Intelligence is not Artificial

Why the Singularity is not Coming any Time Soon And Other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence

by piero scaruffi
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(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Appendix: The Myth of Longevity

The new cult of digital immortality goes hand in hand with the widely publicized increases in life expectancy.

For centuries life expectancy (at older ages) rose very little and very slowly. What truly changed was infant mortality, that used to be very high. But towards the end of the 20th century life expectancy posted an impressive increase: according to the Human Mortality Database, in developed countries life expectancy at age 85 increased by only about one year between 1900 and 1960, but then increased by almost two years between 1960 and 1999. I call it the "100 curve": for citizens of developed countries the chance to live to 100 is now about 100 times higher than it was 100 years ago. In fact, if one projects the current trends according to the Human Mortality Database, most babies born since 2000 in developed countries will live to be 100.

James Vaupel, the founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, showed that the rate of increase in life expectancy is about 2.5 years per 10 years ("Demography", 2002). It means that every day our race's life expectancy increases by six hours. And Vaupel argues that life expectancy is likely to keep increasing.

These studies, however, often neglect facts of ordinary life. Since 1960 the conditions in which people live (especially urban people) have improved dramatically. For centuries people used to live with (and die because of) poor sanitation. The water supply of cities was chronically contaminated with sewage, garbage and carrion. Typhoid, dysentery and diarrhea were common. Outbreaks of smallpox, measles, polio, cholera, yellow fever, assorted plagues and even the flue killed millions before the invention of vaccines and the mandatory immunization programs of the last century. Before the 1960s polio would paralyze or kill over half a million people worldwide every year. Smallpox used to kill hundreds of thousands of Europeans annually (it was eradicated in 1979) and killed millions in the Americas after colonization. The World Health Organization estimates that measles has killed about 200 million people worldwide over the last 150 years (but almost nobody in developed countries in recent decades). Cholera killed 200,000 people in the Philippines in 1902-04, 110,000 in the Ukraine in 1910 and millions in India in the century before World War I. The flu killed at least 25 million people worldwide in 1918, four million in 1957 and 750,000 in 1968. These causes of death virtually disappeared from the statistics of developed countries in the last half century. After 1960 diseases are generally replaced by earthquakes, floods and hurricanes (and man-made famines in communist countries) in the list of the mass killers. The big exceptions, namely tuberculosis (more than one million deaths a year), AIDS (almost two million deaths a year) and malaria (more than 700,000 deaths a year), are now mostly confined to the under-developed countries that are not included in the studies on life expectancy (the World Bank estimates that 99% of deaths due to these three diseases occur in underdeveloped countries).

Another major factor that contributed to extending life expectancy is affordable professional health care. Health care used to be the responsibility of the family before it shifted towards the state. The state can provide more scientific health care, but it is expensive. Professional health care became affordable after World War II thanks to universal health care programs: France (1945), Britain (1948), Sweden (1955), Japan (1961), Canada (1972), Australia (1974), Italy (1978), Spain (1986), South Korea (1989), etc. Among major developed countries Germany (1889) is the only one that offered universal health care before World War II (and the USA is the only one that still does not have one in place).

After improved health care and reduced infectious disease rates, the economist Dora Costa's "Causes of Improving Health and Longevity at Older Ages" (2005) lists "reduced occupational stress" and "improved nutritional intake" as the other major factors that determine longevity. However, work stress is increasing for women, as they ascend the corporate ladder, and data on diets (e.g., obesity) seem to point in the opposite direction: people quit smoking, but now eat junk, and too much of it (and insert here your favorite rant against pesticides, hormone-raised meat and industrialized food in general).

Violent deaths have also decreased dramatically throughout the developed world: fewer and less bloody wars, and less violent crime. The rate of homicide deaths per 100,000 citizens is widely discussed in Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature" (2011). (Even in the USA where guns are widely available, and therefore violent crime kills exponentially more people than in Europe or Asia, the gun homicide rate decreased 49% between 1993 and 2013).

These factors certainly helped extend life expectancy in the developed world, but there is little improvement that they can still contribute going forward. In some cases one can even fear a regression. For example, no new classes of antibiotics have been introduced since 1987 whereas new pathogens are emerging every year, and existing bugs are developing resistance to current antibiotics. On the same day of March 2013 that a symposium in Australia predicted drugs to slow down the ageing process within a decade so that people can live to 150 years, the Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, raised the alarm that antibiotics resistance may become a major killer in the near future. The Lancet, the British medical journal, estimated that in 2013 more than 58,000 babies died in India because they were born with bacterial infections that are resistant to known antibodies.

Drug-resistant tuberculosis killed an estimated 170,000 people in 2012. A 2016 report by the British government and the Wellcome Trust estimated that 700,000 people die every year from infections caused by drug-resistant pathogens. Instead of machine super-intelligence we should worry about biological super-bacteria.

The American Cancer Society calculated 1.6 million new cases of cancer and nearly 600,000 deaths in the USA in 2012, which means that the number of cancer deaths in the USA has increased by 74% since 1970. The World Health Organization's "World Cancer Report 2014" estimated that cancer cases will increase by 70 percent over the next 20 years.

