Forget the robots and the sentient computers: 300 years in the future, the world will be ruled by old people.
Except that they will not be old in mind or body, only in years. Should we manage to hack death and stop the aging process, those who can afford it will all look preternaturally young like those ageless Hollywood stars (hello, Meryl Streep). The forever-young will rule the world with their immense wealth: just picture what 300 years of growth would do to the bank accounts of billionaire Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google founders Sergey and Larry, and the Koch brothers.
The big question is how many tri-centennarians there will be: will life extension be reserved to the 1% and the oligarchs, or will its benefits be shared by all of humanity?
This in a nutshell is the promise, but also the real peril of life extension technology. What happens to our society when we finally manage to beat death?
Beating death may sound batshit crazy, but Google, or rather Alphabet, is the latest tech behemoth to invest in life extension. Calico's mission, as its website reads, is “to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan. We will use that knowledge to devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives.”
Calico is not the only startup in the life-extension space. For instance Dr. Craig Venter, the famous maverick who pioneered the sequencing of the human genome, is also in on the game. At the same time, many labs around the world are trying to unlock the genetic bases of aging, especially by studying very old people (aka super-centenarians). The bet behind these research ventures is that combining the tools of big data with the decreasing price of sequencing people’s genomes will yield new insights into what makes us live longer. And that will lead, hopefully, to youth-preserving drugs.
Next to the development of purely biological solutions, great progress is happening in prosthetics and organ replacement. This runs the gamut from artificial hearts and direct interface between the brain and mechanical limbs to the 3D-printing of living tissues. When all these advances converge, we may have a reasonable shot at increasing lifespans beyond the maximum observed today. (The longest living person we know of was French lady Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at age 122.)
The medical and technological aspects of life extension get a lot of attention. But beyond the usual boiler plates about growth and improvements in standards of living, there is very little discussion of their social and economic consequences.
If we can indeed double lifespans to 200 years or 250 years, then the very notion of retirement as we know it goes out the window, along with the current system to pay for it. On a personal level, we will live with the knowledge that death is merely a treatable pathology, almost like a chronic disease. One can only speculate on how our understanding of the meaning of life and religion will evolve in this new and improved reality.
The social dimension of life extension is the most fraught with potential dangers. Start with treatment availability: will these medical advances be covered by insurance? Will they be mandatory like vaccines? Or will they be elective, as they appear to be more similar to lifestyle enhancements or plastic surgery than cures per se?
What gets or does not get covered by insurance is the result of very complicated negotiations in society: for instance we are still debating, today, in the U.S., whether the contraceptive pill should be reimbursed by private insurers. Chances are it will take a while to think through and decide which parts of life extension are deemed eligible for insurance.
If the full array of life extension technologies is not reimbursed, then only those who can afford it will be able to enjoy it. Perhaps you'll be able to get loans in the U.S. for the treatment, but that may not be an option in less developed countries. As with life-saving AIDS treatment today, will we consider it an ethical imperative to make life extension cheap enough for the less fortunate? And if so, who will bear the costs?
Economic inequality vis-a-vis death is a well-known fact of life. Poorer countries already have much lower life expectancy than developed ones (compare Chad's life expectancy at birth, 49.81 years to Japan at 84.74). And keep in mind that these are averages. There are wildly different outcomes within countries themselves. In the U.S., your level of wealth is a key determinant in how long you live. The poorest 20% of U.S. population has a life expectancy of 76.1, whereas the top 20% has a life expectancy of 88.8 years.
Now imagine that gap, but multiplied by ten, where the top 20% get to live to 200 or 250, while the bottom quintile remains stuck in the same, shortened range. Those already at the top will be able to keep on accumulating assets throughout their lives, postponing the moment when they have to pass it on to their heirs. If, like me, you believe that the current inequality in wealth is dangerous to society and democracy, just wait to see when oligarchs live practically forever.
And then, consider the worst-case scenario of an autocrat with unlimited access to his country's financial resources. Think North Korea's Kim Jong-Eun, but clinging to his power for three centuries thanks to the medical fountain of youth. This would give a whole new and even worse meaning to the title of President-for-life.
In short, don't believe the hype and keep your eyes on the ball. And the ball here is society. We need to be very mindful of the unintended consequences of technological progress, and even more so when it comes to life extension. It's not nearly as simple and hopeful as Silicon Valley entrepreneurs would like it to be.
Steve Jobs, a tech visionary if there ever was one, once said that "death is very likely the best invention of life. It's life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."
I tend to agree with his philosophy. I do not want to live forever. The fact that my life is finite and short is not only a motivation but also a comfort. I enjoy every moment of it more intensely. And when my time is up, I am more than happy to make room for the kids.
This is part of our week-long series on the future of death.
Manu Saadia, the author of Trekonomics, hails from Paris, France. He lives in Los Angeles where he helps tech startups get off the ground. His first and only passion is the future.