Interview with Ben Hyink
by Jonathan Despres. Go to the Interviews.
1) Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and what current projects are you involved in?
I just received a B.A. from Northwestern University in philosophy, but I concentrated my electives in neuroscience and cognitive science. The philosophy I focused on dealt with apperception and subjectivity - particularly the insights that Kant’s methodology enables for epistemology involving abstract conditions of human awareness and their (limited) logical implications – as well as phenomenology and other topics in philosophy of mind. A thesis paper I started there remains a work-in-progress, but will address issues of the “existence, persistence, and transformability of subjects of experience.” I hope to finish the paper sometime this winter, or at the very latest next fall since I intend to use it in applications to neuroscience graduate schools.
At the moment I am serving as the coordinating intern for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET) and the organizing Chair for the Transhumanist Student Network (TSN) under the World Transhumanist Association (WTA). I am also the Organizer and Liaison for the Chicago chapter of the WTA. My main activist project for the next year will be to make the TSN organization more formalized and efficient. I’ve made some progress already by adapting and expanding the student guide of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), with their permission as an organizational affiliate.
2) What are your goals for the next decade?
My personal career goal is to obtain a doctorate in neuroscience research, specifically “neural engineering” or “neuroengineering.” I would like to pursue research on “neural prosthetics,” especially non-biological facilitation of cognitive activities in cortical areas. Eventually, I think this line of work will not only help people suffering from brain damage to recover lost cognitive functions, but also offer important insight into the facilitative requirements for phenomenal experience. This, in turn, will be important empirical data for any theorist or engineer considering so-called “uploading” proposals. I think it will also be relevant to the safety of gradual uploading schemes – something my forthcoming thesis paper will also address.
As an advocate of the transhumanist movement, I hope to continue developing my rhetorical skills and sharpening my arguments for use in public forums. Of course, by this time I hope I have left a stable and more effective TSN organization to future student leaders.
3) When do you think will we achieve real life extension?
I defer to Aubrey de Grey for such predictions. It could be ten years, it could be decades. In any event it is intrinsically worth pursuing as life is a prerequisite for all other values.
Governments and people with wealth should be pouring it into his ambitious work. Really, he has been asking for a fraction of what is spent on tremendously expensive and short-sighted space projects (this does not necessarily include innovative, relatively cheap ideas like those of Robert Zubrin).
4) Do you believe in Cryonics and when will it succeed?
I don’t see why cryonics would be ineffective. The vitrification techniques in particular allow for neural networks to be well preserved.
I have no idea when people in cryostasis will be thawed out, but it will probably require advanced nano-scale robotics coordinated via advanced supercomputers.
5) Why isn't the science of cryonics progressing at a rate commensurate to other sciences?
I’m not sure cryonics should be considered in quite the same way as other sciences.
Modern cryonics primarily deals with only half the puzzle – how to stably preserve intricate matrices of biological tissue, not how to revive it (though limited research has been done reviving animals and heart surgery patients up to two hours after bringing their body temperatures down to near-freezing levels).
Additionally, it is important to consider that cryonics research is not funded through universities and NSF grants. I presume most of the funding is through private donations.
While cryonics is a great option for those who can afford it, it is not a realistic option for the masses in the U.S. and throughout the world. For most people, real life extension will not be possible without the kind of biogerontology work Aubrey de Grey’s lab is doing.
6) Which path should we take for immortalism, nanomedicine or biogerontology or ?
Are nanomedicine and biogerontology in conflict? I don’t think so. Human biology is complex, and I think we will only achieve virtual mastery over it by building our knowledge base and strategic plans through biogerontology as we also develop more effective tools to manipulate our cell activities. The second without the first is not very useful, and the first without the second will probably not achieve an ideal (or nearly ideal) level of biological control.
7) What first attracted you to the idea of physical immortality?
I don’t shy away from the term “immortalism,” but I personally prefer “indefinite lifespan.” I agree that persisting subjectivity (or “life”) is physical, and I think some people get carried away with the software metaphor. Therefore, I don’t see “copies” to bear no relevant difference to the persistence of an original physical system. However, in order to make my arguments regarding this subtle and complex issue I will need to submit a whole thesis paper.
8) What [can] a company can do to become successful in the life extension business?
Sorry, but I’m really not qualified to venture an answer to that question.
9) How great would an indefinite lifespan would be?
As I stated before, at least some subjective persistence is a prerequisite for having any values at all. There may be things for which one would be willing to give up one’s life if needs be, but I think it is in the best interests of everyone to minimize the likelihood that we would be confronted with situations with such choices.
In addition to an indefinite lifespan, and the safety precautions that would allow people to enjoy realizing a potentially long life, I think we transhumanists must retain a commitment to achieving a decent quality of life for all. I would like to think that helping everyone to an indefinite lifespan and a high quality of life with basic necessities met and many life options will go hand-in-hand, but I realize that kind of system will probably take effort and resolve to establish (assuming a friendly super-intelligent A.I. doesn’t solve all our problems for us, a view I think too many people rush to embrace).