I’m taking a break from the dating/gender track. I’ll get back to it, but I’d like to opine on an altogether different topic: the technological cessation of aging, and the “immortal” era that might result. This is enough post for two or three days, and I’m not half-done on the topic. so don’t be surprised if I take a day or two off this week. — Cless
Sometime in the third (or very-late second) millennium, an event will pass (or has passed) without recognition. No one will know it at the time, but the first 150-year-old (“Elder A”) will be born. Then the first 500-year-old, who is likely to be the same person, will be born. Then or shortly after, the first 10,000-year-old. Living for several hundreds to thousands of years, with their bodies in a perpetually young state, these people will be the first generation to conquer aging. Although they’ll inevitably die, as all of us will, they will be “immortal” in the sense of having an indefinite lifespan. They might live for millions of years. This is not science fiction. It is an eventual technological likelihood.
What will Elder A’s life look like? He will be born in a time with death is frequent and expected, like now. Coming of age and growing into midlife, he’ll expect a lifespan of eight or nine decades. He’ll probably feel death’s first swing (and a miss) in his late 50s, when he contracts a particularly nasty case of cancer. Surviving this encounter with death, and fully cured at 61, he’ll resolve to live an exceptionally healthy life, wanting to remain physically active into his 80s. He’ll maintain a strict diet and exercise regularly, and be a bit lucky. Into his 80s, 90s, and 100s, he’ll have a few close calls regarding death, but always be saved, always be okay. His physical decline will be slow, but not much slower than can be observed now.
At 115, he’ll become a celebrity, six years short of world’s oldest status, known not only for his age but for his health. With the body and mind of an above-average 80-year-old, he’ll run-walk the Boston Marathon in seven hours, becoming an instant celebrity. By this point, it will be obvious to Elder A, and others alive, that aging isn’t what it used to be, because Elders B, C, D, and so on, will be healthy, and not far behind him. Death in one’s 50s and 60s will be very uncommon, and no one will bat an eye at the thought of a 40-year-old model. The peak of an average woman’s beauty, considered to be 17 in Renaissance England and 24 at the turn of the 21st century, will be widely held to be in the mid-30s. Aging will remain a fact of life, but it will be slower.
Technological progress is exponential (actually, sometimes faster-than-exponential); thus, once aging has been perceptibly slowed, it will shortly after be eliminated. Neither has happened yet. The modern life expectancy is substantially higher than it was in antiquity, but not because aging has slowed. The major reasons for the improvement in life expectancy are (a) reduction in infant and maternal mortality, (b) antibiotics, (c) reduction in the rate of violent death, and (d) an across-the-board reduction in medical death rates, for people of all ages. The last of these causes is mistaken for anti-aging progress, but improved ambulance and resuscitation technologies don’t slow the rate of aging at all. Death reduction without slowing aging is a dead end. Let’s say that we managed to reduce age-derived death rates, across the board, by 50%. This would be an absolutely heroic accomplishment. Life expectancy would grow by only 8 years, since individual mortality rates double in exactly that much time.
We die young much less often than those in the 16th century, and we maintain good health much longer, but we aren’t aging much slower, because the technologies that could appreciably slow this process, at a nanoscopic level, are in their infancy. Let’s assume that we age 5% slower than our natural rate, due largely to our improved diet. Within a technical “generation” (X years, where X is probably between 10 and 50) we’ll improve this to 10%. Then 20%, in another; death rates will now double every 10 years instead of every 8. One later, 40%, at which point athletic centenarians will be remarkably more common. One generation later, 80%, at which point aging will be one-fifth the speed of its natural rate. Most people alive at this point will “make the cut” and live exceptionally long lives, past their bicentennials. In one more generation, 160%, at which point it is possible to reverse aging, and an indefinite lifespan will become reality.
There will be an date where mortality acceleration (aging) ceases and reverses, although no one will know it is “that day” when it occurs. At this point, there will still be very old people and there will still be death. This day is defined as when the aging-retardation factor (currently estimated at 5%) reaches and surpasses 100%. Back to Elder A: he will be in advanced age on this day, probably around 110. At 120, he’ll be in slightly better health than at 110, but not unambiguously so, with some health problems having abated and new ones having emerged. At 130, when he’s likely to be the oldest person alive, he and other “hypercentenarians” will be perceptibly getting younger, and there will be a dearth of newly senescent people. Humanity’s triumph over aging will be obvious, and anti-aging won’t be a luxury. It will be cheap, especially compared to the very expensive alternative. (The millions of dollars of care required to bring Elder A into this era will be affordable due to the rarity of such very-old, that-far-gone people.) Governments will either mandate the use of anti-aging technologies or deny health services to those who refuse them– a few religious cults and the uninformed and very poor, if poverty still exists.
