Old software tends to fail. If you upgrade to the last version of Windows, your old applications may fail to run. This is typically caused by a lack of update and commonly called bit rot. That is, if you stop maintaining software, it loses its usefulness because it is not longer in sync with current environments. There are many underlying causes of bit rot: e.g., companies that stop supporting software let it fall to bit rot.

To the contrary, Robin Hanson, a famous economist, believes that software becomes increasingly inflexible as we update it. That is, the more software engineers work on a piece of software, the worse it becomes until we have no choice but to throw it away. To put it another way, you only can modify a given piece of software a small number of times before it crumbles.

Let me state Hanson’s conjecture more formally.

Hanson’s law of computing: Any software system, including advanced intelligences, is bound to decline over time. It becomes less flexible and more fragile.

The matter could be of consequence in the far future… For example, would an artificial intelligence “grow old”? If you could somehow make human beings immortal, would their minds grow old?

We could justify this law by analogy with human beings. As we grow older, we become less mentally flexible and our fluid intelligence diminishes. The reduced flexibility could be explained in terms of economics alone: there is less benefit in acquiring new skills when you can already make a living with what you know. So we expect, using economics alone, new fields to be populated by the young. But, in human beings, we also know that the brain undergoes physical damages. The connectome degrades. Important hormones become lacking. The brain becomes inflamed and possibly infected. We lose neurons. All of this damage makes our brain more fragile over time. Indeed, if you make it to 90 years old, you have a chance out of three to suffer from dementia. None of these physical problems are likely to affect an artificial intelligence. And there is strong evidence that all this physical damage to our brain could be stopped or ever reversed in the next twenty years if medical progress continues at high speed.

Hanson proposes that the updates themselves damage any software system. So, to live a long time, an artificial intelligence might need to limit how much it learns.

I am arguing back that the open source framework running the Internet, and serving as a foundation for companies like Google and Apple, is a counterexample. Apache, the most important web server software today, is an old piece of technology whose name is a play on words (“a patched server”) indicating that it has been massively patched. The Linux kernel itself runs much of the Internet, and has served as the basis for the Android kernel. It has been heavily updated… Linus Torvalds wrote the original Linux kernel as a tool to run Unix on 386 PCs… Modern-day Linux is thousands of times more flexible.

So we have evolved from writing everything from scratch (in the seventies) to massively reusing and updated pre-existing software. And yet, the software industry is the most flexible, fast-growing industry on the planet. In my mind, the reason software is eating the world is precisely that we can build up on existing software and thus, improve what we can do at an exponential rate. If every start-up had to build its own database engine, its own web server… it would still cost millions of dollars to do anything. And that is exactly what would happen if old software grew inflexible: to apply Apache or MySQL to the need of your start-up, you would need to rewrite them first… a costly endeavour.

The examples do not stop with open source software. Oracle is very old, but still trusted by corporations worldwide. Is it “inflexible”? It is far more flexible than it ever was… Evidently, Oracle was not built from the ground up to run on thousands of servers in a cloud environment. So some companies are replacing Oracle with more recent alternatives. But they are not doing so because Oracle has gotten worse, or that Oracle engineers cannot keep up.

When I program in Java, I use an API that dates back to 1998 if not earlier. It has been repeatedly updated and it has become more flexible as a result… Newer programming languages are often interesting, but they are typically less flexible at first than older languages. Everything else being equal, older languages perform better and are faster. They improve over time.

Hanson does not provide a mechanism to back up his bit-rot conjecture. However, it would seem, intuitively, that more complex software becomes more difficult to modify. Applying any one change is more likely to create trouble in a more complex projects. But, just like writers of non-fiction still manage to write large volumes without ending with an incoherent mass, software programmers have learned to cope with very large and very complex endeavours. For example, the Linux kernel has over 20 million lines of code contributed by over 14,000 programmers. Millions of new codes are added every year. These millions of lines of code far exceed the memory capacity of any one programmer.

How is this possible?

  • One ingredient is is modularity. There are pieces of code responsible some actions and not others. For example, if you cannot get sound out of your mobile phone, the cause likely does not lie in any one of millions of lines of code, but can be quickly narrowed down to, say, the sound driver, which may
    only have a few thousand lines of code.

