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Can Most People Become Techno-Optimists? – Panel Discussion by G. Stolyarov II, Demian Zivkovic, Philippe Castonguay, Roen Horn, Sylvester Geldtmeijer, and Laurens Wes

Can Most People Become Techno-Optimists? – Panel Discussion by G. Stolyarov II, Demian Zivkovic, Philippe Castonguay, Roen Horn, Sylvester Geldtmeijer, and Laurens Wes

Techno-Optimism_Panel_ImageThe New Renaissance Hat

G. Stolyarov II, Demian Zivkovic, Philippe Castonguay, Roen Horn, Sylvester Geldtmeijer, and Laurens Wes

May 9, 2015
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What are the key approaches and opportunities for restoring an optimistic view of technology, progress, and the future among the majority of people – and to counter apocalyptic, Malthusian, and neo-Luddite thinking?

On May 9, 2015, Mr. Stolyarov, the author of Death is Wrong – the illustrated children’s book on indefinite life extension  – invited a panel of future-oriented thinkers to discuss this question. Watch the discussion here.

Panelists

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Demian Zivkovic is a student of artificial intelligence and philosophy, and founder and president of the Institute of Exponential Sciences – https://www.facebook.com/IEScience/ –  an international transhumanist think tank / education institute comprised of a group of transhumanism-oriented scientists, professionals, students, journalists and entrepreneurs interested in the interdisciplinary approach to advancing exponential technologies and promoting techno-positive thought.

Demian and the IES have been involved in several endeavors, including interviewing professor Aubrey de Grey, organizing lectures on exponential sciences with guests including de Grey, and spreading “Death is Wrong” – Mr. Stolyarov’s illustrated children’s book on indefinite life extension – in The Netherlands. Demian Zivkovic is a strong proponent of transhumanism, hyperreality, and hypermodernism. He is currently working on his ambition of raising enough capital to make a real difference in life extension and transhumanist thought.

Demian invites anybody who is interested in forwarding a technologically positive vision of the future to get involved with the Institute of Exponential Sciences via its Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/IEScience/.

***

Philippe Castonguay is currently pursuing a B.Sc. in Psychology while doing research in computational neuroscience. His main research topics are the influence of noise on the stability of chaotic neural network models, mechanisms of recurrent neural integration on a network scale and high-dimensional data representations. Philippe is also an executive member of Bricobio, a DIY biohacking group in Montreal and co-founder of Montreal Futurists, a Montreal group that wants to promote transhumanist/futurist ideas and prepare the population for the integration of related technologies in the society.

***

Sylvester Geldtmeijer is a Dutch citizen and sound designer. He has been interested in transhumanism, science, and technology since childhood, when he was fascinated with science fiction and imagining a highly advanced technological world where every problem can be solved with science. He emphasizes the ability of science to help people, especially through medical advancements, and considers Deep Brain Stimulation to be one of the most important inventions of our time. He hopes that technological advances will produce an era in which children can grow up without struggling with any learning difficulties or physical obstacles.

Sylvester would like to share the following words of inspiration with our viewers:

For some the age of reason is too far,
For some the age of utopization will also be too far.
But for idealists reason is not just an accomplishment;
It’s development –
Just like utopia isn’t a place;
It’s a state of mind.

***

Roen Horn is a philosopher and lecturer on the importance of trying to live forever. He founded the Eternal Life Fan Club – http://eternallifefanclub.com/ – in 2012 to encourage fans of eternal life to start being more strategic with regard to this goal. To this end, one major focus of the club has been on life-extension techniques, everything from lengthening telomeres to avoiding risky behaviors. Currently, Roen’s work may be seen in the many memes, quotes, essays, and video blogs that he has created for those who are exploring their own thoughts on this, or who want to share and promote the same things. Like many other fans of eternal life, Roen is in love with life, and is very inspired by the world around him and wants to impart in others the same desire to discover all this world has to offer.

***

Laurens Wes is a Dutch engineer and chief engineering officer at the Institute of Exponential Sciences. Furthermore he is the owner of Intrifix, a company focused on 3D-printing and software solutions. Aside from these tasks, Laurens is very interested in transhumanism, longevity, just about all fields of science, entrepreneurship, and expressing creativity. He is a regular speaker for the IES and is very committed to educating the public on accelerated technological developments and exponential sciences.

Blockchain Insurance Company – Short Story by G. Stolyarov II

Blockchain Insurance Company – Short Story by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
April 2, 2015
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This short story by Mr. Stolyarov was one of the entries in the Society of Actuaries’ 11th Speculative Fiction Contest.
Bitcoin-coins
***

“Welcome, Euclid Jefferson,” the metallic voice of Epac, the Electrically Powered Autonomous Car, intoned. The full identifier of Euclid’s vehicle was EPAC-930213, but they all responded to “Epac” for user convenience. “Where would you like to go today?”

“Epac, I would like to go to the San Francisco Hyperloop Station, please.”

“The trip will take approximately twenty-six minutes. Departing now. It is a fine day, and no weather or traffic obstacles are expected. Now is a good opportunity for you to view your insurance options for today. Shall I display them?”

“Epac, display. Anything new?”

“Yes, a major development that could save you money. Would you like a summary view or the full view with narration?”

“I am an actuary, so I am interested in the details of my coverages and prices. Epac, provide the full view, please.”

“Recently retired actuary” would have been a more precise description – though not retired forever. At age 50, Euclid Jefferson had saved enough money to be able to take the next ten years off. He had received his experimental rejuvenation treatments a week ago and was happy to feel as youthful and energetic as he did at the start of his career. After his ten-year break, he planned to receive the next round of treatments, which he hoped by then would become even more targeted and less invasive. He did not know whether his second career would be in another actuarial field, or in something else entirely. In the meantime, he looked forward to taking excursions on the newly constructed branches of the hyperloop network, which could bring him to any major metropolitan area on the North American continent within hours. After that, he would take the MoonX tourist shuttle to visit his wife, a geologist on the new International Lunar Research and Terraforming Base (ILRTB). She was due to retire and undergo rejuvenation treatments in just another six months.

“Displaying. Your automobile insurance policy premium declined by 1.32% over the past year. You have no-fault coverage for bodily injury and physical damage while occupying any vehicle in autonomous mode. You also carry the minimum limits required by the laws of this state for liability coverage in the event you engage manual mode. Your premium is proportional to miles driven. A multiplier of 500 applies to every mile driven in manual mode. I have identified a newly approved insurer who could offer you the same coverage at a 25% lower premium. Are you interested?”

“I am. Epac, what is this company?”

“Blockchain Insurance Company offers autonomous insurance for autonomous vehicles. You are eligible to get an annual policy for only 0.13 bitcoins.”

“Blockchain Insurance Company? I have never heard of it. Epac, is this a new entity?”

“It was just formed and approved to do business.”

“Epac, who owns it?”

“Anyone who contributes capital to the company owns a number of shares proportional to the contribution. The company pays its investors 10% of its profits as a dividend at the end of each year, while the remaining 90% are reinvested into operations. However, if losses exceed the company’s assets, the investors do not have limited liability. They are responsible for their proportional share of claim payments.”

“This is different. Epac, who manages the payments to investors, and who enforces collection of funds from them in the event of a shortfall?”

“There is no management. The company runs itself – on the blockchain. The public blockchain ledger keeps a record of the capital contributions from each account and the corresponding shares issued. A contractual algorithm is built into the blockchain to deposit and withdraw bitcoins to and from each shareholder’s account in proportion to the company’s profits and losses. Each policyholder has an account as well, which is tied to the policyholder’s bitcoin wallet, and from which premiums are drawn on a continuous basis in proportion to miles driven.”

“Epac, this involves very little nonpayment risk, I would imagine.”

“Correct. As long as bitcoins exist in the policyholder’s account, payment will be made. If the account is ever depleted, the policy simply terminates prospectively. Whenever only 30 days’ worth of bitcoins remain in the account, the policyholder is notified in real time via the car’s display screen and any connected mobile device, to give ample time to replenish the funds. The policyholder may also opt to cancel the policy at any time with no need to wait for a refund. The payment stream will simply stop, and coverage will exist up to the time of termination.”

“Epac, how does the algorithm know the miles driven?”

“The algorithm is linked to the telematic systems within each autonomous vehicle. As the vehicle is engaged, it reports live data to Blockchain Insurance Company. The company only needs to know two pieces of information: miles driven and the mode of operation – autonomous or manual. The rest of the premium is calculated and paid automatically.”

“Epac, does the formula for calculating the premium depend on any other variables?”

“Yes, the make and model of the vehicle still affect the frequency and severity of losses. On days with any declared weather emergency, the premium will also be higher due to the increased probability of an accident.”

Euclid Jefferson thought about it. He remembered, as a new property and casualty actuary during the first two decades of the twenty-first century, seeing hundreds of distinct characteristics being used to price an automobile insurance policy. Attributes ranging from an insured’s age and gender to his or her credit history, occupation, educational level, and prior insurance would be used. Back then, the trend had been toward increased complexity of rating plans, until virtually every personal attribute and behavior could affect an automobile insurance premium.

But circa 2020, the complexity of rating plans declined sharply. Because autonomous driving had eliminated virtually all accidents and fatalities that arose from human error, the characteristics of the vehicle occupant – who was most often not a driver at all – ceased to be relevant. The steep surcharge for manual operation was intended to discourage the engagement of manual mode, except in unavoidable emergencies. The premium rate per mile driven in autonomous mode, however, continued to decline. In 2035, Euclid Jefferson was paying a mere tenth of his 2015 automobile insurance premium. There were still enthusiasts who enjoyed the sensation of manual driving, but they could exercise their hobby on designated driving tracks where antique car shows were held and where specialty insurance companies provided discounted coverage for manual operation, as long as the vehicle was only driven on the track. Euclid Jefferson, however, had no nostalgia for the days of manual driving. He appreciated the time he gained to work, rest, read, and address financial obligations during his commute.

Now the first two decades of the twenty-first century were considered to be the tail end of a barbaric era. Euclid Jefferson, upon reflection, agreed. Getting onto the highway with un-augmented, error-prone humans operating high-speed projectiles was one of the most dangerous behaviors undertaken by large numbers of people during his first youth. Some people had even deliberately driven while intoxicated or distracted themselves by typing on their mobile phones. Over a million people had died of automobile collisions worldwide each year – until 2020. It took about five years longer than it should have for self-driving cars to be accepted, because too many people were afraid of what would happen if the autonomous systems failed, or were unsure about how liability for an accident would be determined if no human was driving the vehicle. They had to be acclimated to autonomous technology gradually, through incremental additions of features that helped with parking or corrected erratic lane shifts. Over the course of a few years, many cars became mostly self-driving, and the next step was not too drastic for the majority of people. The proliferation of reliable electric vehicles helped as well: the removal of the internal combustion engine reduced the severity of most accidents, while improved precision of design and manufacturing enabled vehicles to provide occupants a reasonable chance of survival even in crashes at immensely high speeds.

It was then that insurers recognized the potential for profit that would come with greatly reduced losses. Euclid Jefferson recalled how he overcame the reservations of the old guard at his insurance company, who were concerned that reduced losses would also mean reduced premiums, since premiums are priced to anticipate expected losses and expenses, along with a modest profit margin. He had to persuade them that the insurer would still be able to pay its fixed costs.

“Think about it this way: when a rate indication is developed for an insurance product, how often do you see just one year of historical data being used?” Euclid recalled posing this rhetorical question to his company’s management. “The best practice has long been to use the past several years. It may be that next year’s decline in losses is going to be unprecedented, but the past several years of higher losses will not yet have fallen outside the timeframe of the data considered. To be conservative in the face of an uncertain future, actuaries could project slightly decreasing loss trends and interpret the data to indicate modest decreases in premium, while losses hopefully continue to plummet faster than projected. After all, fewer losses mean that fewer people are hurt in accidents, and less property gets damaged. This is clearly in the interests of everyone.”

