Hi, I’m Lance Robotson. I’m a poet and aspiring science-fiction author in the US. I was born in the early 1980’s, and entered adulthood just as the internet was starting to bleed into mass society. By the end of the millenium I had eagerly adopted the dreams of utopian techno-progress pedalled by outlets like WIRED magazine. I got swept up in the hype like a lot of other people. But as time went on, my notions of progress and the promise of technology have become more tempered, my outlook has grown more cautious. Now, in the adolescent 21st century, I am interested in more critically exploring the tropes of futurism that have long since fascinated me. My plan is to create a podcast series in which each episode is centered around a prominent futurological theme. I’m calling it The Fake Future with Lance Robotson. For the first episode I wanted to focus on the most controversial and grandiose claims that I could find, and I was intuitively drawn to the subject of living forever. This essay is my attempt to outline the discussion I’d like to have on this theme.
I’ll begin by attempting to make a case for why we should take the prospect of living forever seriously. In the process of doing this I’ll talk about some of the key players in the radical life extension movement; the people, the organizations, and the various approaches involved. This will lead us to look at some of the more far out transhumanist implications of these ideas. I’ll also discuss some of the potential objections or concerns that the broader public might have about radically extending the human lifespan. Employing the classic futurist forecasting method of scenario planning to look ahead, I’ll imagine potential optimistic and pessimistic outcomes we might encounter down the road. Finally, I’ll summarize the major points I’ve made and offer some personal conclusions about what kind of future I would like to see, along with a call to action for both supporters and detractors of the quest for technologically enabled immortality.
The Promise of Radical Life Extension
Longevity, life extension, anti-aging - these are the callsigns of a modern movement of people who want to live radically longer lives. The quest to overcome mortality has been with humanity in varying forms over the ages, and modern medicine has brought us closer than ever to realizing this old dream. Futurists talk about trends and supertrends, and global life expectancy seems likely to rise. Baby Boomers living longer will lead to a fast growing demographic of centenarians in the mid 21st century. Whether or not the claims of the most optimistic promoters of life-extension are validated, there is good reason to believe that their ideas will continue to gain traction in the coming decades. But who is leading the charge?
One of the most visible proponents of extending the human lifespan is Aubrey de Grey, a theoretician in the field of gerontology with a PHD in biology from Cambridge. Cofounder of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation, de Grey has been interviewed in numerous mass media outlets, given TEDtalks, and has even appeared as a guest on The Colbert Report. The SENS foundation approach involves researching potential medical interventions to counteract the effects of growing older. De Grey has identified several broad categories of damage he refers to as “the seven causes of aging” or “the seven deadly things,” molecular processes which roughly equate to various problems associated with DNA mutation, build up of “junk” inside and outside cells, and too much or too little cell division. De Grey believes that these challenges of aging are surmountable, that the SENS approaches will lead to an indefinitely long lifespan, and that he himself (born in 1963) may live long enough to see the fruits of these efforts. Although some researchers have written off his ideas as unrealistic, the view that aging itself can be cured like a disease has gained more respectability in the time that has passed since de Grey first appeared in the public sphere at the turn of the century.
Another figure who believes we will surpass the current limitations imposed by our biology is the noted futurist and inventor, Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil is credited with creating text-to-speech systems for the blind, multi-instrument musical synthesizers, and other devices, but he is better known today for his bold predictions about the exponential rate of technological advancement. In books such as The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil lays out a vision of a world transformed by artificial intelligence that surpasses our own capabilities. He has become arguably the most vocal popularizer of “the technological singularity” - a nebulously defined theoretical event in our future that has been described by some as “the rapture of the nerds,” something akin to a transformative point in human evolution that may lead to a merger of man and machine unlike anything we have known thus far. Born in 1966, Kurzweil has estimated that the Singularity will be upon us by the year 2045, and he intends to live to see it. To this end he has publicly voiced support for Aubrey de Grey and the SENS foundation’s mission. But where de Grey’s work primarily focuses on biotechnology and genetic therapies to combat aging, Kurzweil believes that by 2025 we may see nano-scale machines that can enter our bodies and repair damaged cells, and even augment our consciousness by connecting our brains to computer networks. To Kurzweil, extending the lifespan of the biological organism is merely a stopgap measure, allowing one to survive until a human’s mind will be able to be scanned and uploaded, like a computer program, into machines that will hopefully be more robust than our fragile fleshy forms.