    We have strong evidence that the brain works in a similar way. There is neuroplasticity, but even so, given tasks as assigned to given neurons. So a stroke (that destroys neurons) could make you blind or prevent you from walking, but maybe not both things at once. And someone who forgets how to read, due to loss of neurons, might not be otherwise impaired.

  • Another important element is abstraction which is a sophisticated form of modularity. For example, the software the plays a song in your computer is distinct from the software that interfaces with the sound chip. There are high and low level functions. The human mind works this way as well. When you play football, you can think about the strategy without getting bogged down in the ball throwing techniques.

Software engineers have learned many other techniques to make sure that software gets better, not worse with updates. We have extensive test frameworks, great IDEs, version control, and so on.

However, there are concepts related to Hanson’s notion of bit rot.

  • Programmers, especially young programmers, often prefer to start from scratch. Why learn to use a testing framework? Write you own! Why learn to use a web server? Write your own! Why do programmers feel that way? In part because it is much more fun to write code than to read code, while both are equally hard.

    That taste for fresh code is not an indication that starting from scratch is a good habit. Quite the opposite!

    Good programmers produce as little new code as they can. They do not write their own database engines, they do not write their own web servers…

    I believe our brains work the same way. As much as possible, we try to reuse routines. For example, I probably use many of the same neurons whether I write in French or English.

  • Software evolves through competition and selection. For example, there are probably hundreds of software libraries to help you with any one task. New ones get written all the time, trying to outcompete the older ones by building on new ideas.

    The brain does that all the time. For example, I had self-taught myself a way to determine if a number could be divided by 7. There was a part of my brain that could run through such computations. While teaching my son, I learned of a much better way to do it. Today I can barely remember how I used to do it. I have switched to the new mode. Similarly, the Linux kernel routine switches drivers of components for new ones.

  • A related issue is that of “technical debt”. When programmers complain of crippling growing pain with software… that is often what they allude to. In effect, it is a scenario whereas the programmers have quickly adapted to new circonstances, but without solid testing, documentation and design. The software is known to be flawed and difficult, but it is not updated because it “works”. Brains do experience this same effect. For example, if you take a class and learn just enough to pass the tests… you have accumulated technical debt: if you ever need your knowledge for anything else, you will have to go back and relearn the material. You have made the assumption that you will not need to build on this new expertise. But that is as likely to affect young software and young brains.

    Corporation without a strong software culture often suffer from “technical debt”. The software is built to spec… and does what it must do, and not much else. That is like “knowing just enough to pass the test”.

    With people, we detect technical debt by experience: if the young accounting graduate cannot cope with the real-world, he probably studied too closely to the tests. With software, we use the same criterion: good software is software that has been used repeatedly in different contexts. In some sense, therefore, technical debt is flushed out by experience.

  • What about having to search through an ever expanding memory bank? That assumes that people, as they grow older, pursue exhaustive searches. But that is how intelligence has to work, and I do not think that is how human being works. When faced with a new case, we do not mentally review all related cases. Instead, we maintain a set of useful heuristics. And, over time, we let go of rarely used data and heuristics. For example, I once learned to play the flute, nearly forty years ago. Some of these memories are with me, but it is very unlikely that they are slowing me down for non-flute-related activities. Again, here we can exploit modularity… one can forget to play the flute without forgetting
    everything else.

    Search algorithms do not get slower proportionally with the size of the data bank. If this were so, Google’s search engine would slow to a crawl. We have built lots of expertise on how to search efficiently.

  • Abstraction leaks: to make our software, we use high level functions that run other functions and then more functions… down to processor instructions. Over time we use higher and higher levels of abstraction. A single mistake or undefined behaviour at any one level, and we produce an erroneous or unexpected result.

    That might be a rather fundamental limitation of software systems. That is, any sufficiently advanced system might produce erroneous and unexpected results. This probably puts a limit to how much abstraction one can do without much effort given the same “brain”.

