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Losing the Edge?

I do my best to stay on the cutting edge with gutsy predictions. My personal favorite "gutsy prediction" is that we'll have true life extension therapy by 2014.

But then I'm one-upped by a Stanford biologist.

The trend is expected to start in 2010 as human lifespan begins expanding at an unprecedented rate, says biologist Dr Shripad Tuljapurkar...

His research indicates that the acceleration will continue until 2030. During this time, typical age at death could increase by 20 years, raising life expectancy in industrialised countries such as the US and UK from around 80 to 100.

So, he's saying that we'll get an average of one additional year for every year for 20 years starting in 2010, and then, apparently, nothing more. I don't buy it.

Apparently he foresees no leaps from accelerating change - no De Grey escape velocity. It's a odd combination of optimism and linear pessimism.

Being a good scientist, Tuljapurkar has data to back up his prediction.

Dr . Tuljapurkar arrived at his estimate by selecting representative populations from different countries and examining patterns of ageing, population growth and economic activity.

These data were combined with predictions about the future of anti-ageing treatments from leading researchers.

Examples of therapies with the potential to hold back ageing include drugs that lower cholesterol and blood pressure, or tackle cancer and degenerative brain disease.

Economists often qualify their predictions with the Latin phrase ceteris paribus. It means "all other things being equal." The problem is that in the real world "all other things" are never equal. In the long run you are always blindsided by something unexpected.

Now more than ever. A big part of the reason I enjoy researching and writing for The Speculist is that I'm surprised every day. Every day there are more interesting stories than I have time to write about (yesterday it was the blob eating Los Angeles, and cancer stem cells stories). Developments have a cumulative affect on the world beyond what any one of them would achieve. Our ability to predict grows shorter as the speed of development grows faster.

I think that Tuljapurkar's prediction is accurate in the short run. He sees near-term solutions to some of the problems that kill people as they get older. But today's data, no matter how good, can't account for the cumulative impact of all surprise developments to come.


Apparently he foresees no leaps from accelerating change - no De Grey escape velocity. It's a odd combination of optimism and linear thinking.

But it fits with the historical record. You got similar gains with the building of public health infrastructure (sewer systems, mass vacinations, etc) and the development of antibotics.

Problem being most of that lifespan extension will be just that - lifespan extension.

Only a fraction of it will end up in our extended healthspans.


I must respectfully disagree. This is the classic Tithonus Error - the idea that we might be cursed with everlasting infirmity.

For true life extension to work, it must address the problems that make people frail and infirm. Click the link above if you're interested.

I've always understood from the remarks of de Grey and Kurzweil that we can expect something like "punctuated equibrium." That is, the overall upward curve is a kind of sum of the various disjoint advances that happen independently. In the past, sewer systems and vaccinations have contributed to the discontinuous onward trend. It could well be that Dr Tuljapurkar has correctly identified some of those leaps to come, but discounted all the possible others. At the moment I don't know why he chose to do that.

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