Nick Nielsen

@jnnielsen

Technologies of Life Extension

Lucas Cranach, The Fountain of Youth

The Dream of Immortality

The dream of human longevity is at least as old as civilization, and probably much older yet. Every individual has an instinct to survive that subordinates almost every other drive in human experience, and beyond the individual instinct to survive, there is a parallel drive to secure the survival of those biologically closest to us, which in some cases is among the rare instances where the instinct for individual survival yields its place to another imperative. Hence differential survival and differential reproduction are the raw material for natural selection, and have made us what we are today, driven to survive and driven to reproduce.

Whereas past dreams of greatly extended longevity belonged to the realm of fiction, fantasy, and pseudoscience, recent technological developments have suggested a variety of distinct approaches to the problem of human aging, all based on contemporary science. More and more, it is no longer a question if science will make greater longevity a reality, but rather when science and technology will be able to intervene in aging, and to what extent. This process began with the emergence of scientific medicine not long after the industrial revolution, and continues to gain in sophistication as the growth of technology tracks the expansion of industrial-technological civilization.

In the tradition of Arthur C. Clark’s memorable maxim such that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” the coming technologies of life extension will be indistinguishable from the magic imagined in the myth of the Fountain of Youth. It is the dream of immortality which has been the common source, the enduring inspiration, of both the myth of the Fountain of Youth and its technological equivalent.

It is with good reason that the dream of immortality has haunted human thought since its beginnings, and immortality was reserved for the gods alone. We have been defined by our mortality; we are mortals. Death has been universally present in human experience, and remains today as an inevitable threat to everyone, but few are ever truly reconciled to death, however brave a face we may attempt to put on our personal extinction. In other words, death is an existential threat to the self.

In his qualitative categories of existential risk, Nick Bostrom has identified aging as a global catastrophic risk (a risk of trans-generational scope and crushing severity), and in Global Catastrophic Risks Bostrom and Ćirković have loosely defined a global catastrophic risk as, “…a risk that might have the potential to inflict serious damage to human well-being on a global scale.” In the case of aging, the qualification of “might” can be eliminated, since there is no question that aging inflicts serious damage to human well-being on a global scale, and has done so without exception throughout the history of our species.

It has been heretofore a mark of maturity and wisdom to accept with equanimity the inevitability of death, and to acquiesce in the face of one’s extinction, with rare admissions of the contrary yet universal attitude, as in the famous poem by Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
 Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
 Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Despite the inevitability of death, human beings have been remarkably successful in their ability to avoid thinking about death and to act and to think as though death were a danger to everyone except oneself. Here is how Freud formulates this tension in the human attitude to death:

“To listen to us we were, of course, prepared to maintain that death is the necessary termination of life, that everyone of us owes nature his death and must be prepared to pay his debt, in short, that death was natural, undeniable, and inevitable. In practice we were accustomed to act as if matters were quite different. We have shown an unmistakable tendency to put death aside, to eliminate it from life. We attempted to hush it up, in fact, we have the proverb: to think of something as of death. Of course we meant our own death. We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators.” (Sigmund Freud, “Reflections on War and Death”)

Elsewhere Freud notes that the id is outside time, just as the id stands outside all the reasonable compromises urged by the ego and demanded by the superego.

Another way to formulate the ease of consciousness in forgetting the inevitability of its own death (or, rather, the death of the body that is its organic efficient cause), and the position of the id outside time, is to understand consciousness as subject to death only in virtue of its physical embodiment, and in no sense intrinsically mortal or finite in time. Consciousness does not know itself to be mortal. If this same individual consciousness and sense of self could be embodied in a more durable substrate it might continue in existence without limitation in time, as blithely unconcerned with mortality as a child innocent of the facts of life and death.

Under these conditions, the potentially unlimited endurance of some particular consciousness in existence would make the end of that consciousness voluntary. Technologies of life extension, then, when they become widely available, will usher in new levels of selection; those for whom technological life extension constitutes a moral horror, or those who, in possession of life, still prefer suicide, or those who find in life nothing but misery or unhappiness, will opt out of life extension and the future will be left to those who embrace the technologies that will either liberate self-conscious identity from the mortality of the body, or which will make the body able to endure, or to be replaced at will.

