Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Elysium, Meet Gattaca

One of the assumptions of transhumanists and singularitarians is that the wonderful new benefits of new technologies will be showered upon all of us, and that we'll all transform together as one, big, happy human race. That seems naive to me. And, thankfully, I'm not the only one. We're already seeing that these technologies are only available to the very rich:
To illustrate how the new technology allows people to control their reproduction in unprecedented ways, consider a 30-year-old woman (we’ll call her Sophia) from an upper-class family. Sophia pays the $20,000 or more necessary to extract and freeze a large number of her eggs. Over two retrievals, fertility doctors obtain 30 of Sophia’s eggs and freeze them using the current “flash-freeze” technique called vitrification, which boasts a nearly 100 percent survival rate. 
Ten years later, Sophia and her husband decide to start a family. They thaw some of her eggs, which are fertilized with her husband’s sperm in the IVF lab. After five days, screening reveals which embryos are free of chromosomal abnormalities such as Down syndrome and single-gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis, as well as the embryo’s gender. The doctor transfers a single, normal embryo to Sophia’s uterus—just one, because transferring one screened embryo leads to pregnancy rates just as high as two unscreened embryos, and without any risk of twins. If she gets pregnant, Sophia’s risk of miscarriage is 10 percent or less, giving her one less thing to worry about. This procedure will require another $10,000 to $15,000. 
Sophia gives birth to a healthy baby boy—not a surprise, as she and her husband asked the doctor to transfer a male embryo because they decided they wanted a boy first. Three years later Sophia goes back to the clinic, where they repeat the IVF process and transfer a single normal female embryo. This time it doesn’t take; the success rate is between 50 and 70 percent, so that happens sometimes. They go through everything a third time, and welcome a healthy baby girl nine months later. 
Even with one IVF failure, Sophia’s story is a charmed one. Through reproductive technology, she had two children after 40 with little worry of miscarriage, twins, or chromosomal or genetic disease, and chose the gender of her children. The downside? That outcome cost around $50,000, about what the average U.S. family makes in a year. 
The vast majority of couples use IVF because they have no other choice. Most would have rather conceived the old-fashioned way, which is free and rarely involves needles. These new technologies help infertile women avoid the risks of miscarriage and the possible obstetrical (not to mention life) complications of twins. IVF costs around $15,000 a try and is rarely covered by insurance, so these techniques bring much-needed financial benefits as well. 
But these brand-new technologies also allow fertile women to exert extraordinary control in creating their families. I expect the next decade will find many more people drawn to this greater control, giving them the ability to have children later in life, screen for abnormalities, and choose their children’s gender. Readers of The Impatient Woman’s Guide often write to tell me that the uncertainty around conception and pregnancy drive them crazy. True “designer babies”—choosing for attributes such as appearance, intelligence, or sports ability—are still far in the future given current knowledge of genetics. But designer families are already reality. 
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Either way, it’s happening. In my view, the under-examined implications are around income inequality. Will we reach a time when only poor women have to worry about miscarriage? When rich couples will never have to receive the devastating news that their fetus or baby has a chromosomal or genetic abnormality? When lower and middle-class women will have their children in their 20s and 30s, while rich women wait until after 40? And will families like mine, with children all of the same gender, someday signal poverty?
Designer Babies Are Here - But Only For The Rich (Daily Beast)
Wealthy elderly people, enjoying the compound interest from investments accumulated across decades, preside over a rentier economy that’s devastating to the young and poor, as house prices and rents become unaffordable. The inequality and the potential for exploitation that would emerge if people lived twice, not to mention ten times, as long can only be boggled at.

This takes us to another concern he dismisses: “dictators would rule forever”. Is this proposition (if not taken literally) ridiculous? They hang on long enough already, with the help of the best healthcare their stolen billions can buy. Match the political power longevity offers with the economic power, and it’s not impossible to see how a thousand-year life could lead to a thousand-year reich.

What if, beyond a certain point, longevity becomes a zero-sum game? What if every year of life extension for those who can afford the treatment becomes a year or more of life reduction for those who can’t? ...Already, on this planet of finite resources, rich and poor are locked into unacknowledged conflict, as hyperconsumption reduces the planet’s capacity to sustain life. Grain is used to produce meat rather than feeding people directly; the safe operating space for humanity is narrowed by greenhouse gases, industrial pollutants, freshwater depletion and soil erosion. It’s hard, after a while, to see how this could produce any outcome other than a direct competition for the means of life, which some must win and others must lose. Perhaps the rich must die so that the poor can live. 
It’s true that the price of possible longevity treatments, which will be astronomical at first, would soon start to plummet. But this is a world in which many can’t afford even antiseptic ointment; a world in which, even in the rich countries, universal access to healthcare is being slowly throttled by a selfish elite; in which a new era of personalised medicine coincides, by unhappy accident, with a new era of crushing inequality. The idea that everyone would soon have access to these therapies looks unfeasible. It’s possible, as an article in Aeon magazine speculates, that two classes of people – the treated and the untreated – could pull inexorably apart, the first living ever longer, the second dying even younger than they do today.
The elixir of life in a poisoned chalice (George Monbiot) Here's the article he referenced, Will the rich live to 120 and the poor die at 60? (Aeon Magazine):
The disparity between top earners and everyone else is staggering in nations such as the United States, where 10 per cent of people accounted for 80 per cent of income growth since 1975. The life you can pay for as one of the anointed looks nothing like the lot tossed to everyone else: living in a home you own on some upscale cul-de-sac with your hybrid car and organic, grass-fed food sure beats renting (and driving) wrecks and subsisting on processed junk from supermarket shelves. But there’s a related, looming inequity so brutal it could provoke violent class war: the growing gap between the longevity haves and have-nots.

