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Live To See It

Last year Phil wrote a post entitled "Death Sucks." No argument here. It does. But for some reason there's no shortage of people who ask, "Why would you want to live indefinitely?"

Aubrey de Grey thinks it's a fair question, but he has a good answer. You don't have to decide today to live 1000 years. If life is rewarding now, you probably don't want to die today. Chances are you'll still be in no hurry to die if 100 years from now life is still rewarding. You may still feel the same in 1000 years. This is also an answer to those who might not want life extension. De Grey is not arguing for mandatory immortality. He's arguing against mandatory age-related death.

In his book, "More Than Human," Ramez Naam had another thought. He argued that we shouldn't consider life extension technologies in isolation from other transformative technologies:

When we contemplate the three years that a mouse may live, we don't mourn its short time on this earth. In three years, a mouse lives and learns as much as it's able, and more years wouldn't add meaning or quality to its life. Today a human life span may provide enough years for a man or woman to learn and grow as much as we're able. But in the decades to come, we'll increase our capacity to learn, grow, and change over time. Eventually one hundred years may seem like a brief adolescence...

More Than Human - page 126

I think we could continue to find life rewarding for many more years even with current mental limitations. It's not life that gets old. It's the getting old that gets old. As the body fades it takes more effort to reach diminishing goals. Little wonder that the elderly grow nostalgic for "the good old days." They may not have had indoor plumbing, but their body's plumbing worked great.

People also get bored with their jobs. It might not make financial sense to retrain late in a career - particularly if age will affect job prospects after retraining. But an ageless workforce wouldn't be stuck like that. You could work for a time, take a sabbatical (in lieu of permanent retirement), retrain, and then work in a new position.

I suspect, though, that Naam is correct. If we understand the human body well enough to fix a problem as complex as aging, what's to keep us from enhancing the body as well? Given the option, most of us would choose to be smarter, stronger, more agile, and resistant to toxins and disease. We would want sharper vision and better hearing. We would like to eat what we want without adding pounds.

We may be within 25 years of real treatment for aging. We will see advancements in all of these other areas in the interim. Beyond that...all bets are off.

Live to see it!


Anti-aging treatment doesn't, as you say, force one to live a thousand years. It just puts the burden on the individual to choose when to die (modulo accidents and violence). For a lot of people this is a terrifying idea, that people would *have* to choose when their lives end. I think a lot of people have a lot of problems with asserting that level of control over life.

In any case, the indefinite postponement of death and its associated terror would probably change most peoples' relationship with religion, since 'What happens to me when I die?' is one of the major currencies organized religion trades in. Of course the other big ones are 'Why am I here?' and 'What should I do with my time?' so perhaps the changes might not be so enormous. Whether these effects are positive or negative depends largely on one's personal beliefs.

There is excellent fiction that deals with arbitrarily long life extension. I highly recommend Richard K. Morgan's "Altered Carbon" for his exploration of what sorts of things might happen (though his life extension technology is all about backup copies of your mind, rather than preserving the functionality of your body). It's a heck of a good story, too. Sort of Cyberpunk meets Noir.


I am highly skeptical of the wild claim that we may cure at least some effects of aging in a paltry 25 years. Anyone who believes this obviously hasn't looked at political and social trends in addition to the usual technological trends. The current hoo-haa over embryonic stem cells shows no signs of fading any time soon. The deep-seated pessimism of the general public regarding extended lifespans along with the sheer complexity of trying the delve into the mechanisms of aging, not to mention a lack of funding and the laws of entropy, ensures that a lot said on this weblog is all for nothing, or not much anyway. Despite the - fiercly outlandish - claims of Aubrey De Grey and Ray Kurzweil, we will not see even a remote chance of alleviating even a slight effect of aging for at least 50-60 years. Today's medical technology cannot even fight the common cold let alone manipulate cellular mechanisms.


People wouldn't have to decide exactly when they are going to die. Let's say you live a couple of hundred years, you feel like you've "done it all" and decide to stop taking the life extension drugs. If your body is a 30-year-old equivalent at the time you stop taking the treatment, you might live another 40, 50, or even 60 years before dying.

I don't doubt that life extension may pose a troubling dilemma for many people. But the fears of a few shouldn't (and won't) dash the hopes of the vast majority of humanity. It would be like grounding the airline industry because those afraid of flying don't won't the pressure of having to decide whether to fly or not.

