Elysium and the Transhumanist Movement

I finally got around to seeing Elysium, and while I was slightly disappointed with the highly transparent story arc, I still greatly appreciated the story; enough to overlook its evident flaws. District 9 helmer Neill Blomkamp does a wonderful job yet again using film to provoke vigorous debate and the asking of important philosophical questions. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the audience who would not be able to draw parallels to current political positions related to health care, and access to services deemed in many parts of the world to be a human right.  But is Blomkamp’s world even a possibility? I contend that it is, simply by way of understanding current trends in the fields of life-extension science and biotechnology.

The Transhumanist movement is a group of scientific thinkers and philosophers whose goal is to merge our biological limitations with the aid of technology in order to increase life-span. Silicon Valley billionaires have flocked to fund the Transhumanist movement out of curiosity and fascination, but also to reap the potential profits from the fruit of its scientific discoveries. According to a wonderful piece in the  Daily Beast entitled The Immortality Financiers: The Billionaires Who Want to Live Forever roughly $80 Billion is spent annually on anti-aging science despite limited breakthroughs.

Larry Ellison, the billionaire behind the Oracle corporation says “death makes me very angry.” This is a common belief held in Silicon Valley these days, as Ellison alone contributes roughly $40 million annually to the scientific mission of “understanding lifespan development processes and age-related diseases and disabilities.” He is not alone, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Russian oligarch Dmitry Iskov, and Silicon Valley big-whig Peter Thiel all contribute billions collectively to Transhumanist science projects.

Take Iskov in particular, who launched the 2045 Summit. The year 2045 is borrowed from famed futurist Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of the “Technological Singularity,” or the moment in time when our bodies will be fully merged with super-intelligent technology, likely granting us biological immortality. This is a seriously held belief by many in the tech community, including Google’s Sergey Brin, who last year hired Kurzweil to begin advanced research on artificial intelligence on behalf of the search giant. While advanced AI, or artificial general intelligence (AI matching and exceeding human-like intelligence) is super profitable insofar as a search engine business goes, it is also useful for life-extension biotechnology. And so Iskov, and his ilk are determined to fund advanced artificial intelligence research through the 2045 Summit, most notably with their Avatar Project. They also plan to research the implementation of mind uploading, brain scanning and advanced biotechnology procedures aimed at finding biological immortality.

Back to Elysium for a moment. Much of the research I just discussed was actually present throughout the film. Advanced artificial intelligence-powered machines scanned the wealthy Elysium citizens for any signs of disease, curing the ailment on the spot. All citizens of Elysium had computer implants, which identified their citizenship status, as well as all of their collective thoughts and memories. Bio-hacking was a common crime, and anti-theft software was written into implants in Elysium citizens bodies. By all means, the wealthy space-colonizing citizens of Elysium had witnessed Ray Kurzweil’s “Technological Singularity,” and were presented in the film as biologically immortal, provided they were not killed by non-natural causes.

But surely this isn’t a realistic goal on the part of Silicon Valley billionaires, you may say. Surely the thousands of computer scientists and medical professionals researching life-extension science and Transhumanist technologies are only pursuing an unlikely scenario. Many do believe this, and so they look at Elysium more as an allegory for modern American health care than a warning for the future of Transhumanism. However, anyone who keeps up on current peer-reviewed literature in biotechnology and Transhumanism can tell you otherwise. There are actual instances where computer devices have delivered medication, scanned internal organs and have aided in sensory perception. Only recently, a lab-subject with a brain implant was able to control a remote helicopter, using only their mind! We are slowly beginning to merge our biology with technology with great scientific understanding. And while 2045 may not be the point where it all comes together, we cannot say for sure that it won’t any more than it will.

Many folks who support Transhumanist science, such as myself, take issue with the exclusivity of the Transhumanist movement. While TED Talks and websites like Singularity Hub offer those of average means an insight into the movement’s scientific and philosophical discussions, it is in practice much more exclusive. Take for instance the opportunity to study and understand the science behind Transhumanism — at Kurzweil and Google’s Singularity University. How wonderful a chance to study and learn about the science of tomorrow, but it will cost you; five-figure tuition rates to attend ONLY ONE WEEK of discussions and lectures at the university. That amount of tuition for one week at Singularity University is the same as the cost for the entire semester of full time study at the nation’s most expensive university, NYU. So the most profound discussions and science of the movement are learned by only those wealthy enough to afford to acquire such knowledge.