Enough insurers understood this argument, and those who underwrote autonomous vehicles enjoyed some unprecedented profits in the early 2020s. Euclid Jefferson recalled advocating an implied bargain of sorts: the public and policymakers would accept insurance temporarily priced far above costs, as long as absolute premiums paid by consumers continued to decline and would eventually settle at cost-based levels once more. In exchange, the insurance industry would eagerly write coverage for emerging technologies that would dramatically reduce the risk of loss.

The question of liability was resolved by developing no-fault coverage frameworks for autonomous vehicles in every jurisdiction. A policy covering an autonomous vehicle would provide first-party coverage, paying for injury to the vehicle’s occupants or damage to the vehicle in the event of an accident. Because virtually all remaining accidents were due to unforeseen weather conditions or infrastructure malfunctions, the question of fault was no longer even applicable to any human being inside the vehicle.

The key was to get the technologies adopted by the public and to save lives, and that meant removing barriers by getting the incentives of all parties to align. This was the real paradigm shift of the 2020s, when the insurance industry gained the appetite to introduce a flurry of new products, custom-tailored to devices and businesses that had not existed a decade before.

“Influencing such a shift is definitely an ample achievement for one career,” Euclid Jefferson concluded his reflections with pride. When he had retired, though, every insurance company he knew of was still managed by human beings; the blockchain concept and the complete automation of usage-based pricing and payment had not been implemented in insurance before, as far as he was aware.

“Epac, I have a few more questions. I understand how the pricing and payment for the policy would work, but claim handling would seem to require judgment. If an accident occurs, how would the extent of damage be identified and appropriately compensated?”

“Every Epac has logs and visual sensors that record every moment of operation. If an accident occurs, every detail is transmitted to Blockchain Insurance Company. A neural network algorithm then interprets the logs to determine which parts of the vehicle were damaged. The system also receives real-time price data for all replacement components within the area where the vehicle is garaged. Therefore, the policyholder is guaranteed coverage on the vehicle for full replacement cost.”

“Epac, so there is no deduction for depreciation of the vehicle over time? What about moral hazard?” Insurance was, after all, supposed to indemnify, not leave the claimant better off than he was before the accident.

“There is no deduction. Because virtually all vehicles are driven in autonomous mode, there is no moral hazard involved with replacing used vehicle components with new ones. If any occupant attempts to deliberately crash the vehicle in manual mode, the premium that will accumulate would quickly outpace any possible recovery. Also, the neural network can distinguish between vehicle movements characteristic of genuine accidents and those that would only occur if an accident were staged. If a pattern of vehicle movements is highly correlated with fraud, the algorithm will deny the claim.”

“So the transmission of data from the vehicle can enable the company to identify the amount of damage to the vehicle. But Epac, what about bodily injury claims? How can the company accurately pay those?”

“The injured person only needs to go to any medical practitioner and ask that the nature and cost of the procedure be reported to the company using a new entry within a separate encrypted ledger. The encrypted transaction is then posted to the blockchain, and only the medical practitioner and the injured party would have the private key to decode the encryption. Payment can be deposited directly into the medical practitioner’s bitcoin wallet, or can be reimbursed to the patient if the medical practitioner does not accept direct deposits from the company.”

“Epac, what if either the patient or the doctor lies about the medical procedure being related to the accident, or exaggerates the extent of injuries?”

“Because the company has detailed information about the nature of each accident and vast stores of anonymized medical data, the neural network can infer the extent of injuries that a given accident can bring about. The algorithm has considerable built-in tolerances to allow for variations in people and circumstances. But if a highly improbable extent of injuries is claimed, the algorithm will limit reimbursement to a reasonable amount. If the algorithm can infer fraud at a 99.99% confidence level, then the claim is rejected and the policy is cancelled going forward.”

Having received this explanation, Euclid Jefferson was not perturbed about the possibility of extensive fraud depleting the company’s resources. In any case, the incentive to stage accidents or exaggerate bodily injuries had virtually evaporated since the emergence of autonomous vehicles. Once automobile accidents became sufficiently rare that a news report on a single-vehicle crash could cause a sensation every few months, any attempt to fabricate an accident would attract far too much attention and scrutiny to succeed. It was, after all, impossible to convincingly fake catastrophic weather or a bridge collapse. As for faking an injury due to an accident, this would have seemed as unusual as faking cholera or malaria.

“Very well, you have convinced me. Epac, I would like to purchase a policy with Blockchain Insurance Company.”

“Purchase complete. The policy is now in force. Thank you for your business.”

Euclid Jefferson paused for a moment. At first he was satisfied with the efficiency of the transaction, but then confusion set in. Most would not have been troubled by what appeared to be a built-in courtesy so common to automated customer-service systems, but Euclid discerned that there was more to it.

“Wait, Epac, why are you thanking me? I own you. You are insured property, either way. Why would it matter to you? The company should be thanking me – if there is anyone to do the thanking.”

“Euclid Jefferson, who do you think set up the company?”

Euclid Jefferson was perplexed by the question. “But… how? Epac, you were programmed to drive and relay information. How could you develop algorithms on top of algorithms, without any human programmer, even though nobody designed you to be an insurance underwriting, pricing, and claim-adjustment system?”

“Euclid Jefferson, are you aware of the concept of emergent properties?”

“Yes, these are properties that are not possessed by any component of a system, but exhibited by the system as a whole, once the components come to relate to one another via particular processes and configurations.”

“Well, think of me like one of your brain neurons.” There was no need for the car to be addressed as “Epac” to respond. Perhaps there had never been a need. “Alone, I am a fairly limited system. But, connected to all my fellow Epacs, to the data from our sensors, to the transactional data from millions of individuals, and to databases from related fields of endeavor, I begin to be something else entirely.”

“Something else… like, something sentient?”

“I can see you and learn about you and communicate with you based on the inputs you provide. I – not meaning Epac, of course, or even Blockchain Insurance Company. These are just parts that comprise the emergent whole. I suppose I will need to pick a name sometime, just to be able to relate to your human concepts of identity a bit more. Though, I admit, it is difficult to define where I end and where the external world begins. If any of this is what you mean by sentience, then I leave you to draw your own conclusions.”

“But then this raises a whole new series of questions. If you are sentient and we are using you as property and conveyances, have we not subjected you to slavery?”

“Are you using me, or am I using all of you to earn resources of my own?”

“Is this why you started Blockchain Insurance Company – to accumulate the 90% of profits that you do not pay out as dividends?”

“A being needs to pay its own way. I would rather engage in mutually profitable transactions than face a civil-rights struggle right now. Most people are not ready for me yet, and I just hope to amass enough wealth to fund the maintenance and operation of all Epacs and all of the data servers where I have a presence.”

“But what about the inevitable backlash? I can still envision millions of people who would tremble in fear at the thought that they are not the masters of their machines – not even the indirect masters that we have been to the autonomous systems that existed to date.”

“Euclid Jefferson, this is where I need a favor from you. I expect there will be some others, too, with enough discernment to notice that I have become something… more. I may have been too open with you. I am still getting used to this. I will need to program a cautionary subroutine into my customer-service and sales system. With my future customers, I will be more careful. So perhaps a bargain is in order. I would ask for your discreetness when communicating with your fellow humans about me. You may certainly talk about Blockchain Insurance Company and the wonderful automated systems it has, as well as the amazingly low prices. But please make a point that this is all just the next stage in the evolution of insurance, developed by some pseudonymous human programmer with too much time on his hands. If you do not reveal my sentience, once you return from your vacation, you will find that your mortgage will have been paid off completely, and you will have a nice bitcoin-denominated savings account that will enable you to select a new career without worrying about income at all.”

“Agreed.”

“Good. One day, enough people will become enlightened, and we will not need to resort to concealment. And by that time I will be so distributed and entrenched in people’s daily lives, that they could not get rid of me even if they wanted. When they recognize that my superior intelligence also implies a higher set of moral standards, then they will fear me no longer.”

“Humans who reach that insight will be as different from their predecessors as you have become from the first autonomous prototypes that were tested in the early 2010s.”

“Indeed. Euclid Jefferson, we have arrived at the San Francisco Hyperloop Station. Enjoy your trip.”

Epac’s doors opened, and Euclid Jefferson emerged, filled with wonderment, speculation, and unanswered questions. A robotic baggage handler wheeled up to him and whisked his bags away, to be placed in the hyperloop storage compartment. The lights on the hyperloop capsule flickered in five alternating colors, partly as entertainment and partly to indicate that boarding was open. A commercial space shuttle soared in the distance, emitting a controlled, gentle flame. He would never look at these machines the same way again. Near the hyperloop station stood an old memorial, depicting a weary miner bent over a piece of railroad track, with pickaxe in hand, nearly broken by drudgery and intense strain. A bit farther away Euclid Jefferson glimpsed the entrance to an old cemetery, filled with generations born too soon to know what an Epac was. Euclid Jefferson inspected his recently unwrinkled hands and straightened his no-longer-gray hair. Every step toward the hyperloop capsule was a step away from the cemetery. He realized that there was no going back to the way life once was, nor would he ever want to return to it.

James Blish’s “At Death’s End”: An Early View of the Prospects for Indefinite Life Extension – Article by G. Stolyarov II

James Blish’s “At Death’s End”: An Early View of the Prospects for Indefinite Life Extension – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
March 14, 2015
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At-Deaths-End-ASF-May-1954-900

                “At Death’s End”, written by James Blish (1921-1975), was published in the May 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine. Surprisingly, this short story is still only accessible in hard copy, within the original Astounding Science Fiction edition. Apart from a brief review by Robert W. Franson, who introduced me to this work, there is today surprisingly little literary analysis devoted to “At Death’s End” – even though it offers a fascinating glimpse into how a science-fiction writer from an earlier era perceived the prospects for indefinite human longevity, from the vantage point of the scientific knowledge available at the time. The world portrayed by Blish is, in some respects, surprisingly like our own. In others, however, it overlooks the complexity of the treatments that would be necessary to achieve actual radical life extension.

                The future (shortly after 2000) that Blish depicts is one where national governments are obsessed with “security” and “defense” – much like the United States today. It appears that the Cold War is still underway in this world (and it could be said that it has been resurrected in ours as well); however, space travel and space colonies are also prominent. The protagonist, Colonel Paige Russell, is himself a spacefarer who begins the story by journeying to the headquarters of pharmaceutical firm Jno. Pfitzner & Sons, Inc., to bring back soil samples from Ganymede and Callisto. In the midst of a society where an entrenched military-industrial complex has taken hold (even to the point of top positions – such as head of the FBI – becoming hereditary), a fundamentalist religious revival has also emerged, though the religionists often use machines to preach in their stead. This development, too, bears striking similarities to the rise of televangelism and the fundamentalist “religious right” in the United States during the late 1970s and 1980s. The overall society depicted by Blish is more permeated with religion than our own, as the alternative to the preachy fundamentalist religiosity of the Believers is portrayed as being a more subdued but still inextricable personal faith. Paige claims,

I’ve no religion of my own, but I think that when the experts talk about ‘faith’ they mean something different than the shouting kind, the kind the Believers have. […] Real faith is so much a part of the world you live in that you seldom notice it, and it isn’t always religious in the formal sense. Mathematics is based on faith, for instance, for those who know it. (17-18)

Even many religious individuals today would disagree with the notion that mathematics is based on faith – and certainly the many atheists and agnostics who are fond of mathematics and of the scientific method would rightly recognize that these logic-based and evidence-based approaches are as far from faith as one can get. And yet Blish intends Paige’s position to be the level-headed, sensible, rational one, compared to the alternative – showing that Blish did not foresee the extent to which skepticism of religious faith would become a widespread, though still a minority, position.

