Is death our only option? Buying into the dream of immortality
Imagine what it will be like attending the Olympics in 2248. Men and women competing in their respective sports will range in age from 16 to 212. The oldest competitor is now in his 38th Olympic competition, and young people have complained for years how hard it is to break into some of the elite sports when old time veterans continued to strengthen their techniques and are addicted to the winner circle.
Certainly many of us wish this were one of our problems today.
Over the next couple of decades, most of us will have the opportunity to decide how long we want to live. But while it may start as a forever wish, the promise of halting the aging process will be plagued with tremendous uncertainty, ethical debates, and cultural pressures that few have anticipated.
The first wave of this technology will most likely be very expensive, but it won’t take long for the price to drop and for middle class people everywhere to taste the magic and experience the dream.
Early on we will hear an ethical debate coming from those who profit from today’s short-lived version of humanity. We will, however, transition from those who profit from fixing today’s health problems to those who profit from prolonged life cycles and substantially better health from here on out.
We will also hear from over-population alarmists, limited resource worriers, and those who fear we are playing God and interfering with our spiritual destiny.
There will be challenges to our social structures, pressures on our existing systems, and a constant rewriting of rules for relationships.
In spite of the naysayers, just as we overcame our fear of flying in planes and traveling to other planets, we will transcend our current 19th century thinking on aging and death, and look forward to what comes next.
This column is about what comes next.
Benefits of an aging society
A recent study published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, determined that not only were older people more satisfied with life overall, they were also less likely to be anxious, depressed, and/or stressed out. And the best part was that happiness tends to increase with age, with some of the oldest survey recipients reporting the highest levels of life satisfaction.
While this is counter to what most would imagine, there is a scientific explanation to these findings.
“Brain studies show that the amygdala in older people responds less to stressful or negative images than in a younger person,” said senior author of the study Dr. Dilip Jeste.
Gathered from extensive polling of 1,546 people ages 21 to 99, the older respondents, despite physical and cognitive decline, were more likely to have better mental health than the younger ones.
According to Jeste, “As we age, we become wise. Peer pressure loses its sting. Better decision-making, more control of emotions, doing things that are not just for ourselves, knowing ourselves better, being more studious and yet more decisive are all upsides of aging.
Should we anticipate this level of age satisfaction for the 100+ crowd as well. This is particularly good news for young people as they now have something to look forward to.”
History’s Search for the Fountain of Youth
An ancient story titled the “Water of Life” described Alexander the Great and his servant crossing the Land of Darkness to find the restorative spring that gave eternal youth.
Later, many stories of a “fountain of youth” were attributed to the first Governor of Puerto Rico, Ponce de Leon, even though it turned out to be a myth.
Throughout history, references to a magical spring continued to fuel the imagination of primarily wealthy people who dreamed of regaining the vigor of their younger years.
More recently the dream of eternal youth has take on a much more scientific feel using terms like indefinite life extension, experimental gerontology, and biomedical gerontology to describe the study of slowing down or reversing the processes of aging.
Researchers in this field are referred to as “life extensionists”, “immortalists” or “longevists.” They believe that future breakthroughs in tissue rejuvenation, stem cells, regenerative medicine, molecular repair, gene therapy, pharmaceuticals, and organ replacement will eventually enable humans to have indefinite lifespans.
In fact, a significant number of Silicon Valley thought leaders have tried to recast aging as merely another legacy system in need of recoding:
- Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison’s Ellison Medical Foundation has spent more than $400 million on aging research.
- Since 2013, Alphabet has been working on a moonshot life-extension project called Calico.
- X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis has partnered with famed gene sequencer J. Craig Venter to launch Human Longevity Inc.
- Paul F. Glenn, an 85-year-old VC who watched his grandfather die of cancer, launched an aging-science foundation more than 50 years ago that has funded a dozen aging-research centers around the country.
- Peter Thiel has given over $3 million to the Methuselah Foundation, the research vehicle for the famed immortality advocate Aubrey de Grey. Thiel has also explored the transfusion of blood from the young to the old.
- Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg recently called for science to end all disease this century.
The sale of anti-aging products such as nutrition, physical fitness, skin care, hormone replacements, vitamins, supplements and herbs is an industry that already generates over $50 billion a year.
Even though we’re making progress and average lifespans continue to increase; no one has managed to crack the code for living past the 120-year threshold, and finding an attractive quality of life for people past 100 is still an elusive dream.
Transhumanism and the Singularity
Transhumanists believe that humankind can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations to become “superhuman” and, eventually, immortal. For them, aging and death are the biggest plagues of our time.
Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, has consistently predicted that machine intelligence will exceed human intelligence in 2029, and from this transition point we will witness the end of human diseases including the end of aging.
Going even further, transhumanists think the Singularity will give rise to a new breed of humans that are far beyond anything we can comprehend today.
Setting the stage for an era of indefinite lifespans
As always, we should be careful what we wish for.
Let’s begin by assuming a series of breakthroughs happen and the human race is no longer plagued by short lifespans.
Using indefinite existence as a premise, meaning that we find a way to dramatically delay the effects of human aging along with most of the normal deteriorations of the human body associated with aging, how will this change society?
We’re already constantly changing as individuals. You are literally not the same person you were five minutes ago. People are more like trajectories through some space of possible identities and configurations, connected by an identity thread between who you were before and who you’ll become next.
With that given, someone who lives for a long time will undergo an unimaginable amount of change. People today look back at who they were in their youth, filled with different attitudes and experiences. Imagine that times one thousand.
