The Transhuman Singularity
March 27, 2001 by Terry Grossman
Therapeutic human cloning, stem cell therapies, synthetic organs, molecular nanotechnology, and the digital-cerebral interface may allow us to achieve immortality in this century. But keeping bionic transhumans alive until immortalilty is achieved may prove very expensive. And not everyone will want it.
Originally published March 27, 2001 on KurzweilAI.net.
At 54 years of age, I am among the oldest of the baby boomers. Many of us, belonging to this and subsequent generations, don’t really believe that we will have to die. Death for us, if and when it occurs, will simply be the result of some kind of awful mistake.
In accordance with my predictions for the near future, with a little luck, my generation of boomers may be the first ever to be presented with the option for physical immortality on Earth. For members of all younger generations, this may almost be guaranteed. It may even be a possibility, albeit only sporadically, for a number of today’s seniors as well.
But, as a group, people who are less than 55 or so right now have the best chance of still being alive when the widespread availability of physical immortality becomes a reality. Experts predict that this dramatic extension in human lifespan will debut between 25 and 50 years from now1.
There is, needless to say, considerable controversy over the exact date that extreme human longevity will become widely available. Ron Klatz MD, president of The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, suggests that the human life span will reach 150 years within 30 years and physical immortality will be achieved by mid-century. Other futurists feel such dramatic breakthroughs may take a little longer.2 Ray Kurzweil even goes so far as to states that “life expectancy (will) no longer be a viable term in relation to intelligent beings” sometime between 2072 and 2099.3
This dramatic increase in human longevity will be the result of a number of imminent scientific breakthroughs. In my recent book, The Baby Boomers’ Guide to Living Forever4, I discuss these concepts at further length and present a plan of action that can be taken by anyone (not just baby boomers, by the way!) to improve your chances of remaining alive long enough to experience these soon-to-be-available radical increases in human longevity.
In The Baby Boomers’ Guide to Living Forever , I begin my discussion of how to plan for extreme longevity with “The Three Rules of Living Forever.”
- Rule #1: Don’t die anytime soon.
- Rule #2: Stay away from most doctors.
- Rule #3: Follow “The Ten Pillars of Health.”
In The Ten Pillars of Health I discuss specifically what types of things you can start doing right now to increase your chances of living a longer and healthier life. You can go to the website associated with this book, where brief descriptions of each of The Ten Pillars of Health are presented.
Defining the Singularity
Vernor Vinge popularized the concept of The Singularity–the point in time when machines become more intelligent than humans–in his essay, “The Technological Singularity.”
I use the phrase here differently, to refer to the point in time when human beings cross over the line and become immortal. Vernor Vinge popularized this version of The Singularity in his science fiction novel Marooned in Real Time.
I feel that this singular event corresponding to the end of death’s icy grip on human life will be among the most spectacular of triumphs for Life itself. This day that Death dies will join together with the day that Life took its first breath as the two most important dates in the history of life on our planet.
Not everyone feels this way about this. The majority of people now alive, in fact, have never even thought of this and even if they have, pay it little mind. This is because most people today feel that they are immortal already. They believe that they are already guaranteed life eternal as a result of their religious beliefs. The majority of Americans believe that their souls are immortal. As the reality of The Singularity approaches, however, the frequency and intensity of the debate regarding the relative merits of physical vs. ethereal immortality is certain to increase.
It will be interesting to see in which direction people are drawn when they really do have a clear-cut choice in the matter:
- Stay here on earth on the physical plane with their current memories intact or
- Die and then take their chances on getting in to heaven, the Happy Hunting Grounds, nirvana, Valhalla, etc.
The question comes to mind as to whether only “good” people will choose heaven, figuring that they have the best chance of getting in there. The sinners among us, on the other hand, would be more likely opt for staying right here on earth as long as possible rather than risk their summary deportation to the eternal flames of “the other place.” Will this dichotomy serve as a form of natural selection and eventually lead to an increasingly unsavory populace increasingly comprised of criminals and other borderline types immortalized “down” here?
This decision making process of choosing between heavenly bliss (or the Happy Hunting Grounds, nirvana, Valhalla, etc.) or continuing with the “rat race” here on earth will not be a trivial matter either. The version of physical immortality that I foresee, wonderful though it is to me, will not be everyone’s cup of tea.
Achieving this type of personal immortality will necessitate the use of therapeutics some people currently regard as dangerous (e.g., genetic engineering), other therapies that are currently illegal (e.g., human cloning) and still others that don’t even exist yet (e.g., human consciousness “uploading”). In the eyes of some folks, these interventions are totally unacceptable or even blasphemous. To others the type of “life” available to us will be an abomination and we won’t even meet the definition of being human any more. If history is any guide, a certain subgroup of our fellows will devote their lives to seeing that these options are not available to anyone.
