Oct 30 2011

Time Bandits


If you take your life extension seriously and you take your action adventure SF movies literally, you will probably want to have your hour and forty nine minutes refunded after seeing In Time.  And while there are better ways to spend your time, even if you live in a world where that gross cliche “time is money” hasn’t been literalized, In Time is damn stupid fun with its heart in the right place even as its medicine is in the wrong one.

The basic concept — if you haven’t already heard it — is that some time in the future, we’ll be able to freeze aging at 25.  But, according to the movie logic, if everyone were just allowed to live at age 25 unto infinity, the world would be too crowded so “many must die so a few can be immortal.”  So all but an elite class must earn time the way they now must earn money — through labor, hustles and/or high interest loans.  When they run out of time, they expire… right there in the street.  (And if this isn’t upsetting enough, our heroes’ (Justin Timberlake) mom and even his grandmother and even his great great grandmother could end up looking like Olivia Wilde forever if she earns enough time which — with the passing of enough of said time — might lead to an Oedipean Epoch and I’m thinking David Lynch could direct a much more interesting and creepier In Time 2.)

Director Andrew Niccol is the guy who made Gattaca, often praised for being about as close to flawlessly realistic as a science fiction flick is likely to get.  This time around, though, he’s giving us broad strokes perhaps aimed more at reflecting the anxieties and perditions of extreme class distinctions in our current actual world and at concretizing the way most contemporary humans must sell and buy their time to remain alive.   All of it is driven forward by an exciting Bonnie and Clyde meets Patty Hearst storyline (robbing Daddy’s “Time Banks” and distributing free time to the poor.  Beats cheese any day.) that is so seductive it will take your mind off of the obvious holes in this movie’s imaginal world, although I must pick on one thing.  Virtually everybody in the movie is not only 25 or less, they’re almost all beautiful, particularly in Zone 4 where the rich people live.  At first, I thought this was a nice touch — with plastic surgery and so forth growing ever more sophisticated. But then there’s a scene in which Amanda Seyfried’s character talks about the day she reached 25. She tells Timberlake she looked in the mirror and knew that this would be her face forever. I mean, that isn’t even the face the actress Amanda Seyfried was born to.  Oh well, in a movie set far off into the future that doesn’t have any apparent robots or AIs; that seems to require factory workers; and that has people driving around in 1970s cars, it’s probably a small point. And don’t get me wrong.  My emotions rose and fell with Timberlake as he “occupies Zone 4” — and after some fighting and hiding and chasing and almost fucking — he and Amanda distribute Time Power To The People.

Finally… for those of us who know a few things about the actual science of life extension…

There is this fairly popular tropes in play that hyperlongevity will be only for the rich and therefor it is a badness. At the risk of being dreary, I’m thinking there could perhaps be more emphasis on health extension so that people get the point that slowing and stopping aging is about slowing or stopping the diseases related to aging… which is just about everything that makes us sick, given the fact that our immune systems get weaker as we age.

You probably wouldn’t run into a lot of people opposing a passionate advocacy for eliminating cancer or diabetes or heart disease on the grounds that only rich people would be treated. Rather, these same people would be working and struggling for a world in which most or all people would have access to this next step in health care.  I’ll leave it at that because It really is that simple.

On the other hand, it may indeed be necessary to rob the Time Banks in the interest of free time.

Oct 16 2011

100 Plus: An Accessible Look At The Longevity Revolution


Sonia Arrison’s book, 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith is a look at the oncoming longevity revolution written in a style that is accessible to average readers who may not be part of the transhuman early adopters club.

Covering everything from desktop organ printing to Cynthia Kenyon’s successful work discovering lifespan regulating genes to Aubrey de Grey’s efforts to “engineer negligible senescence, 100 Plus does an excellent job of rounding up all the projects and advances that are likely leading us towards hyperlongevity while also covers the possible social, economic and political effects that longevity is having — and will have — on humans. But let’s have her tell it.

I interviewed Arrison via email.

RU SIRIUS: Your book is written towards a general audience.  What would you say to the more transhumanist types — many of whom frequent this site — to entice them into your book?

SONIA ARRISON: I think there’s a lot in the book that will appeal to transhumanists. 100 Plus begins with a history of the human drive for longevity, takes a look at the current science, and then dives into a discussion of family relations, economics, and religion in a longer-lived world. The book ends with a discussion of who is leading us into this exciting new era and calls on those with an interest to get involved.

RU: What technological development would you single out as the most promising one in terms of expanded biological lifespan for humans?

