The Great Pause Week 61: Swallow the Doctor

"The first successful transubstantiation is estimated to happen around 2035. After that we will each be able to back ourselves up to the cloud, if we can afford the data plan."


Elon Musk and Peter Diamandis, May 5, 2021 X-Prize Launch

Near the start of World War II, Robert A. Heinlein published a story in Astounding Science Fiction called “Waldo.” In this fantasy, Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones was born too weak to even hold his head up or grasp a spoon. Perhaps he was also on the spectrum. He channeled his mind into the “Waldo F. Jones’ Synchronous Reduplicating Pantograph,” a prosthetic glove that directed a much more powerful mechanical hand. Waldo SRP hands could be different sizes, either huge for building construction or microscopic for micro-manipulation.

Seventeen years later, a former graduate student of U-Cal physicist Richard Feynman came to his mentor with an interesting idea. Feynman revealed the idea in the annual lecture at the American Physical Society meeting that year. As a thought experiment, he proposed a Waldo-like manipulator hand that could build one-quarter scale machine tools and a controller to operate them. This set of small tools would then be used by the new controller to build one-sixteenth-scale controllers and tools, and so forth. Repeat that process 40 times and you are at a one billionth scale, running perhaps a billion tiny factories to produce still smaller tools. Ninety steps and you are at a septillionth.

In his 1986 book, Engines of Creation, K. Eric Drexler postulated beyond machine tools to molecular computers and cell repair robots circulating through the bloodstream. Here, take this pill. Swallow the doctor. 

In The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil predicted that such medical nanorobotics might completely remedy the effects of aging by 2030.

Recently I was in Clubhouse, a chatroom app, listening to a discussion about epigenetics when one of the British participants opined that he would rather live a few years well than a great many years more. To which the moderator replied, “Why choose?”

I can think of why. So could Thomas Malthus, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, and the framers of the UN Convention on Biodiversity. Quoting a recent Ehrlich paper:

Over 70% of all people currently live in countries that run a biocapacity deficit while also having less than world-average income, excluding them from compensating their biocapacity deficit….

And yet, despite this ghastly arithmetic (‘ghastly’ being the adjective chosen by the authors to include in the title of the paper), the world is still marching in singularity file down a Kurzweilian primrose path, assuming that if we have a problem, sooner than popular demand requires, there will be an app for that.

Although population-connected climate change will worsen human mortality, morbidity, development, cognition, agricultural yields, and conflicts, there is no way — ethically or otherwise (barring extreme and unprecedented increases in human mortality) — to avoid rising human numbers and the accompanying overconsumption.

 — Bradshaw et al, Understanding the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future (2021)

Those who wish to achieve longer lives themselves cite not only nanomedicine, but rapid breakthroughs in tissue rejuvenation, stem cells, regenerative medicine, molecular repair, gene therapy, telomere generating pharmaceuticals, organ replacement, bionic prosthetics, and xenotransplantations. Many speculate, if not promise, that surprises even more game-changing may eventually enable humans to have indefinite lifespans or even revert to the bodies of teenagers. Possible ramifications are consigned to the wax-sealed echo chambers of bickering bioethicists.


Hormone treatments to reverse the aging process already earn about $50 billion per year. Some clinics currently offer injection of blood products from young donors. The promises of the treatment, none of which have been demonstrated, include a longer life, darker hair, better memory, better sleep, and a cure for Alzheimer’s. Billionaire backers include Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Peter Thiel (former PayPal CEO), Larry Page (co-founder of Google), and Peter Diamandis (Singularity University and the X-Prize). You may have seen it parodied in an episode of Silicon Valley, the HBO series, but two clinics in California actually offer $8,000 injections of plasma extracted from the blood of young people. A 2013 Pew Research poll in the United States found that 38% of Americans would want life extension treatments for themselves, and 68% believed most people would want it if offered the choice. Religious persuasion, according to the poll, does not enter into the decision.

Leon Kass, chairman of President George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, called these attitudes “an expression of a childish and narcissistic wish incompatible with devotion to posterity.” On the other side, biogerontologist Aubrey De Grey suggested that the therapy could postpone or eliminate menopause, allowing women to space out their pregnancies over more years and thus decreasing the yearly population growth rate.

We have already found ways to increase the lifespan of microscopic nematode worms and yeasts by 10-fold, although 2009 paper cautioned: 

“Extrapolation from worms to mammals is risky at best, and it cannot be assumed that interventions will result in comparable life extension factors. Longevity gains from dietary restriction, or from mutations studied previously, yield smaller benefits to Drosophila than to nematodes, and smaller still to mammals. This is not unexpected, since mammals have evolved to live many times the worm’s lifespan, and humans live nearly twice as long as the next longest-lived primate. From an evolutionary perspective, mammals and their ancestors have already undergone several hundred million years of natural selection favoring traits that could directly or indirectly favor increased longevity….” 

