As a proponent of attaining indefinite human longevity through the progress of medical science and technology, I am frequently asked to address key questions about the effects that indefinite life extension would have on human incentives, behaviors, and societies. Here, I offer my outlook on what some of these impacts would be.
What would be the benefits of life extension?
(1) The greatest benefit of life extension is the continued existence of the individual who remains alive. Each individual – apart from the worst criminals – has incalculable moral value and is a universe of ideas, experiences, emotions, and memories. When a person dies, that entire universe is extinguished, and, to the person who dies, everything is lost and not even a memory remains. It is as if the individual never existed at all. This is the greatest possible loss and should be averted if at all possible. The rest of us, of course, also lose the possible benefits and opportunities of interacting with that individual.
(2) People would be able to accomplish far more with longer lifespans. They could pursue multiple careers and multi-year personal projects and could reliably accumulate enough resources to sustainably enjoy life. They could develop their intellectual, physical, and relational capabilities to the fullest. Furthermore, they would exhibit longer-term orientations, since they could expect to remain to live with the consequences of decisions many decades and centuries from now. I expect that a world of longer-lived individuals would involve far less pollution, corruption, fraud, hierarchical oppression, destruction of other species, and short-term exploitation of other humans. Prudence, foresight, and pursuit of respectful, symbiotic interactions would prevail. People would tend to live in more reflective, measured, and temperate ways instead of seeking to haphazardly cram enjoyment and activity into the tiny slivers of life they have now. At the same time, they would also be more open to experimentation with new projects and ideas, since they would have more time to devote to such exploratory behaviors.
(3) Upon becoming adults, people would no longer live life in strict stages, and the normative societal expectations of “what one should do with one’s life” at a particular stage would relax considerably. If a person at age 80 is biologically indistinguishable from a person at age 20, the strict generational divides of today would dissipate, allowing a much greater diversity of human interactions. People will tend to become more tolerant and cosmopolitan, having more time to explore other ways of living and to understand those who are different from them.
(4) Technological, scientific, and economic progress would accelerate rapidly, because precious intellectual capital would not be lost to the ravages of death and disease. Longer-lived humans would be more likely to invest in projects that would materialize over the course of decades, including space travel and colonization, geo-engineering and terraforming, prevention of asteroid impacts and other natural disasters, safe nuclear disarmament and disposal of nuclear waste, and long-term preservation of the human species. The focus of most intelligent people would shift from meeting quarterly or annual business earnings goals and toward time- and resource-intensive projects that could avert existential dangers to humankind and also expand humanity’s reach, knowledge, and benevolence. The achievement of significant life extension would inspire many intelligent people to try to solve other age-old problems instead of resigning to the perception of their inevitability.
(5) Major savings to health-care systems, both private and governmental, would result if the largest expenses – which occur in the last years of life today, in the attempt to fight a losing battle against the diseases of old age – are replaced by periodic and relatively inexpensive rejuvenation and maintenance treatments to forestall the advent of biological senescence altogether. Health care could truly become about the pursuit of sustainable good health instead of a last-ditch effort against the onslaught of diseases that accompanies old age today. Furthermore, the strain on public pensions would be alleviated as advanced age would cease to be a barrier to work.
What drawbacks would life extension pose?
I do not see true drawbacks to life extension. Certainly, the world and all human societies would change significantly, and there would be some upheaval as old business models and ways of living are replaced by new ones. However, this has happened with every major technological advance in history, and in the end the benefits far outweigh any transitional costs. For the people who remain alive, the avoidance of the greatest loss of all will be well worth it, and the human capacity for adaptation and growth in the face of new circumstances is and has always been remarkable. Furthermore, the continued presence of individuals from older generations would render this transition far more humane than any other throughout history. After all, entire generations would no longer be swept away by the ravages of time. They could persist and preserve their knowledge and experience as anchors during times of change.
Every day, approximately 150,000 people die, and approximately 100,000 of them die from causes related to senescence. If those deaths can be averted and the advent of indefinite life extension accelerated by even a few days, hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable individual universes would be preserved. This is worth paying even substantial costs in my view, but, fortunately, I think the other – economic and societal – effects that accompany life extension would be overwhelmingly positive as well.
As Death is Wrong, my illustrated children’s book on the prospects for life extension, points out, “Death is the enemy of us all, to be fought with medicine, science, and technology.” The book discusses the benefits of life extension in a language and format accessible to most children of ages 8 or older. Death is Wrong also outlines some common arguments against life extension and reasonable responses to them. For instance, I respond to the common overpopulation argument as follows: “human population is the highest it has ever been, and most people live far longer, healthier, more prosperous lives than their ancestors did when the Earth’s population was hundreds of times smaller. Technology gives us far more food, energy, and living space than our ancestors had, and the growth in population only gives us more smart people who can create even more technologies to benefit us all. Besides, humans ought to build more settlements on land, on water, underwater, and in space. Space travel could also save the human species if the Earth were hit by a massive asteroid that could wipe out complex life. ” I respond to the boredom argument by stating that, due to human creativity and discovery, the number of possible pursuits increases far faster than the ability of any individual to pursue. For instance, thousands more books are published every day than a single person could possibly read.
Would governments ban indefinite life extension if it is achieved?
Once life-extending treatments are developed and publicly available, national governments would not be effectively able to ban them, since there will not be a single medicine or procedure that would accomplish indefinite lifespans. Rather, indefinite life extension would be achieved through a combination of treatments, beating back today’s deadliest diseases using techniques that would not be limited in their application to people who explicitly want to live longer. (For instance, people who do not harbor that particular desire but do want to get rid of cancer, heart disease, or Alzheimer’s disease that may afflict them or their loved ones, would also benefit from the same treatments.) These treatments would be as embedded in the healthcare systems of the future as over-the-counter drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen are today; it would be practically impossible to ban them, and countries that did would face massive black markets or people traveling abroad to receive the same treatments.
Furthermore, genuine healthy life extension could be a great fiscal solution for many welfare states today, which are finding themselves with unsustainable burdens pertaining to old-age healthcare and pensions. The majority of health-care costs are expended to keep frail people alive a little bit longer and to fight an expensive and ultimately losing battle against the diseases of old age. The only way dramatic life extension could occur is if regular and relatively inexpensive maintenance (made inexpensive through the exponential progress of information technologies and bio/nanotechnology) prevented the decline of the body to such a stage where expensive, losing battles needed to be fought at all. Replacing the current extremely expensive end-of-life medical care with periodic rejuvenation and maintenance would be a great cost-saver and may avert a major fiscal crisis.
What concerns me is not governments banning life-extension technologies once they are developed, but rather existing political systems (and their associated politically connected established private institutions) creating barriers to the emergence of those technologies in the first place. Most of those barriers are probably inadvertent – for instance, the FDA’s approval process in the United States premised on a model of medicines and treatments that must focus on single diseases rather than the biological aging process as a whole. However, there have been influential “bioethicists”, such as Leon Kass, Daniel Callahan, and Sherwin Nuland, who have explicitly and extensively spoken and written against health life extension. It is important to win the contest of ideas so that public opinion does not give encouragement to the “bioconservative” bioethicists who want to use the political process to perpetuate the old cycle of life, death, and decay – where each generation must be swept away by the ravages of senescence. We must stand for life and against age-old rationalizations of our own demise.
* Gennady Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist and philosophical essayist, and is Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator. He lives in Carson City, Nevada.