November 23, 2013

Peter Singer and David Brin to speak at animal personhood conference

The final list of speakers has been announced for Personhood Beyond the Human, a conference devoted to the issue of granting human-like legal protections to a select group of highly sapient nonhuman animals.
The idea that some animals should be designated legal persons — and not just property — is starting to gain some serious traction. Already today, India has, at least in principle, named dolphins as persons and banned their inclusion into aquatic theme parks. The IEET's Rights of the Nonhuman Persons program — a program that I founded and currently chair — seeks to do much more. We'd like to see not just dolphins, but whales, elephants, and all great apes given the same consideration — and not just in principle; the only way to truly protect highly sapient animals from such things as undue confinement and experimentation is to grant them the status that they truly deserve, which is that of the person.
But we're not only interested in animal welfare — we're also looking ahead to the future when artificial intelligence and robots will need to be granted personhood status as well lest they be abused, exploited, and left unaccountable.
There’s been a lot of talk recently about using supercomputers to simulate the human brain. But as scientists get progressively closer to achieving.
To that end, we've organized the Personhood Beyond the Human conference, which will be held at Yale University from December 6-8. We're bringing together a number of leading experts to discuss the prospect.
Philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer will be keynoting, the man who practically founded the modern animal rights movement, and who I listed as one of the most important futurists of the past 50 years. Also keynoting will be Steven M. Wise, the president of the Nonhuman Rights Project (seperate from the IEET). Wise's group is set to name a captive chimp as a plaintiff in what will surely be an historic case.
Also speaking will be marine biologist Lori Marino, scifi author David Brin, attorney-entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt, bioethicist Linda MacDonald Glenn, IEET executive director James Hughes, robot ethicist Wendell Wallach, and many, many more. Including me.
You can register for the conference here. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or if you'd like to schedule an interview.
Images: MongPro/Shutterstock
Follow me on Twitter: @dvorsky

What will jail terms be like when humans can live for centuries?

Radical life extension is coming. That means future societies will have to do a dramatic rethink of our ideas about how long offenders should be imprisoned and — more crucially — the ways they'll be rehabilitated.
I'm not going to spend any time arguing on behalf of the science that's driving the efforts behind radical life extension. For those new to the topic, I highly recommend checking out the work of Aubrey de GreyCynthia KenyonMichael Rose, and Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman. For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume that indefinite lifespans will eventually be achieved, and that life extending interventions will become both widely accessible and commonplace.
Which brings up issue number one: Should prisoners even be allowed to have access to life extending medical technologies in the first place?

Therapy or Enhancement?

Some bioethicists draw a line in the sand when it comes to pending biotechnologies, arguing that some should be classified as therapeutic (like curing a disease or fixing a broken limb) while others enhancement (like increased intelligence, memory, or physical capacities). Some thinkers, like bioethicist Leon Kass, have made the case that life-extending technologies belong to the enhancement camp because they significantly alter and augment normal human functioning. A human body that doesn't age, they argue, is something that has most certainly been enhanced.
But on closer scrutiny it's an argument that doesn't fly, especially when we consider how many technologies exist today that prolong life — like medicines that keep our cholesterol down and surgeries that fix or replace damaged organs. These are truly life extending technologies, it's just that we don't perceive them that way. They've been integrated into standard medical practices — and the same thing will happen to biotechnologies that slow down and even halt the aging process. In the future, physicians will simply prescribe the latest treatments — interventions that appear quite radical by today's standards.
So, a strong case can be made the life extending technologies are not superfluous, and that they'll eventually fall within the therapy camp of medical technologies. Today, prisoners are allowed access to medical treatments, so there's no reason to believe they won't be denied access in the future.
And in fact, denying prisoners access to these medical interventions — therapies that would be considered standard care outside of prisons — would be considered a violation of their fundamental rights. It's a scenario that will seem all the more cruel and unfair given that many prisoners will already be undergoing life extending therapies.
So, given all this, we should assume that prisoners, like the general population, will be equally long lived.