In any case, for Hanson’s conjecture to hold, one should be able to measure “software age”. We should be able to measure the damage done by the programmers as they work on the software. There would be some kind of limit to the number of modifications we can make to a piece of software. There would be limit to what an artificial intelligence could learn… And we would need to observe that software being aggressively developed (e.g., the Linux kernel) grows old faster than software that is infrequently modified. But I believe the opposite is true: software that has been aggressively developed over many years is more likely to be robust and flexible.

Of course, the range of problems we can solve with software is infinite. So people like me keep on producing more and more software. Most of it will hardly be used, but the very best projects end up receiving more “love” (more updates) and they grow more useful, more robust and more flexible as a result.

I see no reason for why an artificial intelligence could not, for all practical purposes, be immortal. It could keep on learning and expanding nearly forever. Of course, unless the environment changes, it would hit diminishing returns… still, I expect older artificial intelligences to be better at most things than younger ones.

I define techno-optimism as the belief that technology makes us healthier, richer and smarter at an accelerated rate.

Anyone working in information technology cannot help but to be a bit techno-optimist. My wife’s latest Samsung phone is a technological marvel that can replace dozens of expensive devices from ten years ago (phone, camera, pda, …). Google’s voice recognition software has finally become good enough. Here is what I did just now:

- Ok Google

- Where is Denmark?

And it showed me a map of Denmark. Keep in mind that I have a thick French accent.

My 9-year-old son comes by (his English is even more approximate) and he says “Ok Google. Who is Mario?”. And sure enough, it worked.

A common objection to techno-optimism is that it only works in information technology. For example, there seems to be a widespread belief that medicine or education is standing still.

It is true that if you go in your doctor’s office, it might feel like traveling back in time to the 1970s. But let us keep in mind that, in the future, most things will still look the same. Except for my wicked flat TV, my living room would not surprise someone from the 1950s. A wall is a wall: we just made it much cheaper and faster to build walls. A desk is a desk: they have just become much cheaper. Paper is still very useful: we have just learned how to cost-efficiently replenish our forests.

Moreover, it will always be true that the future won’t be uniformly distributed. Even today, one out of eight people never use the Internet. This cannot be helped. There will always be backward places and people.

But really, medical progress is fast and furious:

  • A paraplegic woman, Jan Scheuermann, can feed herself using a robotic arm controlled by her brain. This has been commonly done in monkeys for many years.
  • There is now a medical speciality called resurrection. In forward-thinking hospitals, “dead” patients have their blood artificially oxygenated. In this manner, patients can remain dead for hours before being brought back.
  • We can restore partial sight to the blinds using retinal implants. Researchers expect to start human trials in the next few years using a stem cell therapy to repair retinal damage.
  • AIDS is a devastating but “manageable disease”. Infected people must take expensive and harsh drugs. But it looks like we might finally defeat AIDS using gene therapy. We found out that some people were naturally immune to the AIDS virus. We identified the gene responsible, and we simply edit the corresponding gene in the cells of infected people. This actually works in real people. Moreover, at least one patient has been cured from AIDS (back in 2008) thanks to stem cells transplants.

In education, progress is equally amazing. Let us not forget that the web itself is probably the greatest learning tool ever invented. It is orders of magnitude superior to previous alternatives. For example, many of colleagues have substantially improved their English through online services. They are both more effective and much cheaper than human tutors. To help my kids with their spelling, I have created a set of small web pages. The scripts in the web pages speak out the words (in French!) and my sons have to write the words correctly. This alone would have sounded like science fiction ten years ago: a little script in a web page can speak out words in any language! Yes, what actually happens in the classroom might be stuck in time… but progress is everywhere. You just have to know how to look.

And that is what it comes down to. Progress happens at first mostly in pockets. It then propagates at an uneven pace. But eventually, it touches nearly everyone… in ways that we often do not notice until later if at all.

That is why techno-optimism is not a common stance despite the overwhelming evidence… good technology is nearly invisible. So people greatly underestimate what can be done given a few decades.

In my review of the movie Tomorrowland, I alluded to the fact that in the alternate world, people could stay young by drinking orange juice every morning. I conjectured that this was probably caused by nanotechnology.

I do not expect to ever drink some orange juice that keeps me young… but wouldn’t that be nice?

