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Future Human

The Misguided Idiot’s Quest for Immortality

A diatribe on the folly and privilege of the Transhumanist movement

Illustrations: Matt Huynh

TThe Transhumanist movement is made up of people of various political leanings. There are those who skew left-of-center, those with a more libertarian mindset, and there are even some who are archly conservative. But they all share a belief that science and technology can be wielded to cheat death. And they’re all completely tone deaf.

I first came to Transhumanism in my work as a journalist. In my career, which has spanned a decade of reporting and editorial writing on the intersection of human rights, policy, and science, nothing has raised my hackles as much as this movement’s quest for immortality and the ignorance of the inherent inequality of the discussion around that idea.

It was actually this ignorance, or perhaps willful callousness, that made me pivot my career to focus on bioethics, in which my main areas of research are biohacking, DIY science, and fringe technologies. I overlap with Transhumanist interests more often than not in my career. And it’s not all negative. In fact, I very much agree with the other maxims of the movement, including self-experimentation and morphological freedom, and I enjoy investigating the ethical challenges associated with using scientific knowledge to enhance the limits of the human body.

My disagreement with transhumanists isn’t that they want to be immortal. That goal has been a popular pastime of the wealthy, fearful, and bored for at least a millennia. It’s not the quest for immortality that seems unreasonable to me.

It’s the timing.

We live in an age where civil liberties are constantly under threat. People are in fear of being assaulted, detained, or even killed by state-sponsored actors from municipal police forces to ICE. It seems that our freedoms are eroded daily in favor of catering to the fleeting temper tantrums of one man. Trying to unleash radical life-extension strategies in this political climate is at best vain and misguided, and at worst offensive to anyone who doesn’t possess freedom over their bodies, or doesn’t possess the privilege to even think about living forever.

Some of us are just trying to make sure we’re alive at the end of the week.

Memento mori? Nah, bro.

There are several so-called “life-extension” technologies, some of them absolute bunk, others questionable-but-possible, and some theoretical-but-perhaps-legitimate. None of them are currently able to keep us alive for longer than a normal human lifespan, which currently hovers around 80 years old in most developed countries.

There is simply no logical reason to invest money in being frozen.

It’s true, we have already used modern medicine to extend our lives significantly over the past couple decades, and by some estimates, the first person to live to 150 has already been born. But radical longevity enthusiasts aren’t just hoping for an extra century or two. The moonshot is true immortality, and the investments by Randian billionaires into tremendously questionable efforts by private companies seeking secret ways to avoid dying are staggering — perhaps even reaching into the trillions of dollars.

Cryonics, or the idea that a dead body can be frozen at extremely low temperatures and resurrected at some point in the future when technology has evolved to bring frozen people back from the dead, is a big-ticket theory with Transhumanists. There are global conferences dedicated to the study of cryonics, a technology that is said to preserve tissue so well that this tissue is essentially still alive. Or so the story goes.

Max More, one of the original founders of the modern transhumanist movement, and the author of a 1990s Transhumanist manifesto, owns and operates Alcor, one of the country’s largest cryonics facilities. There, those hoping to simply press pause on their deaths and join humanity as a reanimated corpse can buy a tank for themselves, their loved ones, or their pets, for a pretty price. Alcor charges a minimum of $200,000 for whole-body preservation. (The running price of preserving a loved one at the Cryonics Institute, another major operation, starts at $35,000.)

Unfortunately, cryonics is bullshit.

Scientists agree that the freezing process damages cells irreparably, by creating what are essentially cellular icicles. Not to mention that reheating a human body — cells, membranes, and so on — also mangles the many proteins and pieces that comprise us. One BBC investigation into cryo-preservation pointed out that organs often need different temperatures and environments to maintain functionality, something we know from preserving them for donation.

There is simply no logical reason to invest money into being frozen. It doesn’t work now, it likely won’t ever work, and by the time it ever does work, no one who was frozen now will be able to be successfully resurrected.

A similarly dubious technological attempt at dodging death is brain uploading. This concept is basically just the plot of Transcendence. A major proponent of brain uploading is Transhumanist luminary Martine Rothblatt, the founder of SiriusXM satellite radio and the highest-paid female CEO in the country. When the time comes, Rothblatt would like to upload her wife, Bina, to the cloud — a project that is already underway with Bina48, a social robot that has Bina’s personality — and her own Twitter account.

The concept behind brain uploading is that someday, everyone will be able to upload their entire consciousness and personality to a server and preserve themselves digitally, only to be transferred at some point into some other vessel, if they so desire. (Popular options are humanoid robots or similar household objects.)

This is a fun pastime for people who can afford it, no doubt. Talking to robots is awesome. (My kid’s first word will likely be “Alexa.”) And AI and robotics technologies are progressing at an incredible pace. However, true mind uploading is incredibly far off, because there is no evidence that personality traits reside within brain tissue, and there is no proven way to harness memories or creativity, or any of the other things that make you “you.”