The Sentencing Problem

Sadly, while dramatic increases to our lifespans may be possible, it's probably safe to assume that crime will continue to exist well into the future. We're still going to have to put people in jail.
But given that people will live significantly longer, how will that affect the length of prison terms?
Indeed, the whole premise behind many philosophical and legal doctrines is the idea that life is finite. Because we're mortal, and because we place such a high value on our time, we punish offenders by depriving them of this important resource. As noted by legal experts A. Ashworth and E. Player, "Death is a certainty for everyone, and it can therefore be argued that all prisoners must inevitably experience an irreplaceable loss of time."
At the same time, however, there needs to be a proper sense of proportionality. In their groundbreaking — but ultimately flawed — paper, "Immortality and Sentencing Law," Richard Haigh and Mirko Barbaric noted that, "Sentencing law and practice will need to change to account for increasing human longevity to ensure that sentencing continues to fit the crime committed." Sentences, they argue, will need to reflect our sensitivity to fluctuations in the human lifespan.
Indeed, punishment should be commensurate with the seriousness of the offence. It's an important precept that prevents excessive, arbitrary, and capricious punishments by requiring that the punishment doesn't exceed the gravity of the offence. But this balance is set to be upset with the onset of human superlongevity.
To that end, Haigh and Barbaric argue that prison terms should be lengthened. "When [the resource of time] is abundant, it logically follows that for the same intensity of punishment to be inflicted a longer sentence must be imposed." As an example, a 20 year term of imprisonment is likely to cause hardship in the context of a 60 year lifespan, but it would register as a mild inconvenience in consideration of a life that could last 500 years.
Haigh and Barbaric say that we'll eventually need to account for this "relativity" by tying the length of the penalties to increases in human lifespan. So, "offences which attract a 10 year term of imprisonment in the context of a community where average life expectancy is 80 years, should be increased to 15 years when the average life expectancy is 120 years."
They also say that an entirely new range of criminal sanctions will be required to make up for any deficiency in jail terms, like annulling or suspending an offender's academic qualifications, or preventing them from work or being enrolled in an educational or vocational pursuit.
There's also the very important issue of punishments in consideration of indefinitely long lives: Should punishments be more severe when someone kills someone who — for all intents and purposes — was immortal?

Absurd Conclusions

Regrettably, Haigh and Barbaric's analysis falls short owing to their fixation on deterrents and punitive justice. Their argument leads to some pretty absurd conclusions, especially when taken to the extremes.
First, even in the presence of radical life extending technologies, it's difficult to predict a person's lifespan. A person who, in theory, is predicted to live 500 years, may actually be set to live an indefinitely long life given future advances. Second, there's always the possibility for an untimely, accidental death. Looking even further ahead, the Earth could get smuckered by an asteroid or a gamma ray burst. And as we all know, the universe will eventually come to an end.
Another problem is the issue of punitive proportionality and the assigning of longer sentences. As Haigh and Barbaric write, "Even a one thousand-year term of imprisonment is inconsequential in the context of an immortal life." But if a person could live, say, 10,000 years, and they get an 8,000 year sentence, such a length of term would seem excessively cruel. And as noted above, it's also arbitrary. There's the subjective length of time to consider — even if it's just a hiccup in the larger scheme of things.
Relatedly, longer prison terms will also be excessively costly, potentially prompting some to argue for the death penalty — perhaps even in less severe cases.
Taking all these factors into consideration, this is why in the future we'll need to be more concerned with rehabilitating prisoners than punishing them.