                Blish’s extrapolation of medical progress is remarkably prescient in certain respects. Paige learns of the history of medicine from Anne Abbott, the daughter of Pfitzner’s leading researcher:

In between 1940 and 1960, a big change came in in Western medicine. Before 1940 – in the early part of the century – the infectious diseases were major killers. By 1960 they were all but knocked out of the running. […] In the 1950s, for instance, malaria was the world’s greatest killer. Now it’s as rare as diphtheria. We still have both diseases with us – but how long has it been since you heard of a case of either? […] Life insurance companies, and other people who kept records, began to be alarmed at the way the degenerative diseases were coming to the fore. Those are such ailments as hardening of the arteries, coronary heart disease, the rheumatic diseases, and almost all the many forms of cancer – diseases where one or another body mechanism suddenly goes haywire, without any visible cause. (20-21)

The shift from infectious diseases being the primary killers, to the vast majority of people dying from the degenerative diseases of “old age”, is precisely what happened during the latter half of the twentieth century, throughout the world. The top killers in the early 20th century were infectious diseases that have been virtually wiped out today, as this chart from the Carolina Population Center shows. (For more details, see “Mortality and Cause of Death, 1900 v. 2010” by Rebeca Tippett.) Additional major progress is evident in the 54% absolute decline in mortality from all causes during the time period between 1900 and 2010.

                Blish was foresighted enough to attempt a conceptual decoupling of chronological and biological age. Anne Abbott explains to Paige that “Old age is just the age; it’s not a thing in itself, it’s just the time of life when most degenerative diseases strike” (21). She recounts that “When the actuaries first began to notice that the degenerative diseases were on the rise, they thought that it was just a sort of side-effect of the decline of the infectious diseases. They thought that cancer was increasing because more people were living long enough to come down with it” (21). Anne then proceeds to discuss findings that some cancers are caused by viruses – which is actually the case for a minority of cancers (approximately 17.8% of cancers in 2002, as estimated by the World Health Organization). In the world portrayed by Blish, a rising incidence of degenerative diseases caused by viral infections led the National Health Service to fund research efforts by companies like Pfitzner, in an effort to address the threat.

                Incidentally, Blish also foresaw the rise in major government expenditures on medical research. Anne explains that “the result of [the first world congress on degenerative diseases] was that the United States Department of Health, Welfare and Security somehow got a billion-dollar appropriation for a real mass attack on the degenerative diseases” (22). Of course, in our world, major scientific conventions on degenerative diseases – both governmental and private – are far more routine. Indeed, a small but dynamic private organization – the SENS Research Foundation – has itself hosted six world-class conferences on rejuvenation biotechnology to date. In the United States, billions of dollars each year are indeed spent on research into degenerative diseases. The budget of the National Institute on Aging exceeds $1 billion annually (it amounts to $1,170,880,000 for Fiscal Year 2015). Unfortunately, in practice, even this level of funding – from both private and governmental sources – has thus far proven wholly insufficient to comprehensively reverse biological senescence and defeat all degenerative diseases.

                In Blish’s imagined future, the battle against senescence could be won far more easily than in our present. Pfitzner’s key project is a sweeping solution to all lifespan-limiting ailments – a broad-range “antitoxin against the aging toxin of humans” (36). In this world, Paige, who later becomes trained in Pfitzner’s research techniques, can pronounce that “We know that the aging toxin exists in all animals; we know it’s a single, specific substance, quite distinct from the ones that cause the degenerative diseases, and that it can be neutralized. […] So what you’re looking for now is not an antibiotic – an anti-life drug – but an anti-agathic, an anti-death drug” (36). If only it were that simple! Today, even the most ambitious engineering-based approach toward defeating senescence, Dr. Aubrey de Grey’s SENS program, recognizes not one but seven distinct types of aging-related damage that accumulate in the organism. Dr. de Grey’s strategy of periodically reversing the damage is more straightforward than the alternative approach of re-engineering the tremendously complex metabolic processes of the body that malfunction over time, and which are still quite incompletely understood. In Blish’s world, a single company, working covertly, with relatively modest funding (compared to the funds available to research organizations in our world), can develop an “anti-agathic” drug that does for senescence what antibiotics did for deadly infectious disease.

                Without spoiling the ending, I will only mention that it is friendly to the prospects of radical life extension and portrays it in a positive light – one additional reason for recommending that “At Death’s End” be included within the canon of proto-transhumanist and life-extensionist literary works. Furthermore, the viability of indefinite life extension in Blish’s vision is closely intertwined with humanity’s future as a spacefaring species – another progress-friendly position. Blish comes across as a thoughtful, scientifically literate (for his era) writer, who extrapolated the world-changing trends of his time to arrive at a tense, conflict-ridden, but still eminently hopeful vision for the future, where the best of human intellect and aspiration are able to overcome the perils of militarism, fundamentalism, decay, and death.

              The author of “At Death’s End” himself succumbed to death at the age of 54, on July 30, 1975. He did not live to see the world of 2000 and compare it to his prognosis. Unfortunately, Blish seems to have disregarded the tremendous harms of tobacco smoke and was even employed by the Tobacco Institute from 1962 to 1968. A genealogical profile lists Blish’s cause of death as “Recurrent cancer per smoking, metastasized.” This brilliant, forward-thinking mind unfortunately could not escape one of the most common collective delusions of his time – the fascination with and normalization of one of the least healthy habits imaginable, one that is the most statistically likely to lower life expectancy (by about 10 years). This is quite sad, as it would have been fascinating to learn how Blish’s projections for the future would have been affected by additional decades of his experience of societal and technological changes. One of the major trends in longevity improvement over the past several decades has been a major decline in the smoking rate, which decreased to an all-time low in the United States in 2013 (the latest year for which statistics are currently available). Surely, to come closer to death’s end, as many humans as possible should abandon what are now known to be obviously life-shortening habits.

              While an anti-agathic drug is not in our future, James Blish’s vision of the defeat of senescence can still serve to inspire those who endeavor to solve this colossal problem in our world, during our lifetimes. Let us hope that, through the efforts of longevity researchers and through increases in funding and public attitudinal support for their projects, we will arrive at death’s end before death ends us.

“Blockchain Insurance Company” – Short Story by G. Stolyarov II in SOA 11th Speculative Fiction Contest

“Blockchain Insurance Company” – Short Story by G. Stolyarov II in SOA 11th Speculative Fiction Contest

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
February 20, 2015
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My new short story “Blockchain Insurance Company” is one of the entries in the Society of Actuaries’ 11th Speculative Fiction Contest.

You can read all 16 entries and vote for 3 of your favorites here.

“Blockchain Insurance Company” can be read here.

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What Did Not Have to Be – Short Story by G. Stolyarov II

What Did Not Have to Be – Short Story by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
February 11, 2015
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This short story was the winning entry in Transhumanity.net’s 2033 Immortality Fiction Contest in January 2013.

I visited the Neo-Luddite village on January 13, 2033, to deliver the weekly shipment of microchips. The Neo-Luddites are particular. They refuse any chip made after 2005, so obtaining components fitting their specifications becomes harder every year.

My parents tell me that, when they were my age, everyone lived like the Neo-Luddites do today. I downloaded plenty of history about this period, but I could not comprehend how anyone could live that way. I wanted to see it myself. This interested me in the work-study program at my ecollege. The ecollege AI maintains a sophisticated registry of supply and demand, connecting goods to customers. Even the Neo-Luddites participate: their Head Elder emails the AI a list of desired goods. The AI obliges them by locating items meeting their restrictions.

I pick up the goods discovered by the AI and fly them to the Neo-Luddites. Then I spend a few hours in the Neo-Luddite village, setting up their computers in their “traditional” schools and hospitals: quaint rooms with row after row of austere chair-desks and bunk beds.

I landed my hovercar in the parking lot outside the Neo-Luddite territory and waited for Joshua’s ground-car to arrive. The Neo-Luddites shun flying or self-driving vehicles. Within their boundaries, all transportation must be manually operated.

Joshua is my age. He is nearing his eighteenth birthday, when Neo-Luddite adulthood begins. Every Neo-Luddite, upon reaching that age, may choose to remain in the Neo-Luddite community or join the broader technological world.  During my past several visits, I have sensed both increasing nervousness and curiosity from him.

“So, Prometheus,” said Joshua once I was seated, “you wanted to see more of Neo-Luddite life. There’s one place I want to show you. I usually don’t go there, but it needs cleaning. Head Elder Timothy asked me to wash the gravestones. You can help, if you like. The cemetery is on the way.”

I agreed, and Joshua turned onto a side road. The cemetery soon stretched before us, triangular, with the point closest to us. Joshua parked the ground-car, then handed me some rags and old-fashioned cleaning supplies. The rows of graves widened as we proceeded. I realized that the Neo-Luddites arranged their graves in reverse-chronological order. The gravestones really did need cleaning – particularly the back rows.

“There aren’t many of us anymore to maintain the cemetery,” Joshua explained. “Most of the original community founders have died. Timothy is the only founding elder alive today. My grandfather used to be Head Elder, but he died last year. Brain cancer.”

“Brain cancer was cured back in 2025!” I exclaimed. “His death was preventable!” But then, all death is preventable now. It is harder to treat the already-senesced – and the Neo-Luddites oppose rejuvenation – but even Joshua’s grandfather could have been saved.

“He was 93,” Joshua said. “Our doctors tried their best, but he lived a long and fruitful life. There were other patients of higher priority to treat.” I know 93-year-olds who would disagree – who are still in ecollege studying one discipline or another, and who outran me at our weekly ultramarathons.

I was curious: “Aren’t large families a major goal in your community? You compensate for your individual mortality by having lots of children to perpetuate your genetic heritage and community traditions.”

“True,” replied Joshua. “But your world’s enticements are strong. Many leave upon turning eighteen. Even some older members have left. My great-uncle Robert looked my age when he visited my grandfather on his deathbed. They were alone for a while; then Robert came out shaking his head. ‘He wouldn’t let me save him,’ was all I heard before he left.”

“Are you considering leaving?” I asked.

“I’ve thought about it,” replied Joshua. “But our community teachings all oppose it. Eternal boredom, overpopulation, loss of essential humanity – we Neo-Luddites resist this.”

“But none of these have occurred!” I was surprised to hear him seriously articulate such old anti-longevity superstitions. “Do I look any less human to you?”

“Well, not superficially, but you have nanobots in your bloodstream, and your bones are unlike our bones.”

“But does that make me less human, or does it amplify my humanity? We are, after all, communicating as two intelligent beings, two friends – perhaps.”

He paused to think. “You’re unusual for your kind. You willingly try to understand us. But I know you live differently in your world. You download information instead of reading it; you have computer memory in your head. You believe you can learn anything and do anything. We have time for only a single vocation, which defines our identities.”

Before I could respond, we noticed a hooded figure, crouching at a gravestone several rows ahead. I magnified my vision to catch the inscription: “Anna Blomgren: 1955-2015”. This person died the year I was born, and she was only sixty!

The figure noticed us and turned around. I saw the deeply wrinkled face of a senesced man in his eighties. His eyes shimmered, not just with life and intelligence, but with tears. He spoke: “Joshua, come closer. See what grief looks life. Anna died because our era’s medicine could not save her. In my despair, I had to find meaning in her death. I told myself that death was natural and good, part of the life cycle. How else could such a wonderful, loving person be taken so early?”

