Interview with David Pearceby
Nanoaging / Jonathan Despres
Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and what current projects are you involved in?
My main interest is the use of biotechnology to abolish suffering. In a sense, the abolitionist project is an almost trivial consequence of Bentham plus biotech. Alas the abolition of suffering in humans - let alone throughout the living world - strikes most people as utopian fantasy. So in 1995, I wrote a manifesto (The Hedonistic Imperative) outlining a blueprint of how it might happen. I predict our descendants will enjoy genetically pre-programmed well-being that's orders of magnitude richer than anything accessible today.
Background? British philosopher - though of course one needn't be a utilitarian ethicist to advocate a cruelty-free world. I'm also a third-generation vegetarian/vegan. For as long as I can remember, I've had a horror of suffering of any kind. However, it's frustrating that the tender-minded people who care most about suffering are often least prepared for the intellectual tough-mindedness needed to confront its biological roots. My own interest in nanotechnology is slightly unusual. It stems from the potential use of nanotech to extend the abolitionist project beyond narrow species self-interest. In humans, at least, the impending reproductive revolution of "designer babies" should ensure that our nastier genes are weeded out of the genome. Any predisposition to depression, anxiety disorders and malaise is likely to disappear through the quasi-rational choices of prospective parents. Less intuitively, market economics if not moral compassion may lead to global veganism. As we develop single-celled protein technologies, the advent of ultra-cheap, scalable, delicious designer vatfood should ensure the factory farming industry undergoes world-wide collapse - or at least converts to alternatives that don't involve today's animal holocaust. Yet that's not enough. The abolition of suffering in all sentient life will entail a more far-reaching approach. Completion of the abolitionist project on earth calls for genomic rewrites, depot contraception and comprehensive ecosystem redesign. This kind of mega-project demands nanorobotics - and computational resources applied on a scale we probably won't witness in our lifetime.
Technofantasy? Quite possibly. Perhaps we'll opt to conserve the nasty side of life for ever. But if you think minimising suffering is a good idea - and bioscience holds the answers - then web-based campaigning to win hearts and minds is a rational strategy. The technical obstacles to a cruelty-free world are probably less formidable than bioconservative prejudice. Thus for the past decade I've run BLTC Research as a vehicle to promote an abolitionist agenda. In 1998, I co-founded - with Swedish-born philosopher Nick Bostrom - the World Transhumanist Association. I'm also a founder of the Abolitionist Society; and a member of the Immortality Institute and the Life Extension Foundation. Wearing my most sober hat, I serve on the editorial review board of Medical Hypotheses. I also run a web hosting firm that aims to encourage compassionate technophobes - humanist, transhumanist and traditional animal welfarist - to develop a strong online presence. But my main focus is exploring technologies to alleviate mental pain. It's not that I don't find all sorts of stuff intellectually interesting - I've written a lot on psychopharmacology, the philosophy of mind, intelligence-amplification and paradise-engineering. I think the future of life in the universe is unimaginably wonderful. Yet of all the revolutionary scenarios that futurists discuss, the abolition of suffering is perhaps the least conceptually exciting and (I believe) the most morally urgent.
What are your goals for the next decade?
I'd like to understand more about the molecular substrates of emotion - and in particular, the (hypothetical) final common pathway of pleasure in the brain. Why does this matter? In this context, three reasons.
First, the most common objection one hears to the prospect of living indefinitely is that immortality would be boring. This is surely a misconception. Once we've gained mastery of our emotions, each moment of our extended lives can be more exhilarating than is even physiologically possible at present. This doesn't mean that quasi-immortals will find everything indiscriminately interesting - any more than a genetic predisposition to lifelong bliss will ensure we'll be uniformly happy. Intellectual discernment can be retained because the functional analogues of boredom and dissatisfaction can be conserved in the form of informational sensitivity to gradients of interest. So perhaps some aspects of quasi-immortal life will merely be fascinating. But our future baseline of mental health can be higher than today's peak experiences.
Second, a better understanding of the substrates of emotion will lead to more effective treatment of mood disorders. Some of us may want unlimited life. But we shouldn't forget that there are many millions of depressive people for whom time hangs heavy, and for whom life seems too long. We've a responsibility to help them flourish too. Bioscience can create valuable experiences on a prodigious scale for everyone.
A third reason why decoding the molecular machinery of emotion is potentially so important is less obvious. Indirectly, it should allow the study of consciousness to become an experimental discipline. Today we normally divide our awareness into waking and dreaming consciousness. It's easy to assume these are the sole templates of existence. Yet waking and dreaming consciousness are just two minor varieties in a vast taxonomy of sentience that we've barely begun to explore. Unfortunately - although I have immense respect for Dr Alexander Shulgin - I don't think one can ethically advocate use of the pharmacological tools needed to investigate this alien state-space until we've gained control over our core Darwinian emotions. But once our palette of feelings can be modulated at will, the intellectual payoff will be epoch-making too. Here's just one illustration. On certain mind-altering drugs, a few minutes can subjectively seem like an eternity. Posterity's control of the neurochemistry of time perception should allow our descendants to live subjectively as long as they choose every day of their lives. Post-humans won't apprehend time in the manner of their primate ancestors.
