As reported by the Hartford Advocate, August 6, 2008.

Want to Live Forever?

The Human-Life-Extension Movement Sees A Glorious Future For Us All

By Adam Bulger

The first words in Ed Wood's infamously awful masterpiece Plan 9 From Outer Space are, "Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives." That line has been ringing in my head for weeks. It seems to miss its own point: Time goes only one way; everything takes place in the future.

Speaking with people involved with the loosely connected movements of life extension, transhumanism and singularitarianism, I kept returning to that Plan 9 quote. Its stupidity melted away, leaving something similar to a Zen koan.

These forward-looking people think that we're soon going to be able to extend our lives almost infinitely. And they're working feverishly to survive into that golden age. They're willing to pop pills and radically reduce how much they eat just to live a bit longer.

The term transhumanist was coined in 1957 by biologist Julian Huxley to describe what he saw as humanity's coming transcendence into a new form. (Huxley's brother, Aldous, wrote the novel Brave New World partially in reaction to ideas espoused by Julian and his social circle.) The term gained traction in the late 1980s, when it was adopted to describe and promote human technological enhancement in platforms like Extropy: The Journal of Transhumanist Thought.

"Transhumanism is the idea that it's OK to transcend the limitations of the body and brain and take control of reproduction," said former World Transhumanist Association Executive Director James Hughes. "And add to that the belief that it's probably a good idea." It's hardly a surprise that transhumanist ideas have spread widely through the Internet. Dovetailing with its growth is a related idea called the singularity, a projection of future dramatic technological advancement. The singularity was first proposed by science fiction author Verner Vinge in a 1983 Omni magazine article. Vinge wrote, "Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended." Like many such futurist projections, this one is unlikely to come true—we'd have to achieve all this by 2013.

But our capabilities are multiplying. Drawn from Moore's law, which maintains that computational processing power doubles every 18 months, singularitarianism posits that once artificial intelligence develops the processing power of the human brain (by one interpretation, in 2030), everything about human life will inexorably and fundamentally change. Our bodies will be able to interface with machines in ways that seem impossible today. With innovations in nano-manufacturing technology, artificial intelligence and other technologies, people will be able to live longer and dramatically different lives.

Inventor and author Ray Kurzweil furthered the singularity concept in his 2006 book The Singularity is Near, which outlined a timetable for technological innovations leading up to the event. "You might get things in the next 10 or 20 years that would have taken 200 years before," Hughes says.

It's a very exciting prospect. But how do you live long enough to see it? Many singularitarians, including Kurzweil, have turned to radical methods of life extension, taking barrages of vitamins and going on Spartan diets. An international movement to prolong and improve human life has emerged, but critics worry that the whole idea of radical futurism is flawed. In short, most of us are interested in the future, but we're not sure we want to spend the rest of our lives there.

Ben Scarlato is only 18, but has spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about staving off death. Scarlato and I sat on lawn chairs in the garden of his parents' house in Ellington. As the wind rose around us, he told me he wants to live long enough to enjoy what he believes will be a streamlined, very efficient future.

"I guess my real motivation is the desire to not have a lot of clutter around me and just have one computer or one brain interface," Scarlato said. "The more tangible advantage of the efficiency is that you could have better emergency responses and better human experiences."

The noticeably thin Scarlato sported a Battlestar Galactica t-shirt and two bruises on his arms from a recent doctor's injection. He has been researching life-extension methods, most notably the radically limited diet known as caloric restriction. Scarlato believes in the science behind caloric restriction (more on that later). It certainly helps that he views food as a necessary nuisance and not a pleasure to be savored.

"[Eating] kind of distracts me from whatever else I'm doing," Scarlato said. "I'm kind of weird that way. I'm more concerned with my health than how things taste. I've always cared about maximizing my happiness."

James Hughes, an administrator and instructor at Trinity College in Hartford, is a leading transhumanist theorist. The executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which he co-founded when he was the executive director of the World Transhumanist Association, Hughes has written several books on transhumanist ideas, including Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future.

It would appear that Hughes, a buttoned-down professor-type with a close-cropped goatee, is dealing with ideas better suited to science fiction than the real world. However, he traces transhumanist history back to old, earth-bound traditions.

"It goes back to the enlightenment, about 400 years or so," Hughes said. "And when you go back to those original ideas, you see a number of things emerging, among them the notion that science and tech can be applied to human affairs, and things can be engineered and improved upon."

From his office in one of Trinity's gothic stone buildings, Hughes cites eye glasses as one of our numerous great leaps forward.

"Fire, clothing—all these things are extensions," Hughes said. "Our Paleolithic selves had certain limitations, and invented technologies to allow us to get beyond them. For us, there's continuity between what happened then and what we're talking about now."

Hughes described himself politically as a leftist, which sometimes puts him at odds with what he characterized as the mainly Libertarian transhumanist movement. And Hughes is not totally convinced, as are many of his movement colleagues, that all technological advancement will benefit humanity.

"There are some guys who put a lot of faith in the code and the engineers and guys who work on boxes," Hughes said. "Others of us are more interested in the social dimension and global collaboration. There are a lot of different baggages we bring to these things."

The singularity concept makes predicting the exact shape of the future impossible. Verner Vinge came up with the term "singularity" as a reference to the uniqueness of black holes. No one knows what laws of physics will be in place once we're past the hole's "event horizon." Once we reach the singularity, what comes next is unknown.

