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Transhumanists, Still Human - TV04

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#1 Bruce Klein

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Posted 17 August 2004 - 04:51 PM

“Transhumanists, Still Human"
A Report On Transvision 2004

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By: Kip Werking

In the last five days I have skipped sleep twice. But I do not feel that tired. Sleepiness might hit me when my plane lands and I am finally home. For now, however, I am still feeling the high of Transvision 2004.

This is the second annual conference of the World Transhumanism Association. The second was held last year at Yale. That was where one of the two founders of this society, Nick Bostrom, taught philosophy (he is now a fellow at Oxford). I asked Nick several times about David Pearce, the other founder and author of the mind-opening Hedonistic Imperative[1], but he only provided vague confirmations of what I already knew: that David is shy but maintains his tremendous number of websites about narcotics, utilitarianism, and animal rights, among other things. I continue to miss the unique perspective he brings to the transhumanist movement.

David Pearce is one of several notable absentees from this year’s Transvision. Eliezer Yudkowsky, the father of the Singularitarian branch of transhumanism, chose not to attend. Also Reason[2], whose emphasis is upon life extension technologies which are far less radical than Yudkowsky’s ambitious vision, was unable to attend. Both, however, are united by a fierce libertarianism and commitment to human enhancement. Likewise, Ben Best, who once practiced severe caloric restriction and works with the cryonics movement (he contributed to the new book from Immortality Institute[3]), did not attend the conference although he lives near Toronto. In personal correspondence, Best has written that he does not consider himself a transhumanist. Despite these absenses, Transvision 2004 boasted some fantastic attendees, not least of which was the science correspondent for Reason magazine Ronald Bailey[4] and Cambridge scientist Aubrey de Grey[5].

I arrive at the Medical Sciences Building at the University of Toronto at 4 pm on Friday evening. Because my father is a pilot for Delta Airlines, I can fly standby without paying. The disadvantage, however, is that I cannot board on flights that are already full. This contingency, combined the flight cancellation, can make long distance travel difficult. I woke at 3 am to be at the airport by 5 and try for as many flights as possible. The earliest flight was cancelled, but I was able to fly on the next flights to Cincinnati and then Toronto. At the airport I took a bus to Kipling Station and then two subway trains from there to the University. The entire weekend trip would cost me about 50$.

Arriving at the conference, I picked up my registration pamphlet and sat down with several strangers. We chatted while waited for others to show up. Richard Maxwell, who studied at MIT, Stanford, and William Alanson White Institute of Psychoanalysis, explained to me at length how the grind of a university education is unconstructive. At last I saw a group of people arrive. One of them appeared to be Nick Bostrom. He is more thin and shy than I would have pictured. I introduce myself as a big fan of his work and he responds in a thick Swedish accent. Soon Aubrey de Grey walks into the lobby area and we chat about human aging. He is much more sociable than Bostrom and friendly in a way that the picture on his website[6], which suggests a quiet sage, would not indicate. We all walk from the Medical Sciences Building to Peel Pub. Bostrom goes to an interview and Aubrey sits at a different table during the dinner buffer. This was the only occasion on which I would have a more than passing conversation with George Dvorsky and Simon Smith, Toronto transhumanists who maintain the wonderful Betterhumans website[7].

After the dinner, we all walked back to the campus for a keynote speaker. Curiously enough, I found these speakers less interesting than some of the other more impressive figures in the audience. Steve Mann, who teaches at the University of Toronto and studied under Marvin Minsky at MIT, is the world’s first cyborg (or first Canadian cyborg, depending upon how you compare Mann with Kevin Warwick in Britain[8]). Many members of the audience, including myself, wondered how his light vector technology was relevantly different than a digital camera.

It was fascinating, however, to watch the large screen in the auditorium where his visual point of view, captured by tiny cameras in his eyeglasses, was projected (more astounding was the fact that these glasses also beam lasers directly into Mann’s retina to create his synthetic vision). Like Alice[9] conversing through a computer generated model of Stelarc’s head on Saturday night, this audio-visual presentation was compelling but still disappointing. Finally, Mann stopped taking pictures with his camera and began to engage in some philosophy (as described in his book Cyborg[10]). He drew attention to the increasing surveillance in urban society (see Reason’s cover story “Database Nation”[11]) and introduced a term he coined: souvellience (French for under-watching). Mann supplemented these ideas with video footage of his confrontations with department store workers about their cameras and mentions of the physical abuse he has suffered while wearing souvellience technology. More appealing to the audience were the devices he passed around the audience: a tie with one black hemisphere camera on it and a bra with two. The latter is a terrific rejoinder to the “male gaze”. In the end, I thought Mann’s dialogue with the department store workers was uncharitable and his musings paranoid – but I have never been beaten up for wearing a camera.

