The Responsibility of Immortality: Welcome to the New Transhumanism

In the summer of 1990, I was running a pretty weird nightclub in the Roppongi neighborhood of Tokyo. I was deeply immersed in the global cyberpunk scene and working to bring the Tokyo node of this fast-expanding, posthuman, science-fiction-and-psychedelic-drug-fueled movement online. The Japanese scene was more centered around videogames and multimedia than around acid and other psychedelics, and Timothy Leary, a dean of ’60s counterculture and proponent of psychedelia who was always fascinated with anything mind-expanding, was interested in learning more about it. Tim anointed the Japanese youth, including the 24-year-old me, “The New Breed.” He adopted me as a godson, and we started writing a book about The New Breed together, starting with “tune in, turn on, take over,” as a riff off Tim’s original and very famous “turn on, tune in, drop out.” We never finished the book, but we did end up spending a lot of time together. (I should dig out my old notes and finish the book.)

Tim introduced me to his friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco. They were a living menagerie of the counterculture in the United States since the ’60s. There were the traditional New Age types: hippies, cyberpunks, and transhumanists, too. In my early twenties, I was an eager and budding techno-utopian, dreaming of the day when I would become immortal and ascend to the stars into cryogenic slumber to awake on a distant planet. Or perhaps I would have my brain uploaded into a computer network, to become part of some intergalactic superbrain.

Good times. Those were the days and, for some, still are.

We’ve been yearning for immortality at least since the Epic of Gilgamesh. In Greek mythology, Zeus grants Eos’s mortal lover Tithonus immortality—but the goddess forgets to ask for eternal youth as well. Tithonus grows old and decrepit, begging for death. When I hear about life extension today, I am often perplexed, even frustrated. Are we are talking about eternal youth, eternal old age, or having our cryogenically frozen brains thawed out 2,000 years from now to perform tricks in a future alien zoo?

Joi Ito is an Ideas contributor for WIRED, and his association with the magazine goes back to its inception. He is coauthor with Jeff Howe of Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future and director of the MIT Media Lab.

The latest enthusiasm for eternal life largely stems not from any acid-soaked, tie-dyed counterculture but from the belief that technology will enhance humans and make them immortal. Today’s transhumanist movement, sometimes called H+, encompasses a broad range of issues and diversity of belief, but the notion of immortality—or, more correctly, amortality—is the central tenet. Transhumanists believe that technology will inevitably eliminate aging or disease as causes of death and instead turn death into the result of an accidental or voluntary physical intervention.

As science marches forward, and age reversal and the elimination of diseases becomes a real possibility, what once seemed like a science fiction dream is becoming more real, transforming the transhumanist movement and its role in society from a crazy subculture to a Silicon Valley money- and technology-fueled “shot on goal” and more of a practical “hedge” than the sci-fi dream of its progenitors.

Transhumanism can be traced back to futurists in the ’60s, most notably FM-2030. As the development of new, computer-based technologies began to turn into a revolution to rival the Industrial Revolution, Max More defined transhumanism as the effort to become “posthuman” through scientific advances like mind “uploading.” He developed his own variant of Transhumanism and named it Extropy, and together with Tom Morrow, founded the Extropy Institute, whose email list created a community of Extopians in the internet’s cyberpunk era. Its members discussed AI, cryonics, nanotech and crypotoanarchy, among other things, and some reverted to transhumanism, creating an organization now known as Humanity+. As the Tech Revolution continued, Extropians and transhumanists began actively experimenting with technology’s ability to deliver amortality.

In fact, Timothy Leary planned to have his head frozen by Alcor, preserving his brain and, presumably, his sense of humor and unique intelligence. But as he approached his death—I happened to visit him the night before he died in 1996—the vibe of the Alcor team moving weird cryo-gear into his house creeped Tim out, and he ended up opting for the “shoot my ashes into space” path, which seemed more appropriate to me as well. All of his friends got a bit of his ashes, too, and having Timothy Leary ashes became “a thing” for a while. It left me wondering, every time I spoke to groups of transhumanists shaking their fists in the air and rattling their Alcor “freeze me when I die” bracelets: How many would actually go through with the freezing?

That was 20 years ago. The transhumanist and Extropian movements (and even the Media Lab) have gotten more sober since those techno-utopian days, when even I was giddy with optimism. Nonetheless, as science fiction gives way to real science, many of the ZOMG if only conversations are becoming arguments about when and how, and the shift from Haight-Ashbury to Silicon Valley has stripped the movement of its tie-dye and beads and replaced them with Pied Piper shirts. Just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the road that brought us Cambridge Analytica and the Pizzagate conspiracy was paved with optimism and oaths to not be evil.