Neuro Rehab

To learn more about this particular issue, I spoke to sociologist and futurist James Hughes who works out of Trinity College in Connecticut. He makes the case for "neuro-rehabilitation" model of care in which offenders will be re-integrated into society through the application of both traditional and high-tech interventions.
"Neuroscience continues to find ways that the brains of the criminally prone are different, with damaged capacities for self-control or empathy," he told io9. "We are also beginning to understand what it would take to repair some of these faculties, although it will be a while before we can accomplish brain repair with drugs, or genetic or tissue engineering, or with brain-machine devices."
Hughes sees this as a very exciting prospect as it would offer criminals the opportunity have their brains repaired in exchange for shorter sentences and an improved chance of not re-offending.
The neuro-rehabiliation model already exists today in nascent form in debates around the chemical 'castration' of pedophiles and rapists. Testosterone-lowering implants reduce sex criminals' compulsive sexual urges, and their criminal recidivism.
"Some civil rights advocates have charged that even offering this option to sex criminals violates their civil rights, a position I don't understand," he told me. "But, since the prison system is very expensive and there is great social benefit of reducing criminality, states would have an interest in making neuro-rehabilitation mandatory, which would raise civil liberties issues."
But there's also some concern. Hughes imagines a slippery slope in more authoritarian societies where "moral enhancement" was used as a tool of coercion against dissidents and to impose "good behavior" on non-criminals, as psychiatry was used in the Soviet Union.
What's more, he says that chemically castrated pedophiles also don't have an easier time reintegrating into society, and the chronic underemployment of neurologically rehabilitated criminals would have to be addressed through aggressive social services in order to be truly successful.
"But that would be a great way to spend some of the money that could be saved by emptying our prisons of neurologically rehabilitated ex-cons," he says.
Indeed, there's more to this issue that just "fixing" the brains of offenders. In many , if not most cases, offenders are the products of social circumstances, like having to live in abject poverty. It would make a lot of sense, therefore, to think about this before tweaking brains.
But at the very least, the neuro-rehabiliation model is a much more nuanced approach to just throwing someone in jail for an eternity.
Top image: WilleeCole/Shutterstock.
This article originally appeared at io9.

How Self-Replicating Spacecraft Could Take Over the Galaxy

Forget about generation ships, suspended animation, or the sudden appearance of a worm hole. The most likely way for aliens to visit us — whatever their motive — is by sending robotic probes. Here's how swarms of self-replicating spacecraft could someday rule the galaxy.
Top image by Alejandro Burdisio via Concept Ships.
Back in late 1940's the Hungarian mathematician John Von Neumann wondered if it might be possible to design a non-biological system that could replicate itself in a cellular automata environment, what he called a universal constructor. Von Neumann wasn't thinking about space exploration at the time, but other thinkers like Freeman Dyson, Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle, and Robert Freitas later took his idea and applied it to exactly that.

Mathematically Efficient

The strength of Von Neumann's idea lies in the brute efficiency of exponential growth. Given enough time and patience, a single self-replicating probe (SRP) could produce millions upon millions of offspring; it would be like a massive bubble expanding outward into the Galaxy. Theoretically, these probes could occupy all four corners of the Milky Way in as little as half a million years – even if each probe were to travel at an average cruising speed of one tenth the speed of light (though, as I'll describe later, more recent estimates place it at 10 million years, which is still an incredibly short amount of time cosmologically speaking).
Physicist Michio Kaku describes Von Neumann probes as "the most mathematically efficient method to explore space:"
A Von Neumann probe is a robot designed to reach distant star systems and create factories which will reproduce copies themselves by the thousands. A dead moon rather than a planet makes the ideal destination for Von Neumann probes, since they can easily land and take off from these moons, and also because these moons have no erosion. These probes would live off the land, using naturally occurring deposits of iron, nickel, etc. to create the raw ingredients to build a robot factory. They would create thousands of copies of themselves, which would then scatter and search for other star systems.
In order to work, a von Neumann spacecraft would have to tap into advanced nanotechnology and artificial intelligence — technologies that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations are likely to develop. In fact, the device itself would be a molecular assembler, capable of reconstituting matter into copies of itself, which is why SRPs are also referred to as kinematic self-replicating machines.
And indeed, these probes would be remarkably efficient. A recent study published in theInternational Journal of Astronomy pointed out that extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) could use the slingshot effect to propel SRPs from star to star. And yes, that's the same method used to propel the Voyager spacecrafts through our solar system from planet to planet. For it to work on a galactic scale, however, SRPs would use slingshot maneuvers around stars, gaining a boost in velocity by extracting energy from each star's motion around the galactic center. The slingshot effect would carry little-to-no extra cost and result in a 100-fold increase in efficiency; models show that this technique could be used to send probes to every solar system in the galaxy in as little as 10 million years! Adding to the efficiency is the realization that SRPs could replicate on the fly, building duplicates of themselves while they're traveling. The probes would collect matter, like dust and gas, from the interstellar medium as they traverse vast distances.
A number of scientists, futurists, and sci-fi writers have speculated over the years about the different kinds of probes ETIs may wish to construct once they're ready to explore — or conquer — space in this fashion. Here's how they'll work.