Mann is representative of the Transvision 2004 experience: he is obviously intelligent (others at the conference studied at Harvard, Cambridge, Princeton, and Oxford) but is quite strange and can even inspire concern. During the weekend in Toronto, I felt acute worry about the well being of at least one Singularitarian, Immortalist, and practitioner of caloric restriction (“cronie”)[12] for various reasons – not least of which was the fact that each of them had dramatically reduced or altogether stopped working in order to further their transhumanist cause. Furthermore, while Mann is fascinated with technology and even has technical background, he would rather spend his time as an artist. This aspect is reflected in the conference’s subtitle: Art and Life in the Posthuman Era.

After Mann gave his presentation, I walked with the others back to New College Residence, where most of the attendees were staying. While crossing a busy street more than one transhumanist expressed concern about being hit by a car. This heightened attention to physical danger was a tendency I would notice throughout the entire conference. This alertness to proximate danger was consistent with transhumanists’ fascination with existential risks, such as asteroid impacts and thermonuclear war, and made a certain sense: starving yourself to increase your life expectancy is pointless if you get hit by a truck. In response to the comments of these concerned friends, I cracked my best joke that weekend: “[If a car hit one of the attendees] the headline would read ‘Transhumanists, Still Human.’”

New College offered the excellent arrangement of a small, private room with broadband Internet access for about 30$. I slept on an inflatable mattress on the floor of Bruce Klein’s room. He is the founder of the Immortality Institute (their mission is to “conquer the blight of involuntary death”)[13]. I was eager to go to sleep but soon Bruce informed me that many people were meeting in the lounge. I followed him to this part of the third floor and sat down with Robin Hanson on my left and Nick Bostrom on my right. We chatted until the middle of the night about transhumanism, Scientology, and the difference between them.

Saturday morning, Bruce awoke me by saying that the time was 10:15 am. My presentation was at the end of a session beginning at ten. Embarrassed by having slept in so late, we hurried and left New College for the Medical Sciences Building. I walked into the lecturing room, carrying my IBM Thinkpad, after one presentation had already started. Dale Carrico, from the Department of Rhetoric at Berkeley, emphasized the importance of using metaphors in spreading the transhumanist message. After having seen the effectiveness of metaphors in Nick Bostrom’s Fable of the Dragon Tyrant[14], I immediately appreciate his advice. Jende Huang, from the American Humanist Association (I subscribe to their magazine), spoke next about how the culture war, marked by the contrast between liberals and absolutists, has not disappeared but remains as important as ever. After the two magazines supporting humanism, Free Inquiry and the Humanist, both recently issued cover stories on transhumanism, I was glad to see Huang further strengthening that bond at Transvision.

Now my moment came. Max More (founder of the Extropy Institute[15] which predates the World Transhumanism Association)[16] began to take questions. He did not realize that I had arrived. Others, including his wife Natasha, called attention to my presence. I brought my Thinkpad to the podium and began to set up my Power Point presentation, but to no avail. At some point during all of this Aubrey de Grey had walked into the room and he came to help me with the audio-visual equipment. Thankfully, he had learned, from attending other conferences (including his very impressive IABG10[17]), to carry a USB memory stick. I transferred my Power Point file to the computer that did work and began my presentation about ten minutes late.

My presentation was based upon my The Posthuman Condition[18] which won the Haldane award for best undergraduate paper (there cannot have been much competition). I would have felt better if my paper presented new information about the biology of aging instead of my own philosophical musings. Nevertheless, I began by identifying a contrast between what I saw as a Californian, libertarian school of transhumanism and another school in England and the northeast that is more sympathetic to socialism. The former, on my view, often maintained naïve or orthodox positions on these philosophical dilemmas (as Ayn Rand did). This remark clearly made Natasha Vita-More upset.

