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The Methuselah Dividend: Multimodal Mastery
"Once you go down enough rabbit holes, you realize it's all just one labyrinth."
The growing problem of information overload
The world is becoming increasingly complex, leading to a ever-expanding torrent of information that is, quite literally, too overwhelming for a mere mortal to absorb. The combination of this data deluge and limited lifespans is part of the dynamic that is driving the trend of specialization across all fields and disciplines. As collective knowledge deepens, expertise must narrow – a compensatory response that is necessary, but not ideal.
An unfortunate consequence of this situation is that knowledge has become increasingly fragmented across billions of individual brains. The polymath is an endangered species, if not already extinct. It is as if human expertise is a fractal becoming evermore granular – each of us in possession of an already diminutive, and constantly shrinking, shard of knowledge. Thus, while the absolute quantity of knowledge is greater than ever and continues to expand, the ability of an individual to make sense of and build upon that knowledge has decreased in tandem1. “Multimodal mastery”, the second aspect of the Methuselah dividend we will explore, is one remedy to this problem.
In my previous essay regarding unbounded deep scholarship, I explained how radical life extension would enable exhaustive – or at the very least, limitless – exploration of a given domain of knowledge. Here, I will expound on a similar, but ultimately different concept – multimodal mastery. This refers to the ability of a very long-lived being to acquire skills and knowledge across many disparate domains of expertise.
Now, when compared with unbounded deep scholarship, multimodal mastery may seem to be a distinction without a difference2. However, the consequences of mastering ostensibly unrelated subjects will be altogether different than those associated with exhaustively mining one area of knowledge. This is attributable to the way innovations – whether they be scientific, technological, or cultural – are birthed through the interaction of previously isolated ideas3. Before elaborating on how multimodal mastery enabled by radical life extension will help solve the problem of knowledge fragmentation, I will briefly describe how progress is hindered in our world of non-extended lifespans.
Innovation is interdisciplinary and requires specialization
Even under current circumstances, many paradigmatic advancements within science and technology occur at the interface of different fields. The reason that such interdisciplinary research and development is so fruitful stems from the way knowledge tends to become siloed within human organizational structures. There are invisible barriers between various academic fields and departments, companies and career paths, and intellectual traditions and schools of thought. This artificial segregation of knowledge inadvertently impedes progress because it prevents information from readily combining in new and potentially useful ways. Thus, when such abstract compartmentalization is dissolved and ideas are able to combine with each other more promiscuously, innovation is more likely to occur4. Given that interdisciplinary work (by definition) consists of combining two or more areas of knowledge or expertise, it inherently facilitates such conditions.
Of course, under the current regime of sub-centenarian average lifespans, successfully innovating at the intersection of different domains of knowledge is easier said than done. In today’s world, such ventures are undertaken by teams of specialists, each group in charge of some segment of the endeavor; each person an expert in an even narrower area. While this strategy obviously works, there are enormous inefficiencies inherent to such an organization5. I have enumerated some of the more obvious examples of this below:
The coordination of various specialists striving to achieve a common goal.
Conflict arising between different specialties due to mutual misconceptions of each other’s role or importance.
The proliferation of veto power within and the bureaucratization of any effort requiring more than a few dozen individuals.
These are just a few examples, and there are likely others, but the first bullet point alone is enough to make the argument. Imagine just what a monumental task it is to synchronize the specialized efforts of dozens of individuals, each not fully understanding what the other is actually doing6. This is partly a product of the sluggish and low-fidelity nature of human-to-human communication, which is less than ideal with respect to conveying abstractions7.
I do not mean to disparage the entire concept of a division of labor, which – put most simply – is what I am describing here. In fact, I would agree that specialization has been an essential ingredient in advancing our civilization to its current standard. I am also not suggesting that we could rid ourselves of the division of labor in a world populated by extremely long-lived individuals. Rather, I mean to point out that radical life extension will allow individual humans to continuously acquire knowledge and stack skills indefinitely, which will alleviate the plague of over-specialization that burdens our innovative efforts in an evermore complicated world.
Radical life extension enables multimodal mastery
A reasonably intelligent person with a normal lifespan who is also committed to lifelong learning can actually acquire an impressive array of skills. An excellent description of exactly this comes from Robert A. Heinlein, one of the fathers of science fiction. Heinlein writes the following to characterize his idea of the “competent man”:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects8.
As I said, impressive. This list truly captures what a capable human being can be expected to master in a single non-extended lifespan. That said, there are limits to the ambitiousness of such a list, especially when we consider the time it takes to acquire certain forms of knowledge. Some extremely useful yet difficult skills – for example, neurosurgery – take the better part of a decade to master9. Furthermore, many such skills cannot be mastered in parallel, given that a high intensity of training may be required to truly acquire the subject under study10.