When do you think we will achieve real life extension?
In a modest way, it's probably feasible now. This isn't obvious because we're currently seeing a “rectangularisation” of the morbidity and mortality curve. No one's got close to Jeanne Calment's record 122 years - and she died in 1997. In theory, practising a brutal 40% caloric restriction - together with a healthy lifestyle and optimal nutrition - should increase maximum human lifespan by perhaps 20-30% (?). One might consider taking a selective MAO-b inhibitor as well - and mood-brighteners to combat the grouchiness that comes from feeling chronically hungry. Also, drugs that mimic the effects of dietary restriction without the need for heroic self-denial are in the pipeline. However, this is all lame, sticking-plaster stuff. Serious gene therapies that radically extend lifespan are probably a couple of decades or more away. And adequately controlled trials in humans obviously pose a problem.
More optimistically, visionary scientist Ray Kurzweil recently wrote a book with the title: How To Live Long Enough to Live Forever. I hope he's right. Perhaps we really can bootstrap our way to immortality as fast as he anticipates. Ray Kurzweil has certainly done as much as anyone to spell out the implications of exponential growth in computing power. But I fear we'll miss the boat by several decades at least, possibly centuries - unless we resort to cryonics. Even if we don't make it, anti-aging research is still worth pursuing energetically so that future (post-)humans don't suffer the ravages of senescence and death in the way we do. Talk of "healthy aging" etc., is a contradiction in terms. Recall the huge controversy a year ago after a deaf couple consulted a clinical geneticist with the intention of having a deaf child. One understands their reasons, but most people were appalled: it's no disrespect to anybody with hearing difficulties to say that sensory deficits are better cured than perpetuated. Yet almost everyone thinks it's morally acceptable to have children who'll be born with the lethal hereditary disorder called aging - not to mention a multitude of other "natural" pathologies. Presumably this attitude will change as the relevant germline therapies mature.
Do you believe in Cryonics and if so when will it succeed?
Yes, I think it's feasible. But there are many pitfalls. Here are just two.
To have a realistic chance of being reanimated, it's no good waiting for hours or more after conventional brain-death to be frozen/vitrified. All sorts of horrendous cellular damage can in principle be repaired; but not the [effectively] irreversible information loss that ensues from this sort of neural catastrophe. It's also extremely reckless to wait until your dotage before cryosuspension - for a similar reason. But if at the age of a notionally "healthy" 60 years old, say, you could opt to be frozen/vitrified under ideal medical conditions, then you might be reanimated by your grandchildren later this century - or, if you want to live indefinitely, at a later date when true "negligible senescence" is feasible. Unfortunately, the cryosuspension of unambiguously alive human beings is currently unlawful. Anyone assisting the process would be charged with murder - a charge that might more appropriately be reversed. So vigorous political lobbying is needed to change the present medico-legal framework. Or alternatively, find a cryonics-friendly country. One stable little island would be enough.
Another problem is that we're social primates. Our personal identity is intimately bound up with our social roles - teacher, mother, husband, daughter, etc. Our self-identity is also more-or-less inseparable from our particular language, culture, traditional perceptual modules and medium of consciousness. If we were resuscitated more than a few decades hence, then we might wake up effectively psychotic. Yes, an advanced civilisation could presumably cure this psychosis. But in order to adapt to the new era, you'd have to turn into something fundamentally different - which arguably defeats the purpose of resurrection. I guess I'm curious enough to take the risk.
Why isn't the science of cryonics progressing at a rate commensurate to other sciences?
Progress is slow because until recently cryonics has been stuck in Crank Alley. Even now, most scientists and policymakers don't take it seriously. Cryonics needs to be promoted to a mainstream biomedical science - with institutional funding, educational curriculum and social support structures to match.
Which path should we take for immortalism, nanomedicine or biogerontology or... ?
In the long run, I think our species will rewrite its own genetic code so that eternal youth is genetically preprogrammed. Nanomedicine and biogerontology will be most relevant for sick oldsters on the eve of the great transition. Perhaps nanomedicine will be needed indefinitely - I don't know. A methodological revolution will be essential, too, if we're to overcome the difficulty of conducting controlled (post-)human clinical trials on any sensible timeframe. Mature quantum computing should allow simulations to be run on a scale that strains the imagination; but even utopian technology isn't magic.
