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In "The Death of Aging," Fault Lines looks at what happens when for-profit companies set their sights on helping humans live healthier, longer. The film airs on Monday, May 11, at 10 pm Eastern time/7 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America. | Click here to find Al Jazeera in your area.
The idea of people living deep into their 70s is relatively new, dating back, according to World Bank statistics, to only the 1960s in the U.S. In developing parts of the world, that long of a life is still a dream.
George Dvorsky is one of those thinkers who is looking beyond the normal bounds of human lifespan. He’s a futurist, contributing editor to the sci-fi publication io9 and chair of the board for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which is a think-tank dedicated to the transformative power of technology.
To Dvorsky, aging is a problem that’s desperately in need of solving. ”It’s a terrible problem, for those of us who are forty plus, we start to feel the effects of aging,” he said. “Aging is not fun, not on a physical level, and not on a psychological level.”
Fault Lines met with Dvorsky in his hometown of Toronto to discuss what the future would look like if scientists were able to figure out the key to radical life extension. An edited version of that conversation follows:
Fault Lines: This idea, immortality, has been around seemingly forever. What’s different about it today, this quest?
Dvorsky: What makes discussions about radical life extension, I think, different today is that it’s transcended the spiritual realm, it’s transcended the supernatural. It was something that didn’t really have any basis in science or technology, it was more of a longing, a desire to live forever whether it be in this world or in some alternate world. The big difference now of course is that we’re starting to have a sense of the technologies, the science, that could make this happen.
And we’re starting to see on a piecemeal and iterative basis the kind of breakthroughs that are needed to make this happen. And we’re starting to realize this is largely an engineering problem. It’s a problem that is being tackled by the medical science community, and it looks very much like by the end of this century, or in a matter of decades, we will have overcome what is human aging.
But isn’t that something that every generation believes—that they’re closer than ever to solving aging? Can you convince a cynic that there’s something real here?
I think there is a big difference between what we’re accomplishing today as opposed to what was done a hundred or two hundred years ago. We are actually, over the last hundred years—actually, specifically, even maybe the last 50—we’re starting to develop medical technologies that are genuinely prolonging life. Whether it be such things as antibiotics and vaccines, and even things like surgery and now artificial organs and so on—most recently of course the advent of stem cells and regenerative medicine. These are on an order of scale far different than what we’ve seen in the past. We have seen the first developments of bona fide life-extension technologies.
Why do you think so many people are so interested in this?
I think fear of death is most certainly a major driver when it comes to our thoughts and longings for radical life extension. But I think that’s also simplistic. If you look at the issue a bit deeper it’s much, much more than that, much more profound than that.
I think it’s what death represents that’s so off-putting. Particularly when it comes to loved ones, and friends and family. The extreme negativity and psychological turmoil that comes with death and loss. In addition to that, it’s the accumulated wisdom and knowledge that they had that’s also a tragedy.
We’re also finding, for example, that there are many sociological benefits to having an extremely aged society. We’re not only talking about just an aged society, but a healthy, aged society. There’s this thing that is being referred to as the “longevity dividend,” which means that if you can extend the healthy lifespans of people, you’re also going to be doing a tremendous amount to relieve the pressure on the health care system, on the order of trillions of dollars. So you can imagine the kinds of savings that are to be had, the kind of resulting benefits to society that can be had, because that’s money that can be channeled perfectly elsewhere.
It seems like most of the people seeking to fight aging, they’re tech guys, not doctors. It’s not like they’re a minority of doctors, they’re a completely different community.
There are many reasons the medical community would wish to shy away from this conversation. One, this is still very fringe. It’s not something accepted in the medical community that you could actually cure aging. Aging is not even looked at as a disease, for example. This is the paradigm shift that’s currently happening—yes, we are looking at it as a disease that can be defeated. That’s the shift that is going to have to be made within the medical community.
Right now, each and every specialist, whether they are looking at neurological disorders or looking at cardiovascular problems, or diabetes or what have you, they’re very focused on that particular area and they don’t necessarily see the big picture of it all. Yet the irony of it is that every one of these specialists is contributing to what will be a therapy that will be used to prolong life.This would be a suite of therapies that would tackle every facet of aging, and as we know, we’re learning on a regular basis that aging is a multifaceted process that affects so many different parts of our bodies.
