RSS

Tag Archives: documentary

Considering “The Immortalists”

I’ve been wanting to see the 2014 documentary “The Immortalists” since it was released, so when it appeared on Netflix this month, I streamed it immediately. Here’s the trailer if you haven’t seen the film:

The documentary is mostly focused on Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Grey, evangelical researchers fighting to “cure aging”.  They’re interesting fellows and the filmmakers are rather sly in how they cut together their personal and professional stories. You can watch simply to see two passionate people pursuing a cause in which they fervently believe, or go deeper into the scientific and ethical issues that are hinted at throughout the narrative.

Some spoilers for the film are below, so stop here if you want to see the story unfold on your own.

I was struck by several things as I watched. First, that neither man has done the basic act many people do to ensure that some part of themselves lives on: reproduce. De Grey married a scientist in her mid-40s when he was younger and there was no mention of children with the two girlfriends revealed near the end of the film. Andrews mentioned several failed engagements in his 20s, and when he found a partner, she was past reproductive age. Though the men talk about future generations, it’s somewhat surprising that neither will have descendants of their own among them.

The two men have different approaches to the problem of aging. Andrews points to the fact that our telomeres behave like the tick of a clock counting down: each time a cell divides, the telomeres become shorter.  Therefore he sees the key problem as one of resetting the clock by extending telomere length. De Grey, on the other hand, is concerned with waste material that builds up inside cells over time, attributing diseases of aging and perhaps aging itself to the toxic effects of waste that normal processes were unable to clean. The enzymes to break down that material exist, he insists, explaining that no accumulation of those toxins can be found in graveyard dirt.

After reading that, if I told you that one man had a hoarding mother whose home had to be emptied of tons of trash when she died, and the other runs ultramarathons of incredible duration, could you tell me which was which? Of course you could. The filmmakers don’t rub your nose in parallels like those, but they provide the material for you to find them.

As much as I admire de Grey for shamelessly wearing scrunchie ponytails in public (I wish I was so brave), he sometimes seems overly aware of his brand image and perhaps he’s read a bit too much Heinlein. Andrews seems earnest but grasping, lacking the hippie chic of his polyamorous, heavy-drinking counterpart and desperate to be taken seriously before time runs out.

The parts of the film devoted to questioning the science or ethics of either approach are small but significant. Andrews comes under attack by the scientist who discovered that there is a limit to human cell divisions. De Grey engages in a debate with someone who argues that humanity is responsible for too many problems on this planet as it is, and that overpopulation, global warming, and other problems need to be addressed before we greatly extend human life.  I thought his response to that — that other scientists are working in parallel on other problems and that we do not have good predictions about where things will be in 100 years — was quite good, but I also, like his opponent, fear a sudden breakthrough in life extension.

Personally, I think that life extension research is vital for space exploration and colonization that I feel must be part of our future. I think it poses ethical problems here on Earth, where money and access to Western medicine would decide which populations would first have radically lengthened lives. I think of de Grey’s comment about his mother, shown in the trailer above, where he says she certainly hadn’t done everything she wanted to do in her life. I’m sure that will be true for me, too, but the limiting factor is money more than time. Should a person have to prove that she could support herself for additional decades of life before being given a therapy to provide them?  If not, how will society, economic systems, and family structure have to change to accommodate a new group of super-seniors?  Will super-seniors of limited means be forced to work menial jobs and submit to strict lifestyle restrictions to earn support from society? (Not a crazy suggestion: in some parts of the US, people who receive support money from the government have limits on how it can be spent, may have to work a low-level job unless they are medically unable, may have to submit to drug tests, and may only be able to live in some areas, among other constraints.)