Exploration and Reconnaissance Probes

We know that exploratory probes exist because we've created some ourselves, namely Voyager 1 and 2 — though strictly speaking they are not von Neumann replicators.
The Voyager spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL.
How Self-Replicating Spacecraft Could Take Over the Galaxy
Exploration probes would be designed strictly for space exploration and surveillance (some of it even covertly); these autonomous devices would not contact or interact with other intelligent civilizations. Exploration probes could remain local to a solar system (so-called Astrochicken probes), or they could be sent on interstellar missions to explore and transmit their findings back to the home planet. These SRPs could study foreign solar systems in exquisite detail — and even alert the folks back home about the presence of extraterrestrial life.
These probes could also act as stationary reconnaissance stations. SRPs could take residence in a data rich area and continuously beam that information back to the home planet — and all without ever being detected.
And being von Neumann probes, they could spread exponentially. Of course, given that radio waves can only travel at the speed of light, and that we're talking about cosmic-scale distances, the time it would take for a signal to reach home would not be insignificant.

Communication probes (a.k.a. Bracewell probes)

The current SETI strategy of targeting stars and listening for radio signals has an extremely slim chance of success. It's a needle-in-the-haystack approach. That said, given the assumption that civilizations want to communicate with us, a more efficient way for them to make contact would be to disseminate self-replicating communication probes across the Galaxy.
Hypothetical Bracewell probe. Image via David Darling.
How Self-Replicating Spacecraft Could Take Over the GalaxyDubbed Bracewell probes (named after Ronald N. Bracewell who thought of the idea back in 1960), these devices would work as an alternative to interstellar radio communication between widely separated civilizations. This strategy only makes sense given the inefficiency and weakness of radio signals emitted from the source planet. What's more, given the vast distances involved, these probes could contain pre-recorded — but decipherable — messages for us to decode (like a simple "hello!" or even a super-sophisticated stream of important information). We just need to be careful that it's not a trojan horse of some sort.
Christopher Rose, an electrical engineer at Rutger's University, has suggested that we should actually look for these probes in our own Solar System. He argues we should be checking the mail instead of waiting for a phone call.
Multiple Bracewell probes could also be set up as a distributed array of communication relay stations. Such a set-up was portrayed in Carl Sagan's Contact. In this story, a dormant Bracewell probe was lying in wait in the Vega system. It began to transmit a strong signal after it received a radio signal from Earth. The device itself was part of a larger network of probes, as witnessed later by Ellie's journey from probe to probe.

Worker Probes

If aliens are going to embark on megascale engineering projects, they're going to need robots. Lots of 'em. Projects like Dyson Spheres, Ringworlds and Alderson Disks would require fleets of specialized and artificially intelligent probes working in concert to construct these truly massive structures.
Hypothetical Dyson sphere. Image: Eburacum45.
How Self-Replicating Spacecraft Could Take Over the Galaxy
Given the sheer scale of these projects and the amount of matter that would have to be subverted, it's not unreasonable to assume that millions of individual probes would be required. The most sensible way to construct and disseminate these probes would be through self-replication schemes.
Indeed, as Oxford physicist Stuart Armstrong has noted, if we're going to do this ourselves at some future point, we'll have to resort to some extreme measures. Megascale structures will require a horrendous amount of material. A Dyson sphere would require so much matter that, should we want to completely envelope the sun, we would have to disassemble Mercury, Venus, some of the outer planets, and any nearby asteroids.
So, SRPs could be put to work as mining machines that dig-out and transport matter across vast distances. Ideally, these probes would be programmed to work together and take advantage of swarming intelligence and emergent properties.