Eventually I think that once we get over the inhibition or the taboo of talking about radical life extension, and the idea that we can live forever, I think we’ll see the medical community and individuals in medicine start to talk a bit more openly and frankly about the possibilities. It’ll start to become ridiculous not to do so.
How long would you want to live?
Personally, I have no idea how long I would want to live. What I can tell you is I would be happy to live beyond 80 or 100 years. From my perspective that seems clear to me. How will I live at 150? I don’t know. How would I feel in 11,000 years? It’s impossible for me to say. What I would like to have though is the opportunity to know that. Hopefully we can develop the technology such that I can get there.
I’m actually quite confident, as a person in his mid 40s, that I will reap the benefits of radical life extension. Just how radical that will be is an open question.
Do you think you will experience radical life extension?
I actually do. I’m actually quite confident, as a person in his mid 40s, that I will reap the benefits of radical life extension. Just how radical that will be is an open question. What I mean by that is, not quite sure what kinds of therapies will be available to me.
Let’s say I reach my 70s and 80s. Ray Kurzweil, for example, has argued that we need to make it to the “next bridge.” And so the hope for someone who wants to live an indefinitely long life span is that we don’t have to cure anything all at once, we need to extend life only so long that we make it to the next breakthrough. And then that breakthrough can get us to the next breakthrough, and so on. So I’m fairly confident I’m gonna start to hit that chain of events that could potentially lead to a fully realized indefinite lifespan.
What do you think the upper age cut-off is for people who might possibly live to 120? Would they have to be about 55 or younger now?
I think that’s pretty close. I think that over the next 30 years, we’ll start to see some real bona fide life extension therapies, possibly the next 30 to 40 years.
I wouldn’t say to get yourself too excited about it. I certainly don’t want to make any promises. But certainly what I would advise is to start to take good care of yourself. Don’t take the prospect of radical life extension for granted, do what you can to live a healthy life so that you can extend your life to the greatest extent possible. That means everything from healthy eating to being active, and of course being socially and actively engaged.
Paint a picture for us of what you see 50 years from now. Is it a bunch of 100 year olds running around playing tennis or whatnot? How does this affect society and relationships?
Its a huge question because clearly it’s going to affect just about everything in our society. In terms of people wanting to extend, for example, retirement age, this is going to be a debate that will be ongoing and will be more and more severe as time passes, to the point where there’s even going to be a request to eliminate the retirement age all together. At the same time, there will be opposition to that because there will be acknowledgment of a kind of gerontocracy, where the elderly folks in our society will continue to cling to the various power bases that they have, whether it be as CEO or executives in their work, or the accumulation of wealth, or rank. It’s going to be very difficult for younger generations to break into this gerontological ceiling that will be established as a result.
But these aren’t necessarily intractable problems, these are problems we’re dealing with today in our society. We have different kinds of social stratifications as it is.
Should you save a little more money? If you plan to retire at 70 and set up a retirement plan to last the rest of your life, how can you afford another 30 years?
I think that life extension will be quite disruptive to the social support network. And I think governments are going to have to adapt accordingly. And we’ve seen this in our past. I mean the introduction of the welfare state, for example, in the 1930’s, was a consequence of a fully realized and mature industrial age. We suddenly had to have the state step in and start to support its people in an economic way.
I think we are constantly as a society, and as a democratic society, we’re very good at adapting to these sorts of changes. So I think once we start to have incredibly long lived people, and we see they’re not able to support themselves for whatever reason—maybe they’re not hireable because of their age (because of discrimination), maybe their retirement plans were not as full as they had hoped and, yes, maybe the state will have to step in and integrate new plans, new measures to support them. It’s difficult to predict exactly how this will take shape and what kinds of factors would give rise to that, but I think oftentimes the mistake is to look at the individual and say, how is that individual going to be able to support himself or herself in the future. You have to maybe step back and look at is as a larger sociological trend, which it will be, and look at how various institutions and government bodies can step in and make this realizable and viable for the entire country.
You can take a lot of the problems that exist today and say this might very well exacerbate them. Take the haves and the have-nots: As these technologies come out, who will have access to them and who won’t? You have to assume those with money will probably have access to them.
