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Radical Longevity

This article was written by Jamais Cascio in October of 2004. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Technology Review reports that MIT Professor Leonard Guarente may have found the genetic factor that allows mice undergoing 'caloric restriction' to live up to 30% longer. It's long been known that cutting down food intake by about 1/3 can extend the lifespan of mammals by up to 50%. Professor Guarente has found that manipulating a single gene -- the SIRT1 gene -- can produce longer mice lives without caloric restriction. What's more, all mammals -- including humans -- have a similar gene.

A 30% longer healthy life -- another 25-30 years, say -- is intriguing, and is on the cusp of being worldchanging. As Alex has noted in the past, a population that regularly lives to (and beyond) the age of 100 forces us to confront questions about work, relationships, family and our society in general. But living to 100, even 140, may be just the tip of the iceberg. What happens when we figure out a way to live much longer lives? Read on for an exploration of this question.

Discoveries like the SIRT1 gene are important steps towards radical longevity, even if they (in and of themselves) don't directly cause it. The logic is straightforward: since new discoveries continue to happen, the longer one lives, the more likely it is that discoveries leading to even longer life will happen during one's lifetime. Even if "true" extreme life extension* isn't figured out for another century, surfing the waves of discoveries could allow one to be here for it.

[*I'm skirting around the otherwise obvious term "immortality" for a few reasons: I consider it inaccurate (an immortal would never die, while someone with a radically long life could still be crushed by a bus); it's mythical (that is, it's a term redolent with symbolism and non-rational implications for many people); and it's presumptuous (even if we figure out how to keep the body going indefinitely, there are still enough questions about how the mind works for me to be uncomfortable about the assumption that it could go on forever).]

It's a good bet that, even if the SIRT1 discovery doesn't lead to a boost to lifespan in the next decade or two, other pathways will. It's not simply because our understanding of human biology is accelerating, although it is. The real driver will be the aging baby boom generation in the United States demanding products and medical services to keep it healthy and active. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies are spending billions on research to find breakthroughs to appeal to this market. They'll be competing with each other to roll out products that do more, last longer, have fewer side-effects, and (ultimately) are cheaper to buy and use. The generations that came after the baby boom, who sometimes find themselves living in the boomers' shadow, will have had life & health extension treatments beta-tested for them.

When improved understanding of human physiology and genetics combines with nanoscale medical tools, we face the possibility of something much bigger than just adding a couple of decades. If aging is largely the result of accumulated cellular insults and the biological processes which evolved to deal with them, as the current thinking suggests, what happens when cellular damage can be repaired and genetic triage code turned off? While such nanomedical life extension is not possible today, we can imagine how it might work -- and it appears to be increasingly plausible.

Of the various radical visions of what this century might hold (including machine intelligence, "uploading," and the singularity), I think that extreme life extension is the most likely. We're starting now to see some of the early indicators that it may be happening in the next few decades. We need to be asking the right questions about what it might mean now to be better prepared when it does happen.

Talk to most people about radical longevity and they'll almost always raise the issue of population. While it may be a common observation, it's not a bad one: many critical implications fall out from it. A growing life-extended population would force us to deal with resource consumption. It also raises employment questions, both "how do younger generations work their way into positions of more authority if the older generation never has to give up those roles?" and "what do people do with themselves when they live so much longer?" What about housing? Taxes?

What about relationships? While many marriages end in divorce, not all do. What does "til death do we part" mean when death may be centuries off? Can you imagine being with your current partner for another fifty years? Hundred years? Three hundred years? What if one of you wants the treatment and the other doesn't?

The economy and power questions are crucial. Who can afford the life extension treatments? Who are they denied to? Are they only available in one country at first? What do those who can't get the longevity treatments think about those who can?

And there are questions about the process itself. How does it work -- is it a single "magic bullet" treatment or an ongoing set of behavioral shifts and medical interventions? To what degree does it change brain plasticity along with overall physiological vigor? Will the aging recipients still think like older people or will they think like younger people again? What about failed pathways -- a treatment that looks good but causes problems a few decades down the road? How can people weigh their decision whether or not to get such a treatment?

Ultimately, there are the cultural questions. How does it change people's behavior if they know that they could live for centuries? Do they become more conservative? More adventurous? Are they less likely to have kids? How do they treat people who won't be living extremely long lives? Do they start thinking long term? Does society stagnate, or is the concept of "stagnation" itself an artifact of short-term thinking?


In Toxic Memes, I explore a bit how much longer lives change the way people think. Late in the book, I include a brief vignette, notes from a young man starting to realize what he has in front of him:

I sit in the cafe at the top of the arcology, looking out over Seattle towards Mt. Rainier. I'm a good "end of the cen" boy, blood full of nano and brain hooked into the global net. So my genome's not top of the line – my parents chose the best they could, at the time. I have worlds at my fingertips and a long life ahead of me.

That's the weird part. When I stop to think about it, think about just how much there is to see and how long I have to see it, I get dizzy. It's like my brain just didn't evolve to deal with the thought of a life lived in so many places and for such a long time. I get this urge to go find a hole somewhere to hide in, turn off my links, and live out a natural six-score-and-ten. I know at least one kid in my pod who did just that, about three weeks ago.