I proceeded to describe the alarming conclusions I had reached when considering the relationship between future technologies and ancient dilemmas from Greek philosophy. For example, it seemed to me that manipulations of the brain’s reward mechanisms would show just how much we do not know which actions are moral or immoral. Likewise, I had concluded that if intelligence amplification could allow us to predict the behavior of ordinary humans or if neurosurgeons could prevent criminal behavior, we would lose our belief in freedom of the will. With time running out, I attempted to convey these ideas to the audience as best I could but I am afraid that my presentation was not very good or professional; my paper was far more eloquent. The presence of Mike Treder, Aubrey de Grey, and moderator Max More (whose Ph.d thesis was on the threat that future technologies pose to our sense of personal identity) had made me feel distinctly nervous. Surprising, however, many people softened my feelings of guilt by complimenting my work. Aubrey, in particular, congratulated me and expressed an interest in addressing these more philosophical questions.

Natasha was not happy. She informed me that my description of the two transhumanist schools was dishonest and propagated on the internet by members of the non-libertarian school. Surprisingly, she distanced herself from libertarianism and claimed that she voted as a Green. Likewise, Max More, while pleased with the rest of my presentation, seemed offended by this remark, and noted that he had studied in England and then moved to Austin. I had already known this but had not noticed the contradiction. I had also known that there had been a scandal amongst the World Transhumanism Association board of directors earlier and that there was a distinct tension between the Extropy Institute and the socialist Secretary of the WTA, James Hughes. After Max had made the reconciliatory move of presenting at Transvision, I felt embarrassed at having brought this conflict into the surface. I apologized profusely to both Max and Natasha and continued to the next presentation. Secretly, I felt sad that their commitment to libertarian sympathies, if they ever existed, would not be proclaimed with pride.

After the morning lectures, Bruce and I, having skipped breakfast, were hungry. So we walked back to the Peel Pub. Here I discovered just how strong the prejudice against the transhumanists can be. We were dining with a recent graduate from Georgetown Law who now works with a firm doing work related to FCC regulations. When I asked about how his coworkers felt about his transhumanist convictions, he related that none of them knew. Indeed, he had to maintain a strict policy of keeping quiet about such personal affairs. Bruce responded by mentioning that his wife Susan, who is also a lawyer, suffered similar problems. Susan was mentioned on her husband’s page for the Immortality Institute, but when others at her work somehow discovered these (is Google to blame?) she was asked to remove any mention to her firm. I noted these warnings with interest as first-year law student at William & Mary. Later Aubrey de Grey would relate the story of how the British Society for Research on Aging[19] asked him to remove any mention of himself on the website of a cryonics company (I saw Aubrey raise his hand when someone asked an audience at Transvision “Who has signed up for cryonic suspension?”). He refused to do so but did remove any the reference to BSRA on his own website. De Grey remains on their Executive Committee.

When I returned to the Medical Sciences Building, I chatted with Nick Bostrom. His quiet demeanor and thick accent suggested a mad scientist. Occasionally, however, he will insert a joke into the conversation that always caught me by surprise (he once practiced stand-up comedy). I seized the opportunity to ask Bostrom about his future work and he informed me that he is writing pieces about the Sleeping Beauty problem, the ethics of life extension, and a reply to another scholar on the subject of the Simulation Argument[20]. In the more distant future he would like to write another book which will probably be about transhumanism. I wish he would hurry. I walked with Bostrom to the next presentation. When I ask him about freedom of the will (I have a personal interest in the subject) he defends the compatibilist position suggested in the piece he wrote for Betterhumans[21] but adds that he would need to study the literature further before making any final conclusions.

After these less memorable lectures, everyone walked further north to another pub for the award ceremony. I walked next to de Grey and sat with him at the banquet. We would both receive one of the two awards that evening: I won the Haldane Award for Best Undergraduate Paper and Aubrey won the H.G. Wells Award for Outstanding Transhumanist Contributions. We both grabbed beers at the pub and chatted about aging. I asked him to explain once again his skepticism towards the benefit of caloric restriction in humans. De Grey maintains that the life extension benefit of CR correlates well with the lifespan of the species. Humans, however, are one of the mammalian species that live the longest. So, on de Grey’s view – which is a small minority amongst the gerontological community – caloric restriction might expand the human lifespan by one or two years at most. More importantly, any CR mimetic that researchers might develop in the future will suffer from the exact same limitation because it will use the same genetic mechanism. De Grey intends to present a more rigorous account of this idea in the future.