Someone accused me of being a follower of Ray Kurzweil. I had vaguely heard of Kurzweil as someone who advocates that, soon, computers will exceed the computational power of the human mind. Seems reasonable enough to me.

In any case, I went back and read some of Kurzweil’s work. It turns out that he does predict the arrival of nanotechnology-based rejuvenation. He even put a date to it: in 20 years, or around 2035. And after that point, forever youth could become reality.

One should point out that we cannot really defeat death. The best we could do is defeat aging: death as the result of an accident or a new disease is really hard to prevent, even in theory.

I do not believe that, currently, there is much you can do to extend your lifespan beside the usual if you are already healthy: keep your weight in check, exercise, have a loving family, don’t get mad at your collaborators… So, if you are healthy, do not bother looking for some magical orange juice. It is also not going to be easy to drastically extend our lifespan. If there was some simple herb that could rejuvenate us, the word would have gotten out by now. Moreover, if you could just flip a gene a live forever, we would have documented cases by now: there are billions of us… it is likely that one of us would have gotten the lucky mutation.

But Kurzweil believes that human technology is much stronger than mere luck.

By 2035, Kurzweil will have far exceeded men’s life expectancy (he will get close to 90). He has a plan to get there by closely monitoring his health and taking a crazy amount of supplements. That does not sound insane: if someone puts his mind to it, I am not sure why he cannot drastically increase his probability of living till late in his 80s.

Back to his predictions. It is evident that the rate of progress grows every year. If you must have a metric, look at the number of research articles published every year: it has consistently grown by more than 2% a year for as far back as I can look. By a small but consistent growth of about 3.5% a year, we went (in the US alone) from 110k medical research papers a year in 1996 to 200k in 2013. (This does not account for the fact that China hardly published anything in 1996 while it published 50k medical papers in 2013.) We get such progress because our tools get better and relatively cheaper every year while our collective expertise grows. Kurzweil says that to predict the amount of progress we shall make in the next 20 years, we must not simply project the progress of the past on the future, but rather multiply it. The farther you look, the wider the gap grows between a linear and exponential prediction.

Progress is necessarily unequal. Though we publish more medical papers every year than we ever did, some topics remain poorly researched whereas others are progressing much faster. But with an aging population worldwide, it is a safe bet that aging research is growing faster than medical research at large.

If you are not following closely biotechnology, it is easy to think that there is no much progress. But did you know that we have a relatively safe tool to edit human being genes called CRISPR since 2012? In fact, Chinese researchers are editing the genome of human embryos right now, hoping to prevent diseases. It is a safe bet that someone will soon attempt to raise “super human beings”: e.g., we already know of genetic mutations providing the recipients with superhuman muscles and unbreakable bones, an army of such people sounds like a tempting proposition. At Harvard, they are using this technology, as we speak, to turn an elephant into a mammoth by editing its genes. Did you know that we have commercially available bio 3D printers that can print skin or blood vessels? There is currently a competition to build an artificial liver good enough to keep a large animal alive for 90 days without any support: the competition ends in 2018. If the prize is won, and it will probably be, the next step is to create the other organs. At this rate, it is not hard to believe that, within ten years, we shall be technically able to replace any organ in one’s body, without any need for a donor or for long-term dangerous medications.

Still. I have looked at Kurzweil predictions a bit more closely, and they seem a bit overoptimistic. I would say that you should probably add 10 years to all his dates. So, if Kurzweil was to predict that we would defeat aging in 30 or 40 years (in 2045 or 2055), then I would say that this is credible. If we go back 40 years ago, medicine was far, far less advanced. The rate of deaths from major diseases was often twice what it is today. If we project in the future several times the progress of the last 40 years, it is hard to imagine what we cannot do.

There is a problem with these predictions, of course. At the moment, we do not even know what aging is. Not really. We know that lobsters and naked mole rats do not age (they die but not because of an aging process similar to ours). The jellyfish and hydra are “immortal”. Some trees, like the bristlecode pine also do not age. We know that among creatures of the same size, say a mouse and a bat, there can be vast difference in longevities. For individuals of the same species, big (or taller) individuals live shorter lives. We also know that if you inject the blood plasma of a young mouse in an old mouse (a technique called parabiosis), it rejuvenates the old mouse. But I do not think scientists can explain any of it (not to my satisfaction).