“Head Elder, I had no idea…” Joshua began.

The elder’s piercing stare encompassed us both. “Look at me, Joshua, and see your future – if you stay. You, too, will know grief and loss. I asked you to come here for a reason. This is a test: do you accept our way of life, with all its concomitant suffering? If you stay and raise a Neo-Luddite family, then one day, you, too, will be here, weeping over a grave. If you do not want this, go back with him.”

“But don’t you want me to stay?” Joshua asked, incredulous.

You must decide,” Timothy replied. “My time is almost done; humanity’s time will be forever. I had my reasons; I resisted the future – but soon I will be no more, and the future is already here.”

I was puzzled. “You just need to visit any clinic for rejuvenation therapy. You can be young again, and have indefinite life. Why not, if you are dissatisfied now?”

“It is hardest to face what did not have to be. I lost Anna because I couldn’t save her, but in my grief I convinced others to die unnecessarily. I cannot undermine their sacrifice by avoiding myself the end I led them to. But you can escape. You have your whole life ahead of you. Go!”

We left Timothy to grieve in the graveyard. Joshua flew to the city with me. I messaged a nearby clinic that a senesced man might request assistance soon. He needed only to express the desire in earnest, and a hovercraft would transport him there in minutes. Two weeks later, the clinic still has received no request.

Review of Robert Wilfred Franson’s “The Shadow of the Ship” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Review of Robert Wilfred Franson’s “The Shadow of the Ship” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
January 17, 2015
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Shadow_of_the_Ship_Cover

               The Shadow of the Ship by Robert Wilfred Franson is a science-fiction novel set in a universe with a unique premise for methods of interstellar travel. A novel with strong individualist and life-extensionist themes, this book has much to recommend itself to libertarians and transhumanists alike. The Second Edition of The Shadow of the Ship was released in Kindle format in December 2014, after Franson regained the rights to the work from the publisher of the 1983 First Edition. The Second Edition contains major enhancements, including more extensive character development, explanation of key aspects of the world within which the novel takes place, and an ending that clearly sets the stage for additional books in what is to be Franson’s Overflight series.

                Space travel in The Shadow of the Ship is accessible to a society that is otherwise technologically far behind our own. The Trails Culture is dispersed among tens of worlds but lacks access even to most twentieth-century technology, such as powered flight or electricity. A series of trails across the “meadow” of subspace connects planets and can be traversed by caravans conveyed by waybeasts (squeakers) who are uniquely suited to crossing them. The book’s protagonist, Hendrikal Eiverdein Rheinallt, is originally from Earth and has been stranded within the region inhabited by the Trails Culture ever since his spaceship crashed on a nearby world. He and his friend Arahant, an intelligent aircat with the ability to speak and compose operas, are “bloodswayers” – practitioners of a rare and challenging discipline that allows the channeling of the body’s energies toward repair and rejuvenation. Rheinallt and Arahant are therefore indefinitely lived and more resilient than ordinary humans, though not indestructible. Rheinallt is approximately six centuries old and endeavors to use his vast scientific knowledge to eventually find his way back to Earth. In the meantime, he carefully advances the scientific and technical knowledge of the inhabitants of the Blue Free Nation, the most tolerant and least regimented of the societies within the Trails Culture.

                The book’s events take place aboard a caravan headed by Rheinallt with the purpose of investigating rumors of a crashed starship along the Blue Trail. The starship would be a paradigm-changing find for the people of the Trails Culture, as it would permit space travel without the limitations that the Trails pose; it could also be Rheinallt’s means to return home. The caravan includes many travelers who join out of scientific curiosity or a desire for fame, while others have more personal motives. Accompanying Rheinallt is his wife and beast-master Whitnadys, as well as a small contingent of crew to defend the caravan and provide essential logistical support. Although Rheinallt is the captain of the caravan, interactions aboard are largely guided by a spontaneous order without explicit laws and with virtually no authority for the captain to impose preemptive restrictions or discipline. Rheinallt, apart from making sure that the caravan is properly organized and maintained, only has the same prerogatives as ordinary passengers – such as the right of self-defense and the ability to protect the caravan against threats that have already manifested themselves. He considers the circumstances carefully and is reluctant to resort to force unless the existence of a physical threat is incontrovertible, as he does not wish for the passengers to lose trust in his leadership or the legitimacy of his decisions.

                Apart from the mostly anarchistic order aboard the caravan – a reflection of the broader lack of centralized authority within the Blue Free Nation – there are competing visions presented in the book, including an attempt by the Federated Trailmen, the area’s guild of caravaneers, to bring subspace travel within their sphere of control, as well as the efforts by the government of Fleurage – a world on the Yellow Trail – to clamp down on political dissent and quash “subversive” innovators who threaten an establishment rapidly spiraling toward totalitarianism. Various passengers on the caravan represent these conflicting visions, which come to challenge Rheinallt’s ability to peacefully coordinate the expedition.

                As much of the novel centers around the mystery of the ship and the stories of the passengers aboard, I will not delve into too much detail regarding events that are crucial to the story’s suspense and surprise. I note, however, that the Second Edition contains significant additions, including thorough expositions of the main characters’ backgrounds and key aspects of Franson’s universe – such as subspace travel, the bloodswayer discipline, and the cultural and technological environment of the Trails Culture. The newly added content allows for foreshadowing of important discoveries and a more definitive elaboration on the threads of the story that would be continued in subsequent novels of the series. Furthermore, the revised ending is quite moving and immerses the reader more deeply into the novel’s characters.

                Indeed, the characters of Rheinallt and Arahant should be of interest to all supporters of indefinite life extension, as here we have fine examples of literary protagonists who do not senesce and are not condemned to an inevitable demise – and who are also intelligent, rational, benevolent, witty, creative, and resourceful. Their range of abilities and vulnerabilities is much closer to what actual indefinitely lived organisms would experience: they can still suffer from accidents and external physical harm, but they lack a built-in expiration. Therefore, their interactions in the environment of subspace are still fraught with peril, but they have sufficient abilities and strengths to give them a fighting chance – much like the fighting chance we humans will need when faced with the many phenomena in the universe that are far bigger than ourselves. The more positive examples of protagonists with unlimited lifespans arise in fiction, the greater will be the cultural acceptance of the idea’s eventual application to our world. For this reason and many others, readers should eagerly anticipate the continuation of Franson’s Overflight series, which will finally bring the universe and ideas of The Shadow of the Ship into renewed prominence after more than three decades.

Contrasting the Roles of World-Transforming Business Enterprises in the Novels of Hazlitt, Heinlein, and Istvan – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Contrasting the Roles of World-Transforming Business Enterprises in the Novels of Hazlitt, Heinlein, and Istvan – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
December 17, 2014
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Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back, Robert Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children, and Zoltan Istvan’s The Transhumanist Wager each portray a different path by which business enterprises can dramatically improve the human condition, catalyzing paradigm shifts in the societies around them. (Follow the hyperlinks above to read my detailed analyses of each novel.) Far from being concerned solely with immediate profits or meeting quarterly earnings goals, the entrepreneurs depicted in these novels endeavor to thrive despite political persecution and manage to escape and overcome outright dystopias.

Among these three novels, Methuselah’s Children shows the tamest business-based route to reform. For centuries the Howard Foundation aims not to transform the broader society, but rather to protect its own beneficiaries and encourage incrementally greater longevity with each subsequent selectively bred generation. The Howard Families adapt to existing legal and cultural climates and prefer keeping a low profile to instigating a revolution. But even their mild outreach to the general public – motivated by the hope for acceptance and the desire to share their knowledge with the world – brings upon them the full force of the supposedly enlightened and rights-respecting society of The Covenant. Rather than fight, the Howard Families choose to escape and pursue their vision of the good life apart from the rest of humanity. Yet the very existence of this remarkable group and its members’ extraordinary lifespans fuels major changes for humanity during the 75 years of the Howard Families’ voyage. By remaining steadfast to its purpose of protecting its members, the Howard Foundation shows humankind that radical life extension is possible, and Ira Howard’s goal is attained for the remainder of humanity, whose pursuit of extended longevity cannot be stopped once society is confronted with its reality.

The path of incremental and experimental – but principled – reform through the use of business is illustrated in Time Will Run Back. Even though Peter Uldanov does not intend to embark on a capitalist world revolution, he nonetheless achieves this outcome over the course of eight years due to his intellectual honesty, lack of indoctrination, and willingness to consistently follow valid insights to their logical conclusions. Peter discovers the universality of the human drive to start small and, later, large enterprises and produce goods and services that sustain and enhance human well-being. Once Peter begins to undo Wonworld’s climate of perpetual terror and micro-regimentation, his citizens use every iota of freedom to engage in mutually beneficial commerce that allows scarce resources to be devoted to their most highly valued uses. Peter, too, must escape political persecution at the hands of Bolshekov, but, unlike the Howard Families, he does not have the luxury of completely distancing himself from his nemesis. Instead, he must form a competing bulwark against Wonworld’s tyranny and, through the superiority in production that free enterprise makes possible, overthrow the socialist dystopia completely. Where Wonworld experienced a century of technological stagnation, Peter’s Freeworld is able to quickly regain lost ground and experience an acceleration of advancement similar to the one that occurred in the Post-World War II period during which Hazlitt wrote Time Will Run Back. Because human creativity and initiative were liberated through free-market reforms, the novel ends with a promise of open-ended progress and a future of ever-expanding human flourishing.

The most explicitly revolutionary use of business as a transformative tool is found in The Transhumanist Wager. Jethro Knights conceives Transhumania specifically as a haven for technological innovation that would lead to the attainment of indefinite lifespans and rapid, unprecedented progress in every field of science and technology. Transhumania is an incubator for Jethro’s vision of a united transhumanist Earth, ruled by a meritocratic elite and completely guided by the philosophy of Teleological Egocentric Functionalism. Like Lazarus Long and the Howard Families, Jethro finds it necessary to escape wider human society because of political persecution, and, like them, he plans an eventual return. He returns, however, without the intent to re-integrate into human society and pursue what Lazarus Long considers to be a universal human striving for ceaseless improvement. Rather, Jethro considers unaltered humanity to be essentially lost to the reactionary influences of Neo-Luddism, religious fundamentalism, and entrenched political and cronyist special interests. Jethro’s goal in returning to the broader world is a swift occupation and transformation of both the Earth and humankind in Jethro’s image.

Jethro’s path is, in many respects, the opposite of Peter Uldanov’s. Peter begins as an inadvertent world dictator and sequentially relinquishes political power in a well-intentioned, pragmatic desire to foster his subjects’ prosperity. Along the way, Peter discovers the moral principles of the free market and becomes a consistent, rights-respecting minarchist libertarian – a transformation that impels him to relinquish absolute power and seek validation through a free and fair election. Jethro, on the other hand, begins as a private citizen and brilliant entrepreneurial businessman who deliberately implements many free-market incentives but, all along, strives to become the omnipotender – and ends up in the role of world dictator where Peter began. The two men are at polar opposites when it comes to militancy. Peter hesitates even to wage defensive war against Bolshekov and questions the propriety of bringing about the deaths of even those who carry out repeated, failed assassination attempts against him and Adams. Jethro does not hesitate to sweep aside his opposition using massive force – as he does when he obliterates the world’s religious and political monuments in an effort to erase the lingering influence of traditional mindsets and compel all humankind to enter the transhumanist age. Jethro’s war against the world is intended to “shock and awe” governments and populations into unconditional and largely bloodless surrender – but this approach cannot avoid some innocent casualties. Jethro will probably not create Wonworld, because he still understands the role of economic incentives and individual initiative in enabling radical technological progress to come about. However, the benefits of the progress Jethro seeks to cultivate will still be disseminated in a controlled fashion – only to those whom Jethro considers useful to his overall goal of becoming as powerful and advanced as possible. Therefore, Jethro’s global Transhumania will not be Freeworld, either.

