Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The Evolution of Medical Technology

Hi folks!

One of the things that I have enjoyed the most in my life to date has been having the opportunity to talk with a very large number of very diverse people. If I am not sleeping, reading or working on an airplane, for example, and you would like to pursue one of these three activities but have had the misfortune to be seated next to me, it's best just to surrender early. Of all the topics I have surveyed people on, the future of medical technology produces the most consistently hostile reaction.

It seems to me that the desire for a long and happy life that each of us carries plays a key role in making us deny the obvious result of the direction that we are heading with our understanding of human biology. Most people I have discussed this topic with - notably including those working as researchers in the medical field - fail to see the (imho rapidly approaching) culmination of the science - physical immortality.

OK, have your reaction, get it out of your system, and allow yourself to treat the topic objectively.

o The human organism is a system of finite complexity.

- In other words, the physical structure that makes up me - or you - is less complex than the entire universe, less complex than this entire planet, less complex than the structure of the building I am in and its contents (at the moment including four of us human objects). It is bounded by physical, quantitative and quantifiable limits, and it is comprehensible.

o The total cumulative understanding that humans currently posses of the human organism is greater than it was yesterday. Tomorrow our understanding will grow by a greater amount than it did today.

- It is possible to know everything about the game of Euchre. It is possible to know everything about a supercomputer. All that is required is that the volume of data that defines a set of knowledge is acquired one piece at a time until it is complete. The same is true of the workings of the human organism, and we add to the set that we have acquired every day, each day faster than the day before.

Q. How do you eat a whale?

A. One bite at a time.

Here are my predictions:

Q. Will the complete set of data defining the human organism be in the possession of mankind in 1,000 years?

A. Yes.

Q. 500 years?

A. Yes.

Q. 250 years?

A. 90% likely.

Q. 125 years?

A. 50% likely.

Q. 75 years?

A. No. However, in 75 years the human organism may be well know enough to extend the lifespans of some individuals currently alive, to the point that their physical aging is outpaced by medical advances. Immortals are among us today, even if it is only one child.

If I am correct, then there are a large number of issues which appear intractable that need to be addressed within the foreseeable future. To keep this from being a novel, major issues that come to mind are itemized below. I may expand on these in further articles.

o Population.

- and, no, emmigration into space does not help global population control. It's simple math - even if at some point in the future 100,000 people emmigrated from off the planet *every single day*, that would be 36.5 Million per year. 36.5M/year would have no useful impact on population on the ground, particularly since by such a time it can be reasonably expected that mortality will be much lower and lifespans much longer.

- parenthood/siblinghood. The social changes brought about by population control impact whether people become parents and what their experience as parents is like. Also changed is the pattern of siblinghood, resulting in individuals having fewer siblings as well as the changes in developmental experiences that growing up with fewer (or no) siblings bring. As fewer people become parents, and as more people grow up as only children, the dynamics of how we relate to each other are affected. Do our cultures move towards greater valuing of children, more cognizant and responsible parenting? Do our cultures instead move towards more individual isolationism? Do we get better or worse at understanding truisms like "you are your brother's keeper"?

o Crime and criminals.

- as long as old crooks die off, failing to rehabilitate them is a problem that resolves itself as they die. What happens when we can expect the criminal to be with us indefinitely? Since our system for dealing with criminals has a near 0% success rate of converting them into non-criminals (and in parallel possesses the ability to create criminals with great success), what do we do to fix the problem?

o Sick Memes.

- ideologies which circle around destructive and self-supporting memes can erode over generations, as long as preceding generations of unreformables die off. What happens when that erosion ceases?

Of course there are positive ramifications. In my opinion history will show that this transition truly defines "Childhood's End" for us as a species, and the incredible potential and accomplishments we find embodied in humanity will blossom beyond even my most aggressive forecasts.

o Individual human potential.

- humans achieve astounding results with the time we have in our lives. What happens when an individual can continue to pursue their goals over long periods of time?

While we remain lost in the granular nature of the topic - considering how it affects us, or focusing on our specific area of interest or expertise - the cumulative volume of data grows without pause. This is a topic that I look forward to revisiting decade to decade - I expect to see a shift in the popular view during the years I have left to observe.

While I do not expect to be one of those to make the long haul, I expect my grandchildren - and perhaps even children - have every chance of reading these words aloud at the turn of the next millennium.



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