There are various theories about what aging is. Some say it is programmed. We are programmed to age. This theory sounds a bit ridiculous to me. Most of our ancestors probably did not make it beyond 40. Why would evolution have cared at all for aging? Even if it did care, there was probably very little selective pressure regarding health in old age.

Another theory is that evolution did its best to maximize our lifespan, and we have the very best we can get… short of becoming androids. But there is no reason to believe that evolution would seek to maximize our lifespan. The cycle of birth, reproduction and death works well for evolution. Evolution does not care for the individual, only for the species.

I have also revisited Aubrey de Grey who has this ambitious plan to defeat aging using advanced regenerative medicine. He believes that aging is the result of “accumulated damage”. To him, our bodies are like rusting cars. Evidently, our bodies break down as they age… but why would a mouse accumulate damage 30 times faster than a human being? Why would it accumulate damage 8 times faster than a bat? And how come a whale or a turtle can live much older than us: aren’t they damaged? Some of aging is definitively accumulated damage… your teeth become shorter as you grow older, you accumulate latent viruses, fat cells, you lose neurons in the neocortex (and, in human beings, they are not replenished)… but male baldness is not a random outcome due to damage. Working out damages your body, yet it also improves your health, even in old age. This means that your body does not activate all of its self-repair mechanisms.

So aging is not solely a matter of “damage” (as in an old car). That is not to say that de Grey is wrong… I believe that he is right and I have given out some of my own money to his foundation. But I am not sure the analogy between a car and the human body is best.

My own theory, after reading avidly on the topic for several days, is that we were simply not designed by evolution to live past 40. We are like a piece of software designed in 1970 and still running three decades later… we are hitting various “year 2000 bugs“. Evolution did not try to maximize our life expectancy (as it may have done with turtles and some whales).

It seems to me that the easiest way to live longer would be to hack our own software (our genome, our biome) as well as repairing various sources of damages (e.g., using stem cells). Sadly, as I have pointed out, it cannot be a simple matter of turning on one gene or the other. Software programmers know all too well how hard it can be to fix what might appear like a minor adjustment… Some bugs can be fixed by changing a few lines, but some require rewriting entire code segments. To turn the clock, we will need some fancy engineering.

What is this clock? There is some hope that the clock in question could be our telomeres. It is an apparently frivolous part of your DNA that grows shorter with every cell division. So it would seem like simply making the telomere longer could make us somewhat younger again. Thankfully, we know how to do just that using telomerase. De Jesus et al. showed that telomerase gene therapy in old mice delays aging and increases longevity without increasing cancer. So, maybe, if we could replenish our telomeres without killing ourselves, we could fool our body into thinking it is younger. It seems that people who live very old without cancer or Alzheimer’s are more likely to have a rare mutation that activates telomerase production. But there is no guarantee that it would work. For one thing, some cells do produce telomerase (e.g., the white cells) and their telomeres still grow short in some people. For another, we know that some cells rarely multiply and are thus unlikely to be limited by telomeres (e.g., your neurons). Moreover, eating well and exercising can extend your telomeres in some cells, though it evidently does not make you younger. There are other possible biological clocks such as DNA methylation. We really do not know enough about what makes a cell old!

Still, I believe that telomeres elongation of some specific cells (with or without telomerase) coupled with advanced stem cell therapy and a few well-dosed hormones and proteins could probably rejuvenate you, maybe. For example, a simple, freely available, hormone, oxytocin can rejuvenate muscles. But it is also possible, even likely, that it is much more complicated, even assuming that I got everything right.

So it could easily take 500 years to defeat aging. The point is, we will defeat aging eventually… After all, we can already extend the lifespan of monkeys by reducing nearly by half their rate of death.

One can dream. I imagine that, in the future, you will live normally as human being until you are about 40 (when reproduction normally stops) at which point, you will start taking pills, or injections or nanobots, to make your body believe that you are still 30. There will be some wear and tear, as indicated by de Grey, but it won’t be a big problem. Using 3D printers, we shall be able to print new body parts out of our stem cells. You would need to replenish the neurons in your neocortex every few decades.

