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Letters

Letters from our readers.
October 15, 2007

Who Wants to Live Forever?
In “The Enthusiast” (September/October 2007), David Ewing ­Duncan discusses the scientific controversy surrounding Harvard biologist David Sinclair’s longevity research but fails to mention a more sinister controversy, one that exists outside the scientific community. As a bioethicist, I am unhappily aware that many of my fellow bioethicists oppose in principle any attempt to extend the human life span. They think people should accept the “natural” limits on longevity, although they do not oppose electric power on the grounds that we should accept the “natural” limits on indoor light and warmth. As a future old person, I hope that scientists will continue to ignore such small-mindedness and that someday your magazine’s feature on outstanding innovators in the early stages of their careers will feature innovators under 150 rather than just those under 35.
Felicia Nimue Ackerman
Providence, RI

Conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton is profoundly uneasy about the morality of seeking to live for hundreds of years, and he makes elegantly referenced arguments about why such a quest is a bad idea (“The Trouble with Knowledge,” May/June 2007). However, his arguments overlook one simple fact: each new breakthrough will offer us not immortality but simply the opportunity to not die today. That is how longevity has been achieved over the last 100 years: each wave of miracle drugs has helped push the grim reaper back a few years. The by-product of medical progress is that one day, someone may wake up for his 1,000th birthday. If on that day pain lashes him and the world goes gray, he will cry out, “Please! Of course I do not want to live to be 2,000. Who would? But I do not want to die today!”
William Bains
Royston, Hertfordshire, England

On Chess
Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett reaches the verdict that computers are the equal of humans in chess (“Higher Games,” September/October 2007). To the contrary, computers cannot play chess at all. Chess is a game; games are for having fun; computers cannot have fun.
Daniel Pratt
Laurel, MD

Bright Lights in Stockholm
I loved the 1962 photo that accompanied James Watson’s essay recounting his part in the discovery of the structure of DNA (“Letter to a Young Scientist,” September/October 2007). Six brilliant men posing side by side with their Nobel Prizes: five great scientists and … John Steinbeck! I wonder who, as they sidled together for the picture, was more in awe of whom?
Larry Casey
Huntsville, AL

Alieu Conteh
I found inspiration in the most unlikely place this morning. I ran across your Q&A with African entrepreneur Alieu Conteh (September/October 2007), in which he recounts the fascinating tale of his successful attempt to build a mobile-communications network in war-torn Congo. What a remarkable story of vision, energy, and optimism. I’ve enjoyed a subscription to your publication for several years, but this is the first time I’m circulating an article not simply because it informed me about technology but because it moved me.
Bill Cooke
Dearborn Heights, MI

Patent Law
I was very pleased to see the magazine publish an accurate patent law article written by a patent attorney (“Patent Law Gets Saner,” September/October 2007). Scott Feldmann provided an excellent lay summary of the impact, especially on patent “trolls,” of three very important (and notably concurrent) United States Supreme Court patent cases: eBay, MedImmune, and KSR, which many patent attorneys (me among them) had been avidly following. The soundness of these decisions may be due in part to the unusually large number of amicus briefs that were filed by organizations and academics.
Paul F. Morgan
Rochester, NY

Artificial Intelligence
I enjoyed the thought-provoking essay by Yale computer scientist David ­Gelernter about the state of artificial intelligence (“Artificial Intelligence Is Lost in the Woods,” July/August 2007). It does seem as if AI research is lost in its quest to emulate conscious thought. However, artificial life, a small offshoot of AI research, makes the subversive presumption that, as in nature, conscious behavior emerges from the bottom up: that is, it arises from the daily toils of simple systems evolving into complexity.

Two recent achievements come to mind: the entries in the DARPA Grand Challenge robotic road race and the twin Martian rovers. In both cases, the coupling of software with robotic sensors and mechanics seems to have achieved a close approximation of a prime component of intelligent systems: proactive self-preservation.

Even though imbuing conscious thought in computers is not on the radar screen of those in artificial-life research, there is a sense that it may be just beyond the edge of the screen.
Maurice Havelday
Morgan Hill, CA

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Deep Dive

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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