TCS Daily


Grey's Anatomy

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 3, 2006 12:00 AM

Are people beginning to take the idea of healthy life extension seriously? I think that they might be. Last year, here at TCS, I interviewed Cambridge University researcher Aubrey de Grey. This year, he was interviewed by Sixty Minutes (You can see a transcript and video here.) Much as I love TCS, CBS primetime represents several steps up the ladder in terms of attention.

But what's news isn't so much that de Grey and what he calls "Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence" are getting attention. It's that these sorts of ideas are getting serious attention, rather than being dismissed as absurd. The 60 Minutes story does feature scientists who point out that de Grey is invoking technology that hasn't been developed yet, but that's not much of a critique, since de Grey's chief point is that we can develop such technology if we work at it, not that such technologies already exist:

And de Grey acknowledges that immortality will not be cheap. "We are talking about serious expenditure here. We are talking about expenditure in excess of what's being spent on the war in Iraq, for example."

That money will only be forthcoming when ordinary people become convinced that they have a shot at radical life extension.

"The people who are watching this probably still think about serious life extension in the same way that they think about teleportation. You know, they think it's not really foreseeable and they'll worry about it when it is," says de Grey.

That's where the Methuselah Mouse Prize comes in. It's a multi-million dollar contest designed by de Grey and others to spur anti-aging research. The goal is to demonstrate that radical life extension is possible by producing a so-called 'ageless' mouse within the next 10 years.

"And that is when the real pandemonium is going to happen because people will want to maximize their chance of making the cut," says de Grey.

Of course, the good news is that you maximize your chances of "making the cut" now by doing things that will be good for you regardless of whether de Grey's technology appears on schedule. Diet, exercise, and generally healthful habits are the key. (The same CBS page above also links to video of Ray Kurzweil on that topic, as outlined in his book Fantastic Voyage: How to Live Long Enough to Live Forever. Kurzweil's theory is that by using the knowledge we have now on how to live longer, we increase the chance of being around when more potent technologies appear -- as is already beginning to happen.)

Even if de Grey is wrong, of course, lots of people will live longer if they're encouraged to do this sort of thing. I once heard Jay Leno argue that the trouble with diet and exercise is that they get you more years in your eighties, when what you really want is more years in your twenties -- but de Grey's life extension technologies, if perfected, might actually make you feel more like your twenties -- or at least your fifties -- when you're in your eighties and beyond. That prospect might be more of a spur.

At any rate, the subject, which I've been flogging in these pages for a while, seems to be breaking out. Last year there was a sort of harmonic convergence of academic work on the subject, with three major books published almost simultaneously:

I wrote a review essay on these three: It was published in the ABA's law & technology journal, but I've put a copy online here.

Now the subject seems to be breaking out beyond academia and into the mainstream, with much more popular press attention. (Documentarian Ron Galloway, fresh from a big film on Wal-Mart, is now working on a life-extension documentary entitled When I'm 164 -- and I'm giving the topic a chapter in my forthcoming book, An Army of Davids.) And although critics of life extension worry that it will lead to overpopulation, it may instead save us from what Phillip Longman, writing in Foreign Affairs, calls a "Global Baby Bust." Consider this observation from Mark Steyn:

Post-Christian hyper-rationalism is, in the objective sense, a lot less rational than Catholicism or Mormonism. Indeed, in its reliance on immigration to ensure its future, the European Union has adopted a twenty-first-century variation on the strategy of the Shakers, who were forbidden from reproducing and thus could only increase their numbers by conversion.

The Shakers, of course, became extinct. Steyn thinks that the West is at a similar demographic disadvantage as compared to Islamic nations -- but in fact, their birthrates are falling, too. Overpopulation, that bugbear of the 20th Century, seems likely to be replaced by under population, as nations produce too few new workers to maintain themselves, and their flocks of retirees. One might, as the Japanese are doing, look to robots, but wouldn't most people rather live long, healthy lives as opposed to being looked after by mechanical caretakers in a robot nursing home? I would.

As I've suggested before, it's better to do away with the notion of retirement, by letting people live much longer, healthier lives. And, as I've also suggested before, voters (and customers) will want to live longer, which is likely to give the whole life-extension project a swift boost, once it seems feasible enough to get sufficient attention.

Which just may be happening this year. Will 2006 be the big year for mainstreaming life extension? It's certainly looking that way so far.
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