When that happens, be ready to work for 60 years or more! (Assuming that people still need to work in the future…)

Unfortunately, once more, scientists do not even appear to know what aging is. Yes, there are scientists that say that they know… but the explanations are full of holes. And there seems to be less research on this important question that you may think. For example, there is a compound that is FDA approved (rapamycin) that is believed to extend lifespans of mammals through some gene hacking. Since we are already giving it to some human beings, you would think that we would have tested it on all mammals by now. Sadly no. There is a project to use it on dogs however, but I do not know whether they got funded.

(Do not go out on the black market to buy rapamycin. It has nasty side effects and it would, at best, delay aging… not reverse or stop it. Plus, it appears to be a telomerase inhibitor so it could actually make your telomeres shorter… and give you cancer and diabetes…)

Now, unfortunately, we will not defeat aging in the next ten years I would think (short of a surprising, 1 in a million, breakthrough). For one thing, “defeating aging” is not yet a socially acceptable goal. It is a taboo. We do not know what aging is. We have no proven means right now to extend human lifespan.

To have any realistic chance at defeating aging in ten years, we would need to have done it, right now, in a few people. To have a realistic chance of doing it in 20 years, we would need to have an excellent plan right now. Maybe someone has such a plan right now… it is hard to tell… given the profit involved, they might not freely share their plan… de Grey has such a plan, but he will only commit to a 20-year schedule on the condition that he has a billion dollars… yet he does not have a billion dollar.

But there are reasons to be hopeful. Google, of all places, created a company with express goal of extending our healthspan by 20 to 100 years: Calico. It is not just a silly thing: they have recruited the best scientists that money could buy. Calico has hundreds of millions of dollars with commitments exceeding a billion dollars. If you want to be optimistic, you could imagine that Calico or some other laboratory could have, right now, a viable plan to put a dent in aging. If, they could be testing it in human beings in 20 years, and it could be ready for the rest of us in 30 years.

So, let me come up with a prediction: we will defeat aging in 40 years. By that I mean that age-related disease would be mostly eliminated. Compared to Kurzweil, I am pessimistic (he predicts 20 years or less.)

Speaking for myself, I expect to be dead in 40 years… if nothing changes. I do not think any man in my family has made in his eighties… So if I do not die of something else first, I can expect to die from an age-related disease in my seventies or sooner: cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart attack… Even if I were to survive that long, I fear I would be severely diminished…

There is, however, a small probability that I could have a very different life. For one thing, maybe Kurzweil is right and we will defeat aging in 20 years. I stand a good chance of making it there. That sounds much too optimistic however.

But there is another intriguing possibility popularized by Kurzweil and de Grey. Suppose that we defeat aging layer by layer. Imagine that, in five years, we find a way to rejuvenate old people by 3 years… and then, ten years later, by 5 years… and then ten years later by 7 years… if this were to happen, I am much more likely to make it to my eighties. And by then, it is much more likely that they will be able to reverse my aging. This concept is sometimes called the longevity escape velocity: you do not need to live long enough to see a cure for aging, you just need to live long enough to see partial progress.

Partial progress is much easier than defeating entirely aging. When we will understand better age-related gene expressions, we might be able to tune your “epigenetics” so that it is more youthful simply with a few injections. After all, if parabiosis works, it seems pretty clear that with the right doses of drugs, we could simulate the same effect without requiring a young person’s blood. Such an approach could buy all of us a few extra years. Then if we improve stem cell technology significantly, we might be able to undo other age-related damages. And then maybe we could find a way to elongate our telomeres… after all our body knows how to do it, it simply choses not to. Successive waves of progress could add up in such a manner.

I have a really hard time imagining that we will still grow old 500 years from now. I do not have a lot of faith in biologists, but there are many of them and they have better and better tools.

But here is something interesting: we never imagine a future where people do not grow old. In Star Trek, James T Kirk grew old. Even the fierce Vulcans grow old. In Star Wars, people grow old. The only science-fiction author who represented fairly, in my mind, what could happen as we defeat aging through technology is Peter F. Hamilton in his Commonwealth Saga (starting with Pandora’s Star).