The progression from where we are now, deeply mired in the quicksand of mortality, to the arrival of The Singularity will be characterized by a number of discrete quantum leaps that will be necessary to take us from where we are today to where we will need to be.
Some of the most notable of these biotechnological advances that will bring us to level where true human immortality will be possible include:
- Therapeutic Human Cloning
- Pluripotent Stem Cell Therapies
- Synthetic Human Organs
- Molecular Nanotechnology
- Creation of the “Digital-Cerebral Interface”
Therapeutic human cloning refers to the creation of human organs directly from an individual’s own DNA. It is currently legal, unlike “human cloning,” in which case an individual is duplicated in toto to create an entirely new genetically identical being.
Stem cells are specialized cells in the body that have the ability to turn into any of a number of diverse cell types. A particular type of these cells, the pluripotent stem cells, exist for just the first few weeks of embryonic development, but have the unique ability to turn into any cell type in the body whatsoever. These cells can also be used to create human replacement parts.
Another way to duplicate human replacement organs is in the factory. Engineers are working to fabricate entirely synthetic or artificial human organs and tissues. The availability of permanent artificial hearts, for example, is anticipated by 2010 followed in short order by synthetic, implantable lungs and kidneys by 2015. Predictions include the widespread availability of synthetic brains by 2035.5
Molecular nanotechnology (MNT) refers to engineering on a very tiny scale. Above all other technologies, MNT has the potential to irrevocably alter Life-As-We-Know-It by creating almost any product we desire from its raw materials at negligible cost. Infinitesimally tiny nanotechnological robots (nanobots) may some day circulate throughout our brains, systematically creating a digital record of the position of each molecule, providing a backup copy of our memories.
In accordance with Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns,”6 these advances will bring about ever more rapid changes in human Life-As-We-Know-It. A large part of these changes will be the result of the exponential increase in the computing power surrounding us. We will move from where we are today, increasingly dependent on external computers that help us conduct our business and access information, to the next level where computers gradually become part of us.
From the desktop, laptop and palmtop computers of today, we will soon progress to “belt tops” and then to non-visible computers implanted within our bodies. Within the next few decades, as suggested above, implanted computers will help our brains to think, while doctors also begin to implant organic as well as synthetic organs to replace worn out or diseased body parts.
This gradual change from carbon-based organic human beings into “transhumans” consisting of more than 50% bionic and/ or machine parts will be the next step in human evolution. The most notable feature of this evolutionary quantum leap will be our transformation from creatures of flesh and bone to being mostly machine-made, from being humans to becoming transhumans.7
It will be interesting to see the psychological changes that will occur to transhumans during this transitional period as people begin to grapple with the prospects for living an essentially indefinite period. In addition, as more and more people come to realize that they have a serious chance at immortality if they only survive for a few more years, our healthcare system will come under even greater pressure to keep people alive. Economic factors will play an ever-increasing role.
Keeping people alive as transhumans may prove very expensive. As more and more people look to keep themselves alive at whatever cost so that they will still around for The Singularity, more and more organs will need to be repaired, replaced or regrown. This could get very expensive indeed. The economic issues involved, as well as a number of others, will ensure that transhumanism won’t last very long at all.
From transhumanism, where we are partly organic tissue and partly mechanical parts, the natural progression will be toward greater and greater dependence on ever more rapid computer-augmented thinking and consciousness. Simultaneously, our relationship with our physical bodies will become increasingly evanescent. We may choose to continue to spend part of our time as physical beings, but many of us may find further evolution into posthuman existence, where we exist as purely energetic beings far more to our liking.
In addition to allowing for much more rapid assimilation and processing of information, such existence will also be far less expensive than constantly repairing physical bodies. On a philosophical level, the dividing line between heaven and earth, or, perhaps between human existence and nirvana, will begin to disappear.
The ramifications of this quantum leap in evolution to an entirely novel state of being, to posthumanism, are gargantuan. Will we mere mortals of today ever be able to adapt to such an existence? Or will we, like the children of Israel many centuries ago, just wander about for another 40 years or so, yet be allowed no more than a glimpse of The Promised Land?
The children of Israel were forced into Brownian marching in the Sinai Desert just long enough to ensure that all among them who had been slaves in Egypt died off first. Will it be the same story for today’s mortal humans? Having been born into lives of slavery under the yoke of mortality, perhaps we just can’t be trusted in a world where there is no death. The powers that be may already know that this would be too much of a shock to our psyches. It’s the ultimate caste system. You are either born an immortal or you’re not. No one gets to change.