The legend of the Cumaean Sibyl provides the classic cautionary tale for all mortal attempts to circumvent morality: the Cumaean Sibyl, offered a wish granted by Apollo, wished for eternal life — but she failed to also wish for eternal youth, and as a result she grew ever older and older, eventually wizened into nothingness, and only her voice remained. Up until the present time, this has been the only form of immortality that has been realistic: the preservation of one’s voice for the ages.

As we see illustrated in the myth of the Cumaean Sibyl, it is not enough merely to preserve a life, but that life must be of value to the individual for life to be meaningful. Thus life extension cannot be divorced from the moral elements that make a life worth living. If lives are extended but made miserable, little has been gained. In our age of technologically-motivated schemes for lengthening human life, we forget this at our peril. The selection effect of technologies of longevity noted above will not only select individuals, by selecting certain classes of individuals will begin to shape the species whole, and to nudge human development in a new direction.

One contemporary idiom used to refer to the power of technology to reshape our species is transhumanism. While it is easy to stigmatize transhumanism, or even to demonize the transformation of the human condition under the selective influence of technology, and therefore to emphasize the differences between transhumanism and any other approach to human longevity, there is no natural or clear distinction between transhumanism and scientific medicine as developed by the life sciences. Any vector of the life sciences sufficiently developed and iterated verges over into transhumanism (and, as per Arthur C. Clark, will be indistinguishable from magic — such as a wish granted by Apollo). These efforts may not begin with any intention of pushing humanity in the direction of transhumanism, but the practical effect is the same over time.

To continue to extend the technologies of life extension along the trajectory defined by contemporary industrial-technological civilization is to begin the steep descent into the uncanny valley, where the close resemblance of the nearly-human to the human itself is more disturbing than the relation of the non-human to the human. It is precisely for this reason that transhumanism is stigmatized, with near-departures from humanity, whether approached from the direction of machines, or departing from the strictly human in the direction of machines, intuitively and instinctively recognized as a threat — perhaps even an existential threat.

In this connection it should be noted that human beings, as the sole remaining hominid species, once shared the world with other hominid species, the latter almost certainty out-competed to the point of extinction, and perhaps even the result of an unwitting genocide of nearly-human rival species by our early ancestors. (A recent theory has suggested that homo sapiens even hunted, killed, and ate Neanderthals, though this is obviously a controversial area of anthropology.) We may have within us, as a relic of our evolutionary psychology, a mechanism that is activated by the perception of the nearly-human as an existential threat, or, at very least, competition for resources.

Because of the stigmatization of transhumanism, and the vague threat of descending into the uncanny valley, transforming ourselves into the Other that constitutes a moral horror, medical technologies and the life sciences have been made the center of public and very political debate, regulated and channeled into politically acceptable forms of research, but this can only result in a delay of the convergence of advancing scientific medicine on the unintended goal of transhumanism.

The Technological Alternatives

At present there are an unprecedented number of diverse and distinct efforts aimed at the extension of human life. Some of these efforts are largely unconscious, the result of human beings simply doing what comes naturally to them: fighting to survive as long as one can. Some of these efforts, on the other hand, are consciously undertaken as efforts to systematically extend human life to the longest period of time possible, in ways only recently conceivable due to recent technological developments.

Below we briefly examine five broad categories of life extension technologies including:

  1. Same Old, Same Old
  2. Biological Fountain of Youth
  3. Technological Fountain of Youth
  4. Ghost in the Machine
  5. Disembodied Survival

Each category of life extension technology has its unique advantages and disadvantages, and the possibility of combining multiple approaches to life extension will produce further permutations of advantages and disadvantages, pointing to a complex future in which today’s debates of biotechnology will look simple in comparison.

1. Same Old, Same Old — The most prevalent approach to life extension is the familiar effort of scientific medicine, aided by the resources of industrial-technological civilization, to extend life and health through conventional treatments — in other words, more of the same: more medicines, more surgeries, more therapies, more interventions of conventional scientific medicine.

