First, we have eternal life – then, robot Armageddon

6 minute read

Two articles about Silicon Valley’s more outlandish projects – eternal life and AI – make us wonder about priorities

Silicon Valley is a strange ecosystem, spotted with one-end-of-the-spectrum-type personalities whom we love to make fun of. But does this quirkiness excuse what is now verging on obscene behaviour in the context of innovation and “real world” problems?

This quote from an article in Vanity Fair about the progress of artificial intelligence, perhaps sums up the character, and characters, of the technology precinct:

“The Lords of the Cloud love to yammer about turning the world into a better place as they churn out new algorithms, apps, and inventions that, it is claimed, will make our lives easier, healthier, funnier, closer, cooler, longer, and kinder to the planet. And yet there’s a creepy feeling underneath it all – a sense that we’re the mice in their experiments, that they regard us humans as Betamaxes or eight-tracks, old technology that will soon be discarded so that they can get on to enjoying their sleek new world. Many people there have accepted this future: we’ll live to be 150 years old, but we’ll have machine overlords.”

You know we’re in trouble when, on the one hand, we have a whole bunch of these “super thinkers” obsessed with living forever, and think we likely can, but then some notable senior statesmen of the same precinct – Tesla and SpaceX’s chief executive Elon Musk, for example – are very worried that a similar obsession with AI will very likely lead to annihilation of the human race.

So much for living forever.

Between that and trying to get humans to Mars, you’d think they could turn their attention to the odd calamity that is just a little more immediate and practical, such as chronic disease in the Third World, or reversing climate change to some degree, perhaps.

But no, let’s spend up big on living forever. Which, I guess, is why we need to go to Mars, because we’re going to get bored with life on Earth after a couple of hundred years on just the one planet.

The New Yorker also has a piece on efforts (mostly again via Silicon Valley) to live forever. If you needed to work out whether or not the people involved in this had their priorities lopsided, here’s a couple of passages to give you a hint:

“Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells and their mitochondria, which provide energy; some in Hollywood call it “the God molecule”.

“Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional,” Rothblatt said. (She has already commissioned a backup version of her wife, Bina—a “mindclone” robot named Bina48.)

 If you think this is the rant of an unbalanced mind, Rothblatt is Martine Rothblatt, the founder of a successful biotech firm called United Therapeutics, which intends to grow new organs from people’s DNA. She was speaking at recent kick-off event for the American National Academy of Medicine’s Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity, which will award at least $US25 million for breakthroughs in the field of “eternal life”.

Some notable attendees of the event included: Dr Liz Blackburn (Nobel Prizewinner for her work in genetics),  actor Goldie Hawn (one Academy Award for best supporting actor) , Dr Victor Zeu (president, American National Academy of Medicine), Dr Joon Yun (an actual medical doctor, but one who runs a health-care hedge fund, and who, with his wife, donated the first $US2 million towards funding “The Challenge”), Sergey Brin (Google founder, who helped coin the company’s motto “Don’t be evil” and subsequently proceeded to make money by serving client ads alongside terrorist videos on its YouTube channel), Yuval Noah Harari (author of Homo Deus – a transhuman epic apparently – and  girlfriend of Brin), Andy Conrad (CEO of Verily, a life-sciences firm owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet), and Norman Lear (TV producer, who wrote All in the Family, among  other things).

As far as power dinner parties go, this one would be hard to beat. Imagine being at the table and trying to say something crazy enough for anyone to take any notice of you? Why is it that superstar scientists like to get their ideas from superstar actors?

Here’s a few other tidbits from the New Yorker  and Vanity Fair articles – if you’re the sort that thinks living forever is great idea, when living just 50 years or so is a mostly nightmare for more people on Earth than not; or if you think uploading your consciousness to the cloud to achieve machine-intelligence singularity isn’t such a bad goal either.

“We just need to restore tissue suppleness, replace cells that have stopped dividing and remove those that have grown toxic, avert the consequences of DNA mutations, and mop up the gunky by-products of all of the above. If we can disarm these killers … we should gain 30 years of healthy life, and during that period we’ll make enough further advances that we’ll begin growing biologically younger. We’ll achieve longevity escape velocity.”

–          Dr Aubrey de Grey De Grey, chief science officer of Silicon Valley’s Sens Research Foundation

Musk explained that his ultimate goal at SpaceX was the most important project in the world: interplanetary colonisation. Hassabis replied that, in fact, he was working on the most important project in the world: developing artificial super-intelligence. Musk countered that this was one reason we needed to colonise Mars—so that we’ll have a bolt-hole if AI goes rogue and turns on humanity. Amused, Hassabis said that AI would simply follow humans to Mars.”

–          That was Elon Musk chatting to Demis Hassabi, co-founder of the now Google-owned Deep Mind AI laboratory. Musk wanted to buy Deep Mind but was outbid. His main objective was to keep an eye on Hassabi and the leading edge of AI, which scares him.

“The way to escape human obsolescence, in the end, may be by ‘having some sort of merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence’. This Vulcan mind-meld could involve something called a neural lace—an injectable mesh that would literally hardwire your brain to communicate directly with computers. ‘We’re already cyborgs,’ Musk told me in February. ‘Your phone and your computer are extensions of you, but the interface is through finger movements or speech, which are very slow.’ With a neural lace inside your skull you would flash data from your brain, wirelessly, to your digital devices or to virtually unlimited computing power in the cloud. ‘For a meaningful partial-brain interface, I think we’re roughly four or five years away’.”

–          Elon Musk, talking to Vanity Fair author Maureen Dowd



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