De Grey presents an alternative proposal for saving human beings from the disease of aging (and not the diseases of aging – like most transhumanists, he would characterize aging itself as a disease). He calls this effort ENS or Engineering Negligible Senescence. According to de Grey, one would only need to cure seven things in order to provide negligible senescence. Having read Jay Olshansky describe how decreasing the likelihood of one disease killing a person only increases the likelihood of another, so that the aging retardation approach of targeting specific diseases suffers from diminishing returns[22], I had my own reservations about the sufficiency of these seven problems. When I confronted de Grey about them he admitted that others remain. He maintained, however, that these other problems would be easier to fix and not as deleterious to our health. Even if they are sufficient, I marveled at his optimism – his list includes curing heart disease and cancer. Nevertheless, de Grey asserts that, with 100$ million per year for ten years, he can do it. Of course, he would not have to cure every problem that afflicts humans; all he needs to do is give us enough life extension to reach the point at which medicine is adding more time to life expectancy than aging and disease are – a point which de Grey calls “escape velocity”.

Aubrey’s skepticism towards calorie restriction is a tremendous blow to my own expectations for progress in life extension. The calorie restriction mimetic approach, the benefits of which de Grey questions, would be such an elegant solution to the problem of aging. One could simply tap into a mechanism already inside organism. Natural selection does all of the work for you. Otherwise, one might need reverse engineer the entire aging process, malfunction by malfunction, and intervene through brute force. De Grey’s approach strikes me as exactly that. I tell Aubrey, “I hope to God you are wrong.”

Finally the award presentation began. Someone hit their glass with their fork and called everyone to attention. Mike Treder, from the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, gave me a surprising good introduction and called me up to receive the Haldane award. Before those hundred gazing pairs of eyes and at least one television camera, I began to speak. I am transcribing from memory:

“I should have prepared a better speech. It gives me a great amount of pleasure to be here with you today. I have often remarked that transhumanism is growing exponentially. I do not know if that dream will come to fruition, but if it does, then someday this award will be far more prestigious than it is now, and I will be able to say that I have one!”

This drew a surprising amount of laughter from the audience.

“Now that I am here, I must take the opportunity to thank at least two people for whom I feel a great deal of gratitude. I do not intend these remarks to be at the expense of others, such as our keynote speakers. First of all, I would like to thank Nick Bostrom, who fights for and defends us in the ivory tower, against people such as Leon Kass. Nick, more so than any other philosopher I know, takes an uncompromisingly transhumanist position against these bio-conservatives.”

Bostrom seemed surprised by my remarks but I had to mention him. His In Defense of Posthuman Dignity (forthcoming in Bioethics)[23] and The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant (forthcoming in Journal of Medical Ethics)[24] impressed me greatly and showed how absurd reactionary ethicists can be.

“Second I would wish to thank Aubrey de Grey, who is fighting hard every day to save each of us from death and help us to live forever. I would also like to say one other thing. I am very happy to see so many people, from such diverse nationalities and various political positions, all united together under the celebration of transhumanism. I thank you for that, and I thank you for this.”

Now I sat down next to Aubrey. Mike called him next and he began his acceptance speech by remarking upon what a difficult act I was to follow. He continued by describing how he had recently learned that transhumanists do not advocate becoming posthuman in order to abolish their humanity. This idea would disturb de Grey, who wishes to preserve some essential aspect of humanness. Rather, “posthuman simply means trans-trans-trans-transhuman.” This realization allowed him to accept his H. G. Wells award without “feeling hypocritical.”

Now Ronald Bailey gave his address at the pub. The bulk of his talk dissected the arguments that prominent bioethicist Daniel Callahan made in a recent issue of Gerontology. That such a prestigious scholar can utter these ridiculous arguments is scandalous. They can be summarized as the charges that life is bad and so further life would be useless, and that life extension would exacerbate the problems of war, poverty, Medicare, Social Security, and so on. For example, Callahan argues that further life would not bring further vitality – but more golf. At this point Aubrey de Grey spoke up. “Why pick on golf?” Against the former, I also love Bailey’s quip that “just because Callahan is bored with life” we should not conclude that we will all become so. His other arguments are mistaken upon many grounds, not the least of which is the testimony of history, during which life expectancy has doubled. Callahan also seems to commit the common fallacy of thinking that because people are older, they must be decrepit. Finally, he does injustice to important moral considerations (when, exactly, would he insist that a person die?).

