methods to repair this damage before it reaches pathogenic levels. Such repair can, in principle, be performed repeatedly. A key aspect of the "periodic repair" paradigm is that it faces a progressively more difficult challenge for a given patient: the repair will inevitably have a varied degree of efficacy against different types of damage, so the less effectively repaired types will come to dominate. However, this trend will be countered by the improving effectiveness of the therapies as a result of further research. This leads to the concept of a "longevity escape velocity" (LEV) - a minimum rate of improvement of medical repair of aging, sufficient to stay one step ahead of the problem. Intriguingly, this rate actually diminishes with time: rather like gravitational escape velocity, the speed with which we need to move in order to continue escaping falls the further we escape. Since medical progress will surely continue to accelerate, this means that once we achieve LEV we are vanishingly unlikely ever to fall below that velocity thereafter. In other words, there will be just one point in the future at which we achieve LEV. This is the event that has been termed the Methuselarity.

My main focus in this essay will be to analyse how starkly the Methuselarity—the gerontological singularity, if you will - differs from the technological singularity. On the one hand, it differs in terms of the trajectory of medical prowess: it will result not from a huge acceleration in the pace at which medicine increases in efficacy, but merely from the crossing, possibly at a rather sedate pace, of a threshold of efficacy. But conversely, its impact on our psyche (whether personal or collective) may be more profound than anything that happens before or since. Our lives and self-image are ruled by our chronological finitude more than by anything else. The removal of that limitation will transform us in a manner that truly may be beyond imagining, and in a way that the technological singularity, if achieved in a "friendly" manner, may well not.

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