Kurzweil and de Grey are aware of the possibility that they may not live long enough to see life extension technologies truly take off. As a back up plan, both have signed up to have their bodies cryogenically frozen and preserved in the event of their deaths. Cryonics remains a controversial field, as it is not yet possible to reverse the cryopreservation of humans or other complex creatures. Still, the largest cryonics provider today, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, counts more than a hundred members who have already undergone the procedure and are currently stored in liquid nitrogen cooled aluminum containers housed at their Scottsdale, AZ facility. A good deal of their clients have opted to have only their heads preserved, both to save costs, and also because of the view that the brain alone will be able to provide enough information to successfully resurrect the unique qualities that make up a person, assuming sufficiently advanced future technologies.
Alcor’s current CEO, Max More, is another influential figure in the life extension world, though he is not as widely known as Kurzweil or de Grey. He is attributed with establishing the modern usage of the term “transhumanism” in his 1990 essay, Transhumanism: Toward a Futurist Philosophy. Transhumanism encompasses a wide range of beliefs that can be difficult to pin down, but a basic definition that most can agree on could be summarized as “the belief or theory that the human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations, especially by means of science and technology.” Today there is a dedicated culture of transhumanists around the world. There are transhumanist discussion forums and online communities, and formal organizations that put on conferences where the movement’s luminaries espouse their principles. It is within these transhumanist and futurist communities that de Grey, Kurzweil, More, and other figures hold the most sway, offering their supporters reasons to believe that humans can be smarter, healthier, and longer-lived than ever before. While transhumanism has so far appealed mainly to avid technophiles and those with a science-fictional bent, there have been recent signs that the field of life extension is gaining more mainstream credibility.
Silicon Valley is increasingly regarded as a critical driver of economic activity, and the rise of the Internet as a frontier for new markets has minted new fortunes. The ascent of these notable personages leads inevitably to their efforts to make a distinct mark on society; the initiatives that they lend their influence to are a reflection of their principles. Consider Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. At the end of 2012, they hired Ray Kurzweil as the company’s director of engineering, boosting the profile of his singulatarian predictions. Then in 2013 they announced the creation of a new biotech company called Calico that would be tasked with developing therapies to reverse the effects of aging. Brin promised the new company would have hundreds of millions of dollars to work with. Page said the research could be more important than a cure for cancer, though he acknowledged it could be decades before it saw results. Or take another look at the SENS foundation: though Aubrey de Grey has put much of his own inheritance into the enterprise, it has also received millions in funding from venture capitalist and former PayPal CEO Peter Thiel. These investors recognize that curing aging could not only transform human existence as we know it - and potentially make them a ton of money in the process - but also come with the ancillary side benefit of prolonging their own lives. In the past, when captains of industry wanted to leave a legacy, they funded universities and concert halls bearing their names. Today we confront a situation in which the Gen X founders of tech companies and their Baby Boomer financiers may not ever have to leave at all.
Cause for Concern?
Disputing the inevitability of death elicits strong reactions, some enthusiastic, some more hesitant, others outright hostile. Many people will state that life requires an endpoint to have meaning, or that dying is in and of itself a noble thing. Longevity advocates have a term for this sort of doctrine, they call it “Deathism.” To those who would live forever, deathism is like a kind of stockholm syndrome: in our attachment to the condition of our mortality we have learned to justify it as both necessary and good. Deathist attitudes may stem from religious convictions or fear of upsetting the natural order of things, or more mundane concerns, such as how to thwart the boredom that may arise over the course of centuries. There are philosophical considerations: how might radically extended lifespans transform humanity? Would a digitally uploaded mind be an authentic continuation of that person? Will immortal intelligences run into cosmological constraints? These questions can serve as fun thought experiments for people like me who want to write science fiction stories, but there are also ethical dimensions to human longevity that very tangibly relate back to the here and now.
If the anti-aging activists are even partially correct, people living in the mid 21st century may witness a great increase in life expectancy. This would create profound consequences in our societies, potentially exacerbating challenges that we are already facing. Today’s economic inequality and uneven access to lifesaving medical treatments cast a grim shadow over the prospect of future breakthrough rejuvenation therapies. When asked if only the rich will have access to the technological advancements he prophesies, Ray Kurzweil brushes off this concern and brings up the example of cell phones becoming ever cheaper through economies of scale. Will people living longer lead to overpopulation problems? Forward thinkers will point out that space colonization will eventually become necessary to assure the survival of our species anyhow. Another possibility that may confront us is a kind of social stagnation. What will become of the intergenerational struggle between the old guard and the youthful rejuvenating force that opposes it? If new scientific advancements succeed when their opponents die out, can the same be said for other conceptions of progress? Can the arc of history bend toward justice if the generation in power refuses to make an exit?