At one point, Bailey joked in good spirit that no method yet exists to extend the human lifespan and accused de Grey of not working hard enough. I was sitting next to Aubrey at the time and saw the look in his eyes, as if a tremendous weight were upon his shoulders. De Grey made a sarcastic, light-hearted remark in his defense, but considering the six billion lives at stake, I wondered just how funny Bailey’s joke was. After the dinner I walked with Aubrey back to the Medical Sciences Building. We discussed whether or not a leaf, falling to the ground and blow to and fro, would feel as if it possessed free will.

Back on campus, Natasha Vita-More gave her presentation about possible bodies that posthumans might take. I was glad to see ASIMO and Agent Smith (from the Matrix films) discussed but I could not help but feel disappointed by her presentation. My feelings softened a bit when I learned that she considered Primo, her design for a posthuman body, to be a provocative work of art in the form of an advertisement, rather than a real design. I was not the only person to feel dissatisfied.

Next Australian performance artist Stelarc gave his keynote address. Most of his lecture consisted of video footage from his earlier performances. The earlier footages, in particular, repeatedly showed Stelarc naked, hanging from several meat hooks above various locations. I sympathized when Sterlarc explained that the image was intended to show how the body was both obsolete and expandable. Nevertheless, I did not find these works of “art” to be particularly interesting or tasteful and the person sitting next to me felt the need to leave. Indeed, my impression of Stelarc was that he was a person who managed a living by shocking journalists and the public into giving him attention.

Later in his presentation he demonstrated something more impressive. Stelarc had created a three-dimensional model of his head and skinned it with a picture of his face. He also animated the head to give it the nuances of emotion and breath. The model appeared to look and talk as if it were a higher-resolution character from the upcoming game Half-Life 2[25]. The final touch, however, was the most important. Stelarc connected the modeling software to the ALICE program, which has won many Loebner Prizes (the Loebner Prize is a limited version of the Turing Test). This allowed Stelarc and the audience to ask his head several questions such as “What is the Matrix?” (“It is a movie about virtual reality,”) and “Are you conscious?” (“It is true a priori,”). The model even surprised us all by counting, upon request, from one to ten.

Finally Stelarc brought some volunteers onto the stage. Their muscles had been wired to an electrical device that the performance artist carried. Earlier videos had shown Stelarc’s arm moving randomly because of electrical stimulation but now we were about to witness the real thing. Each volunteer had wired a different muscle on their arm and as the Australian artist twisted a different knob, each muscle contracted in the appropriate direction. The four persons on stage commented upon how they could not resist the movements even if they tried, and Stelarc explained that they cannot because the electrical voltage overpowers that from their own nervous systems. This was a captivating introduction to just how powerful even a crude interface between flesh and machines can be.

Perhaps the highlight of the evening, however, was when Stelarc graciously answered the question of James Hughes’ (Secretary of the World Transhumanism Association) younger child. Having seen the recent film I, Robot, Hughes’ son was concerned about the danger that robots present. He asked whether or not Stelarc would incorporate Asimov’s Three Laws into intelligent machines. The performance artist tried to reassure the young child.

In the end, however, I wondered how much ALICE was representative of the transhumanist movement in general. Many have criticized Richard Wallace’s approach with ALICE by claiming that the mechanism, while very successful at giving a superficial appearance of intelligence, could never provide an adequate foundation for more abstract thought. There is a reason that Stelarc’s presentation used ALICE and not a general artificial intelligence program, such as that attempted by CyCorp[26]: each of these more ambitious efforts has failed. Like ALICE, the transhumanist community has a large web presence which creates a visibility bias. The small number of attendees at Transvision – most of them were presenters – showed just how appropriate a choice ALICE was for this keynote presentation. I eagerly anticipate the day when I can have a genuine conversation with Stelarc’s head.

