Can people really live forever? A children's book author has joined the growing chorus of transhumanist voices insisting that we soon may. That's right kids, you too could be immortal.
Gennady Stolyarov, author of Death Is Wrong wants children to learn that death won't be a given in the technological age. As a boy growing up in Minsk, the prospect of death confused him and it's plagued him ever since. Why does a good, productive, happy person have to die?
Stolyarov, a property and casualty actuary, launched an Indiegogo campaign last week called "Help Teach 1000 Kids Death Is Wrong," aimed at giving out free 1,000 free copies of the book to kids. The book, which was illustrated by his wife Wendy, was first published in November 2013.
Over the last decade, researchers like Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil have helped popularize the notion that technology will extend the human lifespan—possibly forever. According to Kurzweil, we will achieve indefinite longevity by 2030. Meanwhile, recent biomedical advances—like nerve-connected bionic arms and nanobots operating inside living cells—have made the concept sound less crazy.
Stolyarov's book interweaves his own life and his mental grapple with death, the history of long-living plants and animals—like the Methuselah Tree that has lived for thousands of years and the functionally immortal turritopsis nutricula jellyfish—and the techno-philosophical developments combating senescence today.
The language is just saccharine enough for children to dig into, but the portentous themes will strike deep, philosophical chords in adults. The overall message is positive: The way technology is headed, we should be able to continue discovering and doing the things we love indefinitely. The response, especially in transhumanist circles, has been positive. Stolyarov's most ruthless criticism is a two-star Amazon review for "an alleged insufficiency of narrative."
Not everyone can think in prescient terms about the future to consider what technology can accomplish down the road to live forever. We talked to Stolyarov about his fixation on death and immortality.
Are you afraid to die?
I don't see any shame in saying that I am. For me as a person who relies on reason and understanding and anticipation of the future, this is the only condition that's truly unknowable. If you cease existing, what's that really like? The answer is to say that it's like anything is a misuse of language because there's nothing that remains. Is fear the predominant motive for why I wrote this book? And there, the answer is no.
How has growing up in Belarus culturally affected the way you think about death?
I was born at the very tail end of the existence of the Soviet Union. I think most people there are more fatalistic than people in the U.S. They might think life extension is a good thing, but it's never going to happen because life is so bad right now, and they don't see it getting better. Here, life is better and the technologies are being worked on and developed, but some people have philosophical or religious objections, or they just have status quo bias. They can only see a little bit ahead, only in incremental elements.
Is it frustrating to you that people use something like religion as a crutch to cope with death?
It's absolutely frustrating, and I can understand where that mentality comes from because for millennia prior to our time, there was really no feasible escape from human mortality. It's a tradition, and a lot of people will hang onto it just because that's what they're familiar with. But now that we've reached this critical point that, with enough of a push, our technology can actually get us to the point where we repair the damage to our bodies. Where our generation doesn't have to be the last generation to die.
With such a heavy title, Death is Wrong, and cover of a man shaming the Grim Reaper, do you worry you might dissuade children from wanting to read your book?
With children, their parents are gatekeepers, and sometimes that might be an issue because their parents pretty much have to support this message. But I think a lot of adults think that kids are more lighthearted than they actually are. You don't have to sugarcoat it for them; it has to be accessible. In fact, what I had learned about World War II and the atrocities that the Nazis committed when they invaded Russia, if I had read this book, it would have given me some hope.
Why did you choose to use the word "senescence," which appears several times throughout, instead of addressing it as "aging"?
I made that decision to try to get the concept of biological age and numerical age detached in the minds of children. If you just call it "aging," there's an implicit connotation that the more years you accumulate, the frailer you become, the more prone to disease and death you become. One has to essentially achieve biological youthfulness, a reversal of senescence, in order to age in such a way as not to increase one's probability of death over time.
In the book, you talk about cell rejuvenation as a solution to senescence, but there are many biomedical advancements taking us to a future based in physical, tangible technologies.
I think the two are intertwined...that there really is no fundamental disconnect between electronic technology and an organic body. Some organs will wear out and we would have the ability to replace them with artificial versions. We'll have the ability to go into a particular cell using a nanobot and fix something that was wrong with it. One of the fundamental positions that I have about the future is that when you have a lot of innovative, hardworking people who are devoted to a particular goal, they can achieve wonders. And those wonders are going to trickle down into our lives and enable us to live better.
The book is one big allusion to the possibility of the singularity, but I don't remember ever reading that specific word.
I wanted it to be a bit more grounded in I think what children are familiar with. I hint at what they could do if they had that timeframe. Rather than providing any single speculative vision, which a lot of people have done, what I want to do is to get kids thinking along those parameters, thinking about the future dramatically different than the past, thinking about what they could do in the future. I think as they grow up, as they seek out more of this material, they'll come to conversations about the singularity on their own.
Could there be a human limit of indefinite longevity?
The way I like to consider it is to look at what one would want to do tomorrow. If one's life is generally pretty good...would one want to keep living, considering that one's life might change a little bit tomorrow? For me, the answer is a resounding yes. The technologies, I think, will affect people's thinking. Ultimately, there is an evolutionary dynamic in there. The people who choose not to terminate their own lives...are the ones who are going to determine the course of our culture, our philosophy, everyone else's attitudes.
What if instead of a singularity, we reach a solfalarity—which is described in a New Yorker column by Tim Wu as the "evolution toward an absence of discomforts," resulting in better technology, but a worse-off society?
Technology is advancing more rapidly than culture is. The norms and traditions acquired over generations ceased to be relevant in a world of this kind of accelerating change. Some people adapt to it pretty well. I think I'm immensely and immeasurably better off due to the electronic age. [Today] if we want to be fit and philosophically inclined and productive, we can do all those things with the resources we have at our disposal. We just have to be deliberate about it. I think that's going to be true in every era.
How did you become a transhumanist?
The philosophy of transhumanism, as the name implies, is about transcending the limitations of the human condition. Ever since I was a child, I wanted to get more in my life to experience more, to create more, to do great things, and I never want that to stop. That's what motivates me as a transhumanist, and I'm very thrilled to be living in a time...with the information revolution, the biotechnology revolution, hopefully in the next 10 years, the nanotechnology revolution, that will enable us to repair the damage to our bodies that accumulates over time.
[Image: Flickr user Loco Steve]