We still grant public employees pension plans based on limited longevities. There is a very serious risk that we are grossly underestimating the life expectancy of 20-year-old employees. As far as I can tell, this is never discussed.

I believe that it is because defeating aging is a taboo. Not even science-fiction writers want to consider it. In a sense, it is not surprising that only a few outliers like de Grey and Kurzweil talk about it. Sure, they are probably wrong in many important ways… but they are not wrong in the way that matters: aging can and will be defeated. I expect it is simply a bug in our software: we can reengineer our bodies so that they do not age. You may have to walk around with nanobots in you, but you will not age as long as you are careful.

Let me conclude by quoting Richard Feynman (one of the greatest scientists of the XXth century):

It is one of the most remarkable things that in all of the biological sciences there is no clue as to the necessity of death. If you say we want to make perpetual motion, we have discovered enough laws as we studied physics to see that it is either absolutely impossible or else the laws are wrong.
But there is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death. This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable and that it is only a matter of time before the biologists discover what it is that is causing us the trouble and that this terrible universal disease or temporariness of the human’s body will be cured.

Further reading:

Walt Disney released Tomorrowland. I brought my little family to see it and we had a blast.

(Warning: mild spoilers ahead.)

The movie has one message: let us be techno-optimists. Instead of being driven by fear, let us embrace new challenges. Let us go to Mars or beyond. Let us cure cancer. Let us live with large robots.

The movie has some brilliant elements:

  • Early in the movie, we see a young boy who has invented a jet pack. When asked about the purpose of his invention, he replied: “to inspire people”.

    This is a great and important answer. Almost all new inventions bring very little value on their own. That is true of even radical inventions. For example, if we could cure cancer, we would only extend our life expectancy by a few years (less than five if I recall correctly).

    Techno-optimism is the belief that pushing technology forward is good in itself, if only to inspire others.

    Yes, it may take decades or more before hospitals can print me a new lung or a new heart… so maybe I will needless die of a lung or heart disease in ten years… but I am still excited about 3D printing and steam cell research.

  • The cause of much of the misery in the world of the movie can be traced back to pessimism. Once you have convinced people to stop advancing (symbolized in the movie by the closure of a NASA center), the path becomes difficult.

    I have a lot of respect for conservatives like Nassim Taleb who advocate caution in all things. What if we are killing the planet? Should we not revert back to how our ancestors lived, just in case? What if genetically modified food is killing us? But the techno-optimist in me prefers to take the gamble. And, as illustrated in the movie, that is not necessarily any riskier.

    Before we had as much technology as we did today, people died horrible deaths. Earth was ravaged. That still happens today, of course… we are causing cancers, and polluting too much… but we are, as a species, far better off than we ever were. There are more of us (a good thing) and we are healthier, and smarter.

    The techno-optimist thinks that we should push ahead faster when the problems get more difficult. We should invest more in research and development when the problems are bigger, not less.

    And, yes, maybe by tempering with stem cells, we will create a Zombie virus that will wipe out humanity. But maybe these same stem cells will be able to rejuvenate our failing organs.

  • The movie shows a few marvellous inventions that can be used to differentiate the techno-optimists from the rest of the crowd.

    We have human-like “robots” that are genuinely indistinguishable from human beings, except for the fact that they do not grow or age. We have also a cure for aging. Indeed, we learn that the Tomorrowland scientists have cured aging, and all it takes is an orange juice a day… presumably the orange juice is fitted with nanotechnology that repairs the body and prevents aging.

    Most people around me are unwilling to consider these as possible inventions, even on the long term. Yet I believe that both are quite possible. I do not know yet why we would ever build human-like intelligence… but I certainly believe it will be quite possible some day.