SA: The most promising area for expanding human healthspan is regenerative medicine, which includes the techniques of gene therapy and tissue engineering, both of which have demonstrated powerful human successes so far.  Gene therapy has been used to cure blindness and cancer in humans, and it has shown the ability to slow down aging and age-related diseases in lab animals. Tissue engineering is also super-exciting, since it offers the ability to build new organs for those that have worn down, like a heart or a lung.  Already, scientists have grown and successfully transplanted human organs, such as bladders and windpipes, for patients in need.  Human hearts and lungs have not been completed yet, but promising work in lab animals suggests it will be possible.

RU: What cultural development would you say most reflects this oncoming change?

SA: This could be answered in a few ways.  First, baby boomers are now visibly aging and many are looking for a cure to the problem.  As a generation, they’ve driven a lot of change and their collective biological plight is increasing interest in this field.

Second, because biology is becoming an information technology, it opens it up to the engineering culture of the tech community.

Looking at human repair from an engineering perspective, rather than from the traditional biological perspective, has caused a change in the way we go about solving various health problems.

RU: What — if anything — might stop the trend toward hyperlongevity?

SA: I don’t think anything will stop it in the long run, but there are a lot of things that could slow it down to the point that some of us alive today won’t be able to benefit.  For instance, government agencies like the FDA do not recognize aging as a disease.  This makes it difficult for scientists and companies to produce effective agents to slow aging, which is the number one risk factor for many debilitating diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

RU: Is current interest in radical life extension largely limited to people who are economically privileged, relatively speaking?  Or put more colorfully, what do you think the Chinese factory worker who made my iPad would say to an offer to live another 130 years?

SA: Living longer and healthier is a universal and perennial human desire. In the case of a Chinese factory worker, I think the more relevant question is whether he or she will be able to afford life extension technologies.

RU: Let’s follow up on that one. What do you think is likely to happen with the availability of maximum health and longevity to people of average or even low incomes?

SA: That depends on which technology hits the market first and how much it costs to provide.  It is worth noting at this point that there are already large divides in life expectancy around the world and even within the United States.  Within the US, Native American males in South Dakota have a life expectancy of 58 years, compared with Asian females in New Jersey, with a life expectancy of 91 years. Internationally, the gap is even larger.  A person living in Monaco can expect around 89 years, whereas someone living in Angola can only expect 38 years. That’s a 51 year difference – almost an entire lifetime.  If wealthier people and nations have access to the technology first, which they will, they will also have larger economic gains, because they will be able to be productive for longer periods of time.  So, the disparity between individuals and nations could grow more than we’ve ever seen before.  The one potential reason for some optimism on this point is that new technology is spreading faster than ever before, so the technology delay between those on the leading edge and those on the lagging edge may shrink.  Think, for instance, of how countries without large landline phone systems simply skipped that step and went straight to cell phones.  Historically, the distribution of new technology has been speeding up, not slowing down.

RU: You get into an area that might be controversial among transhumanists and singularitarians — the idea that those who embrace these philosophies have some similarities with religious believers. Could you expand on this idea?

SA: I argue in the book that religion will not fade away as we get further away from death.  That’s because there is more to religion than a promise of the afterlife.  Religion also speaks to the purpose of life.  Why are we here, what is the good life, and how should we live our lives?  These are questions that religion is well positioned to help answer.  If we look at religion as something that has a number of required elements, such as explaining the purpose of life and offers of transcendence, one can see these themes in movements like singularitarianism.  I point out in the book that one of the leaders in the singularity movement, Ray Kurzweil, offers up many of these elements.  The singularity, according to Kurzweil, is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.”  He also has an answer for the purpose of life.  He says that the purpose of the universe “reflects the same purpose as our lives: to move toward greater intelligence and knowledge.”  There are other elements besides these two that make something a religion according to scholars who study this area, and I detail it in the book.  The bottom line is that not all transhumanists or singularitarians are religious, but there are some who do fit the category.

RU: When and how do you think we’ll know that we’re able to live to 150 or 300?  In other words, the year radical life extension is likely to be recognized and how we’ll know without waiting around 100 years to see if a 50-year-old makes it to 150?

SA: If scientists were able to use gene therapy to slow down aging in humans, as they have in lab animals, then the onset of the diseases of aging would happen at later and later ages.  Later onset of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and heart disease would be a good sign that the technology was successful and that human life span is about to break Jeanne Calment’s 122 year record.  When will we get there?  That’s tough to predict.  Gene therapy is only now coming out of the funk that it was in due to some early failures.  That said, because of the enormous successes that have already occurred in the field of tissue engineering, it seems likely that we will have the ability to replace many of our organs while we are waiting for holy grail solutions like gene therapy to slow overall aging, so the future looks pretty good.