Should Technology Treat Death as an Enemy?

May 26, 2019
#tech #life

This post is long overdue, but last month I had the opportunity to watch a live debate between Peter Thiel and William Hurlburt on the resolution "Technology Should Treat Death as an Enemy". Peter Thiel, who argued in the affirmative, is known for founding companies like PayPal and Palantir and writing the book Zero to One. William Hurlburt, who by process of elimination must have argued in the negative, is a professor and physician at Stanford University.

Notably, both participants are religious (Christian), so religious arguments were quite prevalent during the debate, especially from Hurlburt. Even though I am not religious, I am glad that both of the participants were. I think the debate would have been much less productive if one were religious and the other were atheist, because then the debate would have devolved into an argument about religion. By controlling religion as a confounding variable, the debate exposed more nuanced differences in belief between the two debators. Generalizing this observation, it might be a good idea to have similar people argue each other in order to resolve complicated issues, since it is easier to come to an agreement over small differences of opinion.

It took while I think for the conversation to converge on a set of points that the two participants could reasonably argue about. To me, the topics of contention were:

  1. Biology research is hard
  2. Life is not meant to be longer

Is biology hard?

Thiel argued that biology research inherently is not as difficult as scientists claim. He believes that the main reason why labs take so long to produce results is that the research system is broken. Researchers are encouraged to publish results incrementally; revolutionary work is frowned upon. Almost all funding goes to old scientists, even though young scientists make the most meaningful contributions. etc. As such, when biology researchers claim that they produce results slowly because the subject is hard, it is really an alibi to hide the toxic, unmeritocratic, political research culture. As evidence of this, Thiel pointed out that there have only been relatively small advancements in biotech, like CRISPR, compared to the early 20th century.

Hurlburt countered that biology is in fact a difficult subject. As a consequence, researchers need a lot of time to produce menaingful results, but they are trying as hard as they can. As evidence of the progress of the field of biotech, Hurlburt pointed to the revolutionary possibilities that CRISPR brings.

If biology is actually hard, then that means we are already doing the best we can to use technology to fight death, so we don't need to change much about how we are approaching the problem right now.

Is life the perfect length?

Hurlburt proposed that the current life expectancy of around 80 years is the perfect length for humans to experience all three of the important stages of life: childhood, parenthood, and grandparenthood. Any longer and there would not be enough meaningful things to fill up the extra time. He further argued that the presence of death often motivates us to act and gives meaning to the things we do. Without going into the definition of the word "meaning", Hurlburt's argument seems too difficult to prove or disprove.

Thiel believes the opposite: that the existence of death can prevent us from taking action. He recounted a story about how his uncle could have gotten four graduate degrees from sixty to eighty, but never pursued it because he thought his life could end at any moment.

If life is the perfect length, then we should actively prevent research that seeks to prolong it.

PS. The Stagnation of Society

A tangent to the debate is the idea that society as a whole is stagnating in terms of developments in science and technology. This is an idea that Thiel brings up repeatedly in his book Zero to One. Also, Michael Nielsen and Patrick Collison co-wrote an article "proving" that the rate of scientific progress is diminishing based on a survey of Nobel Prize discoveries in Physics.