    I do not believe that I will live forever. But I have always believed that preventing and reverting aging is a simple matter of technology. If I ever make it to an old age, will we have the technology to give me back my youth? It seems overly optimistic to think so, given that we cannot seem to make any progress against Alzheimer, and that we are probably not even close to curing cancer… But I nevertheless believe that it is simply a matter technology. And technology is accelerating all the time… so nobody can know what is possible in the medium term…

    Being a techno-optimist, I believe that we will soon significantly extend longevity. I do believe that in 20 or 30 years, they will be able to replace hearts and lungs with affordable replacement parts that are just as good (if not better) than the original. Two of my neighbours have artificial knees… and they mow their grass just as well as I do. (Admittedly, they do not do jumping jacks, but neither do I.)

    With all the money that people stand to make with it, I cannot imagine that in 30 years, we won’t be able to rejuvenate skin and muscles so that aging actresses can genuinely look as if they were just 30 or 40.

    Rejuvenating the brain, at least in some critical ways, should be commonplace in ten years. But what I really want to see is how we will extend the brain with electronics.

Of course, techno-optimism is a dogma. It is entirely possible that the net result of technology will be to shorten my life and that of my children, and makes us more miserable. But I have faith that we can find solutions through technology.

An interesting opposing dogma is what I call “biological determinism”. These people believe that we are fundamentally limited by biology. Thus, for example, we should not perturb the Earth with our technology for fear of causing irreparable harm. These people believe that the future looks bleak for people who “aren’t smart enough”…

I believe that we have been, and will continue to extend biology. It is true that people who aren’t smart do not seem to have room in Tomorrowland… but, to me, the obvious solution is to make people smarter. We can use genetics, brain augmentations… As for pollution, I think we can develop technologies that pollute less, as well as better techniques to clean toxins.

Of course, maybe techno-optimists are wrong. However, they can at least hope to be wrong in interesting ways.

Academic publishing is a bit of a perverted business. Let us recap what should be well known: professors write papers for free while publishers take the papers and resell them to universities for a large profit.

I do hope to live one day in a world where everyone can have free access to all the research in the world. There is irony in the fact that the Internet gives us free access to junk and informercials, but asks us to pay for high-quality government-sponsored sources. Sadly, that is what we have right now.

A common narrative is that universities are victims of this arrangement. They have to pay exorbitant prices to publishers, money that they would rather spend on their students.

There is just a small problem with this narrative: it does not fit the facts on the ground.

It is maybe worth pointing out that many colleges are themselves academic publishers (e.g., Oxford University Press). These college-based publishers are not shy about charging the full amount for their goods. Whenever I see a book priced upward of $40 on Amazon, it is almost always from an academic publisher. So, at a minimum, colleges are complicit in the business of overcharging for academic work.

But how much do academic publishers charge? Academic publishing is a small component of higher education. Harvard University (alone!) had a budget of over $4 billion in 2013. Meanwhile, one of the largest publishers, Elsevier, had revenues of only $3 billion. There is only a handful of large publishers, and thousands of large colleges… Even if Elsevier folded and gave away for free all its subscriptions, students would not see lower tuition fees.

Nobody likes a tax though, right?

Well. What about Microsoft and Oracle licences? Most colleges rely on Microsoft software to operate when they could as easily use free software to achieve much of the same goals. And, let us be honest, most colleges could replace their expensive Oracle software by a free alternative (PostgreSQL) with no lasting consequences. Yet few colleges have decided to do away with the “Microsoft tax“.


Because to do away with proprietary software and replacing it all by free software would not significantly affect budgets. And, at the margin, it may leave the impression that the school is too cheap to afford real software. Image is important.

The same is true with academic publishing. Library subscriptions are a small price to pay. Offering great library access, especially if it is a tad expensive for an individual, looks great.

Can you imagine a world where all the academic books and research papers were freely available? In such a world, university libraries would face an uphill battle to show their relevance.

Universities do not want to do away with their libraries and library budgets. Not really. If you are a curious fellow and want to read deeply on a subject… the current system pushes you to go to college, if only so you have good library access.

Many researchers are also very fond of publishers and librarians. They make researchers look good. I have yet to see one reputable academic calling for a library-free college. Most academics do not really want academic publishing to falter…

It may be that Elsevier is an evil company run by a Satanist cult. But keep in mind that Microsoft has been called the evil empire. Speaking for myself, I do not really worry about either Elsevier or Microsoft being evil.

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