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What Would Radical Longevity Mean?
Jamais Cascio, 11 Oct 04

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.

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    Comments

    Great essay, Jamais.

    A couple random points:

    1) it's amazing how much longevity incremental improvements in health and medicine have already generated. I think it entirely plausible that most 30 year old people who live a globally middle-class lifestyle (say that of a reasonably prosperous Mexican professional, or better) will live to be 100. I think that if medical knowledge continues to accelerate and healthier lifestyles continue to spread (e.g., smoking declines, transfats become taboo, chemical pollution is checked) living well into one's 110's, 120's will be commonplace for this generation. That's without any of these technological breakthroughs, and that'll be pretty radical in its own right.

    2) I think that if your speculations about radical longevity play out, one exploding field will be psychology. Many people already have a really hard time figuring out what to do with themselves for a decade or two of retirement, but in this scenario, retirement could last longer than one's working life. Similarly, it is unreasonable to expect that people stop dying -- treatments won't work equally well for all (they never do), and accidents will take their toll, and some people will just fade (we've probably all seen an old person do that) -- so those who truly live a long time will find themselves increasingly alone. It'll take a whole different attitude about aging and life stages to embrace change enthusiastically at 110, much less 150. There'll be no shortage of work for geriatric psychologists...


    Posted by: Alex Steffen on 11 Oct 04

    Thanks, Alex.

    The geriatric psychology speculation is almost certainly exactly right (and suggests a good answer when someone asks, "what should I study in school?").

    Beyond one's friends and family slowly dying off from other causes, there's also the question of memory. How much can a human brain retain? What will we be able to remember? Kim Stanley Robinson's The Martians, a collection of short stories set in the world of his Mars trilogy, has a wonderful story about a couple who meet, fall in love, get married, then drift apart and eventually forget about each other... only to do it again, and again, over the course of their hundreds of years of life.


    Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 11 Oct 04

    Ah, yes, the Eternal Sunshine of the Immortal Mind...


    Posted by: Alex Steffen on 11 Oct 04

    Bruce Sterling deals with this as an aside in Schismatrix Plus and it is gone over a number of times in Walter Jon Williams' Facets just to name a few that come to mind. I'm sure futurist literature is rife with examples.

    As far as "retirement could last longer than one's working life." I think the impending breakdown of Social Security is due not only to bad planning but the already increased longevity of current retirees. The economy is just not there to support 120 year olds through 60 years of retirement. Something will have to give.

    Guess we are going to see eh?


    Posted by: Jason Michael Smithson on 11 Oct 04

    This is also dealt with in a set of science fiction novels by Frederik Pohl, known as the "Heechee Saga". In it, humans from a horribly polluted and overpopulated (population: 25B) Earth discover a station left by an alien race, and through their equipment, make first contact, acquiring a number of technologies -- including those that extend life, and those that store consciousness as data, so that one could essentially "live" forever. I think that Pohl explores these issues quite deeply in the six-novel set.

    What a great article, by the way.


    Posted by: j.d. on 11 Oct 04

    Fabulous article Jamais. Over at IDFuel, we've been thinking about the implication of this for designers. There are obvious concerns, like can the current rate of consumption be kept up if people are going to be consuming for 20, 30, or 50 more years, and, as that almost definitely will be impossible, how can we safely switch to a less product-turnaround based development cycle without cutting the global design and manufacturing market in half.

    More interesting, I think is this question: If people are living longer and longer, when will we finally learn how to design for them? Currently, even though baby boomers make up such a large portion of the American market, we still have trouble designing products that don't seem a bit patronizing to them (If you don't believe me, take a look here : http://www.engadget.com/entry/7706026471413347/ )

    I read some studies earlier this year found that people outside of the market sweet spot (21-32 or so) were under supplied with designs specifically for them, and even felt like they had fewer choices that they really loved. It seems reasonable to assume that if people lived longer, and we couldn't figure out a way to expand that sweet spot, we would be short-changing people for a huge part of their lives.

