2000, Nick Bostrom
used for polemic in Heart of the Matter, BBC 1 Television
and more researchers now agree that radical human life extension is
only a matter of time. Aging is a biochemical process and humans will
learn how to intervene in it and slow it down. Abolishing aging is
theoretically possible. It is a goal that is not quite within reach
yet, but it will be one day.
question is, will it arrive in time? Or will you perish on the threshold
of the era of much longer and healthier human life?
life expectancy is much longer today than it was in the past. A thousand
years ago it was 25 years. Now it is over 75 years in Britain. This
progress has been due mainly to a reduction in premature deaths, such
as by infectious diseases, rather than to any slowing down of the
aging process itself. Being able to cure specific diseases is wonderful,
but it doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Aging breaks down your
health and vitality, and eventually you get so weak that no amount
of health care and medicine can prop you up. If it’s not stroke today,
then it’s cancer tomorrow.
as you have begun to acquire a modicum of wisdom and experience, old
age sets in to sap your energy and degrade your intellect. And then
death swoops in to deliver the final insult. Now, there is real hope
of ending this; that the last chapter of every human story need not
play out this way.
last few years scientists have begun to catch glimpses of the biochemical
processes underlying aging. Researchers are currently developing tools
that will give us unprecedented control over basic biological processes
on the cellular and genetic levels. These tools point to the realistic
hope of greatly extended and much healthier human life spans.
have already extended life span in other species: in mice by over
30%. By changing just two genes, scientists have enabled nematode
worms to live up to six times their normal life span.
aging in humans is complicated. Human ingenuity will have to solve
some hard puzzles. Yet several promising research avenues are currently
cells. Human stem cells – cells which can be made to grow into
any other type of cell – can now be cultivated. Even in adults there
are some cells that can be made to grow into almost any kind of
cell. This opens enormous possibilities for regenerative medicine.
New nerve cells can be grown and used to treat Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,
or aging related dementia. Failing organs such as hearts and kidneys
may be replaced by organs grown outside the body from the patient’s
own stem cells.
Individual cells can be "immortalized" by replenishing
their telomeres (small DNA caps that sit at the end of the chromosomes).
This removes the limit to how many times a cell can be made to divide,
and therefore, how long it will live.
therapy. Somatic gene therapy will insert beneficial genes in
the cells of adults, not only curing many hereditary diseases but
also potentially offsetting the changes that occur with aging.
When mature molecular nanotechnology is developed, maybe 20 years
from now, it will be possible to manufacture and program small molecular
machines that can enter individual cells and repair damage to DNA
and other structures. Nanomedicine will eventually give us much
greater control over the biochemical processes in our bodies.
people, including especially the group of futurists and technologists
known as "transhumanists", are now asking how extended life
spans will affect society. For the individual, the traditional "linear
life" paradigm, in which people migrate through education, then
work, then leisure/retirement, may be replaced by a "cyclic life"
paradigm, in which education, work and leisure are interspersed repeatedly
through the life span. It will be normal for 50-year olds to go back
to school and for 70-year-olds to start new careers. Consider the
positive effects on society of a host of people with the wisdom of
150 years of life, and the vitality to bring that wisdom into action.
lots of 150-year olds around will no doubt change society quite a
lot. But consider that even if we could stop aging today, it would
still take seventy years before there were a considerable number of
150-year olds. In seventy years many other things will have changed.
The whole technology basis will be totally different and unimaginably
more advanced than today. One can’t look at life-extension in isolation
from these other developments that will take place.
true that overpopulation must be avoided. However, in technologically
advanced societies, couples tend to have fewer children – below the
replacement rate. By spreading the benefits of technology, education,
and women’s rights to countries that are currently poor, fertility
rates will decline there too. It seems clear already that prosperous
and well-educated people choose to have smaller families and to have
children later in life.
really became necessary to control population growth, it is more feasible
and ethical to do this by limiting the rate of new births than by
forcing people who are already alive to die. It would not be selfish
of us to hang on to life and reduce the number of new births. No one
accuses a couple of being immoral if they decide to only have one
– and perhaps before too long – our successors will learn to use the
infinite resources in the universe outside our planet. In the meantime,
a whole host of new technologies are already providing means to let
us "walk more lightly upon the earth": More efficient and
less ecologically damaging manufacturing, energy and transportation
technologies make it possible for humanity to live in greater harmony
will not place a burden on health care, because it will increase people’s
health span, not just add some extra years in a care home in
a state of dementia. When 80-year olds have the same physique and
mental agility as people in their forties, they will be among the
most economically productive members of society.
a longer life expectancy, people will also have a personal stake in
the future. This will lead to more responsible and sustainable policies.
hear people say, "Wouldn’t it be boring to live forever?"
But would it be more exciting to be dead? Indefinite life spans –
just like the lives we have now – will be as boring or as exciting
as we make them.
hold that at least some key parts of human nature are mutable. Much
of what we now accept as inescapable is not an eternally given. On
an evolutionary time scale, we haven’t been around for that long.
Over the next few decades, we will develop technological tools that
will enable those who so wish to change at least some of the fundamental
attributes of their human nature. We transhumanists want to live longer
and healthier lives and increase our intellectual, emotional and physical
capacities. Humanity looks to me like a magnificent beginning but
not the final word.
irrelevant whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist. The only way
to find what the world will be like fifty years hence is to be there
and see for oneself. If we manage to avoid wiping ourselves out through
accident or abuse of some military technology, then people may look
back at the present and pity us for being so limited and subjected
to so much suffering and ill health.
alive is a basic human drive. It is a precondition for all other activities.
Life-extension is the natural progression of medicine from curing
diseases and the effects of aging to preventing them altogether. It
follows the dictum laid down by many religions: that human life is
sacred and should be cherished and preserved.
not be in the last generation to die of old age! We can improve our
odds by demanding adequate funding for anti-aging research (which
is currently pitifully underfunded). On an individual level, we may
adopt a healthier life style and keep our fingers crossed. Some foresightful
persons may consider a cryonics contract as a last resort. The concept
of cryonics is optimistic, but it is not irrational. If your body
is frozen in liquid nitrogen after you are declared legally dead,
it can be preserved indefinitely without further tissue degradation.
At some point in the future, medical science may progress to the point
where it becomes possible to reverse the freezing damage and the original
cause of death. Too many times in the past have people declared something
technologically absolutely impossible – only to see it done a few
years later. Indeed, many leading experts on nanotechnology anticipate
that it will make it possible reanimate cryonics patients. Of course
there is no guarantee. But being cryogenically suspended is the second
worst thing that can happen to you!