Thanks for the book recommendation. I'll check it out.

I was picturing something more along the lines of being infected with a custom virus/nanotech that makes it possible for your body to keep repairing itself indefinately, preventing age from ever occuring. In such a circumstance you would have to decide to die. Or at least to start taking sufficient risks to do the job in the long view - bungee jumping and sky diving are two sports that leap to mind that could be tons of fun if you don't mind the risk of sudden death. And if you're in the position that you've been there, done that, then you probably don't. Interesting that serious age prevention would probably also amplify the self destructive habits of people. I suspect (though can't prove) that a lot of extreme sports and such are really about trying to get killed while one isn't looking, and that failing, to have fun in the process.



Whether one stops his life extension treatment or reverses a permanent fix OR does increasingly risky things, the result is the same - eventual death at a nonspecific time.

Aficionados of high-risk sports would probably argue that it's the thrill of cheating death rather than the possibility of actually dying that's their attraction. Frankly, I don't see much of a distinction.

You raise an interesting question. With an indefinite life span stretching out before you, would you take more, less, or the same risk as you would take today? I suppose it depends on how excited you are about living a long time.

Aubrey de Grey theorizes that most people would become more risk adverse. Perhaps so. People tend to become more risk adverse with maturity. Or is it because it hurts more when we fall down? We may not know until we have 90-year-old guys running around in 30-year-old bodies.

The folks who seem to be against longevity treatment also have strong moral objections to suicide.

There's a very small chance of getting bored with life in the three-score and ten most of us get (four score and ten if we're lucky), but the chance of becoming bored and miserable must go up as life goes on. In fact, the many would suspect that the chance of boredom with life approaches 100% over a long enough period of time. Or so goes the theory.

If you made Leon Kass immortal you've guaranteed that one day he'll be forced to choose between waiting for an accident, and offing themself. Neither of those are morally acceptable to him. That's why he's against it, as are many others.

Ramez Naam wrote:

Today a human life span may provide enough years for a man or woman to learn and grow as much as we're able.

Well, yes and no. Eventually most of us reach a point where we're too worn out to learn anything new, but there are a lucky few who keep on learning and growing right up to the end. And, sadly, almost everyone dies with lingering pieces of unfinished business -- things they would like to have done, but never got around to doing.

Stepehen wrote:

People also get bored with their jobs. It might not make financial sense to retrain late in a career - particularly if age will affect job prospects after retraining. But an ageless workforce wouldn't be stuck like that. You could work for a time, take a sabbatical (in lieu of permanent retirement), retrain, and then work in a new position.

People in their late 40's and 50's often get laid off from jobs they've done for 20 years or more. While some of them are able to continue in their previous line of work, many are forced to start fresh. This happens to engineers a lot; it's not easy for an engineer in his fifties to land a new engineering job. Their best bet is ususally some kind of enetrepreneurial endeavor -- something where their age isn't a factor.

Likewise, we're seeing more and more folks in that age group just decide to up and leave their jobs, either because they can't take the corporate grind any more or because there was something that they always wanted to do and now they're going to do it.

This raises an interesting question. In an ageless world, will people actually be less likely than they are now to walk out of a bad job or other unfavorable situation (e.g., a bad marriage)? After all, in an ageless world, you don't hear the clock of your mortality ticking away.

Maybe this is just another way of saying that people will be less tolerant of risk.


Limited time can be a great motivator. Tourists often do things that New Yorkers never get around to - like visit the Statue of Liberty.

But tourists know they don't have the time to establish a life in New York. So they do some things that are fun, but superficial. They don't establish a life or involve themselves deeply in the life of the city in a week's time.

If life extension robs us of a literal dead line, it will gives us back the time to do things that we don't dare to dream about now.

There seems to often be some fixation and confusion around the word "natural". I say, "Who cares". What's "natural" mean anyway? Seems a bit "religiousy" to me, like the "God thing" or something. And the other mistake I find is folks thinking of a humans physical decline, aging and illness, etc., as something that the immortalists and transhumanists would want to enxtend. Illness is never something to be sought after. Immortality is the same as perfect health. In acquiring immortality and extending human life, we automatically eliminate aging and the illnesses that go with that. What is so difficult to understand about this?

Live long, joyously prosper,
"Arun" or "Vogbank", the cynic

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