HK given secrets of eternal life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am


Off-the-shelf enlightenment, cryogenic preservation and floating utopias in the sea. It's not the normal stuff of academic discourse, but last week Hong Kong hosted Asia's first 'transhumanism' conference, one of three mind-expanding events this month that explore the human condition.

Any why not? In a world gripped by turmoil and uncertainty, out-of-the-box thinking may be just what we need.

'Ultimately one of the things humanity is about is going beyond the legacy condition of humanity and becoming more than what nature has given us,' said Ben Goertzel, an expert on artificial intelligence and vice-chairman of the transhumanism conference's organising body.

While the US sees annual conferences in the field, Goertzel, along with Gino Yu, an associate professor at Polytechnic University, and yoga instructor Kelly Larson, are determined to seed a community here. All three are involved in the two-day Humanity+ @ Hong Kong conference, another event, TEDx Hong Kong, held on Friday, and the Asia Consciousness Festival later this month.

Alongside them are names like Patri Friedman - the grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton - discussing his vision of seasteading, an experiment in floating start-up governments; and Jeffrey Martin, a visiting assistant professor at the Polytechnic University who is building a database of brain scans of 'enlightened' people. The end goal is to identify, then sell, 'completeness'.

But there is no more apt keynote speaker than the gerontologist Aubrey De Grey. His bold claim is that ageing is just an ailment with a cure and that the first person to live forever may already have been born. What could transcend the human condition more than eliminating death?

For the last 15 years he has been researching how to stop metabolism damaging the body and thus causing ageing - via, for example, the degeneration of cells, chromosome mutations and the accumulation of junk inside cells. He thinks there's an even chance that in 25 years we'll be able to extend lifespans by three decades.

'There's absolutely no reason why there should be any limit on how long people live,' he said in an interview.

Sounds mind-boggling? De Grey, who spoke at the transhumanism and TEDx events, spends a lot of his time combatting the 'psychological stranglehold' people have over resisting death. He's heard all the criticisms: overpopulation, dictators living forever, people wanting to die of what they think are natural causes.

He is often exasperated by what he sees as the irrationality of not fighting a 'disease' that kills 100,000 people a day (or 90 per cent of people in the industrialised world). De Grey says: 'It's not about extending your life, it's about keeping healthy.'