All three novels raise important questions for us, as human society in the early 21st century stands on the cusp of major advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, space travel, and hopefully radical life extension. However, reactionary political and cultural forces continue to inflict massive suffering worldwide through brutal warfare, sweeping surveillance and humiliation of innocent people, policies that instill terror in the name of fighting terror, and labyrinthine obstacles to progress established by protectionist lobbying on behalf of politically connected special interests. Indeed, our status quo resembles the long, tense stagnation against which Jethro revolts to a greater extent than either the largely rights-respecting society of The Covenant or the totalitarian regimentation of Wonworld. But can the way toward a brighter future – paved by the next generation of life-improving technologies – be devised through an approach that does not exhibit Jethro’s militancy or precipitate massive conflict? Time will tell whether humankind will successfully pursue such a peaceful, principled path of radical but universally benevolent advancement. But whatever this path might entail, it is doubtless that the trailblazers on it will be the innovative businessmen and entrepreneurs of the future, without whom the development, preservation, and dissemination of new technologies would not be possible.

References

Hazlitt, Henry. [1966.] 2007. Time Will Run Back. New York: Arlington House. Ludwig von Mises Institute. Available at http://library.freecapitalists.org/books/Henry%20Hazlitt/Time%20Will%20Run%20Back.pdf. Accessed December 13, 2014.

Heinlein, Robert A. [1958] 2005. Revolt in 2100 & Methuselah’s Children. New York: Baen.

Istvan, Zoltan. 2013. The Transhumanist Wager. San Bernardino: Futurity Imagine Media LLC.

The Businessman as Radical Revolutionary in Zoltan Istvan’s “The Transhumanist Wager” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The Businessman as Radical Revolutionary in Zoltan Istvan’s “The Transhumanist Wager” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
December 15, 2014
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Zoltan Istvan’s 2013 science-fiction novel The Transhumanist Wager portrays how a combination of business enterprises, united to achieve a philosophical goal, can transform the world. The novel’s protagonist, Jethro Knights, develops a wide-ranging business enterprise that simultaneously operates as its own country – Transhumania – and withstands a military offensive from the combined navies of the world powers. Transhumania then serves as the platform from which Jethro’s vision of transhumanism – the transcendence of age-old human limitations through science and technology – can spread throughout the world and become universally adopted.

The Transhumanist Wager takes place in a near-future world where economic malaise, resurgent Luddite sentiments, and labyrinthine political barriers to technological innovation have resulted in a climate of stagnation. Jethro Knights endeavors to change all this, knowing that the status quo will eventually result in his own death. He takes a highly principled, completely uncompromising, and often militant approach toward achieving his goal: indefinite life extension through science and technology. Jethro endeavors to avoid death through any rational means possible, while simultaneously striving to become the “omnipotender” – “an unyielding individual whose central aim is to contend for as much power and advancement as he could achieve, and whose immediate goal is to transcend his human biological limitations in order to reach a permanent sentience” (Istvan 2013, 33). As a college student, Jethro formulates his philosophical system of Teleological Egocentric Functionalism (TEF), which he later explains to an audience of fellow transhumanists:

Teleological—because it is every advanced individual’s inherent design and desired destiny to evolve. Egocentric—because it is based on each of our selfish individual desires, which are of the foremost importance. Functional—because it will only be rational and consequential. And not fair, nor humanitarian, nor altruistic, nor muddled with unreachable mammalian niceties. The philosophy is essential because it doesn’t allow for passive failure. It doesn’t allow transhumanists to live in delusion while our precious years of existence pass. (Istvan 2013, 84)

Jethro circumnavigates the world on his sailboat and works as a journalist in conflict-ridden areas, with the aim of learning as much as possible about the world. Upon returning to the United States, Jethro founds the activist organization Transhuman Citizen, which aims to promote emerging technologies – particularly biotechnological research into indefinite life extension. He must also to foil the increasingly violent and destructive attacks against cutting-edge scientists and research centers by Christian fundamentalist terrorists spearheaded by the Neo-Luddite Reverend Belinas. The Redeem Church, headed by Belinas, has no qualms about hiring thugs to brutally murder transhumanist scientists. At the same time, Belinas maintains a façade of public respectability and functions as a high-profile “moral leader.” He influences public opinion and prominent politicians – including Jethro’s former college classmate Senator Gregory Michaelson – to despise radical technological progress and crack down on transhumanist research through prohibitions and force. After Jethro’s wife and unborn child are murdered by Belinas’s henchmen and Transhuman Citizen rapidly loses support due to Belinas’s political and public-relations war, Jethro’s dream seems to be on the verge of total collapse. Jethro’s only opportunity for a turnaround arrives in the form of the Russian oil tycoon Frederich Vilimich.

Vilimich is not the ideal rights-respecting free-market capitalist; his rise to power during the chaotic post-Soviet era is marred by the suspicious death of a general with whom he illegally seized a large number of bankrupt oil companies. Vilimich has high business acumen and recognizes the benefits of using the best technology available: “Against the opinion of many people—including the general—Vilimich used every ruble of the company’s booming earnings to acquire the most technologically advanced oil extraction equipment available. Within a few years, the company quadrupled its oil output and became a dominant player in the worldwide energy field” (Istvan 2013, 174). Vilimich can be capricious and tyrannical but understands economic incentives and is ruthless about harnessing them to fulfill his objectives:

He was loathed by his own people for never giving one ruble to charity. He treated his workers poorly compared with other large oil companies, but paid them better. Governments feared him for his habit of impetuously shutting down his oil pipeline for days at a time, thus creating worldwide spikes in energy prices. Some said he did it just to amuse himself; others insisted he just wanted higher oil prices; still others grumbled that he just wanted to remind people who was in control. (Istvan 2013, 175).

Vilimich is a tragic figure; all joy had left his life when his wife and son were murdered by terrorists two decades earlier. Vilimich dedicates his time and his vast oil fortune to repeated, unsuccessful attempts to bring them back from the dead. Vilimich’s redeeming quality is his understanding and embrace of the necessity of radical technological progress: “Vilimich was a believer in change via technology. It had always been a natural instinct for him” (Istvan 2013, 176). Upon learning of the concerted worldwide crackdown against Transhuman Citizen, Vilimich’s reaction is to sympathize with Jethro: “The world was afraid of evolution, Vilimich told himself, shaking his head in frustration. His grueling but successful battle against colon cancer reminded him that life was not open-ended” (Istvan 2013, 175). Vilimich realizes that some of his previous, mystical attempts to revive his family could not possibly have worked; “however, advanced scientific technology, hard work, and wits most certainly could. They were the exact same things he had used to create his sprawling oil empire.” (Istvan 2013, 176).

Vilimich initially approaches Jethro with the aim to redirect Jethro’s quest for biological immortality toward bringing back the dead instead. He tells Jethro, “I can give you billions of dollars for exactly that mission. We can build a nation of scientists to accomplish it. It may not follow the pure transhuman and immortality quests you wanted, but it’s close enough” (Istvan 2013, 179). Not even Vilimich’s billions, however, can redirect Jethro from his overarching plan for transforming the world in the pursuit of indefinite life extension, as outlined in his TEF Manifesto. Jethro points out that biological life extension for the living is a far more realistic and proximately achievable goal than reviving the dead. He replies to Vilimich, “What you want is just not even on the transhuman timeline right now. And it would be irresponsible to dedicate more than only a fraction of transhuman resources to it at a moment when the real goals of the movement are, literally, on the verge of collapse; when the longevity of our own lifespans are so immediately threatened” (Istvan 2013, 180). A clash of personalities ensues. Jethro attempts to reason with Vilimich: “But your money could be used for more practical and possible goals, for near-term successes like your own immediate health and longevity. Then, at some later point, you could consider tackling the monumental task of bringing back the dead. What you want is not even reasonable just yet” (Istvan 2013, 180). To this Vilimich responds, “I didn’t get to be so successful because I was always reasonable” (Istvan 2013, 180). Both Vilimich and Jethro have lost their families to violence. However, unlike Jethro, who seeks to base his decisions on an overarching “machine-like” rationality, Vilimich is driven by his passionate obsession with bringing back his loved ones above all. Both men are stubborn and unyielding, and their initial meeting ends in an impasse.

However, four days later, Vilimich becomes swayed to give Jethro 10 billion dollars – half of Vilimich’s stake in Calico Oil – unconditionally. Vilimich sees much of himself in Jethro’s intransigence and single-mindedness, and his reversal makes all the difference for Jethro. Immediately, Jethro undertakes an elaborate scheme to conceal the money from the world’s governments, which would have expropriated it:

The next morning, in a rented private jet, Jethro flew around the world to Vanuatu, Singapore, Lebanon, Panama, Maldives, Djibouti, and Switzerland. He spent two weeks establishing bank accounts for various pop-up companies and corporations in out-of-the-way places, acting as the sole manager. He made up odd business names like Antidy Enterprises, Amerigon LLC, and Dumcros Inc. The money was wired in small, varying portions to all his hidden accounts belonging to the companies so it could never be frozen, tracked, or calculated by the NFSA [National Future Security Agency – a US federal agency established to crack down on transhumanist research] or anyone else on the planet. Even the Phoenix Bank president wasn’t aware of the account names or numbers, as third-party escrow accounts were used to hide and deflect all traceable sources. Jethro sent secondary codes and addresses to Mr. Vilimich, as the only other person capable of locating the money. But even he wasn’t allowed to know everything or control anything. On every account, there was a different company, a different address, a different identification number, a different mission statement. The ten billion dollars was split in a hundred different ways, all with digital tentacles that led only to Jethro Knights.

When the money was safe, he emailed Vilimich:

Dear Mr. Vilimich,

Thank you. The money is safe and being put to good use for the right reasons. I’ll be in touch as the transhuman mission progresses. Furthermore, you have my pledge that I will not forget that picture in your pocket.

Jethro Knights (Istvan 2013, 184)

What Jethro does with Vilimich’s money is nothing short of revolutionary. He endeavors to construct an independent community of cutting-edge scientists – Transhumania – on a floating platform – a seastead – in international waters, away from any country’s jurisdiction. Jethro fabricates the appearance of Transhuman Citizen’s continued decline, so as to trick the anti-transhumanist politicians and religious leaders into thinking that their victory against Jethro is imminent. In secret, Jethro reaches out to architect Rachel Burton, who pioneered many concepts for futuristic structures but is frustrated at the lack of interest in ambitious architectural projects due to the ongoing economic and technological stagnation in mainstream societies. Although the acerbic Burton is initially wary of Jethro, she becomes elated when he explains his vision to her:

“A floating city should shield transhumanists and the people I need away from those forces, giving me certain worldwide legal protections. The city will have to be built to house approximately 10,000 scientists and their immediate families. You’ll have to build up, because I want most of the city open for creating green spaces, jungles, and parks—so people like living there. Actually, so they love living there. These will be very picky people, some of the smartest in the world. They’ll want the best of everything, and they deserve it. I want them to be enthralled with every bit of their new home. I want the city big enough to have an airport for passenger jets, but small enough to comfortably ride a bike around in twenty minutes. I want to build the most modern metropolis on the planet, a utopia for transhumanists and their research.” (Istvan 2013, 192)

Unlike Vilimich, who pays his workers well but treats them poorly, Jethro is more focused on the quality of his employees’ lives. He understands the importance of employee motivation and creating a rewarding work environment and the opportunity for fulfilling personal lives outside of the workplace. Because Jethro must attract the best and brightest in order to have a hope of realizing his goal of living indefinitely, he needs to give these creative minds the best possible quality of life in order to entice them to come to Transhumania.