At the end of the night several transhumanist themed films were played. Someone brought a few cases of beer and put them in a cooler. Some people left but many stayed and I watched James Hughes, sitting to my left with his wife Monica Bok, go up and grab one. On my right, Max More went and grabbed a bottle for himself and his wife, Natasha. It was during the projection of Sibling Dance, a work of art by Monica showing her two children in various states of anguish, that I realized just how close the transhumanist community was. Both James, who reminds listeners on his show to keep their radio “tuned to the left” and Max, whose Extropy Institute favors “market mechanisms over centralized government control”, had married artists. In the quiet University of Toronto auditorium, they sat together appreciating each others’ work.

That night I went back to New College. Before I could go to sleep I met John Oh on the third floor. Having learned earlier that John practices caloric restriction, I decided to express my own concerns to him about its dangers (full disclosure: I suffered from anorexia and bulimia nervosa, aggravated by my attempts to practice CR, for several years and almost died). The chief recommendations I made to John were that he have an electrocardiogram (this is what revealed the damage I had done to my own heart) and that he speak with a psychiatrist at least once to inquire about the possibility of an eating disorder. We argued at length about this last point. I found this surprising, considering that John emphasized how willing he was to take tests for potential harms (such as osteoporosis) and I accused him of claiming that his mind is miraculously immune to the risks of CR. I still feel that he exhibited an alarming obsession with food (he carries each of his meals around in a bag) but I was, at this point, regarding him as an average cronie. It was only later that I would discover just how different John is.

Sunday morning Max More gave his Plenary Address titled “Hyperagency vs. Humility: The Art of Living Without Limits”. Ronald Bailey introduced Max as the transhumanist leader whose contribution extends back in time the furthest. During this presentation and throughout the conference I was struck by More’s eloquence and philosophical sense. Most of his talk addressed Michael J. Sandel’s article “The Case Against Perfection” in the Atlantic Monthly[27]. More noted how Sandel’s arguments were unique and more sophisticated than the typical bio-conservative rhetoric (such as Callahan’s arguments in Gerontology which Ronald Bailey demolished) but that he had become, nevertheless, Kass’s “slave”. For example, Sandel does not make the traditional argument that posthumans or cyborgs will necessarily be emotionless and devoid of human sensibilities. On the contrary, he makes one argument which, although weak, is interesting. More described how, on Sandel’s view, too much power would give posthumans too much responsibility. According to him, our limited abilities are a convenience, in a Sartrean sense, and without them we would despair at our tremendous responsibility. At this point More looked up towards the ceiling, as if addressing God, and said sarcastically “thanks!” The objection I would make to this argument, which More did not mention, is that one cannot evade responsibility by refusing to become posthuman, just as one cannot avoid responsibility for killing a patient by refusing to read the labels on medicine. So long as the potential for solving tremendous problems exists – and posthumans will be able to end poverty, disease, and war – the responsibility exists for us to seize the reins and solve them.

After More’s presentation, I stayed in the same auditorium for the discussion on aging. This began with Joao Pedro de Magalhães[28], from Harvard Medical School, giving his presentation titled “The genetic network of human ageing: a system-level approach.” Earlier, Magalhães had explained his skepticism towards caloric restriction to me. He mentioned how there is no study of caloric restriction in primates or humans, but that ongoing studies suggest that the severe diet increases the risk of infection. In his presentation, Magalhães explained how his approach to aging differed from de Grey’s by comparing the rates of aging of various species instead of comparing younger and older organisms. This is a novel strategy that I remembered from Steven Austad’s excellent book Why We Age: What Science Is Discovering about the Body's Journey Through Life; later I learned that Austad has invited Magalhães to work in his lab. During his presentation, Magalhães showed how the rate of aging can be measured as the doubling time of the mortality rate. The doubling time for humans is quite large. Magalhães also presented his online genetic database of genes related to human aging. He linked each of these genes together in an impressive graphic according to how they influence each other. Like a bald child with cancer looking at an array of oncogenes, I marveled to look upon the network of genetic defects that would sentence me to death.

Next, Rafal Smigrodzki, from the underrepresented private sector, gave his presentation titled “How to buy new mitochondria for your old body.” Smigrodski described how his company is preparing a treatment to repair broken mitochondria. They have developed a method to deliver genetic cargo to mitochondria that is superior to traditional virotherapy. By marketing the treatment to those with a rare genetic defect in their mitochondria, Smigrodski hopes to jump the gap between therapy and enhancement and prepare the way for age retardation therapies within a couple of decades. I felt that much of his presentation was too good to be true – only time will tell.