As a true digital-cerebral interface comes into existence and we are able to “upload” our memories and consciousness into a twin computer backup, true human immortality will follow automatically as a matter of course. This creation of a twin consciousness of self on the digital plane will be the defining moment of The Singularity. For as soon as this is done, and we are able to create backup copies of ourselves, by definition, we’re immortal.
Should we want to, and I am not sure how many of us will even want to bother, this computer replication of self may then be downloaded into a newly cloned body (a 25 year old version, of course) and the process repeated indefinitely— Eternal Youth and True Physical Immortality.
The Singularity, therefore, refers to human immortality, the chance to live in a physical body (or virtually if you prefer, of course) for as long as you want. And, I repeat, current estimates are that this option should be available sometime during the present century.
Conceptions About Death
I think that people who lived in previous times may have felt the same way— that they would never die either— at least they may have thought this when they were young. Young people don’t usually spend a lot of time thinking about their own mortality. Have you ever met a teenager who didn’t think of himself or herself as indestructible and immortal?
Yet, with the passage of time, things begin to change. The years take their toll, and these young people, now middle aged, see this one and that one around them beginning to make the baleful passage from this world. The idea that they too will die one day gradually seeps into their consciousness. Right now the inflection point, the age at which the transition occurs— before which you think that you will never die and after which you know that it is only a matter of time— roughly corresponds to the age of today’s baby boomers.
Many who are younger than this age group still believe that they will never die— or at least they don’t think about death very often. On the other side, for people over 55 years of age or so, the thought patterns change. Very often, for instance, I ask some of my older patients, mostly retirees and other senior citizens, how long they expect to live or how long they might want to live if they had a choice in the matter.
Interestingly, very few of them ever show the remotest interest in immortality or even in a dramatic increase in life expectancy. Their expectations have been shaped by their perceptions. “What they see is what they get.” They see many people their own age dying, so they feel it is only a matter of time for them as well.
In addition, many of them have already been stricken with the infirmities and disabilities that aging has wrought. As a result, they lack enthusiasm for continuing in their current condition, not to speak of what they anticipate would inevitably be an even worse condition, for a whole lot longer. Most of them lack the vision of their children and grandchildren to conceive of a future where your physical health actually gets better and you appear to grow younger with the passage of time.
Yet, when the rubber hits the road, it has also been my experience that the age to which many elderly people aspire keeps moving farther and farther away the closer they get to what they think might be their actual “endpoint.” My impression is that even the oldest of the old almost always want to live a little longer. As Dr. Ron Klatz, founder of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine has said, “if you are wondering why anyone would want to live to be 120, anyway, just ask someone who’s 119.”
Most seniors don’t really want to die, they just think they have to. So, they spend much of their energy getting ready. If you are a senior, I recommend that you consider spending at least as much time preparing for your possible immortality as you do making preparations for your death.
Individuals a little younger, however, have yet to suffer many of the more serious slings and arrows of that outrageous process commonly referred to as aging. The lightning bolts have still begun to strike us only sporadically. For young and not-so-young adults, the worst symptom of aging reported by even the most senior of us is the receipt of unsolicited literature urging us to join AARP. Senior citizen discounts at the movies remain, mercifully, a few years away. A not so occasional ache and pain here and there, some thinning or graying hair, and a few creases on the forehead or crow’s feet around the eyes are the worst age related indignities suffered by this group.
This change in the way we view life itself with an increasing belief in the prospect for immortality will represent a huge paradigm shift in societal thought. The possible outcomes of that shift are staggering. Will we become uncontrollable risk takers with no thoughts of the consequences of our actions because we have no fear of death? Or fearing nothing, will we also care about nothing? Then again we may care more … about the long-term health of the planet, for example, because we’ll be sticking around so much longer. We may care more about one another since we’ll be with one another so much longer, etc. What about the economy? And politics? What about education? So many unknowns lie ahead.
In the course of a lifetime measured in centuries, it could become common to have several marriages, many careers, recurring courses of higher education. Will economic status play a role in who gets to live forever and who doesn’t, or will we truly have a world of “Forever for All”? The whole social structure will change, and Life-As-We-Know-It will change utterly.
Life Needs to be Fun
Still, no matter how long we live, for it to make any difference at all, life needs to be fun. Death and taxes, at least according to Benjamin Franklin, are the only certainties in life. I am not so sure of either of these certainties anymore. Some of my friends tell me they have no intention of dying–while others pay virtually no taxes.
Personally, I am more intrigued with the idea of dodging the Grim Reaper than the tax collector at this stage in my life. Should the concepts presented forthwith prove successful, then I suppose it would be fun to look at this other “inevitability” of life, paying taxes, and see if this, too, can be simply avoided.
A key concept here is that life needs to be fun. For my own part, I am more intrigued with the idea of living forever than with the reality. I like the challenge. Presented with the option of life everlasting, I don’t know exactly how I would handle it. There are only so many types of ethnic restaurants one wants to try. Yet, as it is often said, it still beats the alternative.