Elder A’s 140th birthday will be a famous event, with world leaders in attendance. He’ll be visibly middle-aged, naturally presenting the gray hair and mild facial wrinkles that other men will have artificially added in order to improve their sexual attractiveness. (Just as obese people would have a considerable sexual-market advantage if they were 0.2% of the population instead of 30%; there will be a considerable niche appeal, in all genders, for an older look that would today be recognized as mid-40s.) His 150th birthday will be the last major event, and remarkable largely for the roundness of the year and for the long-held association of a 150-year landmark with humanity having “beaten” aging (although it will be acknowledged that we have done so, twenty years before this point). He’ll be bodily as young as the man writing this post, and not especially visually distinct from the other 14 billion living humans. His remarriage, at age 158 to a 156-year-old woman– the 239th oldest person alive– will receive only a small article in the world newspapers. When Elder A is 200, over 95 percent of those who were born on his 50th birthday will be alive, celebrating their 150th.
I’m going to call it a slightly favorable coin-flip that Elder A is alive today, and slightly unfavorable that he was alive when I was born (1983). My relatively uninformed 95%-confidence interval on his birth year is 1945 to 2300, with the median at 1995. My 99.6%-confidence interval is 1929 to never, assuming a (somewhat optimistic) 1-in-500 chance that human extinction occurs before an indefinite lifespan is achieved. What makes the calculation uncertain is that we don’t know what most of the relevant technical factors are. It’s likely (although not certain) that this can be approximated by the equation, Y(T) = 1 – a*e^(b*T); where T is the time in years since 2009; a is the current aging retardation (e.g. 0.05 if we are aging 5% slower than our natural pace); b is the rate at which we’re able to decelerate aging due to technological progress; and Y is the aging rate as a function of time. When Y = 0, we’ll be aging-neutral; afterward, we’ll be reversing the effects of aging. The parameters a and b are unknown, but can be estimated. We know that people are living longer and healthier lives, but we don’t have enough data to discern a slowing of the aging rate itself, so a could reasonably be anywhere between 0.005 and 0.15. As for b, it could be zero or negative– this would imply that human bodies our getting worse and more prone to aging as time progresses– but I’m inclined to think that it’s between 0.015 and 0.06.
If a = 0.005 and b = 0.015, the aging-neutral date is 2362. In this case, none of us will ever see it, though a few of this year’s newborns may be technically contemporary with Elder A. If a = 0.15 and b = 0.06, it’s 2041, and most people reading this post are “immortal”. Elder A can be reasonably expected to be born between 100 and 200 years before the aging-neutral date, depending on whether aging deceleration is slow or quick (if it’s slow, expect this difference closer to be larger). My estimate is that a = 0.04 and that b = 0.02, currently, which would place the mortality-neutral date at 2160. However, I anticipate that b will increase over the coming decades, noting technical and economic progress to be hyper-exponential, and I therefore consider it conservative to bump this factor to 0.035– if it ever approaches the rate of electronic progress, even 0.5 is not unreasonable– bringing the mortality-neutral date to 2101. Why do I expect acceleration? Preventive medicine will play an increasingly large role in our lives over the next hundred years, and will become dramatically more effective. Health costs, currently “mounting” as a share of world GDP, will reach a peak– probably in the 2030s– and then recede. When this happens, resources will be freed to combat aging, and this endeavor will be the next frontier of medicine. It won’t hurt, either, that there will be a number of highly productive 90-year-old researchers, still healthy. Ending the loss of our most experienced people (to cognitive decline and fatigue, often, before death) will allow us to reach technical heights never seen before. Of course, these projections and numbers are, still, highly speculative. Not only do I not know what the parameters really are or how they will evolve, but I don’t think anyone does.
Sadly, I don’t think it’s likely that most who are reading this will “make the cut”– although I certainly consider it possible, and if a few of us do, then most of us will. Aging is a hard technical problem, and although we’ll see in-roads into it during our lifetimes, I think overcoming it entirely, although “inevitable” from a macro perspective, will involve a Herculean effort. I’d give myself a 20-percent chance of being alive, in this body, a century from now. (Paradoxically, if I’m alive then, I’ll be “younger”, in terms of per-day death probability, than I am now.)
Frankly, the high probability that I don’t make the cut doesn’t bother me too much; five centuries ago, death was an inevitable guarantee. Now it’s just a likelihood. Moreover, I’m Buddhist and believe that reincarnation is the most likely afterlife. This is most likely my second- or third-to-last human life for a long time. I don’t fear the likely scenario that I’ll die, and be reborn, some time in the next 80 years– and that I might have to do this a few more times. That’s fine by me. What I fear more is the (extremely small, but terrifying) chance of being on the “fringe”, making “the cut” but making it badly– demented or deformed in some irreversible way, kept in a mostly-broken body for centuries. I consider this highly unlikely, of course. Once we are able to stop aging, it should only be slightly harder to reverse it, and tissue repairs considered miraculous now will be commonplace. Severed spinal cord? No problem. Multiple organ failure? All replaced, rest for three days. My hope and belief is that dementia, the most terrifying manifestation of aging, is purely a reversible illness of the brain and does not corrupt the mind; in this case, those who suffer from it when we reach aging-neutrality (and there will be an ungodly number of them) will recover, restored to healthy individuals who remember their lost decades as akin to a very long fever.
