The smart set in Silicon Valley, the people who gave us Google, Facebook and other companies worth many billions, have never lacked for ambition. However, they may finally be overreaching as they attempt to solve two of history’s most insoluble problems: the search for truth and the quest for immortality.
Google has announced it is set to begin displaying fact-checking labels to inform readers whether certain search results they are looking at are true or not. The labels will summarize the information on a particular website, who is responsible for that information, and include a fact check of claims the site displays. The fact checking will not be performed by Google, but by a group of ombudsmen and publishers “algorithmically determined to be an authoritative source of information”.
It might appear Google is attempting to assume the role of omniscient Big Brother by creating an absolute standard of truth. Urging us to rest assured, Cong Yu from Google and Justin Kosslyn from fact-check partner Jigsaw told The Guardian, “With thousands of new articles published online every minute of every day, the amount of content confronting people online can be overwhelming. And unfortunately, not all of it is factual or true, making it hard for people to distinguish fact from fiction…as we make fact checks more visible in search results, we believe people will have an easier time reviewing and assessing these fact checks, and making their own informed opinions.”
Perhaps. But more than a century ago, in his play “The Importance of Being Earnest” the legendary Victorian playwright Oscar Wilde wrote, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility.”
How would Google verify the truth of Wilde’s observation?
Yet the Silicon Valley crowd is aiming higher than simply cornering the market on truth – they want to eliminate death as well. A recent New Yorker article entitled “Silicon Valley’s Quest To Live Forever” describes the efforts of several Silicon Valley companies that are spending millions of dollars to create immortality and make death optional.
The article describes a recent party at the Los Angeles home of television director Norman Lear. The party was a kickoff event for the National Academy of Medicine’s Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity, which will award at least twenty-five million dollars for advances in the field of increased lifespan. Besides the Hollywood celebrities, in attendance were the cofounder of Google, the heads of a number of tech start-up companies, venture capitalists, molecular biology researchers, and a Noble Prize winner in genetics.
The purpose of the meeting was to discuss extending maximum lifespan, and to stop or even reverse the aging process. Citing a Silicon Valley startup called Unity Biotechnology, the New Yorker article states, “Last fall, Unity raised a hundred and sixteen million dollars from such investors as Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, billionaires eager to stretch our lives, or at least their own, to a span that Thiel has pinpointed as ‘forever’.”
Arram Sabeti, the thirty-year-old founder of a tech company called ZeroCater, was quoted as saying, “The proposition that we can live forever is obvious. It doesn’t violate the laws of physics, so we will achieve it.”
Once upon a time billionaires trying to live forever was the stuff of James Bond fiction. The analogy behind much of what these researchers and venture capitalists are trying to do is that the human body simply works like a complex machine, essentially a sophisticated computer, where DNA, genes, and cells all have a predetermined finite lifespan. Because so many of these “visionaries” have backgrounds in computers, along with experience of continually creating newer and better machines, they naturally believe the same thing is possible with the human body. This whole enterprise validates the adage, “to a child with a hammer, everything is a nail”. History is strewn with both legitimate scientists and crackpots who believed they had found the way to immortality.
In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote, “Cowards die many times before their death. The valiant never taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”
Apparently to the Silicon Valley savants death is no longer a necessary end, and truth is nothing more than a matter of discovering the right algorithm. Good luck to them on both counts.
But the nagging suspicion remains that elite crowd should be spending less time writing computer code and raising startup money, and more time reading William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.
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