Extended Life For The Future Human
Would we really want to live to 150 or even older? Will engineered life extension be humanity’s greatest achievement or a social and economic catastrophe? Is age really a disease that is curable? These questions were discussed at the last Future Human Salon – an inspiring event series in East London.
‘Understanding innovation in an age of radical change.’ That is the overarching theme of Future Human. If you are interested in things like robotics, the kickstarter economy or transhumanism, this might be the right place for you. This was the second future human salon I attended. Again the speakers were great, the topic inspiring and the location – taking place at the Book Club in Shoreditch – is a great venue with a certain intimate atmosphere to it. It’s also quite refreshing to see the diversity of people coming here, making this not another generic industry event.
Extended Lives – that was the topic this time. Something everyone should be able to relate to, right? In the end, who doesn’t want to live longer? But then again, when you listen to arguments by Ray Kurzweil and the transhumanism movement, you can’t help but think that this – despite all technological progress – just sounds bonkers. However, while some ideas might be far out there, this event made me think again.
It is quite remarkable what humanity has achieved over the last century. Technological development is exponential and the impact it has on society can already be seen today. Now one of the questions in the session with guests George Magnus (Author and Senior Economic Advisor at UBS), Sarah Harper (Director Oxford Institute of Population Ageing) and David Chambers (COO Metuselah Foundation) described the essence of what we are about to experience in the next decades: “What happens if you apply Moore’s Law to medicine?”
Moore’s Law Applied to Medicine
Just listening to some of the statistical facts, makes you re-assess your thinking on some of the utopian ideas that are propagated by cryonicists and transhumanists.
- The average live expectancy in the UK moved from 30 years in Victorian England to 80 years today
- a healthy 70 year old today has the same chance of dying like their father had at the age of 57
- The first person to become 150 years is alive today
So the question was not so much about the if but the when and how. The discussion rather challenged the ideas in their purely utopian nature, highlighting the realistic risk of a rather dystopian development.
The progress might be driven by technological and medical advancements. We are talking about 3D printed organs these days – and a lot of other crazy stuff. For more on the future of medicine you might be interested in this collection of TED talks. The key challenges however, will be economical, ethical and intergenerational tensions in society. People becoming older and older puts massive challenges on our society:
- The world population is expected to hit approx. 9 billion people in the year 2050
- Of those, there will be 2 billion 60 year olds – more than 14 year olds
- That will mean that around 20% of the world population will be older than 60 – today that number is closer to 10%
The combination of an exponential growth of the world population, the advances in medicine making it possible to grow older and older (especially in Western societies) and the decreasing fertility rate (also mainly in Western societies) is leading to the explosive demographic change that we are facing over the next decades. This will have to lead to an open debate around intergenerational responsibilities, changes in the health and social systems and completely new life models – from family planning to work to the way we want to live in that sort of society.
I think the main outcome of the debate was that we need to have this kind of open and future-looking debate in our society. I also think this has to happen on a global level. While this was mainly discussed as a challenge for Western societies, the biggest part will probably be on a global level – scarce resources, available space in future mega-cities and the impact this has on the environment are only a few of the challenges the global community will face in the future.
That reminded me of this brilliant TED talk by Hans Rosling, who very well presents and argues that the decreasing fertility rate across the globe is leading to a peak in world population at around 10 billion.
The official projections of population growth say that “the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs report (2004) projects the world population to peak at 9.22 billion in 2075. After reaching this maximum the world population is projected to decline slightly and then resume increasing slowly, to reach a level of 8.97 billion by 2300, about the same as the projected 2050 figure.”
The demographics will look very differently for the global society of the future and we will see how we will cope with the challenges that come with that. The one thing that became very clear to me at this future human salon – it will happen. If we want or not.