Five Fake Futures
Having skimmed the surface of the longevity movement and brought up some of the common concerns about it, lets project ahead a few decades from the time of this writing (2014) and imagine a range of potential worlds that we might inhabit. Futurists usually like to think of a quadrant with four outcomes, a status quo outcome, an optimistic outcome, a pessimistic outcome, and a disaster outcome. Then they throw in a fifth “transformative” outcome for the sake of showmanship. Lets imagine how longevity might fit into these different takes on the year 2044:
We can try to picture a future that hasn’t deviated far from our expectations too much, by extrapolating from trends that we’re already witnessing. This will help give us a baseline to compare against our other possible futures. Drawing on recent predictions made in publically available studies, here are some things we might anticipate about the world in 2044:
Global population is around 9 billion people. Worldwide overall life expectancy gains a decade, nearing an average of 75 years. US population increases to 400 million. India becomes the most populous nation surpassing China and the US combined. Much population growth occurs in Africa, with a quarter of the world’s inhabitants living there. The world is getting older, with the median global age around 36 years, 41 years in the US. Japan, Russia, and much of Europe see declining, aging populations. Economically, a rising global middle class is expected to emerge across parts of today’s developing world. For countries with older populations, debates about how to care for the elderly will grow in prominence. Should modest advancements in medicine and health policy be effective, people may be able to effectively work longer, and the retirement age may be driven up. To accommodate changing demographics, societies may be forced to reorganize workplaces and transportation systems to suit the needs of the elderly.
For the longevity movement, a status quo scenario may be something of a pessimistic outcome, because the predictions based on today’s trends cannot take into account the breakthroughs that may be possible by 2044. Aubrey de Grey says we have a 50/50 chance of having developed indefinite lifespan treatments by 2040. Of course, it may be a bit early to see at that point, as even if such therapies are created we won’t know if greatly increased lifespans are possible until sometime later in the next century. Ray Kurzweil predicts that nanotechnology will have drastically altered human life, with the period from the 2020’s into the 2040’s seeing a transformative effect on par with that of the industrial revolution or the information age. Even if Kurzweil is being wildly optimistic, it is reasonable to expect at least some applications derived from research into the nascent field of nanomedicine to become available in 30 years. Even if immortality remains out of reach, more of the diseases associated with aging should become treatable. Perhaps the field of cryonics will see some advances that lend increased credibility to the procedure, prompting changes to the current medico-juridical regimes that regulate the determination of death and the treatment of the bodies of the deceased. Political parties are already today being developed to promote longevity, activists may see their positions gain cultural currency by organizing into constituencies that can effectively promote their issues. Privately financed research is likely to play a major role in developing anti-aging therapies, with projections of an aging demographic already creating a growing market for investments in biotech startups.
Private investment may be necessary to make anti-aging breakthroughs, because the governments of the world will have a host of other challenges to face in the year 2044, including the effects of climate change, wealth consolidation and income inequality, higher resource consumption from growing populations, demand for increased food production, and limited supplies of freshwater for large amounts of the world. These factors could lead to outbreaks of conflict between and within nation states. But let’s put aside our pessimism for a moment and delve into a more hopeful future than that of the status quo scenario that we’ve just outlined.
What is considered optimistic is of course subject to one’s own biases, a paradise imagined by one person may look dystopian to another. For the purposes of coming up with optimistic views on longevity in the year 2044, let’s imagine that the predictions of the life extension proponents are successful and that they’ve managed to answer most of their critics in a satisfactory manner.
Between de Grey’s SENS foundation, Google’s Calico, or any number of other biotech outfits, research has paid off. Life expectancy reaches up to 100 years and rising. For the world’s 1.5 billion people aged 65 and up, treatments become available to stave off the debilitating effects of aging, and chronic conditions become manageable. Many of today’s developing economies have reached the prosperity seen previously in only the most developed parts of the world, and access to medicine is viewed as a top priority. Since older people are healthier and more capable than they ever have been before, concerns about an aging populace are assuaged. Nanomedicine is advancing rapidly and indefinite life extension with wide availability seems to be right around the corner. Cryonics is demonstrated to be practical for complex mammals, giving hope to those with diseases that have not yet been cured. Longevity activists have succeeded in making anti-aging feasible, desirable, and affordable to the much of the masses. Having won that battle, their efforts can turn to uplifting the quality of life for all.