"We might come to a point in the immediate future where it will be impossible to imagine what goes beyond it," Hughes said.

Hughes said the singularity concept has had a chaotic effect on long-term technological speculation. Technologies, both large and small, could radically change the human experience. The mind reels with possibilities. Could we become cyborgs, with circuitry and metallic components seamlessly integrated into our bodies? Will there be nano-machines with artificial intelligence coursing through our bodies, fixing medical problems? Will we be able to dump our consciousness into computers or other machines? Will those machines be engineered with enough nuance to replicate the human experience?

The possibilities are endless but, at least for now, human lives are not. And that's where caloric restriction—limiting daily food intake to the baseline of nutritional necessity—comes in. George A. Kuchel, gerontology director of the University of Connecticut's Center on Aging, said the idea is basically sound.

"There's been more than half a century of research indicating that caloric restriction in animal models works," Kuchel said. "Caloric restriction works. It goes back to studies in the 1940s that show that if you feed laboratory animals less calories, they live much longer and age better. There is other data to support that."

Kuchel said that as people get older, their bodies become increasingly damaged by the act of processing food. The digestive process, Kuchel said, creates oxidative stress that, over time, wears down critical components of the human body, causing it to break down and age.

"That's basically the production of molecules that can damage the body," Kuchel said. "They're molecules that can oxidize proteins or DNA, all the major building blocks of cells and bodies. The thought is that the more we eat and the longer we live, the more we damage these cells. And if you eat less, then you create less damage."

The UConn health center is conducting studies on caloric restriction with fruit flies. Although no animal tests have proven that caloric restriction would work on humans, people have been trying it out themselves.

"There are people who believe in this and are doing it," Kuchel said. "The problem is they don't appear particularly happy or healthy. On the question of quality of life, it's very difficult. Most people would be miserable."

New research points to a possibility of getting the benefits of caloric restriction without the unpleasantness. "The French eat all these fats—breads, cheeses, and do lots of things they shouldn't do—and they actually live longer and have less disease than we do in North America," Kuchel said. "And it's been proposed that they live longer because they drink a lot of red wine. And it's not just the wine, but the red pigment actually seems to have beneficial properties."

"There appears to be a connection between that compound and slowing down oxidation damage," Kuchel said. "In other words, there's now for the first time the potential for having a drug that will mimic the effects of things that no one wants to do, like caloric restriction or severe exercise. It'll be a drug we'll all happily pay a lot of money to pop down. And the pharmaceutical industry will happily make a killing on it."

Slowing body degeneration is a modest goal, and doesn't go far enough for some national anti-aging researchers. Aubrey de Grey, an energetic Englishman with a ZZ Top-length beard, is the chief researcher and evangelist for an anti-aging movement that views aging as a disease that can be cured, and cured soon.

"I think we have a 50 percent chance of getting there in around 25 years, so long as the early proof-of-concept work in mice is well-enough funded for the next 10 years or so," de Grey said via e-mail.

Since 2003, de Grey's organization, the Methuselah Foundation (named for the Biblical figure who supposedly lived 900 years), has offered a Methuselah Mouse Prize for researchers who extend the lives of mice. And the cash award is at $4.5 million. Methuselah received an influx of cash in 2003 when Peter A. Thiel, co-founder of online payment system PayPal, pledged $3.5 million to its efforts. Professional poker player Justin Bonomo has pledged five percent of his winnings toward the group.

"As soon as we get that, gerontologists the world over will be on television saying, 'Yes, Aubrey was right, the repair-and-maintenance approach to postponing aging really is feasible after all.' And the moment that happens, Oprah and her ilk will be up there saying, 'Well, let's do it for humans right now!'" de Grey said.

De Grey's basic idea, called Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS), is that human cells can be engineered in a way to prevent their decay. "The SENS concept is inspired by the realization that human metabolism is far too complex and interconnected to improve bio-medically in the foreseeable future, and that an alternative akin to repair and maintenance of man-made machines is far more promising," de Grey said.

Wendell Wallach isn't exactly standing athwart future history yelling "stop," but he is concerned that some necessary considerations about the future aren't being heeded. A lecturer and consultant at Yale University's Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, Wallach also chairs Yale's technology and ethics working group, which looks at the ethical implications of a broad array of technologies. When I met with him at his home in Bloomfield, he said he was worried about what gets left out of these conversations.

"The debate is largely framed by transhumanists, who are looking for rationales for all the enhancement technologies," Wallach said. "And it's framed on the other side by people largely motivated by religious or conservative concerns. Those people are either fearful of this technology, or see it as a rallying cry for conservative social positions."

Wallach questioned the underlying assumptions of the singularity. He wonders if the projection that artificial intelligence could rival human intelligence is based on a flawed correlation of how brains and computers work. The singularity supposition is that the synapse, the connection between one neuron and another, is essentially the same as computerized bits of information. "That's based on a lot of assumptions that we really don't know about the brain," Wallach said.

Wallach is also skeptical about the rate of technological advancement envisioned by people like Kurzweil. "There are some major thresholds, and no one knows if we're going to [reach] them or not," Wallach said. But he's trying to keep an open mind. "I don't want to bet against human ingenuity," he said. "I love the can-do spirit. I love the idea that we'll try to tackle these problems. But that doesn't mean that we're going to tackle them in the near future."