I realize this requires a quantum-leap-of-faith between a world where average lifespans of 70-80 years old are doubled, tripled, or even longer, but for the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s make that assumption.
Let’s also assume the cost of an indefinite lifespan is generally affordable to most people and few will experience any significant deterioration to their quality of life for most of their existence.
While these are huge assumptions, my goal in stepping you through this trial balloon is to talk through whether this dream is as rosy or gloomy as many would imagine.
Weighing the Positives Against the Negatives
It’s hard to imagine how different life will be when over 50% of the world’s population is over 100. Not all of it will be good and the positives will certainly offset the negatives, if not most of them. But let’s consider some of the far-reaching implications:
1.) Improved Health – Living a super long life means we will have cured most diseases and corrected the majority of human biological flaws setting the stage for even more radical life extensions, perhaps moving towards something “post-human” or even “turbo-human.”
2.) Delayed Death – Our greatest fear is death and our world is consumed by it. We think about it relentlessly. Most books, movies, and television storylines use death as a focal point in their message. But what if death becomes universally fixable and only one hundredth as important as it is today? Without today’s universal death-focus we would be free to think far more creatively and far more expansively.
3.) Dramatically Improved Intelligence – With age comes wisdom, along with improvements to our biological intelligence and the acuity of our sensory systems. Logically this should lead to us having enhanced abilities to understand, appreciate, and change the world in ways we cannot yet imagine.
4.) New Age of Discovery – For the most part, we don’t know what challenges and opportunities super long lifespans will bring. On the plus side, we may have greater contentment, less volatile systems, and greater social wealth. But on the downside, we may discover diseases that only occur to people over 140, have a harder time dealing with disruptive thinking, and cling to things that should have been dismantled decades, even centuries, earlier.
5.) New Social Structures – What kind of relationships will a person’s great, great, great grandparents have with their grandchildren? How intimate will family relationships be when there are 7-10 generations of relatives attending a family gathering?
6.) More Stable Society – With longevity comes stability and the pace of change will begin to stabilize. This will mean less volatility in human-based systems like governments, markets, policies, and political will. History is a great teacher, but it is an even greater teacher if we’ve lived through it ourselves.
7.) Additional Levels of Maturity – We will learn from our mistakes, and with literally centuries of mistakes under our belts, we’ll tend to avoid making the most painful ones again in the future.
8.) More Diverse Economy – Since the needs of a 250 year old are vastly different than the needs of a 50 year old, we will be inventing new market categories with products we can’t yet imagine.
In most cases the “negatives” can also be construed as positives when viewed from a slightly different perspective.
1. Old System Failures – Today’s retirement-based systems will fundamentally break down if people retire at age 65 and then live another 200 years. No one will be interested in life insurance if people no longer die at a predictable age. No more assisted living centers, senior Olympics, probate courts, estate taxes, nursing homes, or senior discounts.
2. Messy Transition – Since we may or may not be able to reverse the aging that has already taken place, a person who is 20 year olds will continue to look like some version of a 20 year old and those who are 90 will continue to look like some version of 90 year olds. Eventually most of the visual characteristics we associate with aging will disappear, but those caught during this transition period will be the anomalies.
3. Family Dynasties – Well-managed families will accumulate wealth, power, and influence far beyond anything possible today. Sins of the past will continue to haunt influential families long into the future.
4. Wealth Controlled by the Super Old – Today’s wealth transitions will be replaced by tomorrow’s wealth entrenchments. For many of the super old, the gamesmanship of being a master manipulator will be their form of entertainment. Today’s puppet masters will seem like amateurs when compared to tomorrows social-chess-masters.
5. Super Entrenched Political Systems – If you can imagine a time when 47 former presidents are still alive, and all 47 come from 4 different families, you’ll begin to get the picture.
6. Loss of Urgency – When people live to ages of 200-300 and our working life is 5-10 times longer than it is now, today’s urgency will become tomorrow’s acceptability. While deadlines will still exist, the penalty for missing them will be less onerous and less significant.
7. Loss of Innovation – Along with longer lifespans will come an increased resistance to change. Family dynasties and entrenched political systems will give way to higher barriers to change and greater political resistance to changing the status quo.
8. Heavy-Handed Population Control – Since most people instantly jump to overpopulation as being one of the key issues, even though it won’t be, look for a series of population control measures to be implemented from country to country including child bearing licenses, extra child taxes, limited paid maternity leaves, etc.
“I don’t mean you’re all going to be happy. You’ll be unhappy – but in new, exciting and important ways.” – Edwin Land
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these topics. There will be plenty of room for disagreement on each of these points, so please feel free to help paint a different perspective.
Roughly 65% of today’s jobs in the U.S. are information jobs that didn’t exist 25 years ago, and over the next 25 years we will get far better at using advanced forms of bioinformatics and biotechnology to reprogram our bodies away from disease, frailties, and all the characteristics we tend to associate with human aging.
To be clear, I‘m a big fan of having people live longer, and I’m even ok with eliminating human aging altogether. But it’s far better to move into an era like this with our eyes open, knowing that the downside may be more severe than any of us suspected.
In my estimation, the odds of reaching a point where people never die is zero. It actually becomes a meaningless argument because proving that someone is capable of living forever will mean someone will have to live longer than the person who lives forever, and that’s not possible.
However, the odds of most people living radically extended lifespans is a near certainty. The progress we’ve made in understanding human biology is remarkable, and continued breakthroughs are inevitable.