But still, you may say that the science being learned by these attendees, mostly executives and wealthy individuals who seek to invest in such technologies, could still benefit humanity. That is what I hope, and maintain to a degree. But this assumption still requires further consideration. If individuals of modest means cannot fully participate in the discussion or science of Transhumanism, they should at least stand to benefit from it. The way we can do this is by making the discoveries unearthed available in an open-source, communal, collective-patent environment. Current medical patent law helps to provide investors with the exclusive rights to scientific discovery. As a result, companies that develop life-saving technologies and medical treatments often keep the cost incredibly high to profit from their investment. As a result, life-saving technology is often too expensive for many to afford. However, it doesn’t need to be this way.

In a famous TED talk, patent expert Ellen ‘t Hoen noted that patents should be reformed, and can be reformed while maintaining profit, and conforming to ethics. Using the example of AIDs researchers in India, she noted that doctors were able to pool collective patents to reduce the cost of AIDs cocktails in that country. The cost fell from $10,000 per patient to $60 per patient! In 2010, the World Trade Organization along with UN Aid, proposed such an international organization on collective patent pooling from her and others research. The way it works is inventors and companies register a patent in their respective nation, but then also register the patent in the international Medical Patent Pool. From the patents available in the MPP, the World Trade Organization then licenses out to whomever needs access to those patents and pays royalties back to the owners. The result is to allow for greater peer-reviewed research on a for-profit and non-profit level, along with access to generic alternatives that significantly drive down cost, all while promoting further scientific discovery and research.

The problem of course is that this patent pool is still a voluntary program. And so despite its existence, there is nothing to suggest the billions currently being invested in, say, Transhumanist science, would ever see the fruits of its scientific discovery entered into the Patent Pool. The result would be incredible life-expanding technology, but only at a very high price.

A great example of life-saving technology is the BRCA-1 gene-test for pre-disposal to breast cancer. Prior to a recent Supreme Court decision, a single company held a patent on genetic testing for the disease. As a result of their medical monopoly, they priced their service very high, at around $5,000. Most insurance companies ruled the procedure a “preventative measure” and thus often failed to cover the expensive test. And even if you do shell out the $5,000 on your own and find you are at a %60 chance of breast cancer, your insurance company will also be unlikely to pay for the $50,000 preventative surgery. At the end of the day, insurance companies will be likely to rule future life-saving technologies as optional “preventative care.” So we must operate under that economic assumption going forward. We must make the idea of affordability the center of the debate for any future medical technologies.

Thankfully in the interim the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that a company cannot patent genetics, since this is something naturally occurring. This resulted in the patent for BRCA-1 testing being removed, likely to result in lower cost for screening. However, modified, or coded DNA, cDNA is still available for patent. And it is cDNA which will likely prove most valuable to the bio-technologies of the future. It is cDNA that Transhumanists hope will unlock the keys to the human brain, allowing for the types of mind-uploading, brain implants, and Elysium-style scanning to occur in order to prolong life and even prevent death. It will likely be necessary for a further judicial battle to determine what is “natural” in this sense in order to understand whether cDNA should also be patent-free.

Thankfully, most Transhumanists are of the progressive mindset. They pursue these technologies because they believe they owe it to humanity to do so, as they truly and adamantly believe death is something we can and should overcome. But their belief does not preclude them from being liable to those who invest in their beliefs. Unless medical patents for Transhumanist science and research is made available for communal research, the outcome of a world like Elysium is entirely possible. Investors likely would want to maximize profits, and restrict access to care. They could make much more by not entering the Patent Pool. And so if progressive-minded Transhumanists truly want to have the greatest effect on humanity, they must begin to take Blomkamp’s Elysium very seriously. If people are to afford to have such technologies available to them, and not only the wealthy, we must encourage Transhumanist research to be entered into the Medical Patent Pool.

Thankfully, many findings are widely shared and published in an academically friendly manner. If we as transhumanists, or even people interested in the future, are to consider the most equitable outcome, we must continue to do so. Furthermore, as the medical portion of this research becomes a reality, we should continue to have ethical discussions on Patent Law and collective patent pools. The only way we can prevent the Singularity being like Elysium versus the utopia its proponents hope it will be is by having these philosophical debates now. And that is what Elysium by and large is, a philosophical debate  about a future we can prevent. And the only way we can prevent such a future is by encouraging debate and reform in the present, long before 2045.


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