Aubrey de Grey gave another presentation after Smigrodski titled "Removing toxic aggregates that our cells can't break down.” He did not share the latter’s optimism in obtaining FDA approval or bringing to market a treatment for a disease which afflicts less than one hundred people in the United States. Much like the speaker before him, de Grey was concerned with mitochondria, the power plants in each one of our cells which possess their own DNA. According to de Grey, these energy generating organelles create waste that is typically treated by the lysosomes. Sometimes, however, the lysosomes fail and the waste simply accumulates within the cell. This waste has been shown to be related to aging. Many researchers are now working upon a gene therapy to correct this defect in mitochondria and slow aging.

Finally, Nick Bostrom gave the closing plenary address titled “Human Enhancement: Answering the Why Question?” I found this presentation, from the father of the World Transhumanism Association, to be disappointing. He did stress, however, two ideas which I found interesting. For one, transhumanism admits of degrees and one can endorse certain enhancements without also totally committing one’s self to godliness. Secondly, most of the goods that transhumanism values are the same as those ordinary people value: good moods, healthy relationships, fun recreation and so on. One point with which I and several others took issue was Bostrom’s claim that there are no ethical arguments in favor of enhancements to create positional, as opposed to absolute, advantages (such as steroid use in the Olympics). I was immediately skeptical of the worth of this distinction. At last, I realized that, by the same logic, there could not be good reasons to compete for positional advantages without enhancements. I doubt that Bostrom would accept this latter conclusion, and so I think he should distance himself from the former. In summary, one might describe this presentation as “Transhumanism Lite.”

Now that the conference was over we all headed back to Peel Pub. Again, I sat next to Aubrey de Grey as soon as a seat opened up, and chatted with him until he had to catch his plane back to England. He sat to my left and on the other side of the table Bruce Klein sat in front of me, with John Oh sitting to his right (in front of Aubrey). I complimented him for coining the term “escape velocity”, which I consider to be very useful. Aubrey mentioned the Immortality Institute’s conference[29] planned for the fall of 2005 and Bruce and I asked many questions about how to ensure its success. All along, Aubrey talked at a ferocious pace and nursed his mug of beer. He related various anecdotes such as how he had learned to bicycle in England and felt more comfortable on a bike than in a car. He also described how his wife, a biologist many years older than him (who does not share his commitment to life extension but supports his work), inspired him to study biology instead of computer science. Finally, the hour came for Aubrey and others to leave for the airport and Bruce, John, and I walked back to New Collge.

We decided to take John to a Whole Foods grocery store so that he could purchase a low calorie meal for his dinner. This took longer than anticipated because of the great attention that he pays to his food selections. John refuses to eat any food that is not organic; indeed, I learned that he is no longer employed (he once worked in Silicon Valley) but, unsatisfied with organic foods from groceries, he intends to manage his own farm. During the car ride to Whole Foods, I learned more interesting details about John, who is quite modest and does not post often to internet message boards. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in Computer Science about fifteen years ago. Grey hairs betray his true age; otherwise, he appears to be much younger than 34 (the idea that caloric restriction can reverse the graying of hair or preserve a youthful appearance intrigues him). Perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that John possesses an intense commitment to both caloric restriction and Singularitarianism. Singularitarianism is the branch of transhumanism dedicated to ensuring that the Singularity – the point at which machine intelligence surpasses human – is safe and beneficial to humans. Indeed, John considers his severe diet to just be a means towards the end of reaching escape velocity and therefore the Singularity, too.

That evening John, Bruce, Santiago Ochoa[30] and I stay up chatting in Bruce’s room at New College. John is eating a big bowl of pure lettuce. We debate the value of the word “immortality.” Although I strongly support the Immortality Institute, I tell Bruce that I would not consider myself an immortalist because I am not arrogant enough to assert that, as a posthuman, I would never desire to commit suicide. Indeed, this skepticism about the survival of traditional values – including life itself – in the posthuman era was the topic of my presentation at Transvision. John and the others resisted my argument by reminding me that the goal of the Immortality Institute is to “conquer the blight of involuntary death” – a goal with which I have no philosophical qualms. Many of Bruce’s comments imply, however, that he understands the Immortality Institute to support the further idea that one should never die even if the death is voluntary. In other words, one ought to never commit suicide. I have no idea how intelligence amplification might alter my ethical foundation or desire to live, and so on the question of whether, after living one trillion years, I would ever kill myself, I remain silent.