Colonization Probes

As noted, molecular assembling nanotechnology will make it possible for probes to go about interstellar colonization. It's conceivable that an SRP could find a suitable planet and use the matter around it to not just reproduce itself, but to establish a colony and seed actual settlers.
Such settlers would likely be uploaded consciousness patterns. This would obviously require an incredibly sophisticated mind emulation scheme, powerful artificial intelligence, and advanced supercomputing. Ideally, these consciousness patterns would be able to migrate to a robotic body for corporeal investigation of the environment. The number of settlers in any given location could be significant, limited only by computational resources.
Colonization probes could also construct data receivers and transmission stations so thatuploaded persons could travel as digital data streams from one point to another. Consequently, the dream of traveling at the speed of light may someday be possible — though it's a far cry from what's portrayed in most scifi.
Colonization probes, sometimes referred to as seeder probes, could also perform double-duty as terraformers. Project Genesis, as portrayed in the Star Trek film series, utilized such a probe, which was able to transform a dead planet into one that suited the needs of its future inhabitants.

Uplift probes

Probes could also work to transform and "uplift" other civilizations and their citizens. This scenario was explored in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which an advanced extraterrestrial civilization used probes (called monoliths) to steer the direction of evolution on Earth. In the story, these probes endowed primates with the capacity to use tools, and later, the human David Bowman was transformed into the next stage of evolution, the so-called Star Child.
How Self-Replicating Spacecraft Could Take Over the GalaxyThis scenario was also explored in David Brin's Uplift series in which advanced civilizations brought sapience to primitive life forms — what's more accurately termed biological uplift. Also conceivable is technological or civilizational uplift in which an extraterrestrial intelligence brings an entire civilization up to its own advanced level.
Motivations for doing so could involve meta-ethical imperatives meant to reduce suffering, to prevent civilizations from destroying themselves, or to ensure the safe onset of non-threatening post-Singularity intelligences. Or, it could be part of their plan to take over the Galaxy.
Uplift probes could quickly bring a civilization to a post-Singularity, postbiological condition. Such a force might appear as a colonization wave that sweeps across the Galaxy, transforming all that it touches into computronium. Such a scenario has been projected by such thinkers as Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil.

Berserker probes

Unfortunately, we need to be on the lookout for malevolent probes, what Fred Saberhagen dubbed Berserkers. Just as an intelligent civilization could use self-replicating probes to spread life across the Galaxy, another misguided or evil civilization could do quite the opposite and destroy everything.
Image: Robert Brown.
How Self-Replicating Spacecraft Could Take Over the Galaxy
Berserkers could also be mutated SRPs that are running amok. To prevent this, responsible ETIs should implement failsafes that immediately shut-down replication in the event of data corruption. It's possible, however, that a random, but wide-ranging scrambling of codes (a macro-mutation to use the parlance of evolutionary biology), could override such measures.
Berserking SRPs could be disseminated with the sole purpose of sterilizing every planetary system it encounters, forever eliminating the possibility for life to emerge and evolve. Should it encounter an inhabited planet, it could use any number of schemes, including nanotech instigated ecophagy, to quickly destroy all life in a matter of hours. By using a scorched galaxy policy, a civilization could sterilize the Milky Way in as little as 10 million years.
Alternately, berserker probes could be disbursed across the entire Galaxy and lie dormant, patiently waiting for signs of intelligence.
Berserkers could also work to stamp out intelligent life that it deems dangerous. In one scenario, an advanced civilization (or Galactic club) could monitor for potentially dangerous post-Singularity artificial superintelligences and quickly stamp them out of existence.
It's worth noting that Earth has not been sterilized by a berserker probe, a possible sign that they don't exist, or that they haven't destroyed us yet.