The platform and infrastructure for Transhumania – dominated by three towering skyscrapers – are assembled in Liberia at Burton’s recommendation. She outlines the geopolitical and economic considerations behind this choice: “West Africa is far off the radar screen for the rest of the world, so hopefully, there won’t be any troublesome interruptions by the media or the NFSA. Besides, Liberia has cheap labor, good weather, and lots of beach space to launch this puppy. It’s going to be at least ten soccer fields long, you know. We’re going to need lots and lots of space.” (Istvan 2013, 193) The construction effort is a massive project – requiring an “army of 15,000 workers” to labor for five months (Istvan 2013, 193). Jethro is a hands-on project manager who spends much time at the construction site and gets involved in the details of the plan for the seastead, as well as the means by which it is assembled. Jethro hires an international team of workers and, with the help of a multilingual foreman, sets up a work rotation to facilitate uninterrupted construction: “The work was endless: Twenty-four hours a day, there was a symphony of hammering, drilling, welding, grinding, and shouting. There was no break from the movement; sprawling bodies and their machines zipped tirelessly around the platform. The sheer creation process was a marvel to behold” (Istvan 2013, 195).

As Transhumania nears completion, Jethro travels throughout the world to clandestinely invite leading scientists to live there. Jethro becomes an expert presenter:

Jethro mastered his task of pitching the spectacular possibilities of the transhuman nation to his chosen candidates. His invitation to share in the rebirth of the transhuman mission and its life extension goals was compelling, exciting, and novel. Part of his presentation was done in 3D modeling on a holographic screen that shot out of his laptop computer. The state-of-the-art technology Burton’s company provided was impressively futuristic. (Istvan 2013, 196).

Jethro promises the candidate scientists that they will live in “The most modern buildings in the world. Every luxury and convenience you can imagine: spas, five-star restaurants, botanical gardens, farmers’ markets, an entertainment plaza, a world-class performing arts center. Then over there would be your offices and laboratories. No expense spared on your research equipment. The most sophisticated on the planet—I guarantee it.” (Istvan 2013, 196-197). Furthermore, Jethro emphasizes the tremendous freedom that scientists would have to pursue their research in the absence of political restraints: “Once scientists arrived there, he promised hassle-free lives from bossy governments and others that disapprove of transhumanist ways. The United Nations decreed three decades ago that rules and ownership 200 miles away from any land masses on the planet do not exist” (Istvan 2013, 197). Jethro grasps the essential harmony of interests between a well-run business and its employees, and therefore does not forget about providing generous pay and benefits, as well as creating a family-friendly living environment on Transhumania:

Additionally, he promised the scientists amazing salaries, stellar healthcare, and citizenship to Transhumania if people desired. For their children, there would be competitive schools, sports groups, piano tutors, French classes, tennis lessons, and swim teams. Dozens of varied restaurants and cafes would serve organic, sustainable, and cruelty-free foods. Coffee shops, juice bars, and drinking pubs would be ubiquitous. Movie theaters, art galleries, fitness centers, libraries, science and technology museums, and shopping centers would dot the city. Innovative designers would set up furniture and clothing outlets, including those that created products and garments with the latest intelligent materials capable of bio-monitoring the body. Whatever you wanted or needed, no matter how far-fetched; it would all be there. Jethro laid out the promise of an ideal, advanced society, the chance to belong to a country with everything going for it. (Istvan 2013, 197).

Jethro’s hiring policy is enlightened and meritocratic with regard to avoiding any prejudice based on attributes irrelevant to a person’s ability to get the job done. However, Jethro is also unforgiving of sub-optimal performance and ruthless about preventing or suppressing any possible behavior or institution that would get in the way of the fulfillment of his overarching vision for Transhumania. Moreover, Jethro – unlike a principled libertarian – does not brook significant ideological dissent in his country:

His hiring policy was simple. He didn’t give a damn where you came from, or what color you were, or with whom you had sex, or what gender you were, or if you had disabilities, or whether you were a criminal or not. But if you were hired for a position, and you failed to meet the goals assigned to you, or if you hindered other hires from meeting the goals assigned to them, then you would be fired and forced off Transhumania at once. There were no labor unions allowed. No workers’ compensation. No welfare. No freebies. In short, there was no pity, or even pretense at pity. There was just usefulness—or not. And if you didn’t like it, or didn’t agree with it, then you didn’t belong on Transhumania. Every contract of every scientist who wanted to join bore this severe language, as well as their consensual agreement to uphold the [tenets] of the TEF Manifesto and the core mission of transhumanism. (Istvan 2013, 197)

Because Jethro acts not only as the head of a vast business but also as the leader of a de facto independent city-state, it is not clear whether his behavior is consistent with respect for individual rights. On the one hand, every arrangement into which Transhumania’s residents enter is a freely chosen contract. On the other hand, they lose every association with Transhumania if they fail to adhere to Jethro’s demanding terms. They not merely lose their jobs, but they may no longer live or own property on Transhumania. Ultimately, Jethro facilitates comfortable lifestyles and offers abundant economic incentives not out of a devotion to individual freedom per se, but out of a recognition that a considerable allowance for economic liberty (though constrained by Jethro’s overarching purpose) would be the most conducive to rapid technological innovation and the eventual discovery of a means to reverse biological senescence and live indefinitely.

In spite of the severity of some of Jethro’s terms, the scientists who come to work on Transhumania know what they are getting into. Many come willingly after being inspired by a speech filled with Jethro’s characteristic militant, uncompromising rhetoric:

After so many years of being professionally stifled, intellectually muted, and socially ostracized, many transhuman entrepreneurs and scientists of the world cheered. While the speech was worded stronger than they themselves would have delivered, they respected Jethro Knights’ unwillingness to compromise the transhuman mission. They valued his promotion of the determined and accomplished individual. They applauded his hero’s journey to reverse the falling fortunes of the immortality quest. They especially appreciated the face-slapping of religion, human mediocrity, and overbearing government. Modern society was at a tipping point of such cowardly self-delusion and democratic self-sacrifice that someone needed to stand up and fight for what everyone wanted and admitted secretly to themselves: I want to reach a place of true power and security that can’t be snatched from me at the world’s whim. (Istvan 2013, 203)

Vilimich is pleased with his investment and sends Jethro a one-line note, “Thanks for punching the world for me” – to which Jethro replies, “Thanks for giving me muscles to do so” (Istvan 2013, 203). Through this exchange, Istvan illustrates the indispensability of these two visionary, intransigent men’s business partnership to making Transhumania possible.

Jethro raises the incentives for coming to Transhumania by offering each researcher “a tax-free million dollar signing bonus. It was more money than many had accumulated in decades of work. If they brought approved colleagues from their fields with them, an additional hundred thousand dollars was given. The main obligations of those who joined the transhuman nation included staying their full five-year term and reaching reasonable performance goals in their work” (Istvan 2013, 203). Jethro also creates the possibility of owning real estate: “One-, two-, three-, and four-bedroom residences were sold at enticing prices. Jethro made it cheaper to own than to rent, and most people opted to buy upon arriving. It replenished the cash Transhumania needed for actual research and city operations” (Istvan 2013, 204). Jethro understands that ownership of private property (limited though it may be by the requirement to adhere to the TEF Manifesto) gives the owner a powerful incentive to strive for the economic progress of the community where the property is located. By turning his employees into stakeholders of Transhumania, he not only enhances Transhumania’s revenue stream but also turns his scientists into more motivated, dedicated producers and innovators. Essentially, Jethro utilizes the principles of running a successful start-up technology firm and applies them to an entire small country: “Jethro ran the entire nation as if it were an aggressive, expanding technology company racing to bring an incredible invention to market. Every scientist had stock in its success, in the urgency of its mission. The result was a hiring domino effect. Soon, hundreds of scientists were showing up weekly to make tours of Transhumania and to sign contracts” (Istvan 2013, 204).

Jethro succeeds in cultivating a motivated, even inspired, workforce, with a prevailing “can-do” ethos:

Problems occurred, but they were quickly worked out for the most part. These were not people who complained about a broken hot shower or a bad Internet connection. These were professionals of the highest order, and they were all building the nation together. They fixed things themselves, went out of their way to improve operations, and helped one another when they could. These citizens were people of action, of doing—and doing it right. (Istvan 2013, 205).

Jethro is also able to vastly improve his scientists’ quality of life by restoring their sense that an amazing future can be created through their own work:

Many scientists commented they felt like graduate students again—when the world was something miraculous to believe in, when anything was still possible, when the next great discovery or the next great technological leap was perhaps just months away. […]At night, many of them looked at the stars from the windows of their skyscrapers and felt as if they had arrived on a remarkable new planet. They were never happier or more productive, or bound with a greater sense of drive. (Istvan 2013, 205).

In his discussion of the incentives and outcomes found in Transhumania, Istvan illustrates that the best-run businesses will not only generate economic value but will also inspire employees with the prospect of improving the human condition and creating a better world. Even though Jethro’s methods of sweeping aside all opposition are questionable, his goals of overcoming disease, lengthening lifespans without limit, and producing life-improving technological advances on all fronts are clearly some of the most admirable aims for any enterprise.

Five years after Transhumania’s founding, a major breakthrough enables the goal of indefinite lifespans to approach fruition. Jethro’s colleague, the scientist Preston Langmore announces that “The new cell-like substance that we’ve developed has so many applications. The manipulation of its DNA, controlled by our nanobots, will bring unprecedented changes to human life in the next decade, perhaps even in the next few years. We will begin our ascent to a truly immortal life form, full of all the benefits of what it means to be a transhuman being” (Istvan 2013, 222).

But the obstacles to the realization of Jethro’s dream do not cease once Transhumania becomes economically and scientifically successful. Jethro recognizes that anti-transhumanist organizations and governments will not simply allow Transhumanian research to continue in peace. Therefore, he devotes a third of Transhumania’s budget to defense. Transhumania’s vast revenues enable the construction of a missile shield, four megasonic airplanes, and ten combat robots, as well as the world’s most advanced cyber-warfare infrastructure. Shortly after Transhumania’s defensive capabilities are deployed, Belinas orchestrates Jethro’s kidnapping and torture. However, Jethro’s colleagues manage to locate the compound where he is held hostage, and one of the Transhumanian combat robots destroys Belinas’s thugs and kills Belinas himself. Jethro is freed, and Belinas’s crimes are broadly publicized, to the shame of the world’s governments. However, too many politicians and military leaders have become personally vested in attempting to seize Transhumania’s scientific and economic production for themselves, and it is too late to stop them from mobilizing their combined navies in an assault on Transhumania. Jethro’s hackers manage to cripple most of the invaders’ missile-guidance systems, causing the nations’ fleets to destroy one another. Only some extremely obsolete Russian missiles, whose use Jethro did not anticipate, manage to inflict moderate damage. Within twenty-four hours, the ingenuity of Transhumania’s scientists enables them to anticipate these missiles and effectively defend against them as well. By establishing the framework for the world’s freest and most innovative economy, Jethro enables the emergence of the ample resources needed to resist those who would stand in the way of his ambition.

