The Safeticons and the Struggle to Bring Back Risk

Over at Wired (article here), more than a few people are calling Ray Kurzweil a kook for his attempt to increase his lifespan in order to survive in time for the so-called "singularity," the imagined point at which machines will become self-improving and increasingly more intelligent. In fact, Kurzweil believes that machines will become so intelligent that humans will be left in the dust (Listen to Kurzweil at this Long Now seminar here and for a more skeptical take from Bruce Sterling listen here. I would also recommend the Singularity Summit which is available to download from iTunes). A number of great Sci-fi books tackle the Singularity concept. I would recommend Vernor Vinge and Charles Stross.

There are many intriguing items in the articles and many debatable points in the comments. Which side do I come on? I'm not sure that we will see singularity or the rise of AI, but I do anticipate that we are the verge of extreme life extension through a constellation of cuurently infant technologies. These include nanotechnology and biotechnology. Our ability to manipulate the body at its most fundamental levels will increase. We will be able to alter our genetics and possible arrest cell death. Is this a good thing? I don't know, but we should be anticipating this and preparing for the consequences.

I will tackle the concept of whether we are near a singularity in future posts. Right now, I want to focus on another issue, jumping off from this comment in the Wired article:

Though both Grossman and Kurzweil respect science, their approach is necessarily improvisational. If a therapy has some scientific promise and little risk, they'll try it. Kurzweil gets phosphatidylcholine intravenously, on the theory that this will rejuvenate all his body's tissues. He takes DHEA and testosterone. Both men use special filters to produce alkaline water, which they drink between meals in the hope that negatively charged ions in the water will scavenge free radicals and produce a variety of health benefits. This kind of thing may seem like quackery, especially when promoted by various New Age outfits touting the "pH miracle of living." Kurzweil and Grossman justify it not so much with scientific citations — though they have a few — but with a tinkerer's shrug. "Life is not a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study," Grossman explains. "We don't have that luxury. We are operating with incomplete information. The best we can do is experiment with ourselves."

Some of the commenters for the article have ridiculed Kurzweil for his experimentation and his proselytizing of the Singularity concept. Many view him as a con artist. I have not purchased any of his books and do not subscribe to his methods, but I appreciate his efforts at "tinkering."
If he wants to his body as an experiment, I do not have a problem with it. In fact, I encourage it.

Kurzweil's tinkering reminds me of the Newton experiment in which he poked a stick in his eye to determine the mechanism through which it sees light. This experiment and many other strange and odd experiments by early scientists are wonderfully described in Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson's trilogy The Baroque Cycle. The genius of the book is the way in which it evokes the early culture of science, which involves a lot of quackery, sketchy ethics, and personal risk.

The key among these traits highlighted in Quicksilver for me is personal risk in the service of knowledge and progress. I think that this is an ill in American society today. There are too many protections against allowing people to put themselves at risk, whether as a astronaut or a cancer patient volunteering for a new treatment. While the Columbia disaster was a terrible tragedy, it only further slowed manned missions to space and reinforced the current culture of over-caution at NASA. I don't know for sure, but I imagine this has helped to delay the efforts to send astronauts back to Moon and on to Mars (though they are many factors). I think this attitude has contributed to our fear of utilizing nuclear power despite its positives, especially in freeing us from greenhouse gas emitting power sources.

There are many instances in which our society has become too cautious. Over the long term, I think this could help cost America its position in the world as a science and technology giant (China seems more willing to take risks, though often in immoral ways) or could cost humanity its long-term survival.

The good news is that we are that there is a new sense of urgency regarding progress and a new willingness to take risks. Tellingly, I think this being primarily led by the private sector. The private sector is leading the charge toward easier access to space (news here). This may be our greatest hope for the future: corporations, maverick businesses, and kooky scientists. So, while many may dismiss Ray Kurweil, I take comfort in knowing that someone out there is willing to use their body as a lab. One day, it may help prolong my life.

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