    Hopefully, whatever happens will be gradual. God knows it's hard enough to change consumers minds about buying habits anyway.

    ----------------------------------------
    Ignite your Creativity at www.idfuel.com


    Posted by: Dominic Muren on 11 Oct 04

    The situation complicates as the four possible forms of anti-aging treatments begin to stack up on one another.

    The Dorian Gray is most likely to come first, in fact, I'd argue that it's already happening now.

    But at some point, the Immortal Kids kicks in probably rapidly followed by Holy Fire, or vice versa. The Magic Pill probably won't happen until nanotechnology matures.

    How are all these going to collide? Will some people stick with Dorian Gray until the Magic Pill is bug-free and cheap? Will people just avoid the Immortal Kid because the decision is too harsh.

    And never mind the affects on future global society, economy and environment. How are these potentials warping us now, assuming we are paying attention and know about them? How are they warping our personal decisions?

    Many life decisions I've made I've made for various emotional and mostly vague reasons.

    But sometime I wonder how much my decisions not to smoke, never to learn driving or to own a car, never to have children, to save and invest like a miser, to avoid overexposure to sunlight, to eat low on the food chain, was warped by years of reading science fiction and scientific literature.

    This stuff is warping my thinking now. I don't think I am the only one. Matt Groening may joke about Jeff and Akbar's Cryonics Hut but, reading that cartoon, the jokes seem to be coming from someone who has read a lot about it. Maybe Matt knows something he's too embarrassed to tell us about?


    Posted by: Mr. Farlops on 11 Oct 04

    The most important aspect of longevity is the direct effect it has on the family. The way we deal with old people, even without some kind of immortality pill, is pretty well degrading and unforgivable.

    Many cultures have three or even four generations living under one roof. The meaning of old age is the same as family life. In the US and similar cultures, the aged are sent out to pasture, to circle around a few times before they die.

    When I see this, I have to wonder what the point of radical longevity would be in our culture. We've already got this huge untapped potential, tossed aside like yesterday's technology.

    Maybe the worldchanging issue here has more to do with seeing the elderly as valuable, and less to do with using whiz-bang immortality pills.


    Posted by: Enoch Root on 12 Oct 04

    No the reason alot of elderly are being abandoned is a generation grew old that basicaly couldnt be lived with even when they werent old.

    If your an ass being old doesnt make you any better of an ass.


    Posted by: wintermane on 12 Oct 04

    With respect to the Immortal Kids idea, how do we *now* deal with the opportunities to select for/against certain traits? This selection may be as bltanat as selectively aborting babies of one gender, to the developing abilities to correct effects of genetic damage/preexisting in utero.

    I don't know how we do this now; that is, I don't know anything about the current trends, attitudes, and data on who does what. However, I suspect that the Immortal Kids idea is a variation and extension of this, and we could see some probable choices and trends from what we do now.


    Posted by: metasilk on 12 Oct 04

    Give me the choice between living two centuries in the body of an 80-year-old, or dropping dead at 65 in the body of a 25-year-old, and I wouldn't have to pause for breath before asking for the second. Human lives are unreasonably long already, compared to other mammals; what we need is not longevity extension, but vitality extension.

    Besides, project this backward a few steps. Look how long it is taking us to get over Victorianism here in the U.S. - imagine where we'd be if all the old Victorians were still around, with a century's accumulated wealth and power behind them! The fact that people get old, die, and take their old ideas with them is an essential part of social change. Bad ideas stick around far too long as it is; I'm not keen to slow the clock down further.


    Posted by: Mars Saxman on 12 Oct 04

    "Maybe Matt knows something he's too embarrassed to tell us about?"

    The publicity and interviews that came out around the time that Futurama was introduced suggest that he was a big-time SF reader as a kid. I seem to recall that Sheckley (sp?) was a big influence.

    On a related note: There are clues that SF readers and gaming geeks are starting to find their way into the media. I'm not talking deep-fried fannish types . . . just mildly geeky, hip kids who played D&D and knew that SF was more than Bradbury and Wells.

    "dropping dead at 65 in the body of a 25-year-old"

    That's how things worked in the Brave New World society. Soma consumption eventually paralyzed your breathing centres. Die at late middle age and leave a beautiful corpse . . .

    "The fact that people get old, die, and take their old ideas with them is an essential part of social change."

    Mortality is also a great way of getting rid of assholes, tyrants, and other tiresome people. Some of the extropian types I ran into at SF conventions . . . man, I'd hate to think of them being around forever.


    Posted by: Stefan Jones on 12 Oct 04

    Stefan writes: "...just mildly geeky, hip kids who played D&D and knew that SF was more than Bradbury and Wells."

    The nerds, I myself being one, of the Seventies and Eighties grew up, wrote software, made respectible amounts of money, many of us got married and had kids. We define the culture now. What was once terribly square is now edgy and hip. Game software now rivals Hollywood in terms money invested and artistic talent expended. It's hip to wear thick framed glasses and to look square. They'll be bringing back aviator frames next. The mind reels.

    This has been so heavily commented on that it's almost not worth mentioning anymore.

    Still, the abrupt turnabout is still surprising to me as a nerd at 41. It seems like at times that the whole culture in the post-industrial world is trying to extend it's childhood by wallowing in juvenilia. It's rather embarrassing to see, and I say that as a dabbler.

    Which brings us back to the topic at hand. Is this fallout from extended lifespans?

    When I look it's like this has been building up for many decades, ever since marketing discovered the disposable income of middle-class young people back in the 19th century.

    Our parents don't die so fast anymore. It takes so long to get a decent job now. We are all forced to retrain constantly. This seems to keep us in a subtle, mental childhood.

    Is this going to get worse the longer we live. Are 70 year old men, with the bodies of 25 year olds, going to waste their lives in drag races?


    Posted by: Mr. Farlops on 12 Oct 04

    The interesting thing for me is the longevity/biotech domino effect. Once we start seeing large, incremental advances in lifespan, there is no reason to believe that advances in the technology for creating them will slow down; quite the opposite, in fact. Demand will push the research faster and harder, and the results will come faster and faster. People will then live longer and longer, easily living until the next "breakthrough"

    So once someone comes up with a way for life to be extended, say, by 30%, it is likely that *most people then living* will survive to the next breaktrhough, and the next.

    In other words, once we see *one or two* large incremental advancements in this field, we may be on the long escalator to effective immortality from aging, as a complete populationof those currently living.

    It is kind of staggering to think about.


    Posted by: Howard on 12 Oct 04

    Any life extension in practice will re ask the central questions about what it means to be human.
    The amount and scope of the change is almost incomprehensible. With the interaction of our intellects and another hundred years (or more)of information... the likely culture and worldviews which evolve will be very different from those of today.

    Socially... good grief. The whole way we interact with the world and each other would have to change. For example, the value we place on life. If someone is going to live for 200 years and they are murdered at 20, that's a hell of thing which has been taken away from them. What sort of punishment is appropriate to that crime?
    Hopefully we would start being a lot more chilled out because we've got a lot longer to sort things out, And a lot more to lose.

    Life extension will change the way we look at resource use. Instead of our grandchildren or some distant future generation dealing with problems we create, we ourselves would be faced with the consequences of our actions. This would prompt change. It makes a useful thought experiment as it stands.

    How long we spend on education would change. The amount of time and attention spent on raising children would surely increase.

    Would we grow any wiser? More spiritually advanced?

    Hmm. There's wayyy too much material to spin out on here.


    Posted by: billy on 13 Oct 04

    Radical industrialization and concentration of capital-generating machinery (money) in a small but well-dispersed class of people

    ----> Radical economically motivated social movements based on killing the rich.

    Radical age extension and concentration of medical technology (money) in a small but well-dispersed class of people

    ---> Radical economically motivated social movements based on killing anyone over sixty.

    Never underestimate the human potential to hate both the previous and future generations.


    Posted by: Ben Hunt on 13 Oct 04



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