In Robot Futures, the Brainspotting chapter begins to address an alternate future in which carbon biology could become the substrate for the future of robot telepresence in both absurd and frightening ways. Part of my motivation was to point out that good old cells are complex systems that might just be hijacked by our own engineering acumen, and this opens up both ethical challenges and science fiction futures worth consideration. In real-life corporate acts, we often see signs of possible futures germinating, and this is the case with Google’s newest spin-out company, Calico. The New York Times reports that Calico is a new biotech research company devoted to what they term radical life extension. The argument is fascinating on many levels. First of all, begin to think of death as a disease rather than an inevitability. We’re all afflicted, and we ought to cure ourselves and our progeny. Time to cure death, as Time Magazine puts it in their feature article about Calico. Just how much of a cure are we talking about? Gregory Ferenstein and others report that the internal goals are to add roughly 100 years’ lifespan to people born 20 years ago. We’re not talking about incremental progress here, but radical changes in the meaning of total life. My favorite quote is from Tim Cook of Apple, who is commented It’s not very many people who have the opportunity to reverse time.
What I find very interesting about the chosen strategy is its reliance on Big Data and on behavioral analysis. As InformationWeek puts it, Google enters this space with unprecedented access to data, and this may lead to a level of data mining, in service of cheating death, that dwarfs all prior research. Where this takes privacy, just as with New Mediocracy, is anyone’s guess. A telling quote by Josh Stevens, CEO of the firm Keas is reported by Alex Rudansky in InformationWeek: It’s time for HIPAA to go, HIPAA will be reformed because of products like Calico. Of course, Calico is not really a product, yet. And carbon-based life extension may suffer from all sorts of unpredictable consequences. Yet the prospect of immortality is certain to change the calculus of privacy, risk and health care in ways we cannot fathom yet, not to mention social inequity and class warfare. The mind boggles as technology demonstrates its potential to move far, far faster than cultural-ethical thinking can adapt, leading us to rabbit holes we have not even uncovered yet. Will tomorrow’s robots be radically age-extended humans that act as man-machine hybrids, with compensatory electronics taking the place of nearly-defunct brains? And will the identity of these systems really be human, or will we struggle with new labels that further balkanize us?