I'm back from attending the TransVision 2004 conference in Toronto. TV is the annual conference of the World Transhumanist Association.
The conference was somewhat smaller than I expected, but then I'm used to more extravagant software industry affairs. However, the attendees and the conversation were quite remarkable. There were scientists, engineers and artists from all over the world, all eager to share their theories and hungry to learn from everyone else.
The plenary presentation was made by Aubrey de Grey, a theoretical biogerontologist from Cambridge University. de Grey gave a very entertaining and educational talk about engineering negligible senescence (ENS), i.e., living forever. de Grey puts forward a very compelling argument for the feasibility of ENS.
The process of metabolism creates damage that accumulates over time, and this damage leads to pathology (disease etc.) that eventually causes death. Both metabolism and pathologies are very complex, and neither are well understood. However, de Grey points out that when we compare young cells and old cells, there is only a short list of seven basic differences that are relatively well understood. By engineering away these differences, we should be able to engineer long life. Later in the conference, de Grey described possible ways to address one of the seven categories of damage (the "lysosomal junk" category) that are responsible for aging.
There were a lot of presentations at the conference that addressed the ethics and imperatives of life extension and human enhancement. Even de Grey covered this issue quite eloquently. I didn't need much convincing that the bio-Luddites have their collective heads in the sand, but it seems to me that solid anti-aging technologies will justify themselves. Each therapeutic advance can be sold as a therapy for a specific ailment. For example, a gene therapy that attacks the buildup of dangerous cholesterols within cells can be sold as such. The therapies that extend life can be seen as therapies that fend of heart disease, diabetes, alzheimer's and so on. What I liked about de Grey's talk is that it traced some of the specific research steps needed to bring these therapies into the medical mainstream.
The other talk that has occupied my thoughts since the conference was the talk entitled "Posthuman AI: How Recognizing the Importance of the Body Will Change Things". Robin Zebrowski argued that it may be impossible to create a conscious yet disembodied intelligence. While AI has been successful in creating expert systems, Zebrowski claims that embodiment is a prerequisite for creating conscious AI's. I'm not sure I agree with Zebrowski at the moment, but her idea is a fascinating one. For example, Zebrowski points out that when we process concepts in thought, we often activate parts of our brain that are used for motor control. The notions of "grasping an idea" or "kicking a habit" activate their respective motor control regions in the brain. This raises questions about the limits of our ability to understand certain concepts. Perhaps we cannot fully understand a concept unless it can be mentally linked with the body's motor control functions. Perhaps, the only way to intuitively understand more complex ideas is to augment our bodies in a way that requires new kinds of motor control. It's an elegant idea, but I'm pretty skeptical at the moment. The good thing is that this has me thinking more deeply about neural networks and the nature of intelligence.
For more information about the conference, see the WTA Web site.
My photos are here. I'll post more about my experience at the conference as it sinks in!