The future promises more biomedical progress, and particularly therapies that may repair and reverse the causes of aging. This leads many to believe that human life can and will be extended dramatically, and maybe indefinitely.

However, health care has become too expensive for governments to continue footing the bill for the general population. Virtually every society in the developed world has been moving towards a larger base of elderly people and a smaller base of younger people who are supposed to pay for their health care. This equation is simply not sustainable. The professional health care that the average citizen receives may already have started to decline, and may continue to decline for a long time. It is just too expensive to keep the sick elderly alive forever for all the healthy youth who have to chip in. To compound the problem, statistics indicate that the number of people on disability programs is skyrocketing (14 million people in the USA in 2013, almost double the number of 15 years earlier). At the same time the tradition of domestic health care has largely been lost. You are on your own. This parallel development (unaffordable professional health care combined with the disappearance of domestic health care) is likely to reverse the longevity trend and lead to a worse (not better) chance of living a long life.

There have already been several times in the history of the Earth when intelligent life almost went extinct; and natural events such as plagues, volcano eruptions and meteorite crashes still constitute a threat to the fragile bodies that host our minds; not to mention the possibility of self-destruction by a nuclear war or by some kind of collective religious martyrdom in the name of some medieval superstition; i.e. by the stupidity of our so-called "intelligent" minds.

Furthermore, the rate of suicide has been increasing steadily in most developed societies, and, for whatever reason, it usually goes hand in hand with a decline in birth rates. Hence this might be an accelerating loop. The country with the oldest people is Japan. That is also one of the countries with the highest suicide rates of all, and most of the suicides are committed by elderly people. Getting very old does not make you very happy. In 2013 the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that the suicide rate among middle-aged people in the USA had increased 28% in a decade (40% for white people) and that since 2009 suicide had become the 10th leading cause of death in the country, overtaking car accidents.

As all countries reach the point of shrinking health care and accelerating suicide rates, life expectancy will start to decline for the first time in centuries.
I watched the billboards in San Francisco announcing "the first person to live to 150 has already been born" the day after reading the article titled "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" in The Atlantic (September 2017), written by psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, that basically describes how smartphones are raising a suicidal generation. A study published in 2017 by Judith Weissman's team at New York University found that mental illness and suicide are on the rise, as are stress, anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, the numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that suicide has become the second leading cause of deaths after car accidents among young people aged 10 to 24.
I am not sure how to count this, but the opioid epidemics that is ravaging the USA is hardly promising for the future of the species. In 2016, about 60,000 people died of a drug overdose in the USA alone (more victims than during the AIDS epidemics at its peak and five times more that the victims of the ebola outbreak in West Africa of 2014-15). In 2017 drug overdoses became officially the leading cause of death for people under the age of 50. In the same year a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in New York (published in JAMA Psychiatry by Bridget Grant) found remarkable increases in alcohol abuse (and related mortality rates) over ten years. The number of people at risk because of alcohol abuse was about 30 million, which is 15 times more than the ones affected by drug addiction.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics of the US government, in 2015 the death rate rose for the first time in a decade. The CDC speculated that more people were dying from drug overdoses, suicide and Alzheimer's disease, but the death rate from heart disease, long in decline, was also slightly higher.

Jeanne Louise Calment died at the age of 122 in 1997. Since then no person in the developed world (where you can verify the age) has died at an older age. Even if you believed the claims from various supercentennarians in developing countries (countries in which no document can prove the age of very old people), you could hardly credit their achievement on technological or medical progress since those supercentennarians lived all their lives with virtually no help from technology or medicine. In other words, the real numbers tell us that in almost 20 years nobody has reached the age that someone reached in 1997 with the possible exception of people who lived in underdeveloped countries. It takes a lot of imagination to infer from this fact that we are witnessing a trend towards longer life-spans.

There is also a shift in value perception at work. The idea that the only measure of a life is the number of years it lasted, that dying of old age is "better" than, say, dying in a car accident at a young age, is very much grounded in an old society driven by the survival instinct: survive at all costs for as long as possible. As the (unconscious) survival instinct is progressively replaced by (conscious) philosophical meditation in modern societies, more and more people will decide that dying at 86 is not necessarily better than dying at 85. In the near future people may care more about other factors than the sheer number of years they lived. The attachment to life and the desire to live as long as possible is largely instinctive and irrational. As generations become more and more rational about life, it may not sound so attractive to live long lives if one has to die anyway and be dead forever and be forgotten for the rest of eternity.

Then there are also many new habits that may contribute to creating a sicker species that will be more likely (not less likely) to die of diseases.

