Biotechnologies, Eldorado of the century

Reading time: 10 minutes

Translation by AB – July 9, 2023

We won’t describe here the many fields of biotechnology involved in repairing, augmenting, transforming or even imitating living organisms. Instead, we put forward a few general remarks about this technical takeover of the Living, noting that despite the considerable risks involved, it is not hampered by any limits, be they financial, ecological or ethical (as usual, there will always be time to sort out these few “details” later).

Mundus Numericus

And so it is: the exploration of Mundus Numericus must imperatively take up the great “existential” questions, since this new environment proceeds exclusively from the human species, despite its complexity, opacity and apparent contingency. Admittedly, it also depends on what we have at hand – the laws of nature, the resources of our biotope… – but the way in which it is arranged is entirely our own doing, and for our exclusive benefit, to the extent that all our existential anguishes must and can now receive their “technical” care.

This senseless progress has spiraled out of control since number, transfigured into “information” in the mid-twentieth century, came to de facto commensurate everything with everything else like a sort of universal currency. Digital information has thus become the material of a global (and financially highly lucrative) metaphorical network that enables to reduce everything to science and technology, including that last virgin territory where human mysteries dwell, approached until the twentieth century only by art, philosophy, religion and even psychoanalysis… all fields of “de-angst”.

Thus, somehow flabbergasted, we are witnessing the technical takeover of “intelligence”, whose primary function, it must be remembered, is not to solve problems or optimize our lives, but to answer our relentless, anxious questions. We’re well served: Mundus Numericus not only overwhelms us with answers, it literally has the answer to everything. Thus comforted, we let artificial intelligence become not a “liberal” tool, let alone one of deliverance, but a pure mechanical oracle. And what of “consciousness” itself (the sense of right and wrong, of responsibility, of free will…), that still somewhat mysterious phenomenon whose disruption we must now acknowledge? Isn’t it also heading towards a technical destiny (About Artificial Consciousness)? And finally, since respite is never an option for this technological system that can only move forward in permanent imbalance, we want to entrust “life” itself to the good care of our metaphorical network. Let us be clear: it is not so much a question of automating medicine – a laudable objective for which we are already ready to make any sacrifices (in French only: Données de santé, chevaux de Troie) – but of conquering all living processes in general and “register” them in Mundus Numericus. Death itself will thus be able to receive its technical treatment. Who wouldn’t, of course, at any price?

Number-information-driven biotechnologies are undoubtedly the Eldorado of the century.

The technological concern for Life

The digital “tycoons” of libertarian ideology are driven by an exaggerated concern for their own existence (to “balance” the point somewhat, it should be noted that totalitarian ideologies produce the same problematic individuals). Since they have the huge financial resources required to accomplish their projects, this billionocracy installs planetary, technical and informational devices, all of which seem to be directed towards their own existential concerns. But since we basically share the same concerns – for the future, for decay and death, for boredom, for anonymity… – we at least tolerate their solutions, the benefits of which reach us like the remains of a distant and energetic feast (what we sometimes call here an “objective convergence of interests”). So, what ideas do these individuals propagate to tackle death? Each according to his or her own psychology…

Elon Musk confuses his own existence with that of humanity as a whole (Elon Musk, special vassal). And yet, the three main threats to mankind in his view to date are1: the declining birth rate (to which he responds, for example, by mass-producing robots to replace the workers who will be in short supply), artificial intelligence (“With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the devil”, a possible riposte being the augmentation of humans with neural implants from his company Neuralink), and finally “religious extremism”. This last, more enigmatic threat should probably be understood as the risk of technology’s annihilation by obscurantism. Technology itself must therefore be the bearer of hope, like prolonging on Mars the life of a humanity he has already condemned on earth. Musk waxes lyrical: “I think we really just got this little candle of consciousness, like a small light in the void. And we do not want this small candle in the darkness to be put out” (symptomatic transition between “I” and “We” …). All his projects aimed at the “good” for mankind are ultimately technological prescriptions for his personal existential care.

In a different vein, lesser-known American billionaire Peter Thiel is a conservative libertarian and a major figure in Silicon Valley. This individual feels more directly concerned by his personal death. A matter of sensitivity… It seems he has just signed up to be cryogenically frozen after his death2, and he is the Ideal Type of ultra-rich man who invests massively in life-prolonging technologies. As Peter Thiel said some ten years ago: “There are all these people who say that death is natural, it’s just part of life, and I think that nothing can be further from the truth3. Hope! So, these days, will we accept the gigantic personal energy footprint of this cryogenically frozen happy few? We certainly will, since we’ll eventually be able to benefit a little from his treatment…

There are so many others. It’s like a silent rush. Whether it’s Peter Thiel, Jeff Bezos or Larry Ellison (CEO of Oracle) … they’re all investing heavily in the biotech/IT hybridization sector. For example, “aging” research and startups have proliferated. In a lengthy New Yorker investigation dating back (already) to 2017 and entitled “Silicon Valley’s quest to Live Forever”, we find all these fascinating characters and many more, who all speak like this Joon Yun, a doctor who runs a healthcare investment fund4:

I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it’s encoded. If something is encoded, you can crack the code. If you can crack the code, you can hack the code! [ If we hack the code correctly ] thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can’t defer entropy indefinitely. We can end aging forever.

We’ll come back to this thermodynamic argument, misused here, one day, but we can hear Silicon Valley’s gaseous mind whistling on the venerable question of life. While Elon Musk doesn’t seem fundamentally obsessed with his own aging, he is imbued with the same doxa: the world, envisaged as populated by informational agents that can all respond to each other, all commensurable, can be fully modelled (“cracked”), modified (“hacked”), and thus put to rest our existential worries.