In this optimistic vision of 2044, technological advancements have turned the transition to renewable energy into the driving economic force of the century. Desalination plants provide water, high yield automated food production on a distributed local basis ensures adequate nutrition in the regions that need it most. Population concerns drive efforts to make seasteading and space colonization realistic solutions to human habitation by the end of the century. While economic inequality may still persist, a rising standard of living is giving much of the world the breathing room they need to organize politically for their own interests. Challenges remain, but total warfare has been avoided. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Now let’s indulge our cynicism a bit. There are numerous trajectories for life extension that could be thought of as pessimistic, including scenarios where anti-aging therapies become successful. Even if life extension proves workable, there are no guarantees that it will be available on an egalitarian basis. Plus, the social stability required to sustain anti-aging research may be threatened by any number of difficulties posed by climate change, resource scarcity, and inequality.
One pessimistic vision of the future is posed in a 2013 science fiction novel by Zoltan Istvan called The Transhumanist Wager. Consciously written in the mold of a kind of Atlas Shrugged for the 21st century, Istvan’s story centers on a philosopher named Jethro Knights who travels around the world promoting indefinite life extension. But the governments of the world turn into theocratic dictatorships, fueled by a populist anti-transhumanist movement that is assassinating scientists working on life extension. Eventually Knights retreats to a floating Galt’s Gulch-like seasteading colony to continue his work, leading to a war between the transhumanists and the rest of the planet.
Another example from fiction is offered in the 2013 film Elysium. In this future, advanced medical therapies are available to an elite class that lives on a orbital space habitat, while the residents of earth suffer in poverty and disease. Both of these fictional examples are projections based in the fears of today; Istvan’s novel dealing with the fears of libertarian transhumanists encountering resistance to their philosophy, and Elysium dealing with the current concerns about income inequality and access to medicine. But both of these scenarios may be a long way out for our time table.
In a pessimistic 2044, there may be a thriving market for drugs and supplements meant to extend lifespan that are ultimately only marginally effective - snake oil salesman have been with us this long and are likely to persist into the future. Even if treatments are effective, they may be limited to those who can afford them, possibly creating a long-lived class of oligarchs. Other factors such as the ongoing automation of economies may increase the concentration of wealth to new heights, ushering in another gilded age. If anti-aging research fails, societies face difficult choices about how to care for the elderly. If they succeed, harsh population control measures may be implemented. Aside from the questions posed by the life extension movement, there are still all the other challenges that humanity faces: regional conflict, climate refugees, and competition for resources could strain efforts to reduce child mortality in the poorest of countries. But these outcomes may not even be the worst imaginable.
In some sense, any future where humans continue to survive is an optimistic one. But we can also imagine scenarios where the population is drastically reduced by all out warfare, nuclear exchanges, treatment-resistant superbugs, or even a man-made doomsday virus. Existential risks posed by biotech, nanotech, and artificial intelligence are already being discussed in today’s think-tanks and universities. Perhaps Kurzweil’s predictions of AI and nanotech will lead us to a situation in which the majority of humanity becomes obsolete, and the elites of the world are content to let the masses perish. Anti-aging treatments may succeed in extending the human lifespan somewhat, but create unintended consequences to human health that negate the gains achieved. Cryonics may turn out to be a pseudoscientific dream, or social instability may make it impossible to ensure that those who have been cryopreserved continue to receive ongoing infusions of liquid nitrogen. Global economic crises and runaway climate change could threaten the very foundations of industrial civilization, rendering life extension research largely irrelevant. On the other hand, technological progress itself could create a world where augmented cyborgs live in unparalleled prosperity while a global underclass is subjected to draconian subjugation. The merger of man and machine may make life unrecognizable to present day humans in ways that could lead to conflict. AI researcher Hugo de Garis has suggested that a war between the faction of humans that embrace the technological singularity and those that resist it is all but inevitable by the end of the 21st century.