Most children in the developed world are now born to mothers (and fathers) aged 30 and older. As more parents delay childbearing, and the biological clock remains the same, the new generations are a veritable experiment (and sometimes literally a laboratory experiment). Fertility rates begin to decline gradually at age 30 and then decline exponentially, and to me that is nature's way of telling us when children should be born. In fact, babies born to older parents (as it is becoming common) have a higher risk of chromosome problems, as shown, for example, in a study led by Andrew Wyrobek and Brenda Eskenazi, "Advancing Age has Differential Effects on DNA Damage, Chromatin Integrity, Gene Mutations, and Chromosome Abnormalities in Sperm" (2006), and by a study led by Bronte Stone at the Reproductive Technology Laboratories, "Age thresholds for changes in semen parameters in men" (2013). Autism rates have risen 600 percent in the past two decades. While the age of the parents may not be the only cause, it is probably one significant cause. In Janie Shelton's and Irva Hertz-Picciotto's study "Independent and Dependent Contributions of Advanced Maternal and Paternal Ages to Autism Risk" (2010) the odds that a child would later be diagnosed with autism was 50% greater for a 40-year-old woman than for a woman between 25 and 29. To be fair, a study led by Mikko Myrskyla at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Germany, "Maternal Age and Offspring Adult Health" (2012), reassured many older mothers that education is the main factor determining the future health of their babies.

Nobody knows its causes and it is difficult to speculate on the effects, but several studies from European nations seem to show that the quality of sperm has deteriorated during the last half of the previous century. I doubt that this bodes well for the physical and mental health of our offspring. For example, a study led by the epidemiologist Joelle LeMoal ("Decline in Semen Concentration and Morphology in a Sample of 26609 Men Close to General Population Between 1989 and 2005 in France", 2012) found that sperm concentration of young men decreased by nearly 30% in 17 years.
In 2017 an international team of researchers led by Shanna Swan of Mount Sinai Health System in New York published the result of a study that involved tens of thousands of men in Western countries between 1973 and 2011 and concluded that sperm counts have declined 52%. If similar numbers showed up for environmental problems in a certain territory, we would immediately evacuate the place.

Last but not least, antibiotics, filtered water, cesarean-section childbirths and other environmental and behavioral aspects of modern life in developed countries greatly weaken the beneficial bacteria that constitute the physical majority of the cells of the human body. Vaccinations are useful to prevent children from contracting horrible diseases, and i have nothing against them, but the immune system is largely shaped by the environment and, indirectly, vaccines fool the immune system into thinking that the environment is what it is not: as the number of vaccinations multiply even in adult life, we are de facto engineering an artificial immune system and we just hope that it will still work well in any real environment. Therefore health care itself is tampering with an immune system that evolution designed to be capable to adapt to unpredictable attackers. Whether it will work better than the unprotected immune system of our grandparents when attacked by new unknown viruses is debatable.

Personal mobility has greatly increased the chances that a deadly epidemic spreads worldwide killing millions of people.

Dana King's study "The Status of Baby Boomers' Health in the United States" (2013) seems to show that the "baby boomer" generation is less healthy than the previous generation. For example, twice as many baby boomers use a cane as did people of the same age in the previous generation. I personally have the feeling that the young people around me are less healthy than my generation was. Too many young people seem to have all sorts of physical problem and seem to get sick with every passing germ. They get food poisoning the moment they cross a border, and they start taking all sorts of pills in their 30s. I don't see how this bodes well for our race's longevity.

We now routinely eat genetically-manufactured food whose effects over the long term are yet to be determined.

One fears that most of the gains in life expectancy may have already occurred, and now the challenge will be to preserve them. I can't shake the feeling that we are building a weaker and weaker species while creating a more and more dangerous world.
In December 2017 the US National Center for Health Statistics reported that the USA experienced a decline in life expectancy for two consecutive years. The last time that it fell for two consecutive years was in 1962-63 (source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention). If you think that this must be related to crazy habits of US citizens like guns and drugs, think again: in 2016 life expectancy also declined in Italy, one of the countries that traditionally tops the lists of longevity (as i am typing, the oldest person in the world is an Italian woman). If you think that this was caused by the opioid epidemics, a study by Steven Woolf's team at Virginia Commonwealth University that looked at data between 1999 and 2016 showed that all cause mortality in midlife increased among all racial groups of the USA ("Changes in Midlife Death Rates Across Racial and Ethnic Groups in the United States", 2018). The USA, where studies on longevity tend to be concentrated, has the lowest life expectancy among high-income countries, and life expectancy is even decreasing, obviously a sign that, so far, researching longevity is not the right way to achieve longevity. Ironically, life expectancy is higher in Hiroshima (where people had to live with nuclear radiations after 1945) than in the USA (sources: Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare and US Center for Disease Control and Prevention) which to me means that all the modern scientific progress in medicine is irrelevant compared with genetic, cultural and/or dietary factors.

I was fascinated in 2016 when i saw at the same time two recent statistics, one (by the Pew Research Center) about the exponential growth of social media and the other (by the Center for Disease Control) about suicide rates. The number of suicides in the USA has been rising since 1999 in every age group and for both sexes. The rate of suicide has increased from 10.5 per 100,000 in 1999 to 13 per 100,000 in 2014. A study by David Lester, one of the world's experts in suicide statistics, published in 2002 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, noted a decline in the overall suicide rate between 1987 and 1997. So the suicide rate in the USA declined until 1997, then it started rising again. The coincidence is interesting: 1997 is the year that the first social network, Six Degrees, was launched.

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