As we’ve seen time and time again, the first generation or two of any technological development, whether it be a gadget that you can get at your technological store, whether it be medical advances, is pretty much reserved for those who have the money to pay for it. So I think that it’s good that we’re talking about it now. It surely shouldn’t be something that will preclude these technologies from being developed.
The mentality that if a few people can’t have it, nobody should be able to have it, is really a facile argument and really should be shoved away as quickly as possible. The larger issue is how quickly can we make these technologies available to as wide a group of people as is possible, that’s absolutely fundamental to this discussion.
What kind of questions does this raise in terms of sustainability?
If you have achieved a society in which people are living an indefinite amount of time, one of the first issues that immediately comes to mind is that of environmental sustainability and overpopulation. Already today we’re feeling population pressures. The United Nations is, for example, predicting a world of 10 billion people by mid-century. Africa is projected to be the next huge area where there’s going to be a sort of population bomb. When it comes to this particular issue what really needs to be understood though is that we are increasingly reducing our global footprint.
It’s not a matter of living space, for example. There’s plenty of space on this planet for all of us, whether it’s 10 billion or even 100 billion. There’s this myth we’re going to run out of space. We can certainly build skyscrapers and megastructures, and you have a lot of people thinking along these lines. We can also, for example, live underground. We can even start thinking about venturing off into space. And this is something everyone is almost virtually on board with. We know that we can’t stay on Earth forever. Some great thinkers including Stephen Hawking have said we have to get off this planet simply because we have all our eggs in one basket right now. But even from a viability and sustainability aspect we have to get off this planet and start to colonize the solar system and even potentially move on to other solar systems.
I think that life extension will be quite disruptive to the social support network. And I think governments are going to have to adapt accordingly.
But more of the point is us reducing our individual global footprints. Each of our global footprints right now is absolutely massive and unacceptable. It’s going to be through the advent of sustainable energies, the ability to create food and distribute it efficiently—all these factors that are going to be shrinking and shrinking and shrinking our individual global footprints—such that it’s OK for us to live on this planet with a population that’s essentially not going to be disappearing anytime soon. But again, it has to work in conjunction with this idea that we continue to find living space for us and continue to live in a way that won’t ravage this planet and deprive it of all of its resources.
OK, since we’re starting to veer into the far off future, what’s the extreme of this sort of thinking about radical life extension? Say, for example, if you could put your personality and thoughts, your brain, your memories into a different body. Is it still you, or is it someone different?
Oh, it would absolutely still be me. I think the seed of consciousness, the seed of awareness and the sense of self is very much rooted in the brain. And if you could transport that brain, however that might be, to a different body, whether it be another, let’s say, biological body or a robotic or cybernetic body, or whether we find a way to digitally transform our mind into a computer, for example. As long as the sense of self has been preserved, and there's been what's called a “continuity of consciousness,” that is most certainly still you as a person.
So you believe your physical body could die, but your consciousness could go on in some other form?
Absolutely. Our sense of self and who we are is not tied to our bodies. Life could continue, consciousness could continue, activities could continue. You could continue to seek out your goals, to engage in recreational activities, learn new skills, acquire wisdom, in a different body. And again that body doesn't necessarily need to be physical and tangible in the material world. It could conceivably be something, let’s say, in a digital world, like a virtual reality environment.
We are talking about the idea of the self going on beyond the physical body. But sometimes the physical body outlasts the self, for example, in Alzheimer's disease. If they can't figure out Alzheimer’s, do we really want to talk about living another 150 years?
I think that neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, are a real problem. And we understand that's a problem because a lot of funding is going towards alleviating them. So many of us experience in our daily lives through our loved ones, many of us worry about it ourselves. And yes the risk is that your mind goes before your body goes, and that is a very tragic proposition for sure. And that way, you experience a kind of death before your body actually finally fails itself.
This is very interesting because Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are a consequence of our ability to prolong lives. This is, in a way, one of the first examples of the health consequences of life extension. And it makes you wonder, for example, if in the future, what other sorts of impairments will happen, when we enter, let’s say, our 130s that we hadn’t thought of before? For example, maybe we’ll start to develop some really severe visual and auditory problems—even more severe than what currently is experienced by centenarians.
So I think there are surprises that await us in the future, but right now, if we’re to succeed in terms of radical life extension, one of the first things we have to do is stop the brain from aging as badly as it does. Because once it’s gone, then we are gone.