But then another part of me kicks in, and I see the kinds of options I have now, the kinds of opportunities I'll have that my parents never had, and their parents couldn't even imagine. There's another kid in my pod who talks about checking out Alpha Centauri like she's already bought tickets or something, she just can't imagine that such a thing wouldn't be possible sometime in her life. Or, as she sometimes says it, she just can't imagine that her life wouldn't be long enough to see that possibility. She's probably right, too.

I look around at the mass of people here in this arc, and around the world, content just to eat all day, sleep all night, and scrump with their virts when they get bored. That's not the world I want to live in. If my only choices are running away and hiding – in some Isolate hole or in deep space, same difference – or becoming a barely-sentient cow... well, then I need to find another choice, don't I?

      – Chuck Nix, The New Century Sucks And It Hasn't Even Started, 2099



How the economic and social questions unfold is, in part, contingent upon how we get to radical longevity. Four biological approaches to extreme life extension come to mind. Let's set aside, for the moment, any sort of non-biological scenarios -- uploads, singularities and the like. Not that they're categorically impossible, but that their implications are even larger than just living a very, very long time. All of these longevity scenarios are laden with discomfiting questions, and each has its own unique implications.

  • The first scenario is, sadly, probably the least likely. That's the one I call "Magic Pill" -- you take a (literal or metaphorical) anti-aging pill, the physical toll of the years slips away, and you spend the centuries in your healthy twentysomething body. This is a world where the only "old" people are those who chose not to take the treatment, those who for some biomedical reason couldn't take it, and those who couldn't afford to take it -- as noted, the question of access and expense is an important one. This world would likely be the most immediately disruptive, with the sudden re-introduction of populations combining the vigor of youth and the accumulated knowledge (and wealth) of age.

  • The second scenario is the one I think of as "Holy Fire" longevity, after the Bruce Sterling book of that name. If you haven't read it, go read it now. I'll wait. In this scenario, your older body is subject to a regimen of biotechnological and nanotechnological treatments that effectively "resets" you to the aforementioned healthy twentysomething body. After that, aging re-commences, and you would presumably need another aging reset half a century later. This is a world where older people are still relatively commonplace, but occasionally return as a younger version of themselves after a vacation. One possible social result is a "rebirthing" ritual, where the newly-young person voluntarily gives up aspects of his or her previous life. As the medical technologies for body resets would probably be complicated and expensive for quite some time, and therefore slow to disseminate widely, such "rebirthing" would be a strong social moderator on the ability of the long-lived rich to continue to concentrate wealth.

  • The third scenario is, unfortunately, probably the most likely. It's the one I call "Dorian Gray," where aging isn't reversed, but it is slowed considerably. Coupled with incremental improvements and techniques for making sure that old age doesn't mean ill health, you'd eventually see people far older than possible today. "Radical longevity" doesn't come about as the result of a specific technology, but as the result of myriad otherwise desirable medical treatments. I suspect that this scenario eventually results in serious social disruption, as there would be few social leveling elements in the technology. It would tend to exacerbate current imbalances of wealth and power, and would be the most likely to trigger serious push-back and resentment in the long-run.

  • The fourth scenario raises the biggest questions. I think of it as "Immortal Kids" -- a treatment for radical life extension that can only be performed in the early days after conception (or in a test tube). Anyone now alive could never get it, but any child born with this treatment would be able to live far, far longer than previous generations. The choice to live a very long time would be taken out of one's own hands, and will have been the choice of one's parents. How many parents would say "yes" to this? How many would say "no?" If some kids have this treatment and others don't, how do they sort themselves out socially? Do they feel resentment towards their parents for the choice made? How many parents will resent the extended lives of their kids?

    -----------

    One saving grace of the last three scenarios is that the effects unfold slowly. Extending the human lifespan by 30, 50, 100, 500 years (or more) doesn't have an immediate and noticeable result. The death rate from age-related illnesses would presumably drop, but people will still die from violence or accidents. Even as the rate of population growth slowly ticks upwards, the social impact of living for a very long time would only really be felt once a critical mass of people actually do live for a very long time. A world where the human lifespan was 200 instead of 100 wouldn't actually feel all that different for a good bit of time.

    It's very likely that we will be the ones who get to decide how a world of radically long lives turns out. If we manage to survive the next decade, it's a good bet we'll be seeing the latter half of the twenty-first century. If we make it to 2075 (or so), it's hard to imagine researchers not having figured by then out how to live much longer still, barring some sort of planetary disaster. Radical longevity will be ours to choose, if we want it.

    How long do you want to live? If you just want your natural span, would you accept others choosing long lifespans for themselves? Do you think you'd change your mind if you saw friends, family, loved ones opting for longer lives? If you want to live as long as you can (in good health), what are you willing to give up to do so? Would you be willing to be sterilized, to have to give up your accumulated financial wealth, or even to move off-planet?

    Like it or not, these are questions we will almost certainly be asked, sooner than we may wish.

    This piece is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on Oct. 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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