10 September 2009

Unimaginative thinking about longer lives

Filed under: aging, Methuselah, vision — David Wood @ 12:21 am

TimesOnline recently carried a piece entitled, “Live For Ever – The promise of more and more life will bring us all problems“.

I believe the article to be small-minded.  It displays a weak imagination.  I submitted an online comment to explain my viewpoint, but the moderator butchered my comment, making it almost unintelligible.  My opinion of the Times has taken a dive.

Here’s what I submitted – referring in each case to text from the original article:

…we will pay a heavy price for our longevity. If we are unable to abolish chronic illness, then the cost of treating an extended span would quickly bankrupt the National Health Service.

Any serious anti-aging program will address chronic illness en route to extending human lifespan.  There’s no need to worry, on this account, about bankrupting the NHS.

If genetic therapy did somehow extend the quality of life into deep old age, then pension provision and social care would be astronomically expensive. The pension age will have to rise in units of a decade.

But what’s the problem about raising the pension age?  Any serious anti-aging program intends to extend youthful (productive) life, rather than frail (unproductive) life.  People who live longer will probably have several different careers, interspersed with periods of voluntary “retirement”.  There are many attractive scenarios to contemplate.

The pressure on resources — housing, schools, employment, food — would soon become intolerable.

Yes, there are challenges in providing food (etc) for larger populations, but there’s nothing insurmountable about these challenges.  For example, the sun emits enormous amounts of energy that we presently fail to tap.  The technology of the next decades should allow us to use this energy to feed a population many times larger than at present.

Life in the eternal future may yet be solitary, poor, nasty and brutish, precisely because it will no longer be short.

Anti-aging programs intend, not only to extend life, but to expand it.  My expectation is that people will gain huge numbers of new interests, new social connections, and ways of spending time that are both enjoyable and valuable.

Footnote: Anyone who finds these arguments of interest will probably benefit from reading at least the earlier chapters of Aubrey de Grey‘s book “Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime“.  Note this is not a light read, but it is well written and makes a strong case.

PS Anders Sandberg also posted comments to the TimesOnline system, but the moderator seems to have deleted these entirely.  See Anders’ own posts “Stupid arguments against life extension” and “Longer life, more trouble?”  I can’t resist quoting an extract of the latter article:

Arguing that longer life should not be pursued because it would mess up pension ages and other current social institutions is like arguing that we should not try to reduce crime – after all, what would the legal system do if there were fewer criminals and victims? The great ills of infirmity, disease and death caused by ageing are significantly greater than the potential social problems their cure would cause. Each of the stated problems can also be overcome if society so wishes – changing the pension system or having to pay a more taxes is a small price to pay for more life and potential happiness.

If the finitude of human life is what makes us happy, how come the generally happiest (as measured by e.g. the World Values Study) countries are the most long-lived? How come countries and populations with shorter lifespans are not happier?

…to assume that [death] gives meaning to life is like arguing that the value of love is entirely due to divorce.

11 July 2008

Into the long, deep, deep cold

Filed under: cryonics, Methuselah, UKTA — David Wood @ 9:11 pm

My interest in smartphones stems from my frequent observation and profound conviction that these devices can make their human users smarter: more knowledgeable, more connected, and more in control. It’s an example of the careful use of technology to make users that are, in some sense, better humans. Technology – including the wheel, the plough, the abacus, the telescope, the watch, the book, the steam engine, the Internet, and (of course) much more besides – has been making humans “better” (stronger, fitter, and cleverer) since the dawn of history. What’s different in our age is that the rate of potential improvement has accelerated so dramatically.

The website “Better Humans” often has interesting articles on this theme of accelerating real-world uses of technology to enhance human ability and experience. This morning my attention was taken by some new articles there with an unusual approach to the touchy subject of cryonics. For example, the article “Cryonics: Using low temperatures to care for the critically ill” starts by quoting the cryobiologist Brian Wowk:

“Ethically, what is the correct thing to do when medicine encounters a difficult problem? Stablize the patient until a solution can be found? Or throw people away like garbage? Centuries from now, historians may marvel at the shortsightedness and rationalizations used to sanction the unnecessary death of millions.”

The article (originally from a site with a frankly less-than-inspiring name, Depressed Metabolism) continues as follows:

In contemporary medicine terminally ill patients can be declared legally dead using two different criteria: whole brain death or cardiorespiratory arrest. Although many people would agree that a human being without any functional brain activity, or even without higher brain function, has ceased to exist as a person, not many people realize that most patients who are currently declared legally dead by cardiorespiratory criteria have not yet died as a person. Or to use conventional biomedical language, although the organism has ceased to exist as a functional, integrated whole, the neuroanatomy of the person is still intact when a patient is declared legally dead using cardiorespiratory criteria.

It might seem odd that contemporary medicine allows deliberate destruction of the properties that make us uniquely human (our capacity for consciousness) unless one considers the significant challenge of keeping a brain alive in a body that has ceased to function as an integrated whole. But what if we could put the brain “on pause” until a time when medical science has become advanced enough to treat the rest of the body, reverse aging, and restore the patient to health?

Putting the brain on pause is not as far fetched as it seems. The brain of a patient undergoing general anesthesia has ceased being conscious. But because we know that the brain that represents the person is still there in a viable body, we do not think of such a person as “temporarily dead.”