Police Probes

It's not unreasonable to suggest that probe-making civilizations would also be thinking about defensive measures. Futurist Anders Sandberg has devised an idea for anti-berserker policing probes — devices that would be on the lookout for malevolent SPRs of any kind and take action.
Civilizations might want to establish quarantined areas; policing probes would ensure that nothing gets through the defenses and ensure the integrity of a specified region. Xenophobic civilizations might want to set up quarantined areas to prevent memetic infection, to protect themselves against invasions or intrusions, or simply due to a fear of the unknown.
The best way of stopping a replicator, argues Sandberg, is to nip it in the bud. To do so, an advanced civilization would require widespread surveillance and enough power to deal with possible threats. And because replicators could emerge outside a given region of control, a civilization would want to have widely stockpiled defenses. The easiest way of doing this? Yup, you guessed it: make a replicator that spreads and builds these stockpiles and quietly waits for signs of something threatening.

So, where are all the probes?

Given all this technological potential, one must wonder why we haven't encountered any extraterrestrial probes. Why haven't extraterrestrials communicated with us? Why haven't we be uplifted....or destroyed?
This conundrum was first articulated by Frank Tipler and has become a critical driver of the Fermi Paradox. It's been a cause of much the contact pessimism that has taken root since the 1970s (my own inclinations included). If it's so easy for probes to colonize the Galaxy, then where the heck are they? Tipler concluded that extraterrestrials simply don't exist.
Carl Sagan and William Newman came up with a different answer. They were convinced that Tipler had it all wrong and that all this talk of probes was sheer poppycock. In their 1983 paper, "The Solipsist Approach to Extraterrestrial Intelligence," they calculated that von Neumann probes, should they exist, would eventually start to consume most of the mass in the Galaxy. They concluded that intelligent civilizations would never dare construct such probes and would try to destroy any such device as soon as it was detected.
Indeed, Sagan and Newman's argument isn't convincing. Probes with even a modicum of AI and smart programming could be programmed to stop after a certain reproductive threshold has been achieved (time-to-produce schemes, maximum number of iterations, etc.). These probes wouldn't be simple mindless automatons. Moreover, the Sagan and Newman theory violates non-exclusivity; it might explain why most civilizations wouldn't dare embark on such colonization schemes, but not all. All it would take is just one.
And as Sandberg has since noted, it'll take a fleet of SRPs to counter SRPs. What's more, as he noted to me:
One of the interesting things with police probes is that it makes strategic sense to announce that they are around to civilizations that might "break the law" — yet not reveal exactly how strong they are or what their modus operandi is.
Further, says Sandberg, one species' police is another species' invader — we would probably not like having some alien probe impose their view of what is an unacceptable activity on us, and vice versa. And the process of making police probes will likely be indistinguishable from making other replicators. Consequently, there might be a race to set up the first interstellar police force.
At any rate, the reason for the absence of any kind of probes remains a mystery.
Follow me on Twitter: @dvorsky.
This article originally appeared at io9. It's an updated version of a post I wrote several years ago.