What I suspect we’ll never surpass (nor be able to prevent, entirely) is the death of the whole brain. We’ll be able to restore a severely damaged one, and we’ll be enhancing brains quite radically, but death of the whole thing, I suspect, will always mean the end of a person’s earthly existence. I don’t believe in mind uploading. The end of aging seems technologically inevitable, assuming the species isn’t killed off before it happens, but I can’t foresee science ever getting a handle on consciousness and the mind-brain coupling. I believe the mind-brain coupling to be spiritual, and once the mind has detached from the body and brain, I consider it impossible that physical means can ever reunite them. For this reason, I don’t believe that we’ll eradicate death entirely.
The current death rate of a young person is approximately 0.08%-per-year. When humanity reaches aging-neutrality, I believe it will be down to 0.005% to 0.01% per year, although higher for those in advanced age. When those people are rejuvenated, the across-the-board death rate will be at this level. It will continue to decline over time, possibly reaching 0.0001% per year (or much lower). Cybernetic and prosthetic advancements will be focused on protecting the brain at all costs. Surgical implants will exist that serve as backup life-support, able to oxygenate and regulate the brain on their own for twenty minutes– then 48 hours, then 5 years– eliminating the immediacy of a cardiac crisis and making the worst-case outcome of one an organ transplant. “Black box”-style implants will allow humans’ brains to survive trauma that would be unambiguously fatal today. It’s even possible, in a few thousand years, that brains will be stored separately from their (entirely replaceable and mechanically enhanced) bodies, communicating with them electronically and from a distance.
Many project resistance to this “immortality”, and severe social upheaval. I doubt it, frankly. First of all, we tolerate all kinds of mechanical advancements that our ancestors wouldn’t have. I wear glasses to correct my (otherwise horrific) vision. In the 10th-century, these would be a “magical” artifiact and I’d likely be killed for possessing them. Now, almost no one refuses to wear them. Few people refuse antibiotics or chemotherapy either. Obviously, if given the choice between a normal lifespan and a mandated ten-thousand-year earthly existence, most people– including me– would choose the comfortable, conservative option of dying at their normal time. However, technological “immortality” won’t present anyone with this dichotomy. People will be free to age and die, and a few will, even millennia from now. But most will delay it as long as possible, comfortable knowing that the option to die always exists.
Rather than a cause of immediate upheaval, I think the era of indefinite lifespan will be mostly underwhelming, setting in gradually without much noise. I also believe that “eternal” life will be far from a panacea regarding human suffering. Indefinite lifespans will solve some problems and create others. A paradise by modern standards, this new world won’t be a utopia. Pain and suffering will exist as long as humans and animals live. So will anger, jealousy, and even depression (although the biomechanical problem known as “clinical depression” will be a solved problem by then.) Crime will exist, although it will be much rarer than it is today, and it’s possible that a few wars will occur even after aging-neutrality is achieved. There will be a number of woefully immature 500-year-olds running around, and spiritually dead people and cultures will exist. Slavery may still exist; although the economic reasons for its existence will be entirely eradicated in a few decades, the sadistic ones may remain. Perhaps humorously, or not: fierce ethical debates will be held over whether it’s morally acceptable to provide one’s pets with an indefinite lifespan, given that an animal cannot give such consent and might wish or even need to die. Buddhists, for example, are likely to view such behavior as selfish and wrong, denying the animal the chance for a higher rebirth. Regarding religion, apocalyptic cults will still exist. Most people won’t work, but a few of us will be required to, in order to maintain the environment of our planet(s?) and support our increasing population.
More unfortunately: we’re likely to never know, scientifically speaking, what happens after death. This will always bother us, since death remains physically inevitable even after the indefinite lifespan is achieved. Some people will try to “find out” by safely simulating near-death experiences, and others will volunteer to be “killed” and revived, years later. (Some will even take years-long “death vacations”, I predict; but as return will be require keeping the brain in a viable state, these won’t be actual “death”.) I doubt any of this exploration will result in proof or refutation of an afterlife, because none of it is real death. Death, by definition, is irreversible. Evidence for many phenomena considered paranormal now will be established–there’s already a lot– but conclusive proof is unlikely. For example, by the time it’s safe and ethical to run controlled experiments inducing real near-death experiences– not the phony stuff with electrodes or psychotropic drugs, nor the post-hoc hospital studies that have established very little– telepathy and remote vision will be technological achievements rather than “paranormal” phenomena.
Finally, when an indefinite lifespan is a reality, we’re going to face an unpleasant side effect. Death, when it does occur, will always be traumatic and untimely. Aging brings us to expect and accept death, but its cessation will enable people to feel immoral, which we aren’t and never will be. Our own fragility– threatening, at that point, the loss of centuries of life– will be mostly ignored but, when confronted, utterly frightening. Although this will be a transient problem, dissipating as the death rate approaches zero, it will render a few centuries of human existence very uneasy. I don’t believe the first “No Death Day” will occur before 8000 AD.
In a later post, I’ll describe what social and economic changes I do anticipate in the era of indefinite lifespan. Will religion go away? (Answer: no. It will be more moderate but actually more prevalent.) Will economic inequality disappear, in a world of abundant time and resources? (Answer: quite possible, given enough time.) Will human technical progress be hindered by complacency, once our lifespans and conditions are “good enough”? (Answer: I have no idea. I’ll get back to that.)