Still, one provocative start-up is currently enrolling patients who want to try out this tech. (You just have to die first).

The most realistic-seeming life extension technique lie somewhere in the realm of regenerative medicine, a fringe of largely theoretical ideas based in real science that is progressing rapidly. Aubrey de Grey, the famed Cambridge gerontologist, who is also a figure in the Transhumanist movement, leads this charge. He is followed by a number of stem cell experts, geneticists, and otherwise legitimate characters who have taken up the mantle of the study of genetics and telomeres.

Telomeres are the timekeepers of human genes. They are small capsule-like pieces that make up the bottom of chromosomes and are often described as the little plastic nubs at the end of a shoelace. Their length appears to be indicative of lifespan because they seem to shrink as humans age. The longer the telomere, the longer you’ve got on the terrestrial plane, or so the theory goes.

This is real science, and there are plenty of legitimate aging studies underway that involve measuring telomeres and to see how they correspond to aging and disease. Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad science surrounding the theory as well.

Liz Parrish, the CEO of a company called BioViva, claims to be the first person to have elongated her telomeres through gene therapy that she perhaps performed on herself, possibly in Colombia. The details are foggy, but what’s clear is that BioViva’s science is happening without any regulatory oversight, peer review, or pre-clinical trials.

After she allegedly used gene therapy to reverse her body’s aging process, Parrish plastered the internet with blog posts claiming she was “Patient Zero” for this unproven and untested idea. Genome editing pioneer George Church, who despite being listed as a scientific advisor for Parrish’s company, referred to her gene therapy project as “a one-person show” in an article in MIT Technology Review.

I understand natural curiosity, the thrill of science, and the quest for innovation. But Transhumanist leaders have made science into a circus.

It is irresponsible, if not actively harmful, to pursue radical life extension as a serious goal, while so many Americans fear that they won’t be able to make through the next few years.

Zoltan Istvan, formerly the head of the Transhumanist Party and self-described “science candidate,” traversed the country campaigning during the 2016 presidential election in a vintage RV decorated like a coffin. Because becoming immortal and alleviating existential risk was his actual campaign platform. Most recently, Istvan also ran for governor of California, and once again suggested that governments should divert more resources into scientific and technological research to “cure death.”

Istvan, like so many other life extension advocates and Transhumanists, is a supporter of the concept of “morphological freedom,” or the idea that anyone has the right to do what they will with their own body. I also believe in morphological freedom, and I feel privileged to have it. But until every American also gets the chance to enjoy freedom over their bodies and choices, I remain exceedingly skeptical about investing outrageous sums into longevity research or prioritizing it above the needs of living people.

Until every American can say that they enjoy morphological freedom, including every woman who wants access to safe, affordable reproductive care, I don’t want to hear about Peter Thiel or Larry Page spending billions on flimsy science for life extension. Only 28 states require insurers to cover contraception, and 6 states moved to ban all abortions in 2017, while a further 28 states introduced legislation that would “ban abortions under some circumstances.”

Instead of funding life extension, let’s fund pro-choice candidates, build health clinics, and train midwives. Let’s fight for all women to have control over their own bodies.

Until every American has the freedom to live without fear of the state impeding their natural lifespans, I don’t want to hear about funding brain uploading initiatives. Nearly 1,000 people were shot by police in 2017. People of color actively fear for their lives every day in this country, from militant police forces and unwieldy federal immigration officials.

Instead of talking about the rights of the wealthy and educated to dabble in dubious science, let’s focus first on making sure that everyone, regardless of class or color, can feel safe on our streets.

Transhumanists list “curing death” as the number one item on their political platforms. To the people researching life extension, death is a “disease.” But I have never heard any of the people advocating that they have a human right to live forever also demanding universal healthcare. In fact, there is an ongoing debate within Transhumanism about whether universal healthcare is a human right at all.

In the U.S. in 2016, 3.2 million children did not have access to health insurance. In Zoltan Istvan’s home state, California, that number was 268,000.

I don’t see longevity supporters rallying for these causes. I don’t see them en masse wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts, telling GOP senators to leave the ACA alone, carrying signs for Planned Parenthood, or building a float for Pride. But they will rally across the US to “oppose death.” And raise $28,000 for Istvan to build a mobile coffin.

Without also advocating for civil liberties for others, longevity proponents can be seen as a truly unethical example of what happens when the uber-privileged from Silicon Valley lose touch with how bad things really are. It is irresponsible, if not actively harmful, to pursue radical life extension as a serious goal, while so many Americans fear that they won’t be able to make through the next few years.

Forever isn’t even a consideration.

Reporter. Bioethicist. Publishing on the intersection of ethics and policy with emerging science and tech. Sorry for the recipes if you’re here for news.

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