domingo, 15 de mayo de 2016

BioEdge: One of America’s finest novelists tackles life extension [NEW SECTION OF "HUMANISMS"] once in a while

BioEdge: One of America’s finest novelists tackles life extension

One of America’s finest novelists tackles life extension
“We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?” -- Zero K 

Immortality through cryonics is the central plot device in the latest novel by Don De Lillo, one of America’s best writers. Zero K takes the reader to a remote secret compound called “the Convergence” where bodies are frozen until a technology is developed to awaken them.

A billionaire takes his dying wife there to be frozen and has to decide whether he will join her, even though he is healthy, or whether he will live on, battling against existential doubt and a loveless life. The story is narrated by his son who is sceptical of the promises of the cult of frozen immortality and returns to New York in the second half of the novel.

The Convergence is a elaborate pastiche of the real-life  Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, where 144 heads and bodies along with a few dozen pets are currently stored in liquid nitrogen awaiting resurrection.

The setting of his 16th novel gives De Lillo abundant opportunity for his signature reflections on life, death, commercialism, branding, marriage and the loneliness and alienation of post-modern living. As most reviewers have pointed out, the 79-year-old author is reflecting on his own mortality as well. 
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The Global Priorities Project and the Future of Humanity Institute, both based at Oxford University, recently produced a Global Catastrophic Risk 2016 report. It’s less gripping than the Left Behind novels about the Second Coming of Christ (with titles like The Rapture: In the Twinkling of an Eye/Countdown to the Earth's Last Days), but, in its own dry, detached way, no less scary.
According to the Oxford experts’ calculations, extinction of the whole human race is reasonably likely.  Scientists have suggested that the risk is 0.1% per year, and perhaps as much as 0.2%. While this may not seem worthwhile worrying about, these figures actually imply, says the report, that “an individual would be more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event than a car crash”.
What sort of calamities are we talking about? Collision with an asteroid, the eruption of a super-volcano, extreme climate change, a bio-engineered pandemic, or even a super-intelligent computer declaring war on wetware humanity.
Tiny probabilities add up, so that the chance of extinction in the next century is 9.5% -- which is worth worrying about. And of course, a mere global catastrophe, involving the death of a tenth of the population, is far more likely. That is a very startling statistic.
However, even at Oxford they make mistakes. Within days of issuing the Global Catastrophic Risk 2016 report, the experts were eating humble pie. A mathematician reviewed its calculations and concluded that “the Future of Humanity Institute seems very confused re: the future of humanity”. The authors had to give more nuance and context to their most startling statistic. It doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the ethics of existential risk. 

Michael Cook

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