What's the best route to superlongevity for humans alive today? Well, if there's any sense to the notion of enduring personal identity over time, then it clearly doesn't reside in our particular physical constituents but rather in their patterns. The half-life of a typical protein in the brain is perhaps 12 days. So if you want your kind of pattern to be recreated and then sustained indefinitely, perhaps use a wearable videocam, write, talk and leave a large digital footprint and there's a fair chance that an advanced civilisation will have the computational resources to re-create you - or something like you - on the basis of your cryopreserved brain. Whether or not they would want to, or consider it ethical to do so, is another story. And of course some futurists wonder why bother with a mouldy old brain at all when you could be digitised and implemented in silicon instead. Maybe if we understood phenomenal consciousness, then this wouldn't be a problem - at least when scanning technology improves. I confess I'm more cautious - even neuroconservative! Let's say, for example, you're the kind of micro-functionalist who thinks unitary consciousness depends on quantum coherence in the neural microtubules. If so, then there are real difficulties in using an inorganic computer with a classical architecture for anything more ontologically ambitious than simulations, backups and prostheses. Actually I'm dodging all sorts of issues of personal (non-)identity here as well. In what sense does the here-and-now of a phenomenal self at one spatio-temporal location belong to the same entity as a discontinuous here-and-now with different coordinates? Maybe belief in an enduring metaphysical ego is just an adaptive delusion that has helped our species conquer the planet. It helps our genes leave more copies of themselves. But there's no evidence it's true - even if our conceptual scheme and linguistic practices assume it.
What first attracted you to the idea of physical immortality?
The usual reason: fear of growing old and dying. When I was still at primary school, I recall dreaming I was going to find a cure for the aging process - by the age of eighteen. [Somewhere I'd picked up the factoid that we lose 2,000 neurons a day after turning eighteen - after which it was downhill all the way.] I hoped to rescue the rest of the higher vertebrates too - and agonised about the species cut-off point for a post-aging world. As a teenager, I read Robert Ettinger's classic The Prospect of Immortality and concluded cryonics was personally a more realistic option - with a twist. The saddest day in my brother's life was when his guinea-pig died shortly after giving birth. I recall I wanted to preserve her in the freezer for future reanimation - an idea vetoed by my mother. Yes, it sounds comical today; but it's easy to forget what heartache a pet's death can cause.
Naturally, the ideas of my ancestral namesake were naive. But I'm still troubled by an obvious analogy. I wouldn't now choose to recreate the disturbed and dysfunctional little six-year old who wanted to live for ever. Will our post-human (god-like?) successors want to resurrect small-minded primitives from a vanished era? How likely are we to transcend the horrors of our Darwinian past and then decide to recreate them? Over the next few centuries, we're probably going to achieve physical, emotional and intellectual super-health. I think suffering itself may be abolished. Why resurrect an ugly chrysalis when you've become a beautiful butterfly? So if you're really intent on reanimation, I'd put more faith in your grandchildren - their actions if not their judgement - than in our post-human descendants. Either way, perhaps there's an important sense in which you're never going to disappear. Delving into the realm of scientific metaphysics, theorists speculate that there are (at the very least) googols of type-identical copies of you in existence - some theoretical physicists say an "infinite" number. Even if you're this abundant, you may still regret the fact that there are (very) extensive parts of the multiverse where you don't exist. But this is a lament that one isn't God. For what it's worth, I suspect Reality has quite enough copies of me as it is.
What can a company do to become successful in the life extension business?
Peddle snake-oil? The dead can't sue...
How handy would be an indefinite lifespan?
Potentially, indefinite lifespan will be wonderful. But it's only one strand of becoming truly post-human. Recall how studies suggest that six months after winning the lottery or becoming paralysed in an accident, most people will have reverted to their previous average level of well-being or ill-being before their windfall/accident. Their [partially] heritable "set-point" of everyday mood hasn't shifted significantly. Likewise, following a short-lived burst of euphoria at being granted eternal youth, something analogous might befall us too. As our emotional thermostats kicked in, we might soon be almost as malaise-ridden as before. Unless we recalibrate the mind's hedonic tone, our quality of life as quasi-immortals won't be much higher than our quality of life as lived for three score years and ten. On a brighter note, I think this worry is misplaced. The combination of indefinite life-spans and radical mood-enrichment is a recipe for eternal bliss. This may serve as a good definition - in a medico-scientific as well as popular sense - of paradise.
Manniska Plus (Jan. 2011)
UHI Interview (Jan. 2011)
[Humanity Plus+, September 2009]
[Neofiles, December 2003]
(Vanity Fair, April 2007)
DP plus NB Interview
(Cronopis, December 2007)
AS Society Interview
(AS, Jan. 2008)
DP Drug Regimen
The End of Suffering?
[Philosophy Now, July-August 2006]