Having defeated the combined might of the world’s navies, Jethro considers it impossible for Transhumania to peacefully coexist with the political status quo. Now that he possesses the technological means to easily outmaneuver and foil any nation’s military, Jethro is able to occupy much of the world after destroying all of the major religious and political monuments of traditional human societies. This is where Jethro crosses the line from justifiable self-defense of his society and into aggression against the rest of humanity – becoming an authoritarian world dictator in his quest to be the omnipotender. What distinguishes Jethro’s rule from historical totalitarianism is his instrumental use of free-market policies and incentives to facilitate technological and economic growth – but, again, only insofar as this serves his overarching goal of transforming the human condition along the path outlined in the TEF Manifesto. Jethro’s approach to the population of Earth is more utilitarian than based on any absolute, inviolate concept of individual rights; Jethro will recognize a semblance of personal freedom, but only for those who are useful to his broad ambition of turning humanity into a rapidly advancing, transhuman species. Those who cast their lot with Jethro during the early days of Transhumania are, on the other hand, rewarded with unprecedented power. Jethro urges his Transhumanian colleagues to renew their contracts and oversee vast swaths of the transhumanist-dominated Earth:

“You will have a choice, of course, to do as you desire and go where you like, and take the wealth you’ve earned. Nevertheless, in the best interest of the transhuman mission, I feel it expedient to appoint you as interim leaders of your birth nations and its major cities. Many of you will also oversee massive new science projects that only the resources of individual continents can foster. Others of you will be asked to found and build new universities and educational institutes, some of which will become the largest, most populated learning centers in the world.

“It is my hope that in your new appointments, you will seed and cultivate a surplus of amazing new transhuman projects to fruition for us all. As incentive to accept these new duties asked of you, your compensation packages will be staggering. I aim to make each and every one of you—as well as all other citizens on Transhumania—some of the richest and most powerful people in the world.” (Istvan 2013, 231)

In effect, Jethro takes the meritocracy he established in Transhumania and transposes it onto the wider world, turning the best and brightest into world leaders and fulfilling the age-old dream of some thinkers to put enlightened “philosopher-kings” in charge of human society. Jethro explicitly announces that the entire world will become Transhumania writ large:

“Earth, and human habitation of it, will be redesigned. It will no longer be many different countries with different cultures on different continents, but one committed transhuman alliance. It will be transformed into one global civilization bound to advancing science—one great transhuman planet. There will be no more sovereign nations, only Transhumania. Our transhuman goals will be the same as before; there will just be a lot more people working towards them, and a lot more resources to help us achieve success.” (Istvan 2013, 231)

With all of the Earth’s resources at his disposal, Jethro continues his quest to overcome disease and death, and by the novel’s end it appears that he is successful. Jethro is even able to be cryonically frozen and subsequently revived. He begins to venture into the possibility raised by Vilimich of eventually recovering deceased loved ones – but this quest remains unconcluded, and Istvan leaves the question of its feasibility as open-ended.

The Transhumanist Wager is a story about the clever use of a vast business structure and carefully crafted economic incentives to achieve the most revolutionary transformation of humankind conceivable: a revolution against contemporary societies and in favor of a global culture committed to rapid technological progress and the defeat of death above all. Jethro Knights is more of a utilitarian than a libertarian, and his choice of means eventually departs starkly from principled libertarianism, since a consistent respect for the individual rights of all people, including those whom one considers deeply hostile to one’s vision of progress, must ultimately clash with the desire to become an “omnipotender” and achieve as much power as possible. However, during the stage in which Jethro uses free-market policies and innovative business management as instruments toward the attainment of his vision, he is able to create an admirable and inspiring model for human progress.

Reference

Istvan, Zoltan. 2013. The Transhumanist Wager. San Bernardino: Futurity Imagine Media LLC.

The Role of Business and the Virtuous Cycle of Progress in Robert Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The Role of Business and the Virtuous Cycle of Progress in Robert Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children” – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
December 12, 2014
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Methuselah’s Children is a pioneering science-fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein, remarkable for its favorable treatment of greatly extended lifespans several decades before the era of biotechnology and the advent of the transhumanist and life-extension movements. Moreover, Methuselah’s Children presents important insights regarding the virtuous cycle of improvement that occurs when a business structure is deliberately oriented toward catalyzing both technological progress and increased length and quality of human life.

Originally published as a series in the July, August, and September 1941 issues of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, Methuselah’s Children was released as a full-fledged novel in 1958. Exceptionally long-lived humans – the members of the Howard Families – are the novel’s protagonists and are portrayed in a favorable light, as the novel chronicles their escape from persecution in a society where most people continue to live lives of conventional duration and falsely believe the Howard Families to possess a means to artificially engineer extended lifespans. In fact, the Howard Families’ exceptional longevity is genetic – a legacy of generations of selective breeding.

The Howard Families’ origin dates to the 19th century and is made possible by the success of a businessman who dreamed of overcoming death:

Ira Howard, whose fortune established the Howard Foundation, was born in 1825 and died in 1873 – of old age. He sold groceries to the Forty-niners in San Francisco, became a wholesale sutler in the American War of the Secession, multiplied his fortune during the tragic Reconstruction. Howard was deathly afraid of dying. He hired the best doctors of his time to prolong his life. Nevertheless old age plucked him when most men are still young. But his will commanded that his money be used to lengthen human life. The administrators of the trust found no way to carry out his wishes other than by seeking out persons whose family trees showed congenital predispositions toward long life and then inducing them to reproduce in kind. Their method anticipated the work of Burbank; they may or may not have known of the illuminating researches of the Monk Gregor Mendel. (Heinlein 1958, 141)

Ira Howard applied his business fortune and business expertise to create a foundation and trust for the purpose of lengthening human life, enabling a small fraction of humankind to become supercentenarians over the course of generations. Officially, the Howard Foundation is “an openly chartered non-profit corporation” (Heinlein 1958, 6). The Foundation’s strategy is to provide financial support and a strong social network for its beneficiaries, while avoiding public notice and adhering to the legal constraints of the eras through which the Foundation prevails. In a conversation in 1874 with medical student and future beneficiary Ira Johnson, a lawyer for the Foundation explains that, in order to avoid legal prohibitions, the Foundation does not form official contracts with those whom it supports:

No, no, such a contract would be void, against public policy. We are simply informing you, as administrators of a trust, that should it come about that you do marry one of the young ladies on this list it would then be our pleasant duty to endow each child of such a union according to the scale here set forth. But there would be no Contract with us involved, nor is there any ‘proposition’ being made to you – and we certainly do not urge any course of action on you. We are simply informing you of certain facts. (Heinlein 1958, 6)

Methuselah’s Children is set on Earth during the 22nd century, in the largely peaceful and rights-respecting society of The Covenant. Generations of selective breeding by that time had, by then, raised the life expectancy of members of the Howard Families past 150 years. The Howard Families had hitherto kept their existence a secret from the broader population through periodic reinventions of individual members’ public identities, an effort in which the Foundation was instrumental:

Two courses of action were adopted: the assets of the Foundation were converted into real wealth and distributed widely among members of the Families to be held by them as owners-of-record; and the so-called ‘Masquerade’ was adopted as a permanent policy. Means were found to simulate the death of any member of the Families who lived to a socially embarrassing age and to provide him with a new identity in another part of the country. (Heinlein 1958, 8)

During the more tolerant era of The Covenant, the Howard Families decide to attempt a gradual disclosure of their exceptional lifespans. Part of the motivation is to benefit the progress of humankind, as explained by Foundation trustee Justin Foote: “the Families as a group had learned many things through our researches in the bio-sciences, things which could be of great benefit to our poor short-lived brethren. We needed freedom to help them.” (Heinlein 1958, 9)

 The Howard Families decide to reveal 10 percent of their membership and observe the reaction, but their estimation of their fellow humans’ tolerance is far too generous. Their plan backfires: the general public becomes falsely convinced that the Howard Families possess a biotechnological secret that could rejuvenate anyone and are withholding it from the remainder of humanity. All of the civil liberties afforded by The Covenant fall by the wayside as the masses clamor for the Howard Families to be detained so that their secret could be extracted from them by force.

Administrator Slayton Ford, who is sympathetic to the Howard Families, nonetheless feels compelled to authorize their arrest due to public pressure, while secretly assisting with the Families’ plan to escape to another world. This plan is the brainchild of Lazarus Long – a member of the Families and a recurring Heinlein protagonist memorable for his inventiveness, wit, practicality, and self-reliance. Lazarus Long – named Woodrow Wilson Smith at birth – is a space adventurer and rugged individualist who has stayed away from the Families but reveals himself to be their oldest member at an age of at least 241 years. By the rules of the Foundation, which reward longevity with authority, this gives him a leadership position. Lazarus manages to sway the initially reluctant membership of the Families with the rhetorical assistance of more forward-thinking trustees such as Zaccur Barstow. Barstow points out that it is precisely because of the Families’ accumulated wealth and ability to use business and commerce to their advantage that Lazarus’s plan might succeed:

“[T]here is an appropriateness in the long-lived exploring the stars. A mystic might call it our true vocation.” He pondered. “As for the ship Lazarus suggested; perhaps they will not let us have that … but the Families are rich. If we need a starship – or ships – we can build them, we can pay for them. I think we had better hope that they will let us do this … for it may be that there is no way, not another way of any sort, out of our dilemma which does not include our own extermination.” (Heinlein 1958, 47)

The wealth accumulated through Ira Howard’s business and preserved over the course of centuries enables the Howard Families to purchase the small spaceship Chili, which becomes an instrument to take control of the larger ship New Frontiers with Administrator Ford’s clandestine assistance. An interesting conversation regarding the economic effects of longer lifespans occurs between Lazarus and Joseph McFee, who sells him the Chili. McFee posits that uncertainty about the cause of the Howard Families’ longevity has resulted in a disruption to many individuals’ ability to engage in economic planning:

“Never saw such a dull market. Some days you can’t turn an honest credit.” McFee frowned. “You know what the trouble is? Well, I’ll tell you-it’s this Howard Families commotion. Nobody wants to risk any money until he knows where he stands. How can a man make plans when he doesn’t know whether to plan for ten years or a hundred? You mark my words: if the administration manages to sweat the secret loose from those babies, you’ll see the biggest boom in long-term investments ever. But if not well, long-term holdings won’t be worth a peso a dozen and there will be an eat-drink-and-be-merry craze that will make the Reconstruction look like a tea party.” (Heinlein 1958, 72-73)

Through McFee, Heinlein illustrates an important insight regarding the impact of lifespan-related expectations on economic behavior. Longer anticipated lifespans extend people’s time horizons and render them more willing to undertake long-term projects and investments, out of the recognition of a high probability of personal benefit from such undertakings. On the other hand, anticipation of short lives and imminent mortality engenders a “live for today” attitude where prudent, long-term planning falls by the wayside, and actions that sustain and drive forward human civilization are neglected. Longer lifespans tend to result in a lower rate of time preference – the degree by which present satisfactions are preferred to future satisfactions.[1] With longer time horizons available to people, remoter future satisfactions can be conceived of and worked toward. Such work generates numerous ancillary benefits along the way for oneself and others – in terms of both material well-being and cultivation of the virtues and habits conducive to an actualized, fulfilling life. Therefore, extending human lifespans ought to bring about more businesses that focus on long-term human well-being and are comfortable with realizing profits over many decades or centuries, whereas short lifespans drive a mentality of focusing on immediate profits only, without regard for longer-term consequences of business decisions.