The pursuit of the “same old, same old” methods for health maintenance and life extension incrementally pass over the threshold to more radical intervention. Today organ transplantation is routine, but surgery is traumatic for an elderly person who might most benefit from medical intervention for life extension. However, in the near- to mid-term future, robotic micro-surgery will make surgical procedures less invasive and less physically traumatic, while the cloning and growing of organs from the recipient’s DNA will obviate the need for donors and, more importantly, the need for anti-rejection drugs. Pushed to its logical extreme, “same old, same old” methods verge onto methods that are called below the “technological fountain of youth.”

2. Biological Fountain of Youth — In contradistinction to the essentially conservative assumptions of the “same old, same old” approach to life extension, a more radical approach targets the body from the inside out, offering the hope of advanced therapies that alter cellular and genetic structure so that cells either do not die or are regenerated internally. If this approach proves to be practicable, it represents the best of all possible worlds in terms of life extension: the best result with the fewest problems.

Therapies and medical interventions that take place on the level of the genome, of the chromosome, or of the cell, are here called “biological” although they are as technological as the building of artificial limbs or organs. While such biological life extension strategies are enabled by high technology, employing technology to alter the biology of an organism is distinct from a direct technological intervention, in the same way that heart surgery or even heart transplantation is distinct from the transplantation of an artificial heart.

3. Technological Fountain of Youth — The alternative to making the body young again from the inside out by the cooptation of existing biological mechanisms, is to employ technology in place of biology. Such plans include the production of nanobots (nanotechnology robots) that would operate inside an organism and which would repair damage and aging from within. At this point we can see how the technological fountain of youth is continuous with the same old, same old approach to longevity: existing scientific medicine seeks to find less invasive interventions through robotic microsurgery, which is robotic surgery from the outside of the organism; the technological fountain of youth anticipates robotic surgery from inside the organism.

It is to be expected that the most likely state-of-affairs in the near- to mid-term future is that the most effective biological and technological techniques will be used together, so that there will be every imaginable combination of biological and technological interventions. The Hybrid Fountain of Youth is thus the most likely outcome of the combined efforts to create a biological fountain of youth and a technological fountain of youth.

4. Ghost in the Machine — Instead of attempting to keep an existing body in good repair, whether by biological and technological intervention, it may be possible to clone a new, duplicate body and transfer the memory and consciousness from an existing but aging body into the newly cloned and youthful body. Presumably, this procedure could be reiterated indefinitely. However, whereas biological and technical approaches to keeping one and the same body alive and in good health pose no great problems for the continuity of identity, the idea of transferring consciousness and memory is problematic in the extreme — whether it can be done, and, if it can be done, if the experience of individuality is transferable.

While there are substantial unknowns involved in ghost in the machine longevity, it remains a tempting alternative because we have an existence proof of cloning; we know that it is possible, and we know that it could, in theory, be repeated indefinitely. The great challenge here is the relationship of consciousness to a genetically identical body, which involves ancient philosophical questions that cannot be wished away by technological sophistication.

Cloning presents additional problems in terms of the developmental contribution to identity. Take, for example, identical twins (since clones are essentially twins), where one twin spends years studying ballet while the other twin spends years studying boxing. In the case of acquiring a physical skill we often speak of “muscle memory,” but the conditioning of the body is just as much a matter of training the brain. As the brain of an individual develops it establishes internal pathways, so that extensive training regimens, whether athletic or intellectual, result in physically distinctive brain structures.

Since we know next to nothing as yet concerning the supervenience of conscious experience on the organic structures of the brain, we may yet discover that consciousness cannot be transferred except into an organically identical brain (including structures that are the result of developmental processes), and it may be the case that the brain is so sensitive to developmental factors that the slightest difference in development (as in the case of a clone being grown at a different time than the original body of the individual being cloned) means a difference in brain structure that results in the impossibility of the transfer of consciousness (or a highly imperfect transfer of consciousness that would result in a changed perception of personal identity).

