Philosopher confused by longevity, nanotechnology

Philosopher confused by longevity, nanotechnology

The May/June Technology Review (free reg. req’d) features an essay by philosopher Roger Scruton attempting to examine the ethical issues of highly advanced technologies. While the focus is on biotech, nanotech is hinted at:

…why cannot machines be produced as humans are now produced, by self-reproduction?

Why not indeed. They could, in principle. Scruton makes some good points, such as:

It is not technology that has caused our environmental problems but incompetent technology—technology that has failed to address the real question, of how to extract energy without damaging the planet.

Quite so. We should refuse the label of “high technology” to those that are not also clean technologies. But the author runs into trouble when he takes on the question of human longevity:

If the planet were to bear the weight of its immortal passengers, their numbers would have to be strictly limited. Reproduction, beyond a certain point, would have to be ruled out. Resources would have to be precisely allocated and scarcities avoided. For these eternal beings would be dangerous—and especially to each other. They would have worked out ways to exert and survive aggression, and these abilities would put them way ahead of any mortal competitors—ahead of everything save themselves. Life among the immortals would be scary beyond belief; its possibility would depend on a rigorous system of totalitarian control, which would forbid the ordinary forms of human happiness, not least the bearing and loving of children. Hardened by centuries of cynical dealings, the joyless predators would prowl around each other, seeking the small, spare advantages that are the only things worth aiming at in a world where everything is allocated by a committee of immortal enforcers.

What a bizarre worldview this person has! One of his confusions shows up in the third word above: “planet.” Somehow, in his vision, humans attain ultimate control over complex biological systems without much simpler space development technology enabling the opening of the space frontier. (In addition, his picture of what would happen if humans were stuck on one planet is appalling—is this his idea of the best we could do? He must know different sorts of people than I do.)

The weirdest thing here is that this is the magazine that MIT sends to its alumni, including me, to get them to write checks to MIT. Most people who go to MIT see technology as, overall, a positive thing, and don’t share this author’s dystopian visions. There are folks who have put more work (and insight) into these issues; let’s get them writing instead. —Christine

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  1. Charles H. Tankersley June 3, 2007 at 6:43 am - Reply

    Christine, you are correct. If we are to have any hope of colonizing and exploring our Universe, we must extend our lifespan enough to reach our nearest neighbor stars, some 4.25 light years away. Without ‘warp’ drive. as Einstein tells us, we are limited to no than one or two thousand KPH. Any faster and it would be impossible to avoid the ‘hard stuff’ drifting about in the uncharted sea of space. Radar is a speed of light thing and if we approach light speed, the radar has no hope of telling us what lies in wait around the next corner. Our space program needs us to last at least 2,000+ earth-years.

    As for the overcrowding of earth, give this some thought. We already have the first space colony in orbit. Soon, we will gaine enough knowledge to put private individuals in orbit (if they have the wealth) for a lifetime. Our next fronteer is space, itself. Our earth is far from being over-populated now, and with the discoveries made with Nanotechnology, the weight limit of human life on earth is continuing to extend further and further before us.

    It is my feeling that Scruton is not thinking about the solution to humanity, but rather, is thinking about how to line his pockets a bit more. However, it could be that he forgot to think at all when he reached the longevity of his essay.

  2. James G. June 3, 2007 at 8:39 am - Reply

    I was going to say the same thing, Christine, when humans achieve immortality, space travel will become much easier. Humans will populate the stars as needed or desired, on space ships that bare no sembalence to today’s primitive rockets and space shuttles. Large versions with very advanced recycling compared to what we can get today could take humans anywhere in the universe near light speed, and the trip would not be unbearable, anything you could have on a planet can be put in a sufficiently advanced space ship, except perhaps the same amount of land mass limiting the number of people it can support, but ships that comfortably hold thousands and have everything they would need and reasonably desire would be possible with nanotech, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the ship and say, earth, for the most part, if desired. A lot of people that think they understand singularity type tech. really don’t and have huge flaws in their arguments which they get stuck on. Time will heal this ignorance.

  3. Michael Anissimov June 4, 2007 at 4:15 am - Reply

    The variety and number of wild projections generated by knee-jerk negative reactions to life extension makes for great amusement. Thanks for pointing us to this new one. Sometimes, the more ignorant the projection, the more entertaining. The idea that we could become immortal but fail to lower launch costs is such a failure of imagination that one can only laugh!

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