I’m also basically skeptical of preserving our organic selves. Our bodies and brains are wondrous things, but they’re so complicated and flawed. Though I often think Ray Kurzweil is nuttier than a fruitcake, the idea of being able to upload enough of my consciousness to be “me” is more appealing than trying to repair this bag of meat for eternity. Perhaps we’ll discover, definitively, that consciousness cannot exist without a significant amount of human flesh. If it can, however, sign me up for a simplified digital and robotic casing that can be upgraded to whatever comes next. Writing from my wheelchair, I’m not so impressed by my current organic packaging, but the metal bits seem to work just fine.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Health - Mental & Physical, Transhumanism

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Watching “The Incredible Bionic Man”

Yesterday I watched The Incredible Bionic Man on Netflix. It’s a strange Smithsonian Channel documentary from 2013: a group of scientists gathered state-of-the art bionic parts and assembled them into a “man”. The results aren’t completely successful, but as a mainstream introduction into what’s possible in bionics now and coming in the near future, it’s not bad. Here’s the trailer.

There were a few things I liked. The main doctor in the film — Dr. Bertolt Meyer — has a bionic hand. His reaction when he tries a new prototype is fantastic.  A scientist making bionic ankles reveals that he has two bionic legs and claims he wouldn’t want real ones if a wish could grant them. “Normal bodies are boring.” And, the film does bring in someone to be the voice of ethics, to ask questions about human life extension, whether it’s ok if only the rich can afford bionics, and what we will do when people want to remove undamaged parts to upgrade to bionics. He doesn’t answer them, but at least he raises them.

On the other hand, the show overuses the concept of Frankenstein’s monster.  The central idea of building a man from bionic parts — would it have some sort of life? — is quite silly, though effective for showing just how many parts of the human body can be replaced by machines. The short section where they had the creature talk, probably using text-to-speech, was not as funny as they seemed to think it was.

I love my prosthetic hip joint so much that I’ll confess, I daydream about having all my other problematic parts replaced.  Left elbow, left shoulder, whole right foot, maybe the other hip, and hey, can you do something about the tendon in my right hand that keeps getting tendonitis?  However, my father-in-law had a prosthetic leg and it was terribly awkward, uncomfortable, and often painful. The bleeding edge tech in this documentary is not available to most people, nor will it be soon.

Take a look if you have Netflix or you can see a few more short clips on the Smithsonian Channel page about the show.

 
 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Wednesday film – The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (full)

This documentary is a sympathetic look at Aaron Swartz, the Reddit co-founder, activist, and programmer who committed suicide while under investigation for bulk downloading of journal articles from JSTOR. Two years later, I’m still troubled by the death of this brilliant, naive young man. Lawrence Lessig wrote a painful post that is very close to my opinion, but informed by being a friend and confidante of Aaron’s.

“The Internet’s Own Boy” is available via a Creative Commons license, so it shouldn’t vanish like last week’s film.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 4, 2015 in Side Topics, Video

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Wednesday Film: The Singularity is Near (full)

This is Ray Kurzweil’s expansion of ideas from his book, veering off into a virtual reality/augmented reality science fiction plot. The movie is surprisingly cheesy and the quality of this upload isn’t ideal, but it’s still interesting. Some of the film was shot in Second Life, though of course this was a few years ago and the scenes are not representative of that world today.

Update Feb 26 — Well, it lasted for a day and a half before it was pulled for a copyright claim.  Hope you got to see it!

 
2 Comments

Posted by on February 25, 2015 in Research, Transhumanism, Virtual Life in Pop Culture

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Wednesday film: Toffler’s “Future Shock”

I think I’m going to make a habit of posting a film — short or otherwise — on Wednesdays.This week’s submission is a 42-minute long 1972 documentary based on sociologist Alvin Toffler’s vision of the future and how he thought we would push back against it (his wife Heidi also contributed, but she was not acknowledged as a co-author). The film is wonderfully bizarre and the quality is lousy, but it might get you thinking. I’ve also included links below to some pieces looking at the book Future Shock40 years after it was published; I suggest you watch the film and form your own impressions first.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on January 21, 2015 in Culture

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: