June 23, 2004
Glenn Reynolds Interviews Aubrey de Grey On Aging Reversal

Instapundit megablogger Glenn Reynolds interviews Aubrey de Grey for Tech Central Station on the subject of our future ability to reverse aging.

Q: Some people regard aging research, and efforts to extend lifespan, with suspicion. Why do you think that is? What is your response to those concerns?

A: I think it's because people don't think extending healthy lifespan a lot will be possible for centuries. Once they realise that we may be able to reach escape velocity within 20-30 years, all these silly reasons people currently present for why it's not a good idea will evaporate overnight. People don't want to think seriously about it yet, for fear of getting their hopes up and having them dashed, and that's all that's holding us back. Because of this, my universal response to all the arguments against curing is simple: don't tell me it'll cause us problems, tell me that it'll cause us problems so severe that it's preferable to sit back and send 100,000 people to their deaths every single day, forever. If you can't make a case that the problems outweigh 100,000 deaths a day, don't waste my time.

By "escape velocity" Aubrey means the point at which we will be able to repair the damage of aging faster than it accumulates so that the odds of dying decrease rather than increase each year. As it stands now a 50 year old has a higher chance of dying than a 49 year old in the course of a year and a 51 year old has a higher chance of dying in a year's time than a 50 year old. As our bodies get older the odds go up of anything going wrong badly enough to kill us in the space of a year. Aubrey thinks we may reach the "escape velocity" point of aging reversal treatments in the 2020s or 2030s. I share this view and one reason I share it is that the rate of advance of biologicals sciences and biotechnology is accelerating. In fact, the reason I have a category archive entitled Biotech Advance Rates is to demonstrate that we can not use past rates of advance as an indicator of how fast we will advance in the future.

Aubrey recommends reading a fable written by Nick Bostrom, a British Academy Research Fellow at Oxford University, about aging called The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant which is about to be published in The Journal of Medical Ethics.

Next to speak was the king’s chief advisor for morality, a short and shriveled man with a booming voice that easily filled the auditorium:

“Let us grant that this woman is correct about the science and that the project is technologically possible, although I don’t think that has actually been proven. Now she desires that we get rid of the dragon. Presumably, she thinks she’s got the right not to be chewed up by the dragon. How willful and presumptuous. The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not. Getting rid of the dragon, which might seem like such a convenient thing to do, would undermine our human dignity. The preoccupation with killing the dragon will deflect us from realizing more fully the aspirations to which our lives naturally point, from living well rather than merely staying alive. It is debasing, yes debasing, for a person to want to continue his or her mediocre life for as long as possible without worrying about some of the higher questions about what life is to be used for. But I tell you, the nature of the dragon is to eat humans, and our own species-specified nature is truly and nobly fulfilled only by getting eaten by it...”

This advisor for morality sounds like George W. Bush's advisor Leon Kass.

Here's a point I emphatically agree with: Glenn Reynolds thinks there is nothing beautiful about aging and dying.

I've watched people I love age and die, and it wasn't "beautiful and natural." It sucked. Aging is a disease. Cataracts and liver spots don't bring moral enlightenment or spiritual transcendence. Death may be natural -- but so are smallpox, rape, and athlete's foot. "Natural" isn't the same as "good."

As far as I'm concerned, I'd rather see my tax dollars spent on longevity research than, well, most of the other things they're spent on. I wonder how many other people feel that way.

Glenn Reynolds dismisses concerns that rejuvenation will cause society to become too static.

Looking at how things have worked out in American society, I'm not too worried. The tendency in America seems to be toward more turnover, not less, in major institutions, even as lifespans grow. CEOs don't last nearly as long as they did a few decades ago. University presidents (as my own institution can attest) also seem to have much shorter tenures. Second and third careers (often following voluntary or involuntary early retirements) are common now. As a professor, I see an increasing number of older students entering law school for a variety of reasons. And we've seen all of this in spite of the abolition of mandatory retirement ages by statute over a decade ago. It's more dynamism, not less.

Of course, that may not be true everywhere. In societies that are already stagnant, like the Egypt of the Pharaohs, or the Central Committee of Leonid Brezhnev's time, death is the main source of dynamism, and the young (and middle-aged) often do wind up in sour apprenticeships waiting for their elders to die. In capitalist democracies, other forces play a far greater role. So it seems to me that we have little to fear from extending human lifespans in our own society. And to the extent that lifespan-extension robs dictatorships of what little dynamism they possess, it probably makes them less dangerous, too.

I certainly agree with him about free societies. Though imagine a Joseph Stalin or a Mao Tse Tung given eternal youth. There are countries that have begun to go down the path away from totalitarianism because their dictator died from old age. Still, we shouldn't all be forced to grow old and die in every country of the world just in order to cause the death of a Stalin or a Pol Pot. The greatest murderers in history have killed only a very fraction of the number of people that aging has killed.

For more on Aubrey and the prospects for reversing aging see my previous posts Aubrey de Grey Decries Entrenched Timidity Of Aging Research Funding, Aubrey De Grey: We Could Triple Mouse Lives In 10 Years, Aubrey de Grey: First Person To Live To 1000 Already Alive, Wanted: Half Billion Dollars To Jumpstart Eternal Youthfulness Research and my entire Aging Reversal category archive.

Update: Writing in PLoS Biology Aubrey de Grey has a review of Coping With Methuselah: The Impact of Molecular Biology on Medicine and Society where he discusses the potential nearness of the point where we will reach 'actuarial escape velocity’ (AEV) and become less likely to die from one year to the next.

Unfortunately, they didn't discuss what would happen if age-specific mortality rates fell by more than 2% per year. An interesting scenario was thus unexplored: that in which mortality rates fall so fast that people's remaining (not merely total) life expectancy increases with time. Is this unimaginably fast? Not at all: it is simply the ratio of the mortality rates at consecutive ages (in the same year) in the age range where most people die, which is only about 10% per year. I term this rate of reduction of age-specific mortality risk ‘actuarial escape velocity’ (AEV), because an individual's remaining life expectancy is affected by aging and by improvements in life-extending therapy in a way qualitatively very similar to how the remaining life expectancy of someone jumping off a cliff is affected by, respectively, gravity and upward jet propulsion (Figure 1).

The escape velocity cusp is closer than you might guess. Since we are already so long lived, even a 30% increase in healthy life span will give the first beneficiaries of rejuvenation therapies another 20 years—an eternity in science—to benefit from second-generation therapies that would give another 30%, and so on ad infinitum. Thus, if first-generation rejuvenation therapies were universally available and this progress in developing rejuvenation therapy could be indefinitely maintained, these advances would put us beyond AEV

Aubrey believes that policymakers may well try to accelerate the development of rejuvenation therapies once they see that such therapies will provide a way to escape from the crushing burden of retirement benefits. I also have argued that rejuvenation therapies would solve demographic problems including the financial burdens of an aging population.

Reason of the Fight Aging! blog has additional commentary on Aubrey's PLoS Biology review. But be sure to read Aubrey's article first. He makes a number of excellent points and I had a hard time choosing what to excerpt.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 June 23 01:00 PM  Aging Reversal

Steve Huntley said at June 24, 2004 2:49 PM:

The crux of course is who is the "we" that you speak of as benefitting from age extension technology advances. I suspect that the actual number of people with the opportunity to benefit will be very small, in proportion to the effectiveness of the technology.

My observation is that each generation of technological innovation produces successively more profound effects on a successively smaller percentage of the population. When James Watt invented the steam engine, 95% of the world's population made their living from farming. But the profound impact of that technology reversed that percentage; now only about 5% do. The telephone was invented about a century ago; about half the world's population today has used a telephone. An even small percentage has used a computer. I remember reading at the peak of Napster's popularity that peer-to-peer networking would revolutionize our lives. Napster's peak user level was what? 10 million? A very small percentage of the world's population.

I am confident that your predictions of the arrival of "escape velocity" are close to the mark. But I think the pioneers in this field will find that their greatest challenge will be keeping the hordes of dispossessed rabble out of their compound long enough to apply their breakthroughs to the handful of super-rich who can afford private armies.

http://tinyurl.com/2g37r said at June 24, 2004 7:29 PM:

Dear Steve,

I am not sure how you came to your conclusion but every emperical stutdy I have seen has shown the opposite. The entire progress of the industrial revolutoin is predicated on making what were once luxury items into mass consumer products. What generaly happens is that the wealthy are the early adoptors and they pay a large premium to obtain something ahead of the rest of the population. Unless there is some very hard problem ramping up production (like it takes multiple full time specialist per patient) then I would worry about the rate of the technology spreading to slow.

Here is a graph showing the rate of technology adoption for a wide range of technologies

Rob Sperry

Invisible Scientist said at June 25, 2004 5:59 AM:


You are saying in your article that increasing the longevity of dangerous people is not a serious
problem (EXCERPT BELOW):

" I certainly agree with him about free societies. Though imagine a Joseph Stalin or a Mao Tse Tung given eternal youth. There are countries that have begun to go down the path away from totalitarianism because their dictator died from old age. Still, we shouldn't all be forced to grow old and die in every country of the world just in order to cause the death of a Stalin or a Pol Pot. The greatest murderers in history have killed only a very fraction of the number of people that aging has killed. "

But this is not entirely true, for Stalin and Hitler were not all that intelligent, but Bill Gates is.
If Gates acquires immortality, he will gradually amass so much power in the world by diversifying to
emerging new businesses, that he will become the emperor of the world, and he will probably elected
as the President of the US. He will then issue an arrest warrant for Linus Torvald, and Linus
will freeze in a concentration camp in Alaska.

Steve Huntley said at June 25, 2004 10:06 AM:

Your graph is difficult to read, but it seems to represent only the American population, not the world population. It sort of makes my point for me. I explained in my first comment how I came to my conclusion: 200 years ago the steam engine revolutionized the lifestyle of neary everyone in the world. Today only lifestyles in the United States are worth graphing to the editors of Forbes. Showing cell phone adoption as a percentage of the population of the world probably wouldn't make a very exciting graphic. Who will be considered worth graphing a generation from now?

In the United States today 15% of the population have no health insurance whatsoever, and that percentage is growing. Do you expect a social revolution sometime in the next 20-30 years that reverses that trend; or alternatively do you seriously expect that people with no health insurance will have access to the latest life-extending technologies?

Robert Hume said at June 28, 2004 1:52 PM:

But what about absolute overpopulation? Too many people in Yosemite, no "country" within reach, shortages of food due to lack of farmland/person?

My feeling is that people will be less interested in having children because all their parents and siblings and other relatives will continue to live so that, even if they die, their memory will endure. So eternal life could actually lead, in the long run, to a decrease in world population.

Paladin said at July 2, 2004 1:43 AM:


As far as cell phones go, if you go to asia you will find almost everyone around from most walks of life have cell phones. They are leap froging over cutting down a forest of trees to put up a forest of telephone poles and instead are putting up a realitively few cell phone antennas. This is common in most asian countries I have been to and that is quite a few. Many people only have and only want a cell phone. There are people like that in our country too. I think in future years you may see fewer land lines everywhere and that includes pay phones.


Dodder said at July 7, 2004 11:41 PM:

Call me a pessimist also, but look at cloning humans. It's against the law! Just reading the press on that subject should be enough to convince you of the ignorance of the general population. I'm suprised it isn't against the law to have identical twins. I don't think the Fable of the Dragon Tyrant goes far enough to express the backlash that will occur from the promise of anti-aging. You should compare it more with the Aztec practice of human sacrifice so that the sun would come up in the morning. Forget pessimism as the primary culprit blocking research into age reversal. Fear and Ignorance of the implications to society will be more than enough to stonewall this research or the application of it if it is successful. Until you replace our conservative religous based government with an enlightened rational based one the question of technological feasibility will remain moot. But then what enlightened rational based individual wouldn't have enough sense to stay out of politics?

nectarflowed said at August 12, 2004 6:23 PM:

"Earth's oldest living thing is a bristlecone pine in California that's been around for an estimated 4,7000 years" (Deborah Gangloff, Executive Director of the American Forests journal). If Aubrey De Grey's right, eventually humankind could be in the same order.

Thinker said at September 15, 2004 9:18 PM:

I think that technology, while offering us these promising anti-aging technologies, is also posing a huge challenge to us in the form of reducing the need for many kinds of human work.

That is why the politicians are reluctant to fund anti-aging research. They know that there will be this huge unemployment problem ten or twenty years from now that will color all of their other decisions. We are in denial..

Sure, there will still be jobs for scientists and artists. But what about the millions of people who just do repeatable tasks. They will all be replaced by cheaper, faster, better machines.

This will mean that very large numbers of people will become unemployed long before they expect to. Its already happening.

Politicians are clearly in denial on the implications of technology for the future of the time for wages system.

Basically, we need to make some changes to our economic system soon, before the problem gets completely out of hand. (I think we could start by reducing the workweek to 32 hours.)

Or, soon, people wont be able to afford to buy things and as more and more are laid off, quality of life will decline for everyone - and eventually most of our lives will be terrible.

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