I’m something of a quiet transhumanist, reveling in the ideas of elevating the human existence through the use of technology but staving off from raving about it whenever I get the chance. Whilst the idea of living longer appeals to many the idea of removing that inevitable end date, the one thing that has proved to be unavoidable for the vast majority of humanity to date, feels abhorrent to many and thus I leave the subject to one side. Still every so often a piece of science will make it into the mainstream media that brings with it some of the implications of transhumanist thinking and I feel compelled to comment on it.
A collaborative research effort between scientists in Australia and the USA has discovered a compound which, when administered to 2 year old mice, makes them appear to be as youthful as their 6 month old counterparts. The time line for the dramatic effects was also impressive with the reversal taking just under a week to occur. The compound acts on mitochondria, the energy generators of our cells, and appears to act directly on the muscle tissue of the mice. Whether that extends to other aspects of aging isn’t made clear (at least not that I can see, the article is behind a paywall) but the results have been impressive enough to warrant approval for human trials next year. Of course that means that a proper human model is some years off (with commercial production further still) but we should have some preliminary results in the not too distant future.
If this compound does pretty much exactly as advertised then it could mean a lot for our aging populace. Restoring muscle function is a key aspect in leading a healthier life as we age (which is why regular exercise is so important) and this could go a long way to making our golden years that much more enjoyable. At the same time it could also potentially help keep us in physical peak condition much longer, enabling us to be more active for an extended period of time. Whether this will translate to a bump in life expectancy and, more importantly, total longevity though will be something we won’t know for decades but it does sound promising.
Of course such life extension technologies always beg the question of how we’d deal with a larger population that’s living longer. Currently the world’s population is expected to peak around 2050 at roughly 8.3 billion, about 1.3 billion above what it is today. Technology like this wouldn’t immediately mean everyone suddenly starts living an additional 20~30 years, due to cost and adoption rates, so it’s far more likely that you’d see a gradual increase in average lifespan over the course of a couple decades. Indeed I believe this is true for all life extending technologies and thus their effects would be far more subtle and would be highly unlikely to lead to an unsustainable population of people who live forever.
It’s my hope that this line of research paves the way for more studies into what causes aging and what we can do to treat it. Whilst I will always support people’s decisions to live their lives the way they choose I believe that medical science can do a lot to help improve it and, one day, make death a choice rather than an inevitability.
I guess you could call me a transhumanist as I’ve got a keen interest in any technology that has the ability to augment us humans in some way. For a long time much of the stuff I dreamed or postulated about was firmly fixed in the world of sci-fi and fantasy. However the past couple decades have seen technological changes happening in such a fast pace that, at least in some form, have technologies that boost our attributes beyond what they were capable of naturally. I’d never really thought about it until I started considering how I use technology in my everyday life and just how far technology had advanced some of my abilities.
The best example I can think of this is probably my career. You see whilst I owe much of knowledge in the area of IT to the fact that I’ve been exposed to it for so long the vast majority of my knowledge doesn’t reside in my head, it lies out there in Internet waiting to be called upon. For many of us who’ve reached the upper echelons of the IT world our real ability isn’t the rote memorization of solutions, more it is our ability to search the Internet and the heuristic approach we take to tackling new problems. In that way then the Internet, and really all forms of information storage that preceded it, act as a kind of external memory that we are able to call upon to augment our own when required. In that sense we have already taken the first steps into the world of transhumanism and you’d be surprised at just how far along we are today.
For the everyday person in a developed world I’d say that they’re already augmented in several ways. With Internet penetration exceeding 60%in the developed world there’s a sizable amount of people that have at their beck and call untold seas of information. Additionally many of those same people would cellphones which, in addition to their capability as a memory enhancement device, also vastly increase the ability for someone to communicate with other people. Whilst this isn’t your traditional sci-fi type transhumanist idea it is in fact the beginnings of such a movement. This feeds into the fact that many technologies now seek to integrate more personally with our lives, with some coming to the point of being a necessity.
For all this wishy-washy type transhumanist stuff there is in fact some recent developments that, until quite recently, were completely sci-fi. Take for instance robotic exoskeletons, something which everyone is familiar with since the release of the movie Aliens. At the time it was pure fantasy as such a suit would require an energy source that just couldn’t exist at the time. Whilst we don’t have powerloaders today we do in fact have two devices that are quite closely related to it. The first is the HULC exoskeleton which is capable of carrying itself and an additional 90kgs of equipment, placing no burden on its wearer. The second is the REX robotic exoskeleton which gives back the ability to walk to those who have lost it. Humanity it seems is on the cusp of overcoming nearly all of our limitations, even those that were once in the realm of fantasy.
Take a step back and look at how augmented your life is today. Since you’re reading this blog you’ve already got more information at your finger tips than any of your ancestors had in their entire world. There are more subtle things, like say your dish washer, that enable you to complete many tasks at once. Each one of those is an augmentation to you allowing you to achieve much more than you would’ve been able to in the past. The effects of such augmentations are wide spread and all of them have an accelerating effect. The next decade looks to be bright with innovations that bring human capability to places that are still in the realms of sci-fi and I for one can’t wait to see what it brings.