What remains unknown here, and which may be the subject of future research, is whether mind and body are a loosely coupled system or a tightly coupled system. If mind and body are a tightly coupled system, and particular mental events supervened as epiphenomena upon particular brain structures and processes that come about only as a result of development, then there is little or no hope of transferring consciousness to a new or different brain. It would be virtually impossible to reproduce the exact developmental conditions that resulted in the exact brain structures and processes that corresponded to a tightly coupled mind and body system.

However, from brain science we have come to understand what is known as brain plasticity, which is the ability of the brain to compensate for biological and structural differences from a typical brain. Brain plasticity suggests a loosely coupled relationship between mind and body, and if this relationship is loosely coupled, and a genetically identical brain (even if not developmentally identical brain) is sufficiently similar in structure and function to the brain hosting the mature consciousness in question, transfer of consciousness may be possible.

There are a great many moral problems with this scenario that cannot be wished away. Suppose we do clone a body in order to serve as the vehicle of an existing consciousness. How is a clone to be brought to maturity? In order for the clone to be the kind of thing — a thinking thing, res cogitans, as Descartes put it — that can successfully host consciousness, it would seem that the cloned body would need to be conscious, or at very least be involved in the developmental process of becoming conscious, during the period of time that it comes to maturity. What becomes of the consciousness that develops in a cloned body? Is it to be disposed of once the cloned individual decides to transfer consciousness into the cloned body?

Acknowledging the moral problems in life extension by way of the “ghost in the machine” approach is not to say that it should be regulated, or not to say that it won’t happen. It is important to recognize that, if there is a technology or service that is in demand (as any technology of life extension would be), it will be supplied if it can be supplied, regardless of regulations or laws. If nation-states pass laws against human cloning, that does not mean that human cloning will not happen, but only that it will be conducted in secret, on the black market. And similarly if there is a public outcry for regulation due to the moral problems that cannot be wished away, this will not stop the effort, but will only force it underground.

Despite the many problems posed by, and uncertainties involved in the transfer of consciousness from its originating organic substrate to some other vehicle, the idea has a certain appeal because it may be more feasible to produce a robust body (or an android substitution for a body) than to restore an aged body to full health. Despite all the improvements to the “same old, same old” scientific medicine, this strategy may encounter intrinsic limitations, whereas a cloned or otherwise produced body may be engineered from its inception as resistant to disease, resistant to aging, cognitively and physically enhanced, and in every sense far superior to an aging body of natural provenance. Such enhanced bodies may make enterprises possible that would not be realistic for a body of natural provenance. Extended space travel, and settling of alien worlds (possibly possessing their own biosphere), could be accomplished with specially engineered bodies in way that no ordinary body could approximate.

I have called this approach the “ghost in the machine” invoking Gilbert Ryle’s famous caricature of Cartesian dualism (Ryle himself admitted to using the phrase with “deliberate abusiveness”). Ryle calls the “ghost in the machine” doctrine a “myth,” a “legend” and a “dogma.” None of these are complimentary epithets, and intentionally so. Contemporary philosophers, who agree on very little, are almost at one in their rejection of Cartesian dualism. Many contemporary philosophers have seen fit to write entire books in criticism of this idea which is now hundreds of years old. Here I stand outside the mainstream, for I think there remains something of value in Cartesian dualism, but only when it is understood to be a formal conception of mind and body (cf. Cartesian Formalism) — what the scholastic philosophers would have called a “formal distinction” in contradistinction to a “real distinction.”

There is a pervasive Cartesian dualism implicit in any account of the self that neatly divides the body and consciousness, and certainly approaches to human life extension that imagine the transfer of consciousness to a cloned body or to some other vehicle make a perhaps too-neat division of body and consciousness. Focusing on the brain as the substrate of consciousness to the exclusion of the nervous system or the body is as much of an error as focusing on consciousness to the exclusion of the unconscious or the preconscious, or focusing on intelligence to the exclusion of will or feeling. None of these are isolated in the person, but are part of whole, which is why psychologists sometimes speak of the “integrity of personality.”

Given the developmental concerns noted above, the physical changes in brain consequent upon development, and the intimacy with which the body and the brain work together in acquiring any skill, any sharp distinction between mind and body is likely to be misleading.

