Thoughts on the Future pt. 3

I feel that both parts 1 and 2 within this ongoing “Thoughts on the Future” series were sufficiently broad in their focus to lay the groundwork for more specific discussion.  In part 1 I discussed how we can use exponential modeling of our past to predict future meta-system transitions in the future.  In part 2 I discussed how dystopian futuristic narratives tend to follow a simple and flawed logical structure.  In part 3, I would like to start analyzing important research in the biological sciences that indicate our species will achieve radical life extension this century.

Humanity has long dreamed of radical life extension or biological immortality.  There are several myths from ancient times that reflect our deep desire to prevent aging and conquer death.  Biologist Aubrey de Grey shares our ancestor’s desire, but unlike them, he seems to have developed a plausible roadmap towards achieving this goal.

Aubrey de Gray

According to de Grey, our species is currently within a global trance.  Almost everyone believes that aging is undesirable, but everyone also believes that aging is inevitable.  Therefore, everyone logically deals with this reality by putting aging and death out of our minds and forgetting about it.  However, this leads to a lack of research funding and general public skepticism of research focused on “curing” aging.

From my perspective, I have always viewed aging as a disease of sorts.  And I have also thought it logical to assume that if intense and regular maintenance could keep a building, car, or any general object indefinitely in tact and functioning properly, then we could apply the same principles to an individual human.  Of course, many have argued that this analogy is useless because it fails to acknowledge the distinction between maintenance of living and non-living things.  However, recent research by de Grey and others has revealed that it is in principle possible to live indefinitely through advanced biological maintenance.

The Roadmap

According to de Grey there are 7 major causes of aging at the cellular level: cell loss/atrophy, death-resistant cells, nuclear mutations and epimutations, mtDNA mutations, protein crosslinks, junk inside cells, and junk outside cells.  Furthermore, de Grey argues that these causes of aging have been known for several decades, which indicates that we are unlikely to discover any other causes.  And to make matters even more promising, biologists have also developed a theoretical grasp on how to prevent and/or reverse these causes of aging.

So now it is time for action.

The action comes in the form of the Methuselah Foundation, which is a non-profit organization co-founded by de Grey to radically extend the lifespan of our species.  Through this organization, de Grey has been helping to fund research on robust mouse rejuvenation (RMJ).  The average lifespan of a mouse is 2 years, and RMJ is an attempt to dramatically extend that lifespan so that we can, in principle, apply the same methods to humans.  However, to make this research applicable to humans of all ages, researchers must not attempt to reverse aging in mice until they are approaching death.  So far, a few teams have successfully doubled the life expectancy of the mice studied, even with the age restrictions, via modification of the growth hormone receptor and calorie restriction.

Of course, further research and studies are needed before more effective methods can be developed and applied to humans.  However it is a strong indication that aging may not be inevitable.

For Aubrey de Gray, he believes that this is the first stage in a long-term project that will allow people today to live for millennia.  He contends that the therapies to allow this radical life extension may not be developed within the 21st century, but that people living this century will be enabled to age slower than longevity therapies will be developing.  This idea has been termed the Longevity Escape Velocity (LEV).

In practice, this means that if we can double the human life span to 150 or 160, then people will be aging so slowly that by the time anyone actually is 150 we will have discovered how to extend life span to 300, 600, and so on, ad infinitum.  This possibility leads de Grey to conclude that the first 1000-year old will probably only be ~10 years younger than the first 150-year old.

It should be no surprise to anyone who follows The Ratchet that this research all seems logical and sound to me.  As I have said in the past, there are several lines of evidence suggesting that life expectancy for people born between 1980s-2000s should be 160 (effectively allowing this cohort to live indefinitely).  Therefore, the interesting questions for me are not whether de Gray’s research will reveal insights into how to slow and reverse aging, but how these discoveries and methods will be affected and merge with non-biological attempts at extending human life.

Revolutions in biology and genetics specifically, will likely be succeeded by revolutions in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.  How will methods allowing for biological immortality be applied when most of humanity has merged with nanotechnology?  Will they be necessary?  Will a biological bridge for indefinite lifespan be necessary when other technologies will be able to do the same job better?  Or is it possible that humanity will fracture between those that wish to remain indefinitely biological and those that wish to essentially become cyborgs?

As a futurist, it would be interesting to hear Aubrey de Gray comment on these issue specifically.  In my opinion, de Gray’s research in this area may partially aid in allowing people currently in there 50s and 60s to live through the nanotechnology and artificial intelligence revolutions.  I think that once nanotechnology is developed that functions more efficiently than our cells, most of us will start merging with these technologies.  Evidence that humanity will merge intimately with technology is all around us already.  And interestingly, resistance to merging intimately with technology seems very low.  In the 2030s and 2040s it is likely that this merger will be seamless and the dichotomy between what is biological and what is technological may be irrelevant.

Either way, we live in interesting times.  As stated above, humanity has always dreamed of defeating aging.  We now live at a time when we can all start thinking about what we will do with radically extended lives.

Want to know more about the future?  Then follow Cadell Last on Twitter!

Related Advanced Apes content:

Thoughts on the Future pt. 1

Thoughts on the Future pt. 2

Thinking About the “Long Now”

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About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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