Sam Harris is an American New York Times bestselling author and neuroscientist who has spoken publicly on artificial intelligence and life extension and is a donor to the Future of Life Institute.
In June 2016, Harris gave a TED talk about AI risk. In it, he argued that humanity should put more serious thought into the potential threat posed by a superintelligent AI. Harris highlighted what he saw as the public's inability to take the topic seriously because it seems "cool" and "fun". He claimed that superhuman AI is likely as long as humanity continues to improve artificial intelligence, even without exponential growth.
On his podcast in March 2016, Harris answered a listener question about life extension. Here, he supported the work of Aubrey de Grey, agreeing with him that biological immortality is desirable and "probably is, in principle, possible." However, Harris hesitated to agree with de Grey's optimistic timeline.
|Podcast Excerpt 1|
|What are your thoughts on immortality, or at least living a very, very long time, as pursued by researchers like Aubrey de Grey? Do you think it’s possible? Do you think it’s desirable?
Aubrey – if you’re not familiar with Aubrey de Grey, you should watch some of his talks. I think he’s given two TED talks. He has some very good arguments against people’s ethical intuitions here. Many people will seem to think that, if we could cure aging and death and become immortal or live thousands of years, that there’s something unethical about that project – that it’s… it’s either so unnatural as to be unethical or it represents some sort of selfishness that we should be suspicious of. I think Aubrey’s rejoinder to those intuitions is compelling.
As to whether it’s possible – I think it probably is, in principle, possible. I think, you know, Aubrey describes aging as an engineering problem. There are not that many ways, in the end, to grow old and die. I think he points to seven different ways in which our bodies begin to break down. There – cancer is one of those ways, the depositing of junk inside of cells or between cells is another way. There are just not that many ways that an old person on the verge of death differs from a person in the prime of his or her life. So, I agree that, if we understood those ways completely, and we could intervene biochemically and make the necessary changes, well, then, we may find that aging is now no longer a problem. We can keep repairing ourselves, and I think that would be a good thing. Y’know, I think, a-heh, as Aubrey argues, aging is the worst thing that there is, and the only reason why anyone’s tempted to accept it is because it… it appears currently unavoidable, but, if you think that Alzheimer’s should be cured and you think cancer should be cured, well, then, aging is the super-problem you should want solved, because each of these evils, along with many others, are mere symptoms of aging.
Yeah, I agree with Aubrey. Yeah, I think, if there’s any way in which I’m skeptical of his discussion of this topic, it may be just a basic uncertainty about whether he’s too optimistic about the… the timeline here, but I think it’s a… an incredibly interesting area to work in, and I think the taboos around declaring one’s intent to cure aging are fascinating, both ethically and culturally, and I think Aubrey, um, has said some very, uh, useful things in that area.
In a February 2017 episode of the podcast, Harris replied to a similar inquiry at greater length. He said that he thought increasingly of aging as problematic, and he suggested that negative public opinion of life extension is faulty, illustrated by people wanting to cure age-related disease while frowning on curing aging itself. He outlined Aubrey de Grey's belief of how some people alive today will live centuries or longer, but Harris doubted that he himself would live 1000 years. Imagining the arrival of biological immortality, Harris predicted additional societal problems and increased poignancy of death by violence or accident. However, he also raised the prospect of more knowledge and wisdom, less religious and nihilistic thinking, and more focus on long-term problems such as climate change.
|Podcast Excerpt 2|
|I’d like to hear your thoughts about the ethics of the anti-aging movement, led by organizations such as the SENS Foundation, Human Longevity Inc., and so on.
Well, I think aging is a problem – I think that more and more everyday. And it would be nice if there was something that we could do about it.
No doubt, the fact that this is controversial in some circles is interesting. I think, um, Aubrey de Grey has done a lot of very useful work on that point. I’m not speaking so much about his… his argument that aging is a solvable engineering problem and should be viewed as a kind of master disease that needs to be cured above all others. I… I… I think that I… I’m kind of, um, agnostic about that point – it seems reasonable to me. But I’m thinking more of the ethical arguments he’s made in, uh, I think a few TED talks now, and in his book.
People have this intuition, which seems a faulty one, that there’s something terribly selfish about not wanting to die – that is, ever. There’s something disreputable about aspirating to cheat death, permanently, right? So, they support curing cancer, right? That’s a good thing. They support curing heart disease. Uh, that would be a good thing. They would support curing Alzheimer’s, right? That would be a good thing. You could make the list of diseases as long as you want, and they’re for it, but if you add to that list aging itself – right – which is part and parcel of all of these problems, people seem to think, “No, no, that is a moral failure to accept mortality. That is a defect of character. That is a kind of selfishness that we should repudiate. We have a moral obligation to cede the stage to future generations.”