November 2, 2013

No, Extreme Human Longevity Won’t Destroy the Planet

It’s only a matter of time before humanity solves the aging problem. And resistance to radical life extension has already begun, driven by fears of overpopulation and the exhaustion of our planet's resources. Here’s why the critics are wrong.
Top image: "Chi-Town" by Stefan Morell.
Make no mistake, it’ll take us a long, long time to get there, but we’ll eventually find a way to halt the aging process. Owing to advanced medical, regenerative, and cybernetic technologies, future humans will enter into a state of “negligible senescence,” a condition marked by the cessation of aging and the onset of everlasting youth. It sounds utopian, but as biogerontologistAubrey de Grey has repeatedly noted, it’s simply an engineering problem — one that’s not intractable.
I’ve been debating this issue for the better part of a decade, and I’ve heard virtually every argument there is to be said both in favor of and in condemnation of the possibility. I’m not going to go over all of them here. But without a doubt the single most prominent argument set against radical life extension is the issue of overpopulation and environmental sustainability.
Setting aside all of the other objections to radical life extension (which I’ll happily tackle in future posts), we need to approach these issues with an eye to the future. We should be cognizant of the very real possibility that we’ll devise solutions to cope with an ever-growing population. Remember, this will be at a stage in the future when we’ve cured aging. That’s no small feat! So it’s difficult for us to imagine the other things we’ll be capable of at the same time.Indeed, a perpetually growing population on a finite planet seems like a ludicrous and completely suicidal proposition. Where are we going to fit everybody? And how are we supposed to provide for humanity’s basic needs, like food, water, shelter, medical care, and education? And how could we possibly do this in a clean and sustainable way?
Actually, it’s not. In a world where we have halted human aging we will have also mastered human biology, entered into the age of the cyborg, have super-powerful AI at our disposal, and the ability to convert clumps of matter into virtually anything we want. We’ll also have solved our basic energy needs, while setting the clock back on our current environmental travails. And of course, we’ll be venturing out into space — and cyberspace.

Perpetual population growth on a finite planet?

Overpopulation and sustainability are problems not so much for the future as they’re problems for the present. We’re not able to deal with these things now — so we’ve projected our current inability to cope onto future generations. Indeed, there are 870 million people living today who are chronically undernourished. And as the biologist E. O. Wilson has said, we would need four planet Earths to bring everybody up to first world standards. And then there's global warming to consider.

Talk of extreme longevity seems ridiculous in light of all this; it’s hard for us to imagine radical change as far as our technologies and social institutions are concerned. So we throw up our hands in despair and condemn the prospect.
But as Annalee Newitz pointed out recently, much of the fear about the Population Bomb has to do with neo-Malthusian currents that are still lingering through our society, a remnant of pre-Green Revolution hysteria. As the U.N. has pointed out, global population will reach 9.3 billion in 2050. But then it’ll take another 50 years to reach 11 billion (there are currently 7.2 billion people on the planet). This is without life extension, of course — but it points to an interesting trend: As women gain more access to education, jobs, and (especially) birth control, they have fewer children. We can expect this trend to continue as economic and cultural globalization sweeps across the planet.
Newitz also points to another interesting — and often overlooked — consideration. Rather than talk about eugenic-like restrictions on human reproduction (like a one-child policy or doping the water supply with contraceptives) or deliberately starving certain groups, we should adopt the political and social will to address these issues — like investing in education, sustainable agriculture, and initiatives to develop clean and renewable energy.

A world transformed

Without a doubt, widespread radical life extension will reshape the fabric of society. But as noted, humanity will have to reform and adapt to environmental, resource, and population pressures outside of this. However, there’s only so much that politicians and well-meaning citizens can do; perpetual population growth — even if it is dramatically slowed down via socioeconomic factors — is still perpetual population growth. We’re eventually going to have to find solutions as far as resource depletion, pollution, and living space is concerned.
Thankfully, relatively near-term progress in biotechnologies (like genetic engineering and regenerative medicine), nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and space technologies will significantly increase our chances of addressing many of these problems. Over the course of the next several decades, and as we eventually (and hopefully) cross into the next century, humanity will progressively shrink its global footprint on the planet — a footprint that, for each of us, is impossibly large right now.

How are we going to feed everybody?