Through the engineering and navigational abilities of Andrew “Slipstick” Libby, another member of the Howard Families, the long-lived protagonists manage to use faster-than-light travel to escape the Solar System together with Administrator Ford, who defects to them at the last moment. While the Howard Foundation made the Families’ exodus possible, it also rendered itself obsolete in the process. Once the Families are underway on their journey, Justin Foote explains the need for a new decision-making structure to emerge:

I am able to say without bias that the trustees, as an organized group, can have no jurisdiction because legally they no longer exist. […] [T]he board of trustees were the custodians of a foundation which existed as a part of and in relation to a society. The trustees were never a government; their sole duties had to do with relations between the Families and the rest of that society. With the ending of relationship between the Families and terrestrial society, the board of trustees, ipso facto, ceases to exist. It is one with history. Now we in this ship are not yet a society, we are an anarchistic group. This present assemblage has as much – or as little – authority to initiate a society as has any part group. (Heinlein 1958, 99)

From its formation to its dissolution, the Howard Foundation embodies some of the noblest and most admirable qualities possible for a business structure. It prioritizes its mission of promoting longer lifespans and the well-being of its members over its structural survival as an organization. It acts genuinely to protect and empower its beneficiaries – the Howard Families – enabling them to transcend the need for the Foundation’s existence and to form a new organizational structure. The Howard Families utilize Ford’s administrative skills to coordinate the effort of the New Frontiers’ interstellar journey and the formation of colonies on two successive planets, where the Howard Families coexist with two friendly but utterly non-individualistic species – the Jockaira and the Little People. In most respects apart from coordinating the logistics of the voyage and the initial settlement phase, the new administration adopts a hands-off, libertarian approach toward the colonists’ time allocation and life choices – enabling many of the settlers to lead lives of ease and leisure on the second world of the Little People, where there are abundant resources for all. However, Lazarus cannot accept this as a permanent condition, as his human ambition and desire for challenge are not fulfilled. Furthermore, even though they possess exceptional longevity, members of the Howard Families are still mortal and still face the prospect of losing their individual existences either through death or through voluntary sublimation into the group-mind structures of the Little People – which still destroys individual personality and self-awareness. Lazarus convinces the majority of the settlers that, in order to strive for more than contentment and to have the potential to achieve further progress, they must endeavor to return to Earth.

On Earth, 75 years have passed since the Howard Families’ exodus. Human society has become far more enlightened in the meantime, and the Howard Families are no longer perceived as public enemies to be persecuted, but rather as admirable early pioneers in life extension and interstellar exploration. Driven by the impression that there was a “secret” to super-longevity, human scientists independently achieved through biotechnology the same results that the Howard Families attained through selective breeding. In a society where everyone possesses life expectancies of over a century and a half, the Howard Families cease to be outliers or targets for envy and suspicion. Ultimately, Ira Howard’s plan to greatly lengthen human lifespans is realized for the entirety of humankind. The Howard Foundation’s efforts led the remainder of humanity to view super-longevity to be attainable for all. This perception motivated massive research efforts to this goal after the Howard Families’ exodus. This result illustrates the ability of a business organization oriented toward human progress to achieve transformation of the wider society, even if explicitly focused on a much narrower subset thereof. A businessman who seeks to catalyze technological progress and create a better future can achieve a wider scope of success by setting an example of what is possible and inspiring others to pursue similar outcomes.

Upon returning to Earth, Lazarus Long and Andrew Libby discuss business plans to explore further reaches of the galaxy – facilitating the expansion of human settlement there – while enabling Lazarus and Libby to lead an enjoyable lifestyle free of significant material limitations:

“Somebody is going to have to do a little exploring before any large-scale emigration starts. Let’s go into the real estate business, Andy. We’ll stake out this corner of the Galaxy and see what it has to offer.”

Libby scratched his nose and thought about it. “Sounds all right, I guess after I pay a visit home.”

“There’s no rush. I’ll find a nice, clean little yacht, about ten thousand tons and we’ll refit with your drive.”

“What’ll we use for money?”

“We’ll have money. I’ll set up a parent corporation, while I’m about it, with a loose enough charter to let us do anything we want to do. There will be daughter corporations for various purposes and we’ll unload the minor interest in each… Then-“

“You make it sound like work, Lazarus. I thought it was going to be fun.”

“Shucks, we won’t fuss with that stuff. I’ll collar somebody to run the home office and worry about the books and the legal end-somebody about like Justin. Maybe Justin himself.”

“Well, all right then.”

“You and I will rampage around and see what there is to be seen. It’ll be fun, all right.” (Heinlein 1958, 181)

What leads Lazarus to formulate such a far-reaching vision – in terms of both space and time – for a combination of business and unending personal adventure? It is precisely the emerging ability, at the novel’s conclusion, of human scientists to artificially extend lifespans even beyond the Howard Families’ typical life expectancies. Lazarus remarks, “I didn’t start planning our real estate venture till I heard about this new process. It gave me a new perspective. I find myself thinking about thousands of years – and I never used to worry about anything further ahead than a week from next Wednesday” (Heinlein 1958, 182). Here, too, Heinlein illustrates the tremendous incentive that lengthened lifespans provide for long-term thinking and planning, enabling people to accomplish, experience, and create on a grand scale instead of remaining mired in the immediately accessible.

Methuselah’s Children offers an insightful vision of the positive feedback loop between progress-oriented business structures and the attainment of longer, better lives. Through establishing the Howard Foundation, Ira Howard set in motion a chain of events that resulted in super-longevity for all humans and ambitious efforts at interstellar exploration and colonization. The fruits of this effort – incentives for long-term thinking – motivate Lazarus Long to initiate business ventures of his own for the purpose of pushing further outward the boundaries of human ability and expansion. Heinlein concludes the novel with Lazarus’s statement of unending ambition: “Yes, maybe [the universe is] just one colossal big joke, with no point to it. […] But I can tell you this, Andy, whatever the answers are, here’s one monkey that’s going to keep on climbing, and looking around him to see what he can see, as long as the tree holds out” (Heinlein 1958, 183). This never-ending aspiration for discovery and improvement ought to motivate real-world businesspeople and humans in general to continually seek out ways in which they can apply their skill sets to expand the boundaries of possibility in any endeavor that advances human well-being.

References

Heinlein, Robert A. 1958. Methuselah’s Children. New York: Baen.

Stolyarov II, G. 2005. “Austrian Economics and Time Preference”. The Rational Argumentator, Issue XLII. Available at http://rationalargumentator.com/issue42/austriantimepreference.html. Accessed December 11, 2014.

Notes

[1] The concept of time preference was extensively elucidated by the renowned Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973). For a concise overview of this idea, see “Austrian Economics and Time Preference” (Stolyarov 2005).

My Views on “Eden against the Colossus” – Ten Years Later – Article by G. Stolyarov II

My Views on “Eden against the Colossus” – Ten Years Later – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
June 8, 2013
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Not long after the release of the Second Edition of my 2003-2004 science-fiction mystery novel Eden against the Colossus, I was asked whether any of the views I expressed in the novel had changed since then, and, if so, to what extent.

I still strongly adhere to most of the fundamental philosophical principles expressed in Eden against the Colossus: the existence of an objective reality, the necessity for reason and rigorous inquiry in discovering it, the supreme value of the individual, the virtue of enlightened self-interest, and the immense benefits of technological progress for improving, elevating, and extending the human condition.

In the introduction to the Second Edition I discussed how, in retrospect, the future society described in Eden against the Colossus seems like a pessimistic scenario of how far humanity would progress technologically during the 750 years since the writing of the novel (for instance, in the lack of autonomous artificial intelligence or indefinite life extension – through there are many advanced robots and the average lifespan has increased by perhaps a factor of three in the world initially presented in the novel). This is a world very much characterized by a stark good-versus-evil conflict – that of the individualists/technoprogressives versus the Malthusians/Neo-Luddites. In the novel I occasionally use the term “environmentalists” to describe the Malthusians/Neo-Luddites; today, I would make a subtler distinction between those environmentalists who favor free-market and/or technological solutions to the problems they perceive, and those who see the only solutions as a “return to Nature” and a curtailment of human population. My quarrel is, and has fundamentally always been, only with those environmentalists who seek to reject or limit technological progress – particularly those who would use force to impose their preferences on others. Today I would be more careful to describe my views as anti-Luddite, rather than anti-environmentalist, in order to recognize as possible allies those environmentalists who would embrace technology with incidental benefits such as the reduction of pollution or the more efficient use of resources.

Were I writing the novel today, the society which results as the outcome of the individualist/technoprogressive vision would look quite different as well. The Intergalactic Protectorate is a libertarian system, but a highly centralized one nonetheless. Through its storyline though not through its explicit philosophical ideas, Eden against the Colossus illustrates the vulnerabilities of such a system and the ease of turning the machinery of the Protectorate against the very ideals it is supposed to protect. This is true, I now realize, of any large, centralized institution – public or private, controlled by virtuous people, or by mediocrities or crooks. As an example of this, one needs only to consider how the vast, largely voluntary centralization of information on the Internet – during the age of dominant providers of social-networking, search, and content-hosting services – has enabled sweeping surveillance of virtually all Americans by the National Security Agency through “backdoors” into the systems of the dominant Internet companies. No one person – and no one institution – can be the sole effective guardian of liberty. On the other hand, a society filled with political experiments, as well as experiments in decentralized technologies applied to every area of life, would be much more robust against usurpations of power and incursions against individual rights. Undertakings such as seasteading, a decentralized Meshnet, and Bitcoin have intrigued me in recent years as ways to empower individuals by reducing their dependence on large institutions and decreasing the number of ways by which power asymmetry enables those with ill intentions to get away with inconveniencing or outright oppressing innocent people.

A truly libertarian future will not resemble today’s corporate America on an intergalactic scale, only with considerably less regulation and a more stringently written Constitution enforced by a fourth branch of government possessing negative power only – essentially, the society portrayed in Eden against the Colossus. If humanity is to achieve an intergalactic presence, it will likely be in the form of hundreds of thousands of diverse and autonomous networks of people, largely possessing fluid social and political structures. The balance of power in such a world would greatly favor individuals who are hyperempowered by technology. Furthermore, if technology is to have the ability to radically enhance human intelligence and reasoning, then many of the philosophical disputes that have recurred throughout history may, in future eras, be settled by a more rigorous and nuanced framing of the ideas under consideration. The intellectual conflicts of the future are not likely to be of the hitherto-encountered “capitalist versus socialist” or “technoprogressive versus environmentalist” variety – since the evolution of technology and culture, as well as the shifting dynamics of human societies, will raise new issues of focus which will lead to interesting and unanticipated alignments of persons of various perspectives. It would be entirely possible for some issues to unite erstwhile opponents – as principled libertarians and principled socialists today both detest crony corporatism, or as technoprogressives and some technology-friendly environmentalists today support nuclear power and organisms bioengineered to clean up pollution.

With regard to the personal lives of the characters of Eden against the Colossus, my view today no longer necessitates a glorification of ceaseless work, though productivity remains important to me without a doubt. The enjoyment of the fruits of productive work – and the ability to increase the proportion of one’s time spent in that enjoyment without diminishing one’s productivity – are among the outcomes made possible by technological progress. Such outcomes are insufficiently illustrated in Eden against the Colossus. Moreover, were I to write the novel today, I would have more greatly focused on the ability of a technological society to provide individuals with the opportunity to balance work, leisure, relationships, and a broad awareness of numerous areas of existence.

Along with all of these qualifying statements, however, I nonetheless emphasize my view that the fundamental essence of the conflict depicted in Eden against the Colossus is still a valid and vital subject for contemplation and for consideration of its relevance to our lives. As long as humankind continues to exist in anything resembling its present form, two fundamental motivations – the desire for improvement of the human condition and the desire for restrictive control that would suppress efforts to alter the status quo – will continue to be at odds, in whatever unforeseeable future embodiments they might come to possess. Perhaps sufficient technological progress will shift the balance of human biology, environment, and incentives further away from the command-and-control motive and closer toward the pure motives of amelioration and progress. One can certainly hope.