Radical life extension allows us to imagine the possibility of possessing countless centuries to acquire a diverse repertoire of skills and knowledge. Let us reconfigure the previously quoted Heinlein passage to illustrate what an individual with a radically extended lifespan might be able to do – a “supercompetent” person, if you will:
A multicentenarian being should be able to raise multiple rounds of children, understand the geopolitical history of all major nations, run a self-sufficient farm, pilot various types of aircraft, build structures in a personal architectural style, write 1000-page novels, speak ten languages, perform orthopedic surgery, understand the social customs of every influential culture, be familiar with all math discovered up though the 20th century, design a computer, cook with everything from mole to molecular gastronomy, be proficient in genetics and molecular biology, and contribute to longevity science so that one may only ever die gallantly. Specialization is for those who age.
This is my construction of what true multimodal mastery might look like in an individual many hundreds of years old11. Now, a civilization populated with people capable of what is mentioned in my alteration of Heinlein’s quote would be incredible indeed. This level of human capital is simply unattainable today, except perhaps to our greatest geniuses, of which there are very few12.
However, this is not even the primary benefit multimodal mastery would offer humanity. More important than an individual being able to master centuries worth of skills and expertise per se is the fact that all of that knowledge would live within a single, integrated mind capable of making frictionless connections betwixt concepts and ideas accumulated over the centuries. Such minds would both be able to keep pace with our increasingly intricate world and serve as engines of innovation unrivaled by almost anyone alive today. This is how multimodal mastery will remedy the problem of knowledge fragmentation and overcome the limits imposed on innovation in an overspecialized world.
Conclusions and a challenge
It is impossible to conceive of what wonders a multicentenarian multimodal master might devise with their degree of experience and knowledge. However, attempting to do so is a useful and stimulating exercise. Narrowing the subjects under consideration into just a few domains and only thinking about the near-term future makes this a more manageable task. For example, by imaging what someone with decades of experience in the following – molecular biology, cooking, otolaryngology, animal behavior, and botany – might decide to do, I imagined a hypothetical (and somewhat facetious) scenario involving the creation of the first four-star Michelin restaurant.
Perhaps I will write a post in the future detailing the feasibility of this idea but, to make a long story short, imagine expanding the human sensorium by expressing transgenic gustatory and olfactory receptors – those capable of recognizing chemicals heretofore entirely unknown to the human palate13. Then, consider creating a dining experience for those with such enhanced chemosensation, utilizing ingredients that have been dark to the human senses for millions of years. Ergo, a feat worthy of the first four-star Michelin restaurant.
The individual responsible for such an innovation would need to have deep knowledge in each of the aforementioned domains (and likely many others) to achieve this. Maybe this example seems fantastical, or even silly, to you. But the only way we can begin to sketch the outlines of what would be possible in a world of multicentenarian multimodal masters is to stretch our imagination a bit. So, if you feel so inclined, I challenge you to leave a comment below with your own such example.
And lastly, I thank you for taking an interest in multimodal mastery, and by extension, the Methuselah dividend. In the next post of the series, we will begin to move away from the purely intellectual benefits of radical life extension. Instead, we will consider how superlongevity will enable the “accretion of wisdom”. As always, if you find this content worthy, please subscribe below and spread the good word:
This is one reason why the modern world, despite being awash with information, seems to bumble from one epistemological crisis to the next.
In truth, multimodal mastery could be thought of as a subset of unbounded deep scholarship, but I think it is distinct enough to warrant its own post.
The most illustrative metaphor I have come across that encapsulates this notion comes from Matt Ridley, who – borrowing from biology – says that innovation occurs “when ideas have sex”. If, like me, you prefer books to TED talks, I highly recommend Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, which expands on this idea extensively.
Of course, there are also advantages. Chief amongst these would be the diversity of thought that is offered by have multiple people with differing perspectives working on single project.
You probably don’t have to imagine this, because you probably work for a company or organization that operates this way. Nearly everyone does, because this is how the world must work given the limits of individual human ability.
Advanced brain-machine interfaces could markedly improve the throughput of human communication. See this very good, and very long, piece by Tim Urban for an introduction to brain-machine interfaces.
"Specialization is for insects” could very easily be the subtitle of this essay.
The typically neurosurgery residency in the United States takes seven years to complete, and that is after four years of medical school.
Unless one is a true genius (such as the man depicted at the start of this piece), attempting to master too many skills or areas of expertise simultaneously risks becoming a dilettante – that is, a true master of nothing.
Of course, assuming the technology that enables radical life extension is unlocked relatively soon, the world will change profoundly in the time it takes for the first such people to become a reality. Thus, the actual list of skills and expertise of someone living in such an altered world is beyond my comprehension.
If you are thinking that increasing the number of geniuses via intelligence augmentation might be a faster, more effective means of propelling civilization forward, then I would probably agree with you. However, this essay is part of series on radical life extension, not intelligence augmentation. In time, we will turn our focus to such topics, which are certainly relevant to the unfolding Biotechnological Revolution.