Take the potential for molecular assembling nanotechnology. Futurist Michael Anissimovexplains:
For example, the researcher Eric K. Drexler has already developed extensive theoretical arguments for the feasibility of nanotechnology, a bottom-up manufacturing technology which will allow the synthesis of cheap food and housing from raw materials for extremely low costs. This technology could also be applied towards the construction of cheap spacecraft or space elevators, giving millions or billions of individuals the opportunity to colonize the solar system should the Earth become uncomfortably overpopulated. Marshall T. Savage has estimated in his book "The Millennial Project" that the Solar System could sustain upwards of a billion humans, each with mansions upon mansions of living space, for several billion years. This book also neglects the more recently-conceived benefits that advanced nanotechnology and virtual reality would confer once they mature.
No doubt, a Star Trek-like replicator would dramatically change the situation. We could literally generate food from basic clumps of matter.
Of course, we should never bank on something as highly conceptual as a molecular fabricator; though some experts predict its appearance in the next several decades (largely owing to our recent successes with additive manufacturing and various nanotechnological breakthroughs), it may be a while before we have robust, safe, and affordable fabricators.
In the meantime, we need to figure out a better way to sustain the population. Indeed,we are way off track if we hope to feed everybody by 2050. But as futurist Ramez Naam recently told me, there are things we can do today, like support the ongoing development of emerging nations and the development of genetically engineered crops (e.g. so that they’re high yield, pest resistant, and require less fertilizer and irrigation). Admittedly, the food problem is a tricky one, and it needs to be prioritized accordingly.

Where are we going to get all that energy?

In addition to food, there’s also the energy problem to consider. But again there’s some light at the end of the tunnel.
No, Extreme Human Longevity Won’t Destroy the Planet
Image: Desertec.
A critical pending technological advance will come in the form of concentrated solar power, a massively distributed system for extracting solar energy with mirrors and lenses. Once scaled-up, it’ll serve as a highly efficient energy source allowing for gigawatt sized solar power plants. Oh, and it’ll also double as a desalination station, which will conveniently solve the water shortage problem as well.
No, Extreme Human Longevity Won’t Destroy the Planet
Image: SPS-ALPHA/NASA/John Mankins.
Perhaps more profoundly, there’s also the potential for space-based solar power — and we’re going to need it; if economic progress and globalization continues at its current pace, we'll have to produce twice the amount of energy that's consumed today by the 2030s — which will reach a monumental 220 trillion kiloWatt hours per year. By the end of the century, we'll need four times the current rate of consumption. Space-based power, in which solar energy is extracted by massive panels and beamed down to Earth via microwave wireless power transmitters, will be a game-changer.

Where are we going to put everybody?

There’s a kind of myth floating around about overpopulation and living space. The problem isn’t so much about elbow room as it’s about the untenable size of our individual global footprints. If we can bring that down, then the numbers don’t really matter — there’s plenty of space on Earth.
No, Extreme Human Longevity Won’t Destroy the Planet
Image: Shimizu Corp.
Take the prospect of arcologies, for example, or megacity pyramids. The conceptual Shimizu Corporation’s three-mile long pyramid would be 14 times higher than the Great Pyramid of Giza and capable of housing an astounding 750,000 people on Tokyo Bay. It would be made from lightweight carbon fiber and boast research facilities, shopping centers, private homes, and restaurants. It would also be powered by solar power, wind, and even algae/pond scum. Alternately, there’s the potential for seasteading arcologies and other sea-based dwellings. Or,we could just move underground.
Looking further ahead, it’s obvious that humanity needs to venture out into space. This is a good idea — not only as a way to deal with perpetual population growth — but as a way to avoid extinction should something terrible befall humanity, whether it be self-inflicted or induced by nature (e.g. an asteroid impact or super-volcanism).
Other solutions include colonies on the Moon, Mars, and in space stations. Eventually, we may be able to terraform both Mars and Venus. We should also think about megascale projects, like creating habitable portions on a Dyson sphere — a massive structure enveloping the Sun. Of course, there’s also interstellar space to consider.
Lastly, there’s also the transhumanist potential, namely the prospect of a posthuman future. Assuming that the mind uploading hypothesis is correct, we could discard our bodies and venture into digital space where the only “environmental” limitations will be computational power, hard drive space, and heat waste. But if we can’t upload, we can still genetically and cybernetically modify our bodies and minds to reduce our ecological footprint (e.g. minimal energy requirements — and possibly even photosynthetic skin).

As a final note, there’s a certain inevitability to radical life extension. It’s the logical conclusion to the medical sciences. So rather than futilely argue against it, we should come up with constructive solutions to ensure that it unfolds in the most non-disruptive way possible.
This article originally appeared at io9.