Futurists know that nobody likes to end a good round of prognosticating on a downer note, so let’s counter these apocalyptic pronouncements with some utopian thinking. The elderly in 2044 may very well have access to rejuvenation therapies that can effectively restore their youth, but a host of other trends will have to come into play to achieve a transformative hopeful tomorrow. Techno-progress may allow us to meet the needs of the growing population. The rise of new economies may shift the balance of geopolitical power and inject fresh values into the global discourse. Movements to guarantee basic necessities and human rights for everyone could gain traction, as increases in efficiency and production challenge the paradigm of economic scarcity. The developing world may be able to leapfrog the worst effects of industrialization and labor exploitation as they progress. Humanity may learn to thrive without the ecological destruction we now witness. New communications technologies could allow the coming generations to empathize with each other across traditional boundaries of nationality. Perhaps the inklings of an egalitarian planetary civilization may begin to stir if we can effectively mitigate the sources of conflict in our world today. Efforts to extend the human lifespan may not figure directly into much of the problems that humanity confronts, but should we succeed in meeting these challenges, we may have many more years than our ancestors did to engage in artistic pursuits and advance our scientific understanding. How’s that for utopian?
I’ve tried to remain fairly objective about this subject in order to give it a fair hearing, but my own political leanings have probably shown through along the way. I’d like to conclude this essay by summarizing the major themes I’ve presented and offering some parting thoughts of my own, including suggestions for the longevity movement’s supporters and critics alike.
Immortality is probably one of the most fantastical claims that futurists and transhumanists are advancing, but it seems like nearly every day there are medical breakthroughs reported that should make us take notice. Aubrey de Grey says he doesn’t like the term “immortality” and prefers to think of his work as advancing human health in general, and a similar tack is taken by Google when describing the work of their Calico initiative. The view that aging can be treated like a disease to be cured is becoming more and more respectable as time goes on, and powerful interests are beginning to get behind such efforts. The demographic trends of an aging populace and the fact that wealth tends to skew older are likely to create a burgeoning demand for longevity solutions. Indeed, there are already magazines, supplements companies, advocacy organizations, and other entities arising to service this market. The consequences of greatly extended lifespans may not become apparent to us for decades to come, but we could be grappling with them by the mid-century.
There are religious and philosophical objections to the concept of radical life extension, but the concerns that stand out most to me personally are questions of access. Much of the discussion on the subject that I have witnessed tends to brush off this issue. Longevity activists tend to believe that new technologies start out subsidized by the wealthy and eventually fall in cost and become available to a growing proportion of the populace. But one of the primary impediments to anti-aging research is a lack of funding, which itself is hindered by a lack of public support. It seems fair to question whether life extension should take precedence over the many other pressing problems humanity faces. Proponents of life extension argue that we should be able to work toward curing aging at the same time that we support other initiatives, such as reducing child mortality rates and combating curable diseases in the developing world; these efforts don’t have to be mutually exclusive. But if public support is necessary to gain increased funding, longevity advocates would do well to signal their own concerns about growing economic inequality and humanitarian crises existing in the world today. After all, many people would consider it tragic if we found ourselves in a world where the rich have access to rejuvenating medicines that allow them to live indefinitely while there are still large numbers of children born into the poorest parts of the world who aren’t able to make it to adulthood for lack of access to clean drinking water. I have personally heard transhumanists argue that it is outside of the scope of their mission to work on such problems since we already have the technology to solve them, and it is my opinion that this represents something of a perceived empathy gap in the longevity movement that is stifling its potential.
For those who want to live forever, there are all manner of suggestions to optimize one’s lifestyle for longevity. But if you want to go beyond the years that you could naturally expect to see, you may wish to monetarily support the research of the SENS foundation, or perhaps you could indirectly support Google’s Calico by using the online services they offer and clicking on the advertisements that make up their primary source of revenue. You can become a member of a cryonics provider and sign up for insurance to preserve your body should the need arise. The biggest contribution you could make may involve swaying the public discourse, you might consider joining advocacy organizations, or one of the political parties that are forming. If you strongly desire to see the cause of longevity advanced, my advice is to at least attempt to pay lip service to the problems of inequality and access to medicine, lest you run the risk of seeming too selfish to marshal broader support in society.
For those who feel more ambiguous about immortality and its consequences, I believe it becomes necessary to engage with these ideas in a critical way, instead of simply avoiding them. Personally, I have nothing against the concept of life extension in and of itself; the concerns that move me are applicable whether we defeat aging or not. My goal is to examine the liberatory potential of technological development while remaining conscious of the coercive possibilities it may also pose. Imagining the failure modes of the future allows us to conceptualize outcomes we’d rather avoid. In drawing attention to the longevity movement and the questions raised by it, I mean to contribute to the larger conversation about the kind of world we are headed toward, and find commonality with others who share my concerns. Let’s create templates for critically examining the future, and let’s bolster each other’s efforts along the way!