One step further than general anesthesia is hypothermic circulatory arrest. Some medical procedures, such as complicated neurosurgical interventions, require not only cessation of consciousness but also complete cessation of blood flow to the brain. In these cases the temperature of the patient is lowered to such a degree (≈16 degrees Celsius) that the brain can tolerate a period without any circulation at all. Considering the fact that parts of the human brain can become irreversibly injured after no more than five minutes without oxygen, the ability of the brain to survive for at least an hour at these temperatures without any oxygen is quite remarkable.

And so it continues. See also, by the same author, “Why is cryonics so unpopular?

Is it really conceivable that the human body (or perhaps just the human head) could be placed into deep, deep cold, potentially for decades, and then subsequently revived and repaired, using the substantially improved technology of the future? Never mind conceivable, is it desirable?

I’m reminded of a book that made a big impression on me, several years ago – the provocatively titled “The first immortal” by James Halperin. It’s written as fiction, but it’s intended to describe a plausible future scenario. I understand that the author did a great deal of research into the technology of cryonics, in order to make the account scientifically credible.

As a work of fiction, it’s no great shakes. The characterisation, the plotting, and the language is often laboured – sometimes even embarrassing. But the central themes of the book are tremendously well done. As a reader, you get to think lots of new thoughts, and appreciate the jaw-dropping ups and downs that cryonics might make possible. (By the way, some of the ideas and episodes in the book are very vivid indeed, and remain clearly in my mind now, quite a few years after I read the book.) As the various characters in the book change their attitudes towards the possibility and desirability of cryonic preservation and restoration, it’s hard not to find your own attitude changing too.

Footnote: Aubrey de Grey, one of the speakers at tomorrow’s UKTA meeting (“How to live longer and longer yet healthier and healthier: realistic grounds for hope?“), has put on public record the fact that he has signed up for cryopreservation. See here for some characteristically no-nonsense statements from Aubrey himself on this topic.

27 June 2008

Aubrey de Grey’s preposterous campaign to cure aging

Filed under: Methuselah, UKTA — David Wood @ 6:39 am

At first sight, Aubrey de Grey is clearly preposterous. Not only does he look like a relic of the middle ages, with his huge long beard, but his ideas on potentially “curing aging” within the present generation apparently run counter to many well-established principles of science, society, philosophy, and even religion. So it’s no surprise that his ideas arouse some fervent opposition. See for example a selection of the online comments to the article about him, “The Fight to End Aging Gains Legitimacy, Funding“, in today’s Wired:

Guess what, jackasses… we’re supposed to die! Look up the 2nd law of thermodynamics, you might learn something. We’ve even evolved molecular mechanisms to make sure our cells can’t reproduce beyond a certain point… check out “Hayflick limit” on Wikipedia. The stark biological reality is that we are here to pass along our genes to our progeny and the DIE. What the hell, wasn’t this settled back in the 1800s? Why are we debating this stupidity?


Aging and death is an evolutionary response to cancer in mammals. You’ll have to resolve the cancer issue (and remember kids – cancer is actually a whole lot of different but related diseases) before you can resolve the aging and death issue.

However, first appearances can be deceptive. I had my own first serious discussions with Aubrey at the “Tomorrow’s People” conference in Oxford in March 2006. Not only did I pose my own questions, I listened and observed with increasing admiration as Aubrey addressed issues posed by other audience members, and during many coffee breaks as the conference progressed. Later that year in August, at Transvision 2006 in Helsinki (by the way, as well as being home to the world’s leading mobile phone manufacturer, Finland hosts a disproportionate number of self-described transhumanists; perhaps both reflect an unusually pragmatic yet rational approach to life), I had the chance to continue these discussions and observations. I saw that Aubrey has good, plausible answers to his critics. You can find many of these answers on his extensive website.

Since that time, I’ve been keen to take the opportunity to watch Aubrey speak whenever it arises. Unfortunately, I’ll miss the conference that’s happening at UCLA this weekend: “AGING: The Disease – The Cure – The Implications” – which has a session this afternoon (4pm West Coast time) that’s open to the general public. However, I’m eagerly looking forward to some good debate at the July 12 meeting of the UKTA, at Birkbeck College in London, where Aubrey will be one of the speakers on the topic, “Living longer and longer yet healthier and healthier: realistic grounds for hope?”. (If you’re interested to attend that, and you Facebook, you can indicate your interest and RSVP here.)

As I’ve come to see it, addressing aging by the smart and imaginative uses of technology fits well with the whole programme of medicine (which constantly intervenes to prevent nature taking its “natural toll” on the human body). It also has some surprising potential cost-saving benefits, as aging-related diseases are responsible for a very significant part of national health expenditure. But that’s only the start of the argument. To help explore many of the technical byways of this argument, I strongly recommend Aubrey’s 2007 book, “Ending Aging: The rejuvenation breakthroughs that could reverse human aging in our lifetime“.

In terms of disruptive technology trends (some of which I study in my day job), this is about as big as it gets.

I’ll end by quoting from today’s Wired article:

“In perhaps seven or eight years, we’ll be able to take mice already in middle age and treble their lifespan just by giving them a whole bunch of therapies that rejuvenate them,” de Grey said. “Gerontologists all over, even my most strident critics, will say yes, Aubrey de Grey is right.”

Even as he imagines completing Gandhi’s fourth step, de Grey always keeps his eye on the ultimate prize — the day when the aging-as-disease meme reaches the tipping point necessary to funnel really big money into the field.

“The following day, Oprah Winfrey will be saying, aging is a disease and let’s fix it right now,” de Grey said.

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