I don’t get that, and… and Aubrey de Grey certainly doesn’t get that, and he manages to lampoon that and… and… and show the internal contradictions to that pretty well in his talks, so I recommend those to you.
Yeah, it seems only natural to want to solve this problem. And I think you really can make a credible case that we should expect to at some point. There are only so many different ways to die. There are only so many different ways to degrade and cease to function as well as it did yesterday. And with respect to aging itself, there are really only seven things that happen, on Aubrey’s account. And it seems reasonable to expect that, at some point, we can figure out how to engineer changes in the human body, or develop therapies that will allow us to repair ourselves.
Now, this would obviously be a very different world, and there are obvious ethical concerns about wealth inequality being the doorway to a kind of death inequality. No doubt, these treatments would initially be very expensive. It would also make death by other forms of bad luck, uh, that much more poignant.
I mean, imagine if we solved aging as a problem. We’ve completely cracked the code of DNA repair. Y’know, there’s no cancer anymore. We can keep our brains healthy indefinitely. No reason at all for you to not expect to live a thousand years. Except it’s still possible to be run over by a bus, right? So, just think of how much more depressing it would be to be cut down in the prime of your life, when the prime of your life could be a thousand years long.
There are other problems to worry about. There’s overpopulation, there’s the decision not to have kids because of that – but if we’re starting to colonize the rest of the solar system and push out toward the stars, who knows if overpopulation would really become a problem under those conditions? Against those questions, you have to put the prospect of our becoming more and more knowledgeable and wiser. I mean, imagine how good of a person you could become in a thousand years.
Also, I think not having to take death for granted in quite the same way would weaken the hold that religion has on the human mind, and we would begin to see that, yeah, there really is an opportunity here – in fact, the only opportunity that we can be sure of – to make human life and human consciousness as beautiful and profound as possible. And that opportunity would be more compelling to people, I think, if our mortality weren’t guaranteed.
The fact that you can be more or less certain you will die within a century – no matter what you do, no matter how you live – that seems to justify the kind of nihilism and otherworldliness that vitiates so much ethical or quasi-ethical thinking. It seems to me that people have terrible intuitions about right and wrong and about how they should live in this world, based on either the notion that nothing really matters – ‘cause it all comes to an end – or the notion that there’s a much better place to get to after death.
And curing aging would create a circumstance here where people could reasonably expect to have to live with the consequences of human behaviour – y’know, both our successes and failures – for much longer time, and therefore be motivated to solve problems that have a time horizon of many decades and even centuries. I mean, this is what’s so difficult about a problem like climate change: even for those who think it’s an actual problem, it’s hard to be motivated by it, and even having kids is not enough.
So, I don’t know. Who knows if we will get there? I’m not especially skeptical that we will, but I’m not, um… I’m certainly not expecting to live a thousand years. I should… I should probably just have Aubrey de Grey on the podcast at some point, ‘cause he’s… he’s a very interesting guy.
But he talks about having reached escape velocity at this point, and he thinks that some people now alive will in fact live for centuries, if not longer, because they will… they’re part of the… the cohort that has achieved escape velocity so that the improvements that will come in life extension within their lifetime will extend their lives long enough so that they can be around for the next wave of improvements. There’ll be a breakthrough tomorrow, say, that will add a reliable 20 years to human life, right? And if… and if you’re enough now, those 20 years will be enough to keep you around until we have a breakthrough that adds 40 more years to human life. And if you were young enough when that breakthrough came, you’re going to be around for the next… for the extra century update, and so it will go.
And, again, all of this makes a bus accident or an arrow to the head all the more poignant. Uh, presumably there’ll still be such a thing as death under the conditions of having solved the problem of aging. But, um, this remains to be seen.
- Sam Harris | Speaker | TED.com. "Neuroscientist, philosopher [...] Sam Harris is the author of five New York Times bestsellers. [...] Harris's writing and public lectures cover a wide range of topics -- neuroscience, moral philosophy, religion, spirituality, violence, human reasoning -- but generally focus on how a growing understanding of ourselves and the world is changing our sense of how we should live. [...] Harris received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA."
- Jeff Sparrow. "We can save atheism from the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris". The Guardian. 29 November 2015. "Then there’s the author, philosopher, and neuroscientist Sam Harris – another New Atheist luminary."
- Team - Future of Life Institute.
- Sam Harris. "Can we build AI without losing control over it?". TED. YouTube. June 2016.
- “Ask Me Anything 4”. Waking Up with Sam Harris (Episode 33). 18:06–20:46.
- “Ask Me Anything 6”. Waking Up with Sam Harris (Episode 64). 43:17–50:49.