I had one hour of sleep that night. On the taxi ride to airport, as the sun rises, Jose Cordeiro, a businessman from the Venezuelan Transhumanist Association[31], explains to me how central planning is ruining his country. Government computers are more expensive and perform worse than American computers. Unemployment has soared past twenty percent. Once a month, his President flies to Cuba to meet with Castro. I ask Cordeiro why he does not immigrate to America and he tells me that he cannot leave his country; he is trying to put his President behind bars. His remarks shock me out my American provincialism. I marvel to see a man so committed to both the transhumanist and libertarian spirit. The future of Venezuela needs more heroes like Cordeiro. Before I enter the hell that is U.S. Customs, I wave goodbye to the cheerful, tall man as he walks towards his flight. It might not be too long before I meet him again: Cordeiro will be taking all of the attendees scuba-diving in the summer of 2005 when Transvision takes place in Caracas.


[1] http://www.hedweb.org/
[2] http://www.longevitymeme.org/
[3] http://www.imminst.org/book1/
[4] http://www.reason.com/rbmain1.shtml/
[5] http://www.gen.cam.a...ens/index.html/
[6] http://www.gen.cam.a...ens/AdGbio.htm/
[7] http://www.betterhumans.com/
[8] http://www.kevinwarwick.org/
[9] http://www.alicebot.org/
[10] http://wearcam.org/cyborg.htm/
[11] http://www.reason.com/0406/june.shtml/
[12] http://www.calorierestriction.org/
[13] http://www.imminst.org/
[14] http://www.nickbostr...le/dragon.html/
[15] http://www.extropy.com/
[16] http://www.transhuma....php/WTA/index/
[17] http://www.gen.cam.ac.uk/iabg10/
[18] http://www.ece.utexa.../posthuman.htm/
[19] http://www.bsra.org.uk/
[20] http://www.simulation-argument.com/
[21] http://www.betterhum...ID=2004-01-09-1
[22] PMID: 12030096
[23] http://www.nickbostr...s/dignity.html/
[24] http://www.nickbostr...le/dragon.html/
[25] http://www.half-life2.com/
[26] http://www.cyc.com/
[27] http://www.theatlant.../04/sandel.htm/
[28] http://author.senescence.info/
[29] http://www.imminst.org/conference/
[30] http://www.mipagina....cv-english.htm/
[31] http://www.transhumanismo.org/

#2 Lazarus Long

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Posted 18 August 2004 - 02:44 PM

Thank you Kip for that excellent and very personal synopsis of events at WTA 04, it was greatly appreciated, as were your personal observations.

#3 John Doe

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Posted 18 August 2004 - 03:21 PM

Thank you Kip for that excellent and very personal synopsis of events at WTA 04, it was greatly appreciated, as were your personal observations.

Thank you very much. I put quite a bit of work into writing it and I am glad that you enjoyed reading my observations.

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#4 rudi

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Posted 23 August 2004 - 07:51 PM

Outstanding job and summary, Dear Kip! Your writings display the unflinching good judgement of a human with wisdom dramatically beyond your years.

I was also rather surprized at Natasha's statement, "I have never been a libertarian. I ran for political office on the Green ticket."

One of the reasons I wanted to go to the TransVision 04 was to get a read on how the "Transhumanist Movement" was heading politically. I did not pick up that there was a huge rift or disconnect between the socialist leaning vs. the libertarian leaning transhumanists.

I also enjoyed meeting the unique and creative personalities I had heretofore only known as online personas. Bruce Klein, George Dvoskin, Bruce Klien...a whole host of "archangels" and thought leaders of the transhumanist community...were a delight to meet in person.

Again, great article, Kip! I look forward to reading more of your thoughtful and thoughtprovoking writings.

Rudi Hoffman

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#5 Infernity

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Posted 19 January 2005 - 07:13 PM

I liked the fable of the Dragon-Tyran ( http://www.nickbostr...ble/dragon.html ) that Kip Werking added, very important moral, good way to explain to those who think death is a natural thing- that it is not!
I actually translated it all to hebrew to add for my school project that I chose to do about the triumph of life... ;)
Heh, you all should read it!


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