Being poor, in of itself, is stressful because it circumscribes every aspect of one’s life. Scraping to come up with routine living expenses – food, shelter, medical care, transportation – can cause chronic insomnia and anxiety, which boosts levels of cortisol, the stress hormone in the blood. This already makes the poor more vulnerable to a cascade of debilitating, life-threatening ills, from diabetes to high blood pressure and heart disease. ‘Poverty is a thief,’ Michael Reisch, a professor of social justice at the University of Maryland, recently told a US Senate panel. ‘Poverty not only diminishes a person’s life chances, it steals years from one’s life.’

In stark contrast, the privileged in the US already have distinct advantages that give them a toehold into a better, longer life. These range from simply growing up in less toxic environments with two financially stable parents to the ability to secure good jobs that provide decent salaries and adequate health insurance. They live in more prosperous communities with less crime and decent public schools, ample doctors and hospitals, better food and nutrition, and superior social services that cushion any fall.

What will happen when new scientific discoveries extend potential human lifespan and intensify these inequities on a more massive scale? It looks like the ultimate war between the haves and have-nots won’t be fought over the issue of money, per se, but over living to age 60 versus living to 120 or more. Will anyone just accept that the haves get two lives while the have-nots barely get one?
Good question. I think because so many miracles have been showered upon the average person during the twentieth century (cars, refrigerators, washing machines, stoves, televisions, telephones, radios, indoor plumbing, personal computers, etc.), that everyone just assumes that the new discoveries will be available to all. But two things about that 1.) those things were mainly available to the masses because of mass production, and 2.) they did not offer an inherent advantage to the rich, who still got things first and still had better versions of everything (look at their houses and cars). Life extension and genetic manipulation are not mass production commodities, and they do offer an inherent advantage to the rich that say, having a washing machine does not. As Monbiot points out, the average person is already losing access to many of the current fruits of modern technology. Our digital devices are giving us a skewed picture, and besides, given how well those devices can monitor and control us, it makes sense that the powers-that-be want them in everybody's homes and pockets. Radical life extension and enhanced intelligence? Er, maybe not so much. Republican governors are already turning down the Medicare expansion and defunding schools, after all.

Toss in the destruction of the middle classes thanks to automation, and you've got yourself one hell of a dystopia on your hands. By coincidence, this story appeared in the BBC News Magazine this week: Will today's children die earlier than their parents? I'm glad to see someone else making the point I often make - just because we live longer, doesn't necessarily mean we live better:
But though we may live longer our quality of life may be low. According to research led by Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle, Americans often have to cope with a range of medical problems during those extra years of life. They are "not necessarily in good health", he told the Wall Street Journal. Obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and neurological conditions like Alzheimer's are all on the rise, both in the US and in much of the developed world. So while we can expect extra years, they may not necessarily be golden...
And in a weird side note, today Lloyd Alter did a story about a project to build an entire 48-million square foot enclosed air conditioned city for the rich in the isolated desert city of of Dubai (what is it with the rich? - it's either it's the open ocean or the desert). Talk about Elysium!
It's got everything, from hotels to hospitals to theaters to the world's largest mall, and a severe case of cognitive dissonance.

DesignBoom tells us that it's got the world's biggest mall connecting to 100 hotels and apartment buildings, with 7 kilometers (4.34 miles) of temperature controlled retail-lined streets, modelled after Barcelona's La Rambla, complete with a streetcar system running down the middle, with a little Oxford Street and Broadway thrown in and a big dose of synthetic Main Street USA. There is also a 3 million square foot "wellness zone" devoted to the latest hot international trend- medical tourism.
Dubious Dubai: World's largest air conditioned city to be built, covering 48 million square feet (Treehugger)
To which one reader comments:
"What sort of bizarre surgeries are ultra-rich people having that give enough profit to air-condition a city? I think the lede is buried here. Pair that with the new research of young mouse blood rejuvenating old mice, and I'm getting a serious case of the heebie-jeebies."
And Lloyd links to the Monbiot article cited above. I can imagine the young, desperate, unemployed masses from around the world being brought to Dubai and  "harvested" for their blood so it can be injected into the veins of 200-year old financial oligarchs in their air-conditioned mall city in the middle of the desert guarded by robots and drones. Maybe those 200 year old people are producing designer babies thanks to frozen eggs. Sound like crazy science fiction? Well, get ready, because it looks like we're about there! It even has the creepy, dystopian music soundtrack:



If this is "progress," you can keep it!

1 comment:

  1. Well what dayaknow. Elizabeth Bathory had the right idea after all... she just did not live in the day when the young blood could be transfused. She bathed in it, and it, erm, shortened her life considerably when found out.

    Creepy indeed. I hope it's a hoax.

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