But it really isn’t necessary that we live forever anyway, we simply need to believe that we can. Having faith that one will never die, a concept well known to religious faithful worldwide, can take a lot of the wind out of Death’s dark sails. I think that the main precondition for human happiness is simply being having the belief that we will still be alive tomorrow. As long as we have faith that tomorrow will be here for us, whatever is going on today is a lot easier to take.
In the words of George Bernard Shaw— “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” Perhaps life needs to be a struggle, and wrestling with mortality is the Mother of All Struggles. By taking death out of the equation, a lot of the struggle disappears. But, if life needs to be a struggle, life will be a struggle, if by no other means than our making it be so.
Immortality for All
Furthermore, I don’t believe there is anything sacrilegious about my position, although I know there are many who might disagree with me. Between the concepts presented here regarding physical immortality and the unpopular notions espoused by former governor of Colorado Richard Lamm in the distant 1970s that the “elderly have a duty to die” lies a wide spectrum of viewpoints. There are countless ideas about how long any of us should live or should even have the right to live.
Some people say that manipulating the human lifespan is an attempt to tinker with nature and that avoiding death is unnatural, running counter to the natural scheme of things. These people contend that humans have no business tinkering with something as inviolate as death. I completely disagree, and, to help clarify my reasoning, I wish to ask a few questions of them.
How do they feel about the use of antibiotics to treat a case of pneumonia, which would otherwise prove fatal? Doesn’t this also violate the natural order of things and, thus, should also be forbidden? Well, these critics argue, you’re still alive when you take the antibiotics.
Then, what about the use of a defibrillator to restore an absent heartbeat following a heart attack? In this case, they respond, it’s only a “near death experience,” during which the patient is not really dead, just “near-dead” briefly, for a few minutes or less.
How about someone who has suffered “near drowning”? Resuscitation efforts are often successful even if a person has been “drowned” for several hours. During this period in the water, the victim is usually cold, without either heartbeat or consciousness. That’s pretty much dead in my book. Yet they often are restored to life and appear completely normal.
The bottom line is that humans have been tinkering with the natural order of things from before the days of the Neanderthals. Tinkering is what we do. We tinker with the natural order of things. I don’t believe The Greater Power has any problem with our doing so, either. I don’t believe The GP is in any great rush for us to join Him/Her. The Greater Power has been around for a long time, and is going to be around for a long time more. Whether any of us spend a few more years or a few more centuries “down” here or “up” here, as the case may be, doesn’t make the slightest difference in that time frame.
A meek accountant, who was also a very religious man, prayed long and hard that The Greater Power would appear to him. One day, his prayers were answered.
“What can I do for you?” asked The Greater Power.
“I can’t believe that You would take the time to visit me, a meek accountant. Compared to You, I am just a speck of dust, while You are so great and powerful,” said the accountant.
“That’s right,” said The Greater Power.
“And a million dollars to You is just like a penny to me.”
“You’re right there, too. A million dollars is just like a penny to Me.”
“And a million years to You is just like a minute to me,” said the accountant.
“Right again, a million years is just like a minute.”
“Well, Greater Power,” asked the accountant, “do You think You might be able to lend me a few pennies?”
“Of course, my child,” boomed the answer, “just wait a minute.”
On the contrary, I think The-Greater-Powers-That-Be totally support our efforts. The priority of all living beings is to ensure the continuance of life. Anything we can do to sustain life is in keeping with the true natural order of things. We wouldn’t have been given the brains and the imagination we possess if we weren’t meant to use them.
So, here we stand at the gateway of a new millennium, with the light of The Singularity already a faint glimmer on a distant horizon. What a truly wonderful time to be alive! What an amazing series of challenges lie ahead for humankind along with a remarkable series of opportunities. In closing, I wish want to express my most fervent desire that each of us be granted the basic immortality wish: simply to be given the gift of one more day … every day.
1. Klatz, Ronald. Grow Young with HGH, New York: HarperCollins, 1997, pp. 313-314 and “Making The Quantum Leap to Human Immortality in the Year 2029,” Anti-Aging Medical News, pp. 1-12.
2. Even by the most conservative estimates, human life spans of 150 years are predicted by 2050 and of 200 years or more by 2100. (See The Wall Street Journal, 10/18/99, p. B-8.)
3. Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines, New York: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 280.
4. Grossman, Terry. The Baby Boomers’ Guide to Living Forever, Hubristic Press: Denver CO, 2000.
5. Klatz, Ronald. Anti-Aging Medical News, Fall, 2000, pp. 8-12.
6. Kurzweil, Ray, op cit, 29-30.