Think Beyond Us: Imagining possibilities for the future

On this site, I spend quite a bit of time discussion the benefits (and inevitability) of transhumanism. But lest you think me too Pollyanna, let me say up front there are a number of potentially dangerous consequences, many of which are discussed in James Hughes’ excellent book Citizen Cyborg (which I highly recommended if you’re at all interested in transhumanism). I read it a number of years ago, posted about it on my blog, then later met the author and had lunch with him, to discover he had this photo as his computer’s wallpaper:

Anyway, arguably the greatest risk of transhumanism is inequality in the distribution of transhumanist technologies, particularly radical longevity and cognitive enhancement.

If these technologies exist but are not available to everyone who wants them, there’s a very real risk of creating a permanent, biological underclass—a distinction between haves and have-nots written into the bodies of the people on each side of the divide.

There’s another, associated risk. People who reject these technologies for religious, philosophical, or moral reasons risk making not only themselves but their children and their children’s children a part of that permanent underclass. Folks who reject technology today, like the Amish, can leave (and in fact more and more people are leaving Amish communities). But what if having, say, a cognitive enhancement when you’re born gives you a significant lifelong advantage over stock humans? A person who leaves a hypothetical anti-transhumanist compound as a teenager or adult may not be able to ever catch up with his peers.

On the other hand, you can’t force people to take advantage of new technology. Compelling use of new biomedical technologies when failure to use them does not create a hazard to others (as is the case with vaccines) is clearly unethical. So how do you balance autonomy and opportunity?

If transhumanism technologies are available but expensive, those with the most money get the biggest benefit. That benefit will likely allow them to be more competitive and make still more money, which will allow them access to still more cutting-edge enhancements, in a positive feedback cycle which may mean that, very quickly, those who were not rich at the start could never, ever become competitive enough to become rich. And once again, we’ve created a permanent underclass.

Hughes argues—and I believe—the only way to prevent this runaway divide between haves and have-nots is to make these biotechnologies available to everyone who wants them. But decades of propaganda against the evils of “socialism” has made this idea a political non-starter in the US.

There’s also the issue of regulatory oversight. I love my fellow transhumanists, but God damn some of them are gullible. There’s a flood of junk on the market aimed squarely at the transhumanist community—various nootropics and longevity supplements supported by somewhere between zero and fuckall clinical research into safety and efficacy.

Most of it is probably harmless snake oil, but who knows? There are telomerase promoters which, assuming they actually do what they say on the tin, might increase risk of cancer.

And there’s zero regulatory oversight for any of this. There’s zero protection against fraud and scams, so naturally, fraud artists and scammers are swarming all over the transhumanist scene.

It says “clinically studied.” It doesn’t say what the results of that study were. Can you guess why?

Stuff that does have scientific support isn’t examined in humans. There’s considerable evidence that senolytics like FOXO4-p53 inhibitors radically extend life in animal models, but there’s been zero testing in humans. You can buy them from chemical supply houses and inject yourself with them—they’re not considered drugs and there’s no law stopping you—but there is literally zero information on safety and efficacy in humans. None.

Oh, and if you base your dosage on what works in mouse models, human-sized doses are going to set you back $350 per dose, or more. So there’s no clinical data, no regulatory oversight, and only available to folks who can afford it (and stomach a high risk profile). It’s a hat trick of potential disasters.

The regulatory landscape is a nightmare. Unity has just started Phase 1 clinical trials of the first senolytic drug in humans, but it’s aimed at a specific type of bone deterioration, not at longevity. That’s the thing—the FDA does not consider “aging” a disease, so you can’t get approval for proper clinical trials of longevity drugs.

Worse, any technology that’s considered an “enhancement” above baseline norms is an ethical violation under AMA guidelines. Implants for macular degeneration can’t give you infrared or ultraviolet perception. You can’t pair your cochlear implant with your Bluetooth phone—yes, someone did design such a thing—because a surgeon who implants it will lose his license.

Even the tiny magnets that people in the body mod scene implant in their fingertips so they can feel magnetic fields can’t be implanted by medical professionals, because they violate AMA ethics guidelines.

As long as those guidelines remain in place, these technologies will remain outside clinical evaluation for safety and efficacy, relegated to a place where people with high risk tolerance experiment on their own bodies. That’s not a reasonable way to conduct medical research.

Now, all that being said, one consequence people fret about that isn’t likely is overpopulation. You can’t have a conversation about radical longevity without someone saying “but what about overpopulation?”

Fact is, we see in culture after culture, country after country, that as longevity goes up, birth rates go down. Many developed nations already have negative native population growth, with net positive population growth coming from immigration from developing countries.

And keep in mind, women are born with all the eggs they’ll ever have. Even if a woman stops aging at 20 and lives for 600 years, she won’t have the fertility of a 20-year-old for 600 years!