The main goal of the 2045 Initiative, brainchild of Russian entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov is:

“to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality. We devote particular attention to enabling the fullest possible dialogue between the world’s major spiritual traditions, science and society.” 

The Initiative has the goal for the “advanced non-biological carrier” controlled by a “brain-computer” interface (I always think of the Borg when I read this) that between 2030 and 2035 would be able to transfer a human consciousness, and by 2045 create a new era for humanity with holographic bodies. The first successful transubstantiation is estimated to happen around 2035. After that we will each be able to back ourselves up to the cloud, if we can afford the data plan.

Which leads me to speculate about the designer avatar bodies of the future. Could we come back as our favorite comic book hero? fashion model? movie star? Or maybe a werewolf? sprite? Medusa? Maybe we will change avatars season to season, like we would change clothing or hairstyles.

The longest documented human lifespan is 122 years — Jeanne Calment who, according to records, was born in 1875 and died in 1997. If any of us is still around in 2070 we will see if Ray Kurzweil breaks her record. Assuming we recognize Ray as Ray.

The goal of the UN Commission on Population and Development (founded in 1946) is to carry out the accords of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), which met for the first time at Lake Geneva in 1927 and most recently at Nairobi in 2019. Today its function is merely to advocate for four qualitative and quantitative goals:

  • Universal education: Universal primary education in all countries; wider access for women to secondary and higher level education, vocational and technical training. 
  • Reduction of infant and child mortality: Below 35 per 1,000 live births and under-five mortality below 45 per 1,000.
  • Reduction of maternal mortality: Halving by decade and narrowing differences between geographical regions, socio-economic and ethnic groups.
  • Access to reproductive and sexual health services including active discouragement of female genital mutilation.

These four goals are all directed at the single purpose of halting and reversing population growth, something that was generally conceived of as a long-term threat in 1927, but which is less concerning today, given the demographic reversal underway in the largest, urbanizing nations. And yet, we should still be concerned. Here’s why.

When the ecological footprint of a population exceeds the biocapacity of the environment it lives in, this is called “biocapacity deficit.” Typically it comes from three sources: overusing one’s own ecosystems (“overshoot”), “trade imbalances” between adjoining systems, and misallocation of the commons. 

The biological capacity of an ecosystem is an estimate of its production of certain biological materials and relationships we like to call natural resources, and its absorption and filtering of wastes and pollutants we like to call ecosystem services — functions such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

For example, there were 12.2 billion hectares of biologically productive land and water areas on this planet in 2016. Dividing by the number of people alive in that year, 7.4 billion, yields a biocapacity of 1.6 global hectares per person. But that average includes protected and unprotected areas occupied by wild and migratory species, inhospitable regions like the summit of Everest or the submerging Everglades, and places of vital habitats for insects, plants, and microbes that compete with people for space.

As we slide seamlessly from 7 billion to 8 billion humans, each generation more powerful, polluting, and destructive than the previous, I have to wonder whether one century is too much time to allow a “natural” progression into negative population growth, or whether the biodiversity damage a century like this one will inflict could be incalculable and irreversible, if not terminal for us. Think about the honey bees and hummingbirds. Think about the sudden absence of insects we are seeing all over the world, and how that soon may affect populations farther up or down the food chain. 

Now, Mr. Biotech Billionaire, are you serious about populating the world with thousands or millions of bicentiniarians and tricentinarians?


Beisel, Uli, and Christophe Boëte. “The flying public health tool: genetically modified mosquitoes and malaria control.” Science as Culture 22, no. 1 (2013): 38–60.

Bradshaw, Corey JA, Paul R. Ehrlich, Andrew Beattie, Gerardo Ceballos, Eileen Crist, Joan Diamond, Rodolfo Dirzo et al. “Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future.” Frontiers in Conservation Science 1 (2021): 9.

English, Simon G., Natalia I. Sandoval-Herrera, Christine A. Bishop, Melissa Cartwright, France Maisonneuve, John E. Elliott, and Kenneth C. Welch. “Neonicotinoid pesticides exert metabolic effects on avian pollinators.” Scientific reports 11, no. 1 (2021): 1–11.

Köhler, Heinz-R., and Rita Triebskorn. “Wildlife ecotoxicology of pesticides: can we track effects to the population level and beyond?.” Science 341, no. 6147 (2013): 759–765.

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed lives, livelihoods, and economies. But it has not slowed down climate change, which presents an existential threat to all life, humans included. The warnings could not be stronger: temperatures and fires are breaking records, greenhouse gas levels keep climbing, sea level is rising, and natural disasters are upsizing.

As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.

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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”

 — Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021.

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