5. Disembodied Survival — If it is possible to transfer consciousness to a cloned body, as in the “ghost in the machine” scenario, it would be possible to transfer consciousness into another kind of body, or into a re-engineered human body, better than that bequeathed to us by nature, or into an entirely artificial body. One’s conscious identity might live on in the body of a robot or android. Whether or not one chose a human form for this artificial body would be a matter of taste. One might prefer not to be embodied at all, and simply to have one’s consciousness live on within a computer or a virtual environment (a condition I have called voluntaristic incarnation).

Virtual modeling of the mind may provide yet another, more abstract method for the preservation of consciousness outside the body of its origin. That is to say, the human mind could be modeled on a computer that is itself unlike the brain, but which on the level of the model can function as a brain and possibly host consciousness virtually.

Reformulating the Alternatives

If we assume that the brain and its processes constitute the organic seat of consciousness, the various technological methods of extending human longevity in order to preserve the continuity of individual identity can be formulated as a graded list, from the concrete to the abstract, of how personal identity is to be embodied:

  1. Consciousness retained in its existing body (most concrete)
  2. Consciousness retained in a changed body, in a biologically regenerated brain
  3. Consciousness retained in a changed body, in a technologically regenerated brain
  4. Consciousness transferred to a cloned organic brain
  5. Consciousness transferred to a non-organic brain
  6. Consciousness transferred to virtually simulated brain
  7. Consciousness transferred to no brain at all, but retained in a computing “cloud” and embodied in a virtual environment (least concrete)

Each level of greater abstraction in the embodiment of consciousness involves increased technological sophistication, and each stage of technological sophistication in pursuit of the preservation of personal identity involves assumptions and unknowns for which there are no existence proofs.

The most concrete approach to the preservation of personal identity through extending longevity, that which is represented by the “same old, same old” of scientific medicine, involves the fewest assumptions and the fewest unknowns; our present embodiment provides the existence proof of the efficacy of naturally occurring consciousness associated with a single organic brain in a single organic body. In so far as the mind-body integrity of the individual remains inviolate, there is little doubt that consciousness and personal identity can be extended to as long as the body can be kept in good health.

Similar considerations hold for biological and technological means of arresting or reversing aging from the inside out, as it were, and by methods that go beyond the familiar forms of scientific medicine. As long as one and the same brain, as the seat of consciousness, is kept in one and the same body, there are far fewer unknowns in the preservation of personal identity. The same methods employed to arrest or reverse aging would presumably be applied to brain tissue as to any other tissue, as in the case of greatly increased longevity by biological or technological means, the brain, too, would have to be kept young. Long term concerns of mental health, not related to any physical etiology, would have to be addressed as well, but from the standpoint of the preservation of individual consciousness and that individual consciousness’ sense of personal identity, there is little up to this point that seems problematic.

However, more ambitious goals of extending and augmenting consciousness may point to more sophisticated methods of preserving consciousness outside body, and possibly also outside the brain, of that body and brain that are the source of a given individual consciousness. For example, if human beings seek to increase their cognitive capabilities by adding bioengineered or technological modules to the brain in situ, it is easy to extrapolate this process in a manner not unlike the traditional philosophical puzzle of the Ship of Theseus.

The problem of the Ship of Theseus was first recorded by Plutarch:

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.” (Plutarch, “Theseus”)

Here is how Thomas Hobbes formulated the problem of the Ship of Theseus, adding an additional dimension to the problem:

“…if for example, that ship of Theseus, concerning the difference whereof made by continual reparation in taking out the old planks and putting in new, the sophisters of Athens were wont to dispute, were, after all the planks were changed, the same numerical ship it was at the beginning; and if some man had kept the old planks as they were taken out, and by putting them afterwards together in the same order, had again made a ship of them, this, without doubt, had also been the same numerical ship with that which was at the beginning; and so there would have been two ships numerically the same, which is absurd.” (Hobbes, De Corpore, 2, 11, 7)

If, then, we added biological or technological modules to the brain (whether to enhance cognition, or memory, or for any other reason), waited for consciousness to make use of this module, and then took away parts of the brain, and if this procedure were iterated after the fashion of the Ship of Theseus, we might have two distinct brains, both with the same consciousness and both tracing that consciousness back to one and the same personal identity. In this case, the result is perhaps disturbing, but not logically absurd. And such a procedure would provide for not only the continuity of consciousness, but also for its redundancy.