Two floors

The Living thus find itself in the crosshairs of biotechnologies doped with information theories. We’ve already seen this done once before with intelligence, cracked not as a classical “reason”, calculus ratiocinator or language game, but as a statistical phenomenon emerging from a fascinating neuronal lattice delicately reproduced at the turn of the 20th century by the Spanish neuroanatomist Santiago Ramón y Cajal (in French: Recomprendre le neuromimétisme):

The "floor" of modern intelligence drawn by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

The “floor” of modern intelligence drawn by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

This drawing visually suggests the neuro-electrical functioning of a structure so complex that it could mimic any mathematical function, including intelligence as such. A Joon Yun from 1900 could therefore have convinced us of the existence of a code to be “cracked” and then “hacked”. In the end, he wouldn’t have been wrong: after 120 years of effort, we are indeed getting monster AIs (GPT-3, LaMDA, Wu Dao… The blooming of “monster” AIs) but also their escort of… “existential threats5, the nice care! Could the technical cure be worse than the disease?

More worryingly, life itself will not escape this dual biological and informatics grip in which Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are now pinning their hopes. Indeed, life itself has a ready-to-use informational “floor”, a well-known “code”: DNA. Santiago Ramón y Cajal couldn’t have sketched it, such is the minuteness of this molecular strand:

Life's "floor" drawn by a computer

Life’s “floor” drawn by a computer

The next step is well known: all that’s left to do is to break this code and then hack it using genetic and biomolecular engineering boosted by digital technology. But it’s not that simple, and indeed, visually, this strand doesn’t suggest any process leading directly to any vital emergence. At most, we visualize a sequence, i.e., a “code”. But then what? The decoding effort is immense, and work on the subject is complex, costly and beyond our common capacity to understand (which is why AI is an essential instrument in this new conquest). The technical care of life therefore requires colossal resources (technical, human, financial, energetical…), out of all proportion to the already voracious field of artificial intelligence. This obstacle may thwart the frenzy to artificialize living beings, but some people are prepared to do anything to obtain “eternal life”. What new existential threats will their solutions bring? We hardly dare imagine.

The “background” problem

Finally, let’s give a possible rationale for the systematic reversal of the technical treatment of our anxieties into an existential threat. We’ll go quickly, sometimes without saying, since this passage ties in with themes already woven elsewhere.

As we’ve emphasized on several occasions in this exploratory notebook, the “beings” we talk about and therefore believe in (here: intelligence, consciousness, the individual, the living being…) manifest themselves in thought against the backdrop of an amorphous, “Euclidean” background, indifferent to these beings, like the leaves on which Cajal drew his neuronal lacework or, in another way, like the silence that shelters musical beings. In other words, language, in all its forms, allows us to say and believe anything, since it detaches each being it designates from the real, proper and true background from which it emanates. Intelligence is thus conceptually detached from the body, consciousness is detached from the collective, the individual is by definition detached from the background, without which it would have no contours (The « Individual » in the light of information theories). Finally, the Living is detached from its biotope, like tornadoes from the atmosphere. When we speak of living organisms, we’re talking about “cropped” organisms that maintain only fictionalized relationships with their environment, based on the flow of matter and energy.

(Bio)computer scientists take these language-cutting operations at face value and, as we’ve seen, can now consider these beings as codes to be cracked, whose hacked models can then romp about without any problem – all that’s needed is time and resources – on the amorphous background of (Turing’s) calculating machines, open to all kinds of digitized phantasmagoria. This derealization mechanism can be schematized as follows:

In this way, a vast mechanized “metaphorical network” gradually spreads out, an over-powerful pseudo-language (quantity, speed…), but which only reproduces what we are able to talk about, i.e., beings detached from their backgrounds or, mathematically if you like, singularities detached from their dynamics (an observation also developed in The Body of René Thom (singularities)), in a word: decoys. With everything going according to plan, the living world is “encoded”, not as a singularity of the biotope, because that’s impossible (for example, there are no words to recognize the biotope as such a priori, before the living world appears in it, and therefore no way of cracking it), but only as an “ontological” living being, defined, detached and, moreover, scientifically corroborated by the molecule of the Living: DNA.

The reversal of technical care into an “existential threat” could result from this unspeakability, and therefore unrepresentability, of the “backgrounds of beings” which, inevitably affected in return by the technological system, resist and “rebel” as follows:

So today, to our great surprise, AI is attacking our “bodies” and, if they are to come, AC (Artificial Consciousness) will inevitably attack our “collectives” and AL (Artificial or Augmented Living) our biotope. This path must lead us towards a more structured and systematic exploration of informatization (this overpowering technicized version of writing) as an enterprise of derealization that impacts not the beings themselves, but the environments that gives rise to them. As far as AL is concerned, the threats to the biotope (roughly speaking, the atmospheric and oceanic layers) are still difficult to imagine, but the considerable resources invested in biotechnologies, the Eldorado of the century, will inevitably succeed in this “ontological reversal” characteristic of the technological system: from a source of (natural) being, the milieu turns into a resource for (artificial) being.

1. Business Insider / Hannah Towey – March 27, 2022 – Elon Musk reveals 3 existential threats he’s scared of, including a declining birthrate, religious extremism, and ‘artificial intelligence going wrong’
2. LinkedIn / Shashi Vidana Gamage – May 29, 2023 – PayPal CEO Peter Thiel Signs Up for Cryogenic Preservation
3. Business Insider / Kamelia Angelova – February 9, 2012 – Peter Thiel: Death Is A Problem That Can Be Solved
4. New Yorker / Tad Friend – March 27, 2017 – Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever
5. (in French) Hélène Jouan / Le Monde – June 2, 2023 – A Montréal, l’un des pères de l’intelligence artificielle alerte sur une menace existentielle pour l’homme

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