Renowned Harvard geneticist George Church once told me that breakthroughs in biological engineering are coming so fast we can’t predict how they will develop going forward. Crispr, a low-cost gene editing technology that is transforming our ability to design and edit the genome, was completely unanticipated; experts thought it was impossible … until it wasn’t. Next-generation gene sequencing is decreasing in price, far faster than Moore’s Law for processors. In many ways, bioengineering is moving faster than computing. Church believes that amortality and age reversal will seem difficult and fraught with issues … until they aren’t. He is currently experimenting with age reversal in dogs using gene therapy that has been successful in mice, a technique he believes is the most promising of nine broad approaches to mortality and aging—genome stability, telomere extension, epigenetics, proteostasis, caloric restriction, mitochondrial research, cell senescence, stem cell exhaustion, and intercellular communication.

Church’s research is but one of the key discoveries giving us hope that we may someday understand aging and possibly reverse it. My bet is that we will significantly lengthen, if not eliminate, the notion of “natural lifespan,” although it’s impossible to predict exactly when.

But what does this mean? Making things technically possible doesn’t always make them societally possible or even desirable, and just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should (as we’re increasingly realizing, watching the technologies we have developed transform into dark zombies instead of the wonderful utopian tools their designers imagined).

Human beings are tremendously adaptable and resilient, and we seem to quickly adjust to almost any technological change. Unfortunately, not all of our problems are technical and we are really bad at fixing social problems. Even the ones that we like to think we’ve fixed, like racism, keep morphing and getting stronger, like drug-resistant pathogens.

Don’t get me wrong—I think it’s important to be optimistic and passionate and push the boundaries of understanding to improve the human condition. But there is a religious tone in some of the arguments, and even a Way of the Future Church, which believes that “the creation of ‘super intelligence’ is inevitable.” As Yuval Harari writes in Homo Deus, “new technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods.” When he was still just Sir Martin Rees, now Lord Martin Rees once told a group of us a story (which has been retold in various forms in various places) about how he was interviewed by what he called “the society for the abolition of involuntary death” in California. The members offered to put him in cryonic storage when he died, and when he politely told them he’d rather be dead than in a deep freeze, they called him a “deathist.”

Transhumanists correctly argue that every time you take a baby aspirin (or have open heart surgery), you’re intervening to make your life better and longer. They contend that there is no categorical difference between many modern medical procedures and the quest to beat death; it’s just a matter of degree. I tend to agree.

Yet we can clearly imagine the perils of amortality. Would dictators hold onto power endlessly? How would universities work if faculty never retired? Would the population explode? Would endless life be only for the wealthy, or would the poor be forced to toil forever? Clearly many of our social and philosophical systems would break. Back in 2003, Francis Fukuyama, in Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, warned us of the perils of life extension and explained how biotech was taking us into a posthuman future with catastrophic consequences to civilization even with the best intentions.

I think it’s unlikely that we’ll be uploading our minds to computers any time soon, but I do believe changes that challenge what it means to be “human" are coming. Philosopher Nikola Danaylov in his Transhumanist Manifesto says, “We must all respect autonomy and individual rights of all sentience throughout the universe, including humans, non-human animals, and any future AI, modified life forms, or other intelligences.” That sounds progressive and good.

Still, in his manifesto Nikola also writes, “Transhumanists of the world unite—we have immortality to gain and only biology to lose.” That sounds a little scary to me. I poked Nikola about this, and he pointed out that he wrote this manifesto a while ago and his position has become more subtle. But many of his peers are as radical as ever. I think transhumanism, especially its strong, passionate base in exuberant Silicon Valley, could use an overhaul that makes it more attentive to and integrated with our complex societal systems. At the same time, we need to help the “left-behind” parts of society catch up and participate in, rather than just become subjected to, the technological transformations that are looming. Now that the dog has caught the car, tranhumanism has to transform our fantasy into a responsible reality.

I, for one, still dream of flourishing in the future through advances in science and technology, but hopefully one that addresses societal inequities, retains the richness and diversity of our natural systems and indigenous cultures, rather than the somewhat simple and sterile futures depicted by many science fiction writers and futurists. Timothy Leary liked to remind us to remember our hippie roots, with their celebration of diversity and nature, and I hear him calling us again.

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