If the modularity of mind hypothesis is an accurate description of the human mind, it is reasonable to speculate that the mind would “take to” biological or technological modules superadded to its “natural” modules, facilitating this approach to the transfer of mind. In light of the theorized modularity of mind, it might prove possible to transfer one module of mind without transferring other modules, or transferring all modules in the attempt to move the mind entire from one corporeal embodiment to another. In this case, a part or parts of personal identity might be transferred or stored, while some parts are lost or prove to be non-transferable. A partial transfer of mind poses interesting questions, but we should not find the prospect alarming, as there is an sense in which the selective preservation of mind in a book or a work of art has been the only possible paradigm of human survival in the face of death.

One of the surprising opacities of consciousness is the complete inaccessibility of the biological and neurological basis of consciousness to consciousness; the physical substrate of consciousness is even more inaccessible than the unconscious, which has been the paradigm of inaccessibility for the conscious mind. Thus while many speculations of what might constitute “higher” consciousness are vague in the extreme, the engineered augmentation of consciousness might aim at specific capabilities, and among these capabilities might be the transparency to consciousness of its own biological and neurological basis.

In the event that consciousness could, through augmentation, gain access to its own physical mechanisms, such a consciousness made self-aware of its enabling physical structures might be able to be trained to shift the mechanisms and faculties responsible for consciousness into a detachable augmentation, which could then be installed in another biological body, in an artificial body, or in no body at all, to be stored in a brain, virtual or otherwise, or in a computer.

Above I noted that consciousness does not know itself to be mortal. This may be a function of the opacity of the consciousness’ physical embodiment to itself. Granted the capacity of an augmented consciousness to be aware of its physical embodiment, and to directly experience the mind-body relationship in a way that it is not now experienced, such an augmented consciousness might know itself to be tied to the morality of the body. Such an awareness might fundamentally change the structure of consciousness, but this awareness would paradoxically be made possible by the same technologies that would make the death of the body irrelevant to consciousness.

In this case, awareness of morality would be coincident with knowledge of sempiternity. Such an awareness contrasted with such knowledge might be the source of a novel cognitive conflict that does not exist at the present time, which suggests the possibility of new and unprecedented mental illnesses that could be the result of transhumanism and the augmentation of mind.

Conclusion

In so far as we understand the preservation of individual consciousness and personal identity as the mitigation of a global catastrophic risk — specifically, the risk of aging, which will certainly be the end of us all until we are successful in our attempts at mitigation — the risks involved in procedures aimed at preserving consciousness by methods that have no parallel in human history must be weighed as part of the total calculation of risk. In so far as the alternative is the annihilation of the self, any preservation of any part of the self may well be received as better than nothing at all. In this way, the technological preservation of individual consciousness and personal identity may be understood as being continuous with the rudimentary forms of preserving whatever can be rescued from the annihilation of death, whether in the form of a book, a recorded voice, a film, or any other memento of the deceased.

It comes naturally to the mind formed by industrial-technological civilization to think in increasingly abstract terms as technology makes increasingly abstract methods for the preservation of consciousness possible. Indeed, such abstractions have been the source of our greatest strengths, but we must not so deceive ourselves into believing that the abstractions are identical to the realities they represent.

It would be misleading to suggest that the continuity of methods of preserving the self from annihilation would result in nothing qualitatively new. On the contrary, we need to understand that, as we undertake such initiatives, we are not so much extending human life as we are bringing into existence novel forms of being that are unprecedented in the history of the world. These biological, technological, and intellectual novelties will come with both risks and opportunities, as has been the case with every unprecedented development of civilization. There will be new forms of mind, and also new forms of mental illness. There will be new forms of life, and also, presumably, new forms of death.

More by Nick Nielsen

Topics of interest

More Related Stories