April 20, 2004

Rising Expectations

from - smijer

I just noticed yesterday that David Appell of Quark Soup has ended his hiatus and is back to posting daily about concerns of popular science. He plugs several articles that he has published since he began his hiatus, among which is an interview with Aubrey de Grey of Cambridge on artificial life extension technology. Let me get this out there real quick: I'm no biologist, but I don't think any serious biologist is nearly as optimistic as de Grey about the rate at which human longevity research is likely to yield practical results. I certainly am not.

I do see it as inevitable that life extension research will one day make it possible to extend human life expectancy arbitrarily. Not in my generation, and probably not my kids' generation either. I can't help but eye my future grandchildren with suspicion, though. When the technology does arrive, it will turn the world upside down.

  • The economics of longevity will (at least at first) create a gap between the "have's" and the "have-not's" the likes of which modern politics hasn't dreamt of. Essentially, while the technology remains expensive, there will be a long-lived overclass and a short-lived underclass. How humanity copes with this economic and lifespan disparity will ultimately have an enormous impact on whether the human race survives.
  • The population growth curve will become nearly vertical, putting a premium on reproduction. It is in this way that the shorter-lived class may make longer life-spans difficult for the longer-lived class. Will humanity willingly trade longer life-spans for significantly decreased reproductive rates? I think we will find the reproductive drive may be the stronger. A great moral question: having the technology for arbitrary life-extension, can we forbid its use, in order to avoid radical measures to slow the reproductive rate?
  • The premium on human life will skyrocket. Assuming the technology spreads to every social class, job vacancies in the armed forces will be increasingly difficult to fill. Police, emergency response... will guns be outlawed? All weapons? As de Grey suggests, will automobiles be outlawed?

    This may seem to be a little bit pie-in-the-sky science fiction, but there is every reason to believe that these are all questions that humans will be asking themselves in the future. At the rate that science is advancing now, it may very well be in the lifetimes of our own second or third generation progeny. It's only a matter of time at this point before biologists will be whipping up living creatures from scratch. Meantime, other biologists are busy about discovering the chemical foundations of life and aging. How long can it be before our descendents are faced with the problems of living in perpetuity? And, will they be ready by then to handle them?

    Not if someone doesn't start talking about them soon.


    Posted by smijer at April 20, 2004 07:23 AM
  • Comments

    Good arguments and good questions to ponder...but it might be a good problem to have because there are many who believe that we may destroy ourselves and our planet before finding a way to acheive a sort of virtual immortality.

    Assuming that we do acheive this technology someday, it would almost certainly have to be a near impossible financial option for 99% of the population. But, that could be inaccurate also, you would have to take into consideration the problems that we, as a planet, are facing today and would have to either assume that the problems will still be present or that we will have acheived capable solutions to them, global hunger, polution, war, economic dispartity between nations, etc.

    univar.jpg Posted by jadarm on April 20, 2004 12:42 PM
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    I don't buy the argument that there will be haves and have nots, at least in America. Everyone will be able to pay for the technology, since they will have forever to pay off the debt. They may end up working for centuries to pay it off, but someone will extend them the credit.

    The real problem is that when your lifespan is measured in centuries or millenia, few people are going to be willing to take what we consider to be everyday risks. If you have another 1000 years ahead of you, are you going to get in that can-o-death you call a car? Are you going to risk going swimming? If you are willing to leave your house, you are going to do it in heavy armor. Right now, auto accidents and crime are a small percentage of the cause of death (in the big picture.) If you take all the "natural causes" and disease deaths out, people will be terrified of being killed by a bullet or a car.

    univar.jpg Posted by Phelps on April 20, 2004 06:37 PM
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    I can think of few scenarios that would be more miserable to me than the prospect of living another 1000 years.

    univar.jpg Posted by jadarm on April 21, 2004 09:23 AM
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