Raise three cheers for mere mortals

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The Spanish conquerer who discovered Florida, now the western world’s largest home for old folks, was actually looking for the fabled Fountain of Youth. How’s that for historical irony?

No more exquisite, perhaps, than Martine Rothblatt’s statement at the Global Future 2045 International Congress in New York City this summer that “The first company that develops mindware (a kind of software that will render human consciousness eternal and eternally free of the human body) will have (as much success as) a thousand Googles.” Sitting in the audience was Ray Kurzweil, futurist, inventor and director of engineering at, you guessed it, Google.

Not that he could have been much annoyed. Mr. Kurzweil was among friends and acolytes, alike – people who dream of immortality through technology. Here’s what he had to say in the Times of India the other day: “It has been my consistent prediction that by (2029) computers will match human intelligence and pass the ‘Turing test,’ meaning that they will be indistinguishable from human intelligence. Once they can do that they will necessarily exceed human intelligence because they will be able to read everything on the web and every page of every book.

He added: “By 2045 we will have multiplied our intelligence a billion fold by merging with the (artificial intelligence) we are creating. That is such a profound transformation that we borrow this metaphor from physics and call it a singularity.”

Of course, such Utopian nonsense has been a feature of everyday life since Narcissus saw himself reflected in a pool of water, became entranced, fell in, and drowned. Some of us just can’t enough of ourselves, so we hold conferences for like-minded individuals and sit around all day gabbing about how neat it would be to live forever. Oh sure, what a wonderful world that would be.

Elsewhere, others are embarking on a more bite-sized project, though their motives are suspiciously similar to those of the “singularitists”. A Globe and Mail piece this week describes researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City conducting “anti-aging experiments” on mice. Such efforts and the early results “have scientists talking seriously about the average lifespan rising by decades, possibly to 120 years, and academics pondering the consequences. What would it mean for the solvency of the health-care system or public pensions? Would it change views on marriage (‘Happy 98th anniversary, Grandma and Grandpa!’)? And would anyone really want to live so long anyway?”

According to the story, “Versions of the latter question were asked in two recent surveys, one of Canadians, the other of Americans. In the Canadian survey, published last year in the Journal of Aging Studies, 59 per cent of respondents said they would welcome living 120 years ‘if science made it possible to do so in good health.’ The Americans were more reluctant. The survey, by Pew Research and published this month, asked whether people would prefer to live 120 years with the help of ‘medical treatments that slow the aging process.’ The majority – 56 per cent – said no.”

Naturally, they did and here’s why: These days, you have to be rich – or, at least, financially independent – to grow exceptionally old. Who, but you, is going to pay for the expensive treatments, tablets, procedures that will keep you from keeling over?

Just because medical science has figured out ways to keep people alive long past their otherwise natural expiration dates, doesn’t mean the other institutions that comprise society possess either the means or the will to democratize such technologies. Ours is, after all, a market-based economy.

Besides, as Brendan Leier, a clinical ethicist at the University of Alberta’s John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre, told The Globe, “It’s not the duration of life that’s the problem for us, but the quality of life. Quality is what makes it meaningful.”

It would be justly ironic, indeed